It’s A Sin Star Olly Alexander: ‘If You’re Going To Make A Queer Story, Hire Queer People’

Olly Alexander It's A Sin

It’s A Sin is the new show on everybody’s lips, and with very good reason. The AIDS-era drama following the lives of five young individuals as they find themselves in the city of London is completely captivating, and opens an important conversation for viewers. What was most striking to me though, was how the show told oft-hidden queer stories, with a majority queer cast. That, to me, meant the world.

Olly Alexander plays Ritchie Tozer, a rambunctious young man who sets off for London from the isolated Isle of Wight and discovers the joys of queerness, alongside his new friends Jill (Lydia West), Roscoe (Omari Douglas), Ash (Nathaniel Curtis) and Colin (Callum Scott Howells).

By ten minutes into the first episode, you’ll be professing your undying love for every character. Queer people play queer roles, the cast is diverse and inclusive, and everyone is written with completely different goals and personalities. As someone who identifies as queer, it is a rare treat to see a show get so much, so right.

PEDESTRIAN.TV participated in a roundtable discussion with Olly to unpack the sheer brilliance of It’s A Sin. Questions from other worldwide publications with be labelled ‘Q:’. Answers include some plot spoilers, so go watch the show already, you’ve been warned.

PEDESTRIAN.TV: My boyfriend and I were so impressed by how many LGBT actors star in the series, which, unfortunately, even today isn’t the norm. Why is it important to have queer people playing queer roles?

Olly: Well, I love it! I love what Russell [T Davies] said about how he thinks gay actors should be playing gay. If you’re going to make a queer story, hire queer people, work with queer people. Right? And we can all agree. I would just love to see more queer roles in the spotlight, more queer actors getting praised for playing queer. We all want to see that, and I love that [Russell] says that. Of course, the issue is nuanced as well, and I think we can all accept that. It’s nuanced, but it just makes complete sense to me?

Q: Do you think that you brought something to this role that a straight person couldn’t?

O: We all clicked as a cast very quickly, and that’s not just because lots of us are queer, but that was a big part of it, because we all really connected to the story we’re telling very intimately… so I think it really worked in It’s A Sin, and, of course, no one else could have played the role as good as I did [laughs].

Q: What part of the narrative did you find the most challenging as an actor?

O: When I read the script, I really was struck by what a complicated, complex character Ritchie is, and I think that human beings in real life, we’re very complicated characters ourselves. But I suppose the challenge for Ritchie was to really kind of chart this journey from [someone who is] kind of naive and good-natured but a little cocky and arrogant to somebody that’s hiding a lot from himself.

I suppose towards the end he has some very heavy monologues and I think he’s at a stage of his condition where he’s kind of speaking honestly, for the first time in his life, but he’s also kind of really dealing with this late stage diagnosis of HIV. And that was really, really challenging to kind of know how to pitch that as an actor, but it’s all there in the script. We always felt like it was all in safe hands.

Q: Now, there’s a lot of joyful sex in It’s A Sin, and you kind of feel disturbed by it at times, because you know it’s a really hard time for them, and yet they’re having plenty of joyous sex. I wonder if Russell was trying to confront the audience at times and make them feel uncomfortable, and if you felt uncomfortable shooting some of those scenes?

O: I know for Russell, it was very important to show how much life and fun and spirit these characters had and to hear him speak about portraying HIV and AIDS is incredibly fascinating.

Yes, It’s A Sin is very heavy and has a lot of dark moments, but it also has a lot of joy and passion. A big part of that joy is the sex in episode one, mainly, and I really respect that choice, because I think it’s really important to show that the sex was fun and pure, as well as being complicated and heavy and dark. So you have both of those in the show. I do think it’s confronting for the audience at times.

Q: There’s a scene at the very end, which was almost quite hard to watch as a viewer, when Ritchie says that he ‘kept having sex’. He knew what his diagnosis was, and he just kept doing it, like a destructive force. That seems to me like it must have been very hard to accept.

O: It really was, for so many reasons. It was challenging. When I first read it, I was angry at Ritchie. I was confused. I could also understand why he did what he did. He’s not a villain, he’s a bit stupid and horny, and this is kind of a path.

So I kind of had all of that in my head, and [tried] not to judge the character. I really respect Russell for wanting to put that out there with Ritchie, because it really is quite confronting for the audience to really kind of grapple with this idea of shame and who’s to blame and what shame does to someone.

Q: I guess the most beautiful thing about the show is that no matter what race, gender, sexuality we are, we can all walk away from the show with something special. But I wonder, do you think that the show can be kind of a wake-up call for parents as well?

O: I think family is a really big theme within the whole show, both chosen and biological, and the relationships between all the characters and their parents are really vital. You see a lot of different [perspectives], you know, Colin’s mum, who is just so loving towards her son and doesn’t question him, and then Ritchie’s mum, who is just so blinded by her own kind of shame and fear that she can’t see what’s happening to her own son, even when it’s right in front of her.

I think every parent watching the show is going to feel a different way, but I definitely hope that it can give people a pathway [towards] a conversation with their kids, or just open people’s eyes to how sensitive this is and how important for young queer people it is to see queer stories on the screen.

PTV: It’s A Sin deals with very intense feelings of homophobia and ignorance. Did you find it difficult to slip into a mindset that can be kind of traumatic for gay people to experience and talk about?

O: I did. Well, I would say just filming the whole show was a deeply emotional experience, and I think all of us were affected by it in different ways. I would have all these different reactions to Ritchie’s character and the things that are happening to him and having to portray it in scenes, and then you have a conversation with yourself and go, oh, this is a drama, it’s fiction. But it also all really happened, so it’s just never not going to be heartbreaking because we’re telling a tiny, tiny slice of this huge story that really just goes on and on and on and still impacts us all today.

Also, the good thing was that we all had each other to lean on and it was such a joy to film and work with everybody there. So it was emotional, but thankfully I have a really good therapist [laughs].

Q: You see a lot of stigma towards having HIV in the ’80s, and many people still feel today that if they have HIV they don’t want to mention it to anyone, and keep it a secret, because there’s still a stigma. Do you have any hope for the show that maybe it might change that or change someone’s perspective on HIV?

O: It’s been amazing [watching] the response here in the UK since the show’s come out. There’s been, I would say, almost like a national conversation about HIV and the progress that’s been made. [There were] stats released that said, more people ordered an HIV test after episode three, I think it was, in the UK in a single day. To be honest with you, that’s not something I ever expected to happen.

I’m so overwhelmed and moved by it, because it’s really showing [that] there’s a need for this conversation to happen. And also, just seeing the different responses to the show, because this is a topic that’s quite misunderstood. Because of the stigma, there is a real lack of awareness still.

It’s very important to for people to know now how far we’ve come with living with HIV. You can have a normal, healthy life, you have effective treatment, we have PREP, you know, we have all these things. Everything’s completely different to like it was in the 1980s. It’s so eye-opening for people because people still don’t know so much about this topic. This kind of issue needs to be out there and spoken intergenerationally between family members between friends.

You know, I’ve been having conversations about HIV with my family in a way that I’ve never had before because of this show and I absolutely hope that that continues and that people watch this and are encouraged to keep fighting against the stigma and to keep spreading awareness, because it’s hugely important.

If you haven’t seen It’s A Sin yet, I thoroughly recommend you do. It’s on Stan right now, and you will absolutely race through it.