Life has changed for Asa Butterfield and Ncuti Gatwa. The young stars of Netflix's Sex Education became internet sensations after the premiere of season 1 of the sex-posi British teen comedy.
"We were doing a press tour and getting pings on our phone and news articles were coming out and we were like, 'this is crazy.' When we got home, it had taken off. It was a phenomenon, which I don’t think any of us expected," Butterfield told VICE on a rainy afternoon in November.
But it was Gatwa that had a troubling realization about fast fame.
"I stepped onto a plane with 500 Instagram followers and stepped off with thousands in the space of eight hours," he said while sipping from a mug of Earl Grey tea in VICE's test kitchen. "There were a whole bunch of slutty pictures I had to get rid of."
His friend and co-star gently reminded him, however, that he still posts fire thot pics, to which Ncuti had to make an admittance: "I’m a hoe. I’m sorry, I've just got to be a hoe."
It's that spirit of acceptance and celebration of hoe-dom that makes the series so special. For the uninitiated, Sex Education follows Otis (Butterfield), the awkward teen son of a promiscuous sex therapist (Gillian Anderson), and his best friend Eric (Gatwa), a gay Black boy, as they deal with adolescent pressures and make some cash dishing out relationship and sex advice to their classmates with the help of Otis's crush, the troubled Maeve (Emma Mackey). With season 2 out Jan. 17, the horned-up teens continue their quest to find sexual freedom, and to love and accept themselves in the hellscape known as high school.
Sex is well-trod territory in teen shows and films. But writers' rooms have often struggled to write about the topic in a nuanced, realistic way. Sex Education debuted at a time when ideas and representations of gender identity, sexual expression and freedom, and boundaries as a whole have become more progressive and inclusive (though still dangerously conservative in many communities around the country). Gen-Z teens are engaging in deeper, more thoughtful conversations on sex positivity, gender, and consent in its many forms.
"Teenagers now are so advanced, but there’s still a lot of pressure on them. It’s a tumultuous time. The show is a product of its time and a product of the youth and the conversations we’re having now," said Gatwa.
Sex Education is among other recent series like Big Mouth and Pose that reflect the shifts in the conversation regarding young people and sex, and how that conversation intersects with race, gender, sexual orientation, inequality, and other issues. It does it without pandering, veering into cheesy After School Special territory, or feeling exploitative.
"We’re kind of striking a balance here. Teenagers aren’t like these precious eggshells that you have to protect from sex, because they’re having sex," Butterfield chimed in. "If you protect them from it or hide it away, then they're going to feel like they can’t talk about it. To open up that conversation, gives them a dialogue whether with parents, with their peers, or people they know."
That representation is especially important to Gatwa, who feels empowered to tackle the joys and struggles his character faces. "I feel so grateful to play Eric, someone that represents so many different intersections. He’s a gay Black boy—a minority within a minority," Gatwa continued. "There’s a lot of racism in the gay community and homophobia in the Black community, and Eric is standing in the middle of those intersections. If I can encourage people to stand up and take space and make noise, then I’m very happy to do so. Nobody should be getting silenced. Nobody’s going to erase mine or anyone’s existence."
Butterfield even credits his time working on the series with helping him feel more comfortable talking about sex, and realizing "that it's all normal. You don't have to be embarrassed by it." What has also helped him and other cast members not just open up more, but create a more comfortable and safe space for filming sexual scenes was having intimacy director Ita O'Brien on set. The role of an intimacy director or coordinator has been a welcome addition to Hollywood sets in recent years, with shows like The Deuce, Euphoria, Watchmen, and Crashing employing Alicia Rodis and her nonprofit Intimacy Directors International to ensure safety and comfort for performers doing sex scenes.
"It was a real support," said Gatwa. "We never felt alone. They could be quite isolating and scary and intimidating, those scenes, but you always felt you had someone in your corner."
Prior to filming, Gatwa explained, O'Brien led a workshop in which the actors broke the ice by emulating various animals mating. They gathered and pretended to be monkeys, lions, slugs, and other members of the animal kingdom straight up doing the deed.
"It was to help us loosen up a bit and get to know each other, but also it helped us think about how sex is so personal and everyone has a rhythm, or noise style. So it helped us find your character’s animal, so to speak," said Butterfield. "It’s not like you’re going to have sex like a monkey or slug, but you just use bits of it."
Gatwa thinks the mission behind Sex Education is important. ""As much as sex positivity is great, teenagers feel a lot of pressure. You need to learn how to fall in love with your body as well, and you’re doing that as a teenager," he said. "These storylines are so empowering. It’s an honor that we get to portray them."