Today we continue with the interviews from It’s A Sin, the brand new 5-part drama of multi-BAFTA Award-winning writer Russell T Davies, ’which follows the story of the 1980s, the story of AIDS, and charts the joy and heartbreak of a group of friends across a decade in which everything changed. YASS Magazine met Lydia West who plays Jill Baxter and Nathaniel Curtis who plays Ash Mukherjee.
Lydia, tell us a little about your character, Jill.
Jill is a very kind, sweet, generous 18-year-old girl who is from Woking, originally, and moves to London to go to university where she meets Ash and Ritchie. They’re studying drama.
What has it been like working with Russell T Davies? This is the second time you’ve worked on one of his dramas [previously Years and Years] isn’t it?
It’s amazing. And I thought the first time was good. It’s just a joy to work with someone who is so brilliant at what he does. I feel like I’ve been very fortunate to play such different characters in two projects by him, but both equally as nuanced and detailed and great as each other. It’s amazing to work with such an amazing writer and on such important, fantastic projects.
What particularly draw you to the project?
Well, firstly, reading the scripts. Understanding what the show was about I was like, “yeah, I want to be part of this!” It’s so important. And it’s written so well. Russell’s ability to tell stories is just second to none. And to play such a character that is so involved in all these boys’ lives and supports them all through it just felt very, very special.
There’s a real “gang” at the heart of the drama – did you become as tight-knit with your co-stars off-camera too?
It was so easy for us to get on. None of us knew each other beforehand. Every single one of the boys are just the most kind, beautiful humans. Andy Pryor and the casting office are just so phenomenal. We built a very tightknit friendship, we did everything together; we ate together, we stayed together, we went out together, we went to the gym together, all for a period of four months so we all just got really close really quickly. Especially when you’re telling such an important story, where it’s very, very sensitive. We had to be very vulnerable and open up and kind of get to know each other in order to do that in the most truthful way, in the most respectful and sensitive way.
You character is best friends with Ritchie, played by Olly Alexander. What was it like working with Olly?
Olly is an extremely kind, generous, sweet, sensitive actor. Meeting him for the first time I was very nervous, obviously. It was the day before the readthrough, and we had a musical rehearsal. I was in this large sports hall in Media City, Manchester, with a piano and a singing coach. I was singing a musical number and Olly just walks in and I’m like “Oh my God, he’s coming in mid-song, great!”. But we just instantly clicked and we started singing together within an hour of meeting. The producer and Peter, the director, came in to watch us sing together and I just had a bit of an out of body experience. So I was really in the deep end, with professional popstar Olly Alexander and me just in a music room singing with terrible acoustics! But it was a joy to work with Olly, he’s so kind and sweet. He’s phenomenal. He’s generous. And it’s what he just brought to Ritchie too.
The drama is set 30 years ago – what do you think audiences can take from the drama today, bearing in mind all the time that has passed?
I think the main thing that people will take away from It’s A Sin is the sense of family, friendship, love, joy that we all experience in our everyday life. And it is the friendship between all of us, and the love that we give for each other, is so strong and so positive and so joyful to watch. Friendship and love. And hope. And these are timeless. It doesn’t matter what the decade, we all have had that in our everyday life. And we all want to see that and hope to have that.
What do you think other young people in particular might be able to learn from this drama set at a time before many of them were even born?
Friendship, and the value of friendship. The importance of creating bonds with people who you connect with in various ways. Also being educated about the era which is not really taught to us in our history lessons. It’s a good place to get knowledge of the era, and from a British perspective, which we haven’t really seen. It seems like a very distant memory, that it happened to a generation years and years ago that we don’t discuss any more. So the drama will bring it to the front of people’s mind and teach them about it. Because it’s not distant history. It’s very, very close and it’s important for people to know,
Did you know much about the AIDS crisis before taking on the role – were you surprised about some things you learnt?
