Reel Talk is NME’s weekly interview feature with the biggest names in film and TV
Sex education in school was never very fun, but Sex Education on Netflix definitely is – especially if you’re actually in it.
“Everybody has moments of being that joker [on set] or having moments of absolute delirium,” says Patricia Allison, who plays high-achieving hipster Ola in the hit teen show. “You know how many props we have – all those prosthetic penises and vaginas. There’s loads of times where you’re like ‘this is really silly!’ But if we can’t be silly now, when are we ever going to get the chance?”
Luckily for its randy characters, teenagers love watching the sillier side of sex – and Sex Education is one of Netflix’s most popular returning shows. By the time you read this interview, season two of the comedy-drama will have nearly arrived.
Created by enormously talented young writer, Laurie Nunn, the eight-part series became 2019’s first-word-of-mouth hit when it launched last January. It flawlessly captured the zeitgeist, exploring awkward and important issues with warmth, honesty and sensitivity. Using the diverse student population at a fictional British high school as her Trojan Horse, Nunn tackled everything from abortion and revenge porn to body image and closeted homosexuality. And with its diverse register of misfits and oddballs, the show cast a spell on many of us harbouring similar stories.
At the centre of it all is Otis (played by Asa Butterfield), a skinny nerd who, together with best friend Eric (Ncuti Gatwa), is worried everyone is having sex except him. After accidentally befriending outsider Maeve (Emma Mackey), they start up a sex advice clinic – using knowledge gleaned from Otis’ sex therapist mum Jean (Gillian Anderson). After so much time spent together, the awkward pair realise they have feelings for each other, but at two different, incompatible points. Otis, desperate to get over his unreciprocated feelings for Maeve, finds a girlfriend in Ola (Allison). But when Maeve later receives the news, she finally acknowledges her own attraction to Otis and is heartbroken. At the end of season one, fans are still left wondering what might have been…
As you’d expect from such a high-profile show, Netflix’s spoiler-control is on red alert and NME is forbidden from teasing too much about season two, but take it from us – Sex Education definitely hasn’t lost its edge. If anything, the new episodes delve even deeper into difficult questions around consent, respect and sexual pleasure, especially for young women. Gillian Anderson’s Jean remains gloriously straight-talking when it comes to all things coital, but this time she feels way more integral to the action.
The first few episodes show Otis, who has just overcome a fear of masturbation, exploring his own sexuality both alone and with girlfriend Ola. At times, Otis’s randiness is mined for hilarious, almost American Pie-style slapstick visual jokes. “I became well acquainted with my prosthetic penis during series one,” says Butterfield wryly. “So this time, it was almost like greeting an old friend.”
Taking part in workshops designed to break down the inherent awkwardness of sex scenes – the cast would watch videos of animals having sex, then pretend to be animals themselves. “It was almost to take us away from thinking that a sex scene has to be this thing that we bring to it,” Allison explains. “You can sort of build how your character would have sex based on this workshop. Is she more like a cat, or more like a monkey? How does she breathe during sex?” Allison says she thinks many actors “dread” sex scenes because they’re wary of “showing something they don’t want to show”, but workshopping first removes that worry. “This way you can tell a good story without anyone feeling unsafe, and it looks better on screen too, actually,” she adds. “The intimate stuff feels like a dance in a way. With [our Intimacy Co-ordinator] Ita, it’s almost worked out like choreography.”
As well as shagging, Sex Education is about adolescent angst, the painful process of self-discovery we go through at secondary school, and the importance of close friendships when our hormones are jumping about like horny grasshoppers. The fraternal bond between Otis and Eric continues to be as funny as it is touching in season two. It’s obvious that the actors share a similar rapport in real life.
When NME enters the interview room, Butterfield and Gatwa are already in fits of laughter, and they crease up again when Butterfield mentions the “wankathon” his character embarks on in the new series. Butterfield says they have just as much fun during shooting. “Ncuti might not even be in the scene, but when he turns up his naughty dial, it’s like ‘ding-ding-ding-ding-ding!'”
So, what exactly does Gatwa’s “naughty dial” involve? “Ben [Taylor], the director, really lets us play with the scenes,” Butterfield explains. “He’s not married to the lines as they’re written on the page and he always encourages us [to improvise]. So when Ncuti turns up the naughty dial, sometimes it’s too much and I’m either laughing or too distracted by all these belters that he’s coming out with. Ncuti will catch me off-guard and I might lose track of where I am, but it’s always brilliant and works so well for the show.”
Butterfield’s bond with Gatwa is so strong that the most challenging scenes are the ones where Otis and Eric fall out. “I find those scenes difficult because we’re always so joyful and playful and bantering on set,” explains Butterfield. “In this series, we don’t fall out like we did [in series one], but there are definitely moments of conflict. And for me, it’s always like ‘I don’t want to do that’. So that’s definitely quite challenging for me.”
With Eric, Sex Education has been rightly praised for giving us a young gay character who’s totally three-dimensional and more than the usual sassy sidekick. Gatwa says he now feels a “certain level of responsibility” when it comes to the role. “Playing Eric has highlighted how important representation on screen really is,” he says thoughtfully. “I obviously was aware of that before playing Eric, being an actor of colour, but it really hit home to me after the show came out. Because then I started getting messages from people all over the world who said they related to Eric. Some of these messages brought me to tears when I read them. I was like, ‘I can’t believe you’re having to go through what you’re going through.'”
