Today we complete the special “It’s A Sin” special, with two (more-than-essential) interviews. YASS Magazine met Neil Patrick Harris, who plays Henry Coltrane and Keeley Hawes, who plays Valerie Tozer.
“It’s A Sin” has definitely marked our lives and made us cry, understand, believe, and feel grateful for everything we have come to achieve and enjoy as a united LGBTQ+ community. The 5-part drama of multi-BAFTA Award-winning writer Russell T Davies, which follows the story of the 1980s, has increased visibility and awareness towards the grey years that were shadowed by the AIDS epidemic, and has helped us understand how much progress there has been all these years.
Neil, tell us a little about your character, Henry.
Henry works at a Savile Row tailors. He seems to be an antagonist for Colin, but quickly realises Colin’s a bit green, a bit young and innocent and naïve, so takes him under his wing and provides an example for a way of existing that Colin didn’t know about. He’s been with his boyfriend for a long time, living his lovely independent existence with calm and happiness, which makes a nice juxtaposition to the desperate need for chaos and individuality some of the younger generation at that time were seeking.
Henry’s role in the drama is one of a mentor – did you mentor Callum too?
I think the absolute world of Callum. He is an open vessel of positivity and talent. He asked questions, we ate out and drank together, his accent is divine, he’s so formal and humble and confidently enthusiastic about his future, as he should be. It was exciting to watch so many people with such talent at the beginning of their film experience.
That’s part of what makes it feel so fresh and genuine.
Agreed. I wanted to be able to hang out with all of them together, so I came up to Manchester a few days before my scenes started filming so I wasn’t just in my own singular story with Callum but I could know what their group energy dictated. That alchemy of ensemble energy helps define the thing, and it’s something Russell has proven himself remarkably good at putting together, whether for Years and Years or Queer As Folk or Doctor Who. I was very taken with the whole group – they really enjoyed each other, so watching the scenes of them meeting, dancing, having fun, it’s rooted in sincerity.
A native of New Mexico isn’t obvious casting for an English gent like Henry. How did you find the accent?
I asked questions about accent – I needed more specifics because I didn’t want to do a generic British accent with no context. I worked with a coach to make sure most of what I said was on point and tried to channel David Niven a bit! It was a fun challenge. I’m very appreciative of and impressed by the British thespian. I’m directing a murder mystery on film soon, so I’ve been neck-deep in Agatha Christie, I’m a huge fan of Punchdrunk’s immersive theatre, the Goes Wrong Show gang… I’ve been anxious to play in those sandboxes for a while, so I didn’t want to misrepresent.
Why do you think this is an important story to tell, and why now?
The HIV/AIDS conversation is still alive and necessary and in many ways more important now than ever. I talk at length and relatively often with Elton John and David Furnish about their AIDS Foundation which has done such extraordinary things. They recognise there’s a tipping point, that HIV/AIDS could be eviscerated to zero in our lifetimes. That’s a big deal considering how it started, in such uncertainty and with so much fear. At the beginning of all this, if you went into hospital with AIDS or HIV there was a strong probability you were not going to come back out. So to continue the conversation with perspective, to be able to look at that generation with a bit of hindsight, makes the morals and lessons and warnings more vivid.
What role do you think a drama like It’s a Sin can add to the conversation around HIV and AIDS?
There’s a younger generation that perhaps often only knows HIV/AIDS through the idea that, if you’re on PrEP, you’re good to go. I hope it allows them to have a new perspective and awareness of the lives that were led before. I applaud Russell for creating this wonderful, brave origin story of a group of people coming into their own under this shadow of such uncertainty and darkness. Rooting for these people, being so excited to see them living, fucking, being proud, and simultaneously recognising that this series is about something much bigger… The first episode ends on such a happy note, and you wish them all success, joy, happiness, love, enthusiasm, excitement in their worlds. Yet you’re terrified for their safety and concerned about how these stories will end. It’s an amazing dynamic.
There is a lot of joy in the series, maybe unexpectedly so.
Russell manages to make it feel so comfortable and the dialogue is so real, it doesn’t feel laden with pretension or heaviness, even though you’re watching these beautiful children turn into adults with this spectre approaching. No one wants to frame this as a tale that will make you afraid or sad, but it’s about HIV/AIDS in the 80s in the UK so you have to deal with the realities of it. Few people can handle stark realities better than Russell – he deals with them in a very conversational, realistic way. He makes it all accessible.
What memories of the 1980s did filming bring back?
