When Ncuti Gatwa got the call that would change his life, he was walking into a London barbershop. The Rwandan-born Scottish actor froze as his agent shared the news: he had just been cast as the lead in the beloved British sci-fi series ­Doctor Who. This wasn’t just another job—it was something that would cement his place in British cultural history. He told his agent he’d call back. “I hung up and didn’t think about it for a week,” he recalls when we meet two years later on a cool spring day in East London. “I was like: I’ve got laundry to do, I’ve got the gym to go to, I can’t think about this life-changing thing you’ve just thrown at me.”

Doctor Who, which has been running on and off since 1963, is something of a national treasure in the U.K. Some of Britain’s most celebrated actors have played the Doctor, a time-traveling alien who explores the universe in a spaceship known as the TARDIS, which resembles an old British blue police box. The Doctor defeats evil creatures and rights wrongs across time and space—and can “regenerate” when fatally injured, allowing a new actor to step into the role. Though taking on such an iconic part was a no-brainer for Gatwa, now 31, it was also overwhelming. He describes himself as “an anxious, anxious mess” while filming: “My first day walking on set, I saw the TARDIS and it just hit me. This is the British TV program. I cannot fail.”

Ruth Ossai for TIME

Failure isn’t exactly a word you’d associate with Gatwa. We first met nearly five years ago on the set of Netflix’s Sex Education, where his nuanced performance as Eric Effiong, a colorful, quick­witted teen navigating his sexuality and religion, won him critical acclaim. Gatwa credits the character with teaching him to be braver—“just learning to be unapologetically myself, to embrace flaws and strengths as well.”

Those strengths have since become visible to millions. He made his debut as the Doctor in an anniversary special last December, and recently appeared in Apple TV+’s Masters of the Air and as a Ken in Greta Gerwig’s Barbie. He took the stage at the Oscars alongside Ryan Gosling, and even appears in the airline safety video that plays on the flight I take to London to meet him.

Now Gatwa is the first queer Black ­person to lead the world’s longest-running sci-fi series. It’s a new era in other ways too: in May, the show premiered in more than 150 markets—and in 25 languages—as part of a new partnership between the BBC and Disney to turn the show into a global franchise. “That’s really powerful,” says veteran screenwriter Russell T. Davies, who revived the series to critical acclaim in 2005 and returned as show­runner in 2023 amid dwindling ratings. Doctor Who now has the potential to reach more viewers than ever—and higher expectations along with it.

For Davies, there was never any doubt about Gatwa being up to the task. He says it took mere minutes of watching Gatwa’s audition tape to persuade him, along with BBC and Disney executives, to cast Gatwa. “Suddenly there was a man in front of me being funny and lighting up the room when he smiles, and then being sinister as hell and commanding the room,” Davies recalls. “He was absolutely astonishing. I just remember thinking: This is it, this is it, this is it.

In the world of Doctor Who, a single moment can alter the course of history. Gatwa experienced something similar in his own life when, a few years ago, he was on the brink of quitting acting altogether. Gatwa, whose family left Rwanda for Scotland when he was 2, says he was drawn from a young age to the transformative element of acting. At 18, he went to study acting at the Royal ­Conservatoire of Scotland, where he received full financial assistance and remembers being one of just two students who had to work alongside their studies to make ends meet. (He handed out flyers for an LGBTQ+ club in Glasgow, later working as a go-go dancer.) After graduation, Gatwa spent years working in ­theater, including performing in A Midsummer Night’s Dream at Shakespeare’s Globe in London.

Millie Gibson and Ncuti Gatwa star as Ruby Sunday and the Doctor in the second episode of the new season of <em>Doctor Who</em> (Courtesy of James Pardon—Bad Wolf/BBC Studios)
Millie Gibson and Ncuti Gatwa star as Ruby Sunday and the Doctor in the second episode of the new season of Doctor Who
Courtesy of James Pardon—Bad Wolf/BBC Studios

He hit a low in 2017, after a theater tour in America. “The phone just stopped ringing,” he says. He took odd jobs but the bills piled up; before he knew it, he’d lost his apartment. Months of barely scraping by led him to seriously consider returning to his hometown of Dunfermline to work at the local Tesco supermarket. “You have to let this go, it’s not sustainable,” he recalls telling himself.

Just as he was about to give up on his dreams, Netflix came calling. “I got Sex Education. I know, I know,” he says, still marveling at the twist of fate. At the time, he had no idea what it would mean for his career—and was instead focused on finally being able to pay his friends and family back. The show was a runaway hit, and Gatwa used his newfound wealth to buy a house in South ­London; he is also hoping to build a school in Rwanda. But while his career has taken off, the broader ­industry has been in turmoil. With streaming ­platforms contracting and diverse shows being particularly affected by cancellations, it’s easy to imagine that a show like Sex Education might not get greenlighted today. Gatwa agrees that there is a slow backsliding ­toward “old formulas that work, less diversity, less pushing for different stories to be told.”

