Ncuti Gatwa: Doctor Who star on why he ‘felt like alien’ growing up

Ncuti Gatwa playing the 15th Doctor
Image caption,Ncuti Gatwa is the long-running sci-fi show’s 15th Doctor

For the first time in six years, Doctor Who is part of BBC One’s Christmas Day line-up. And there’s a new Doctor taking control of the Tardis.

Ncuti Gatwa’s 15th Doctor has already been seen in action, when he appeared earlier this month in the final special featuring David Tennant’s 14th Doctor.

But the Christmas Day special is Gatwa’s first full episode, an occasion when the BBC expects millions to sit down with their families to watch and enjoy.

It is not surprising that the actor, who’s been filming his first series for most of this year, has spent a lot of that time feeling anxious about the weight of expectation.

“Exactly,” he says.

“It’s daunting taking on a role with a lot of history, which is where my anxiety has come from. Because you want to do a good job, because the show lives in people’s hearts.

“Rightfully so, because it’s a magical show. And it is our show, it is a British show. It’s part of our family. And you don’t want to let the family down.

“And so yeah, I was very nervous to keep this beloved sacred thing beloved and sacred.”

Constant anxiety

Gatwa, who made his name as one of the stars of Netflix hit Sex Education, was announced as the new Doctor in May 2022 and began filming this February.

He says the anxiety, not helped by such a long build-up, has never really gone away.

“From the moment I wake up, to the moment I go to bed, it’s anxiety,” he says.

“But people tell me that it means that I care. And I do, I love the show massively.

“It is also hard. It’s a hard role. It’s a prestigious role, which means that it is complex and difficult. And I’m just trying to do my best. Hopefully I’ve done that. But yeah, you’re anxious to do a good job.”

All this is said with a huge smile and is interspersed with laughter – giving the clear impression that he isn’t letting these feelings diminish how much he’s been enjoying playing an alien exploring time and space.

Ncuti Gatwa's 15th Doctor dancing in a club
Image caption,The 15th Doctor hits the dancefloor in the Christmas special

And, like his predecessors, he’s brought something different to the role. Early in the Christmas special, he’s seen dancing and whirling on a nightclub dancefloor, filled with euphoria and excitement.

I suggest that, among the new elements he’s brought to this incarnation of the Time Lord, are incredible passion, energy and perhaps a youthful sexiness.

“Do I?” he laughs. “Cool! I think we’ve all been sexy in our own way.”

He laughs again. “I think I’ve just tried to bring energy and fun.”

There’s certainly an abundance of that in the story, which sees the Doctor and his new companion Ruby Sunday (played by Millie Gibson) take on a shipload of singing and dancing goblins.

“Yeah,” he says. “We are bringing a little musical flair to this Christmas special.”

Symbolic casting

More seriously, it’s inevitable that his casting as the first black actor to take on the show’s lead role will be seen as symbolic.

“I think it means that we’re here, and we’re not going anywhere,” Gatwa says.

“I mean, Doctor Who is a show that kind of reflects where Britain is at, in a way, because it’s so quintessentially British.

“It’s been on our screens for so long, it’s a bit of a mirror to where we are in society.

“And so I think it’s showing that we’re here, and we’re part of the cultural landscape. And we’re not going anywhere.”

Ncuti Gatwa as The Doctor
Image caption,Ncuti Gatwa’s first full series will air in 2024

Gatwa was born in Rwanda in 1992, during the country’s civil war. His family fled to the UK when he was two and he grew up first in Edinburgh, then in Dunfermline.

It’s something that has helped him relate to a character who shares a sense of displacement.

“Yes, I think at many times in my life I have felt like an alien,” he agrees.

“A kid like me growing up in Scotland – there’s been many times I felt like an alien, and so I feel like I get it.

“It’s always a joy to get a character like that in which you’re able to draw on elements of your own life, your own upbringing, and deliver them through the character, because fundamentally it just comes out more truthfully.”

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