Years and years ago: Olly Alexander on going back to the early days of AIDS in hit series It's a Sin
The actor and musician opens up about his work on the new drama and what it means to him as a gay man
Queeries is a weekly column by CBC Arts producer Peter Knegt that queries LGBTQ art, culture and/or identity through a personal lens.
Watching the new British miniseries It's a Sin during a global health crisis certainly puts things in perspective, particularly if you are a queer person too young to remember the era it depicts. Set during the initial onset of the HIV/AIDS crisis in London, the five-part series offers a significant window into a time when hundreds of thousands of people tragically died — the vast majority of them gay men.
Unlike COVID, AIDS was initially close to a death sentence and took many years for scientists to really understand. It took even longer for governments or most of society to give a shit. It's a Sin makes that very clear in its decade-spanning, five-part narrative, which arrived in Canada this past weekend after already being a massive hit in the U.K.
A passion project for renowned gay British TV creator Russell T. Davies (Queer as Folk, Cucumber, Years and Years) that took five years for any broadcaster to agree to finance, It's a Sin is the first series or film on its scale to ever depict this history from a British perspective. Following a group of young folks trying to grapple with the social, political and medical chaos of AIDS from 1981 to 1991, it offers a gripping look into how rampant homophobia played a major role in the deaths of so many.
At the heart of the series is Ritchie, an aspiring actor who escapes a closeted life on the Isle of Wight for London just as AIDS is about to first be discovered. He's played exceptionally by musician, actor and LGBTQ rights advocate Olly Alexander, likely known best to most as the frontman of the outwardly queer, wildly popular U.K. synthpop band Years & Years. I had the pleasure of Zooming into Alexander's lockdown last week to talk about It's a Sin, what it was like representing the generation of queer men of this era and how he has been coping with the health crisis all of us are facing right now.
So I spent this past weekend watching It's a Sin, which you are so good in. Congratulations!
First of all, as a queer person who was born just as the timeline of this series is concluding, how did you go about approaching this role? How much were you already aware of that time in queer life, and did you come to relate to Ritchie in ways that you didn't expect?
I suppose I was sort of familiar with this era of history, the 1980s. In a queer context, I understood a little bit about how the HIV/AIDS epidemic impacted queer communities, more so in the United States just from novels I'd read and pictures I'd seen on TV. There are some books I really, really love set in that period, like People in Trouble by Sarah Schulman and Dancer in the Dance by Andrew Holleran. But meeting Russell and coming on board with this show was a real opportunity to engage with an area [where] I still had all these pockets of misunderstanding and gaps of knowledge, especially specific to a British context. Being a British gay guy myself and growing up in the wake of the crisis in this country, the policies that were in place when I was in school prevented any LGBT people being included, like anywhere in education. And that had an impact on me and other queer people growing up here. So it was a huge learning process for me.
But honestly when I first read the script, I just instantly related to Ritchie and how he just wanted to — as soon as he could, at 18 years old — get to the city. He had big dreams and ambitions, wanted to be an actor, wanted to make people laugh and be entertaining. And that's something I related to right away because that what I was at 18, you know?
I'm also curious because as you said, you grew up as a gay man in the wake of this. And I did too. We're both part of this generation where this was happening around us when we were children and most of us had no idea. I'm curious what your initial understanding of HIV/AIDS was and if you have your own sort of inherited trauma that was hard to push through while you were making this series? For me watching it, even though I know so much has changed, I got anxiety because honestly I don't know if I were 25 in 1985, say, how I would have handled this crisis and how I would have behaved.
Yeah, for me it brought up a lot of complicated feelings. I was aware that when I was younger and I was kind of coming to terms with my sexuality, I knew what AIDS and HIV was but only sort of as a playground insult or this scary, bad thing that happens to gay people. I didn't come out to the people around me until I was about 19 and then it took me into my 20s to really feel on top of my own sexual health and being able to take care of that and understanding what that means. That's taken a long time for me, just for myself. And like you say, this show, for a lot of people that watch it, it brings up a lot of emotional responses that are in part a trauma that some of us carry. Not least because some people obviously lived through this time and lost people and so much of that happened in silence. But yes, we've all grown up in the wake of it and have inherited aspects of it in ways.
What I love about Ritchie is that he's such an irrepressible spirit. He denies the virus for so long and it's very uncomfortable to grapple with why a gay man might so vehemently deny the virus. But I totally understood it because he just couldn't accept that it was real. It just didn't make sense to him. It was just really a great opportunity to perform that.