Gatwa is focused on maintaining momentum in an industry where losing it can be fatal to a career. He spent weeks in the winter of 2022 filming the final episodes of Sex Education while shooting his first season of Doctor Who. That came off the back of filming Barbie and the Doctor Who specials. “I don’t think I even had three days off, and I was exhausted,” he says. “It was like, gym, work, food, bed; wake up at 4, push-ups, lines for the day.”

Though Gatwa doesn’t want to push himself quite so hard again, it’s not easy to relax into his success. “Because I’ve been homeless, I don’t think I’ll ever not wake up and check my bank balance or whether there’s food in my fridge,” he says. Such anxiety is unsurprising in a precarious industry. It’s also partly why, Gatwa says, so many Black and brown parents encourage their children to become doctors or engineers rather than pursue risky careers in the arts. And when it comes to diversity on- and off-screen, Gatwa says nepotism remains a powerful force in getting a foot in the door. “It’s crazy to me that we’re still seen as a risk,” he says. “I am a Black man, and I’ve just been cast as the lead in the most British of shows. But it’s groundbreaking because it’s the first time, because it’s happening now, because you don’t see it anywhere else.”

Reaching milestones like these—especially for a long-running show like Doctor Who—can bring out the darker elements of society. When Gatwa’s casting was announced in May 2022, everyone braced for racist and homophobic responses—­including the BBC, which put security outside his family members’ homes. After the harassment John Boyega and Kelly Marie Tran experienced following their casting in Star Wars, it wouldn’t have been the first time racist fans of a beloved genre property came out of the woodwork en masse. Ultimately, the backlash was small. “There were those people, but I would say the love drowned them out,” Gatwa says. “Sorry, losers!”

Photograph by Ruth Ossai for TIME

As much as Gatwa wants to give voice to broader issues, he also hopes his turn as the Doctor will be remembered for more than just breaking barriers. “Those firsts matter,” he says. “But I also just want people to see me as a f-cking sick Doctor, who was really fun and smashed it.”

If early reactions are any indication, he’s on his way to doing just that. Critics have praised Gatwa’s performance as a refreshing, dynamic force that elevates the show to new heights. Gatwa ­describes his Doctor as action-focused, energetic, and unafraid of a stunt, but also deeply empathetic. “He’s emotionally available and unavailable,” he says, constantly flying away from his problems. “He’s not afraid to cry, he feels a lot. He’s cheeky, he’s quite flirty, and unafraid to use his charm to get what he wants.”

It’s a characterization that Gatwa crafted with great care, immersing himself in old episodes to identify each Doctor’s unique traits and analyzing his scripts with all the rigor of his drama-school training. He drew particular inspiration from Jon Pertwee’s action-hero energy in the 1970s and David Tennant’s charismatic liveliness in the 2000s. Drawing from his family’s experiences of conflict in Rwanda, Gatwa felt a strong emotional link to the Doctor’s origin story as the last survivor of a planet destroyed by war. He was also intrigued by the Doctor being something of a “public loner.” “The Doctor has traveled the whole universe and is friends with everyone,” Gatwa says. “And yet no one really knows him.”

Gatwa has similarly had to navigate the delicate balance between maintaining privacy and opening up. During his photo shoot for TIME, Gatwa poses effortlessly, jokes around with the crew, and dances along to Beyoncé in between shots. “If you put me in nice clothes and put lots of nice makeup on me then I’m very happy,” he tells me with a grin. (Gatwa is known for his chic, playful looks, from sharply tailored suits to a gleaming silver chestplate at the Oscars; he describes his personal style as somewhere between Ken and the Doctor.)

Adjusting to other aspects of his fame has been harder, as “pockets of anonymity” become increasingly rare for the self-described introvert. Davies underscores the intensity of the role. “God, it’s so hard to be the Doctor, especially in the U.K.,” he says. “It’s such a public role, and you’re adored by children. That’s a very specific and unusual thing.” Part of the shift for Gatwa has been grasping that he’s not simply doing a job—that the characters he plays have real power. “Now I understand that something [I’ve] done might have touched someone’s heart or made them feel safe or less lonely.”

Gatwa hopes to get into producing, inspired by the wonderful experience he had on set for Barbie, which was directed by Gerwig and produced by Margot Robbie. “We need a lot more creatives making decisions in our industry,” he says.

Davies, meanwhile, has no doubts when it comes to Gatwa’s future. “Imagine where he’ll be when he’s 40,” he says, adding that he’s in an unusual position after filming two seasons of Doctor Who, while everyone else is only just witnessing Gatwa’s performance. “I feel like I’m on the edge of the volcano, and the whole world is about to see it explode.”

—With reporting by Julia Zorthian

Styling by Ola Ebiti and Makeup by Linda Brown

Correction, May 16

The original version of this story mischaracterized Gatwa’s project to build a school in Rwanda. He hopes to do so but has not yet started.

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