Gatwa also says he’s seen how Sex Education can “change people’s perceptions”, and he attributes this partly to the show’s humour. “The gym I used to train at is heavy-duty – it’s a tough man’s gym in Tottenham,” he says. “And these guys there would come up to me and say, ‘you know you’re my favourite character’ or ‘you’re my girlfriend’s favourite character’. For me, it’s cool that this Tottenham brother thinks Eric, the little boy in heels and gold lipstick, is cool. It really makes me happy that the show can change people’s perceptions.”
Kedar Williams-Stirling, who plays somewhat reluctant jock Jackson, says he’s also had unexpected positive feedback. “After my anxiety storyline, I did get some people coming up to me in the street to talk about it,” he says. “And I got it twice when I was at a club. One guy was like rolling, you know, jaw swinging, and he came up to me and was like ‘maaaate, I just wanna say how much I appreciate what you went through as Jackson. When I was younger, I went through a lot of anxiety too and it really touched me.’ How did he react? “I just gave the guy a hug!”
Emma Mackey, whose cool, nonconformist character Maeve had a pretty tempestuous relationship with Jackson in series one, says her own life changed “almost overnight” when Sex Education premiered. She gets asked for selfies in the street and admits the attention initially felt “very strange”. “I’m not very comfortable with new people anyway so it’s a weird one, but it’s nice that people are very positive about the show. And it’s also nice to get a pat on the back sometimes. So it’s okay, I can deal with it!”
Interestingly, she suggests the show benefited from low expectations from viewers. “I think people were expecting another high school drama that was all a bit samey-samey,” Mackey explains. “But it takes two episodes, maybe three, to realise that this show has actually got something a lot more important going on. There’s a lot more detail, a lot more intricacy and a lot more value to it than just what it appears to be if you’ve watched a trailer.”
Mackey credits the show’s director, Ben Taylor, with its distinctive transatlantic aesthetic, which was inspired by John Hughes movies The Breakfast Club and Pretty in Pink. “It’s a little fictional bubble,” she says, “but one that feels authentic”. It’s an authenticity which comes straight from Nunn’s scripts. “This show has a lot of heart to it – people really root for everyone who’s in it. They all have their loves and their hates and their cringe moments and their moments where they’re like ‘oh my God, I can’t deal with this, it’s just too much emotion’. We do go through a lot on this show, don’t we?” It’s hard to disagree given that Maeve’s series two journey involves reconnecting with her estranged mother, a recovering drug addict played by Shameless actress Anne-Marie Duff.
For Mackey, the recurring theme of parenthood is a fresh, interesting new angle to the show. “I like the fact that we focus more on the parents this season, the dynamics between the parents themselves and the parents and the children,” she says. “I think it’s good to show how things are at home for people as well because that is part of the reality of kids growing up. As well as the ‘school bubble’ there’s a ‘home bubble’. How do you fit in and where do you find your place and where do you exist in both of those realms?”
Netflix hasn’t yet announced a third series of Sex Education, but it would be surprising if it didn’t return after an outing that feels even more vital than the first. The cast are majorly in-demand now too – Mackey has a role in Kenneth Branagh’s all-star adaptation of Agatha Christie’s Death on the Nile, due later this year – but they’re clearly still a close-knit bunch. Mackey says she felt like she “missed her mates” whenever she filmed a series two scene away from the classroom bustle of Moorfield. “Laurie [Nunn] says the great thing with a show about sex is that the material is endless,” Mackey adds. “She’s surprised us completely with series two: there are so many elements in there where I was like ‘I know about this, but it’s so good that we’re talking about it – about pansexuality, asexuality or whatever it is that we’re broaching.”
However, a third series might necessitate more super-tricky bike scenes for Butterfield and Gatwa. “They were faster this year!” Butterfield says breathlessly of the pair’s joyful scenes on wheels. “Basically the setup is: I’m on a bike, Ncuti’s on a bike, there’s a big truck with a camera on a crane and we go down this hill loads and loads of times. We have a little earpiece so Ben [the director] can talk to us, and often when I’m hearing him say ‘speed up!’, I’m going downhill on a bike with pretty awkward brakes to manage and I’ve got to do this scene…”
“Let me just chime in for two seconds there, and say I’ve got a backpack and a french horn on my back as well!” Gatwa adds.
If Sex Education does get renewed, Gatwa says he’d like to see it explore the intersection between race and sexual identity. “We’ve got such a diverse cast and we tackle so many issues. I feel like there’s a relationship between those two things that we can go into a whole conversation about,” he says, citing “fetishisation” and “cultural appropriation” as potential touchstones.
In the meantime, he’s hoping the new series will have a positive effect on viewers of all ages. “Life ain’t always easy and life ain’t always fair,” he says. “The playing cards weren’t dealt out equally. This series, we see all of these characters going through something difficult and having some sort of struggle within themselves, and they come out fighting. So I’d like people to watch the show and realise that they can come out fighting too.” Sounds like the kind of education we’d all benefit from.
‘Sex Education’ season two arrives on Netflix on January 17
Design: Simon Freeborough