And that's one of the elements I really appreciated about it — how it really tackled issues of shame and guilt quite fearlessly. And this isn't some small thing reaching a niche audience. In the U.K., it's one of the highest-rated shows Channel 4's ever had. Like, this isn't Philadelphia. This is something that pushes boundaries a lot more and the fact that these mainstream audiences are seeing is incredible. What do you want these mainstream, largely straight audiences who probably don't know this history at all to take from this and learn from this?
Gosh, well. I didn't really know what to expect. You never know how an audience will respond to a show. But I've been so surprised by how much it's resonated with people across the board, really. Families have been watching it and having intergenerational conversations about a period of history even the people who lived through it sometimes had no idea what was going on, and the treatment of gay and queer people and how the virus affected the community. It's an eye-opening conversation for so many people.
I just hope people are moved by the story, first and foremost. I think a story has the power to change people's hearts and minds. I hope people love these characters and relate to them, no matter what sexuality or identity you are. And that's why Russell T. Davies is so brilliant. He's so good at creating characters like that. You fall in love with them, and you miss them when they're gone. I think this is an era of history that's very misunderstood and there's so many gaps in our knowledge so I hope people are encouraged to find out more for themselves. There's so many more stories to be told from this time and we really owe everything to these people who came before us.
Yeah, and speaking of owing things to people, Russell T. Davies... I think I was 15 when I secretly taped Queer as Folk.
And he's just incredible, the amount of education he's given queer people alone in their homes in the late 1990s and early 2000s. What was it like working with him? I just want to get a sense of what kind of creator he is and collaborating with him.
Well, like you I was about 14 when I first saw Queer as Folk. I was at a friend's house and we watched it in secret. I was too embarrassed to say I liked it at that point. It was so formative to me, that show. And also Russell's other work as well. So meeting him was definitely like, "Wow, this person's had a huge impact on me." He's prolific. And he instantly makes you feel comfortable. Like his writing, there's always a joke every other 20 seconds. So you're so engaged and he's so charismatic with anything he says. Because he knows the story inside and out. This is his life, his friends' lives, the stories that he grew up with, that he's been waiting to write all his life. So he was just a fountain of knowledge for everything in the script. You could send him a text at any time of day or night and he replies to you straight away. He must have so many people texting him! But the whole time through the shoot we would have him on tap for any questions or anything. You know, it's always all there in the writing. None of us changed a single word. It's all there in script. That's Russell's work, and it's our job to deliver it. I'm just so honoured I got to be a part of it.
Did you ever ask him if he plagiarized your band's name for his last show?
That was the first thing I asked him! I was like, "So tell me, what's up with your show Years and Years? I mean, I love it but..." And he said, "I just love the name and I'm a fan of your band," and I was like, "Ok, you can have it!"
Also, speaking of your band, I have to say when the pandemic first started I would run to both albums constantly. There's just a mood that suited the yearning of the initial lockdown. I just wanted to know if there's more coming so I can have it in case there's a third wave?
Yes. I've been working on a lot of music and definitely there is more coming. I'm excited about it and it's definitely music you can run to ... and dance to.
I look forward to running to it and hopefully also dancing to it, preferably with hundreds of vaccinated people around me. Until then though, we are obviously still in the middle of a very different health crisis than the one depicted in It's a Sin right now. I'm curious how you've found ways to cope through it, and what it's felt like having this big series come out in the middle of it. It must be strange.
It has been strange. I've definitely been, like a lot of people out there, very up and down, like a rollercoaster vibe. I can think back over the past year now, and at the very beginning of the pandemic I was like, "I'm going to be super productive," and then that kind of completely fell off and I just felt really unmotivated and depressed. And then I came back up again and managed to get some done. And it kind of just went like that over and over. But I mean, for all of us it's just ... changed all of our lives. It's so monumental, the change. And it's quite hard for us all to process it. We're all having to adapt to it. So I'm trying to still figure that out. But I live alone so it was a good test for me as to whether I would go insane or not, but I actually managed fine. And luckily, we are able to connect in so many other ways, like here on Zoom!
Have you had to be doing this all day?
No, no, you're the beginning! So I'm fresh.
Well, I'm glad I got you fresh. And again, congratulations on the show.
Thank you! I'm so excited for people in Canada to watch it!
It's a Sin is available now on Amazon Prime Video in Canada and HBO Max in the United States.