Absolutely. What I tried to do, as Jill, who learns about the illness as the years go on, was not to be too well informed going into it, but to learn so much as the project progressed, as Jill did. I learned about Section 28, about the stigma and shame. I learned about the horrendous government response to the crisis and the drugs companies withholding drugs. It was really eye-opening learning what people had to deal with. Obviously, the series focussed on the experience of gay men, but other HIV and AIDS victims had to deal with and the stigma that they faced and the shame that that came with it.
Your character represents all those friends/colleagues/strangers even who came to the aid of those who contracted the virus and faced massive stigma and ostracization – many of whom never received any recognition. Do you think your character in some way shines a light on the effort of all the real life “Jills”? Did you find that a big responsibility?
Absolutely. And it was quite a responsibility to take on. It felt like a very powerful and important role to play. These people are the unsung heroes. And they faced the same stigma that came with the disease too. I think people will be able to relate to Jill if they have ever loved or cared for someone who was dealing with something or going through something, be it an elderly grandparent or a friend who’s not very well. I feel like people, a lot of people, will be able to relate to this character. And people like Jill are heroes, and they’re selfless and generous and kind, all in the name of love. These people didn’t want a round of applause. Jill didn’t do what she did for anyone other than the people she helped and out of love and friendship.
Your character is actually based on someone who Russell knew at the time – did you talk to her about her experiences when you prepared for the role?
I did. The day before the readthrough Russell informed me that Jill exists, that she’s one of his friends, and she is playing my mum and I’ll meet her tomorrow in the readthrough. I was like, “Argh, no pressure!”. I met Jill at the readthrough and it just felt so, so emotional to see her there. Russell is so sweet and kind and I knew that he didn’t want me to base any of my character choices on her. And I wouldn’t have done that. But just having her there felt really special. And I had some conversations with her. And I got from her the absolute joy of the time, and the friendship, and the love. She was just so positive about all these friends that she brought into her life, and the years they spent together in the Pink Palace and the times in London and the fun, and that just kind of helped me to understand the tone. She is just astonishing and lovely. The fact that I was chosen to play a character inspired by someone who’s so close to Russell is just a massive honour and I feel very proud to do that.
Talking about the joy and fun, that’s a really important part of this drama isn’t it?
Yes. It’s very easy to play tragedy and to play loss and sorrow. But that’s not life. That’s not how we live. We move on. Every day is a new day and you deal with things. Life moves on and you try and find joy in things. These people had a great time and a great life. It plays out against the backdrop of a terrible disease, but I think it’s very important to remember the joy and the fun and the speed of life, which happens.
How did you find immersing yourself in the 80s during filming? How did you get into the 80s vibe – music/films etc?
I would play music in my trailer, 80s classics, and just dance. Then I started inviting the boys in and I was like “guys let’s do a video for Instagram of just us dancing” and it became a ritual that every day we’d go into hair and makeup, we’d come out, in costume, waiting to go to set and we’d all just choose a song and dance. We all had our days when we chose our favourite song, we’d do a little catwalk and we just danced about to our favourite songs. And that became a ritual for every single day for most of the shoot. When I had days with scenes just on my own I’d just be dancing by myself to Luther Vandross! It just really set the tone for the day and started the day really positively and joyously.
Some 80s questions now!
What’s your favourite 80s song or band?
can’t choose one, so top three! Number one would be Stevie Wonder, Part-time Lover. Because it’s just such good vibe. My second favourite would be Gwen McCrae, All This Love That I’m Givin’ because it’s about just giving yourself and giving so much love. And my third choice would be George Benson, Give Me the Night (although the George Benson I think was in the late 70s so that’s a bit of a cheat…)
And your favourite 80s film?
Back to the Future, definitely.
What about your favourite 80s fashion trend?
Mohair. Jill has a lot of mohair. I loved it. It was like an extra layer, like an angelic aura around her. But extremely itchy.
Finally your favourite 80s TV show?
Saved by the Bell. Late 80s. But I love it.
Nathaniel, tell us a little about your character, Ash, and how he fits within the group.
When Ritchie first comes to London, Ash is the first guy to grab his attention at university. Through Ash, Ritchie is introduced to Jill, then Roscoe and Colin come along. Ash is the cool, quiet, confident one of the group who, as the years go by, becomes one of the caring, sensitive ones. Unlike Roscoe or Ritchie, he doesn’t have to speak loudly or a lot to be heard. Or that’s what he thinks!
Can you see any of yourself in your character?
He’s a lot cooler than I am, that’s for sure, but he has this fierce loyalty which anyone can relate to. It’s strange – on paper he felt very different to me but when I started playing him, we became each other by osmosis. It was really lovely.
Would you have held your own in the Pink Palace?
As Nathaniel, no question. If I was living there, that place would be a lot cleaner!
All the characters respond very differently to the AIDS epidemic. What’s Ash’s reaction?
I can’t say that he takes it very seriously. He kind of knows what’s going on, but he isn’t willing to give up sex and he’s a bit blasé about it. As he sees it hitting home with people, he springs into action and starts helping. It’s the making of him, really. When he’s younger he’s happy sleeping around with whoever he likes, but this gives him a sense of purpose.
Were you already familiar with the period and what happened?
Prior to being cast I knew about the epidemic, but things like Section 28, which I’d heard about but didn’t know in detail… I wasn’t taught about AIDS in school, really, it wasn’t talked about in my family, but researching this I was horrified that it’s not taught in schools as part of basic sex education. I saw something on World AIDS Day saying that part of the reason the older generation might have more conservative views about sexuality is because so many of those that lived that happy, liberal, high life of being queer, died. The research gave me more knowledge, definitely.
It’s not just a story about death, is it?
It is an incredibly sad story, all the more so for being true, but when we were making the show it wasn’t about death, it was about a group of people that loved each other. I will always carry the love I felt doing that show with me.
Why do you think this is an important story to tell?
We lost an entire generation of queer people – it was a great blow to mankind. Russell lived in the real Pink Palace, he was in the thick of it and he’s such a beautiful writer, so having it told by him makes it that bit more heartfelt.
What has it been like working with Russell?
I was quite nervous meeting him, he’s such a big name in British TV, but he’s one of the most lovely, down to earth, funny people. He lights up a room, he’s so caring and bubbly, a wonderful man. It’s been a lovely first job in television.
There’s a real “gang” at the heart of the drama – did you become as tight-knit with your co-stars off-camera too?
When I was cast, the only people I knew had been cast were Omari and Callum, then I found out about Lydia and Olly at my second costume fitting, so we’d all been texting quick hellos to each other. Then at the readthrough, it was just electric. I think we managed to stay professional on set, or at least I hope so!
What about off-set – did you have any big nights out?
We were filming quite late most nights, but there was one night with David Carlyle [Gregory]. Lydia, Omari, me and one of my friends from home went for a drink and ended up in Canal Street at silly o’clock in the morning. That was so fun, to really let loose. But it was very unusual – normally we’d go back to our apartments, cook for each other, have a drink… Very domestic.
Is there a Pink Palace WhatsApp group?
Yeah, and Callum did a really good lockdown quiz. And I don’t want to rub people’s faces in it, but I absolutely, definitely, 100% won. It was great to catch up over Zoom because everyone’s been quite busy over lockdown.
How did you immerse yourself in the 80s during filming?
We listened to 80s music every morning and had a dance. The music was a big part of finding Ash, for me, along with costumes and big hair. Ash had loads of high-waisted trousers and braces and I really got into it. I’m incredibly tall so I struggle to find trousers to fit, but those trousers made me feel really confident and sexy, which helped with Ash.
What’s your favourite 80s…
…Musician/Band – and song
The song that always had me dancing was Hey Mickey. Also Phil Collins is another classic for me – he’s got that voice that makes you feel something.
Die Hard. I love that film.
High-waisted jeans. I’m a very jeans and t-shirt person, but one pair of black silk trousers Ash had… Oh, lord. I put those on and was like: daddy’s home.
Cheers. I know it’s not very British, but for me it reminds me of being a kid. That warmth – and it’s aged so well.