I was too young to be personally aware of HIV/AIDS – I’m from smalltown New Mexico, then I went to Los Angeles and was still doing a TV show with my parents, so I wasn’t out in any way, I wasn’t able to date, experiment or explore. That said, my agent at the time was a children’s agent, her assistant was gay and I became friends with him and his partner, a casting director. They were a lovely example to me of how to be out and hilarious and the life of a party at a time when I didn’t have a lot of examples of that. He, the assistant, got sick and died of complications from HIV/AIDS, but even back then it felt shrouded in a shame. Not from me, but it was never discussed openly: someone isn’t at work, things aren’t so good, they pass away. It was all very quiet, it felt suppressed as if discussing it made it more real or something to pass judgement on. There was great sadness around the conversation. I’m so happy we’ve turned a corner in that regard. Being positive isn’t something shameful now – look at Magic Johnson or Greg Louganis, people living with it, it’s nice to witness. The easiest emotion to tap into during filming was the isolation and seclusion. What a weird thing, to have so much emotion and sadness, and yet you’re supposed not to discuss it and just pretend it didn’t happen. That pain has to go somewhere.
What has Russell’s writing meant to you over the years? And what do you hope It’s A Sin might mean to audiences?
I’m such a fan of his. I found Queer as Folk so sexy at such a pivotal age. I was looking for examples of ways to feel charged and alive and I was so taken with that production, I watched it over and over. When I was asked to meet with him about this, I was happy to participate in any way. Russell has this innate ability to connect with so many people through his style, which allows him to write science fiction, apocalyptic fiction, contemporary magnum opuses about larger issues, whatever it might be, in such a palatable way. But also, it’s intoxicating and sexy, and when you’re talking horny and sexy, you want a younger generation of LGBTQ people to see this story and have it resonate, not just as a sad history lesson, but in a charged, energising way. You want to dance with these people. Through that intoxication, I think lessons can be learned in a much more profound way.
Keeley, you’re incredibly busy – what was it about this project that made you want to make space for it in your schedule?
I remember reading a press release about it and thinking: that looks really interesting. Such an interesting period of time that hasn’t really been done in this way. Then I got a message saying the first four scripts were on the way but to keep going because even though I was only in a handful of scenes, I’d be in a lot of episode five. Even on the strength of the handful of scenes I would have wanted to be part of it, but then came episode five and it was amazing. I couldn’t believe my luck.
Why were Russell’s scripts such a draw?
They were so real. There can be humour in death and Russell manages to find those light moments. I sat and read every episode, one after the other, and laughed and sobbed. I find the sadness of it hard to talk about, even now. Valerie is so complicated, but you need to have sympathy and empathy with her, or it doesn’t work. Russell has created someone so believable. I knew people like that, products of their time and generation unfortunately.
Who is Valerie Tozer?
I play Ritchie’s mother. Valerie and her husband Clive have no idea that Ritchie is gay; they live on the Isle of Wight and they’re removed from this life their son is living. Eventually it becomes apparent and they have to face up to a new reality. She goes on a hell of a journey! For so many people there was a stigma around AIDS and there still is for many too. Hopefully this show will help break down attitudes that some people still have.
How would you describe her relationship with Clive?
Clive and Valerie have such a complicated relationship. Are they happy? No, I wouldn’t say so. They’re not happy together and they’re unsatisfied with their lives in general so their hopes are pinned on their children to a degree. We all got on so well and had such a lovely time on set, which made it even harder! But also fun to play against that. So many people have messy relationships with their families and, when they’re forced to confront things together– the cracks in their relationships are thrown into focus.
The Tozers have quite a complicated relationship – what do you think the drama says about the notion of “family”?
Ritchie finds a family unit in London, with Jill at the heart of it. It’s been lovely to watch objectively, because I’m not in a lot of it, so to see the Pink Palace and the storylines with Colin and Roscoe has been a joy – the performances and the life in a story that is so much about death is wonderful, tempered by the sadness about the lives that weren’t able to be lived.
Was that sadness felt on set?
The Tozers are sprinkled across the series until episode five, which is our episode really, so Shaun and I were in and out for a day here and there, and it was possibly the warmest set I’ve ever gone into. Every one of the cast I had the pleasure to share scenes with or even just meet was incredible. It was a really hard shoot but they kept the atmosphere going. It was the only set I’ve ever gone on where a member of the crew broke down in the middle of the scene. They were exhausted and drained; it was a long, hard shoot but they were glorious.
How was it working with Olly?
Olly was just brilliant – I loved acting with him and hanging out with him. He brings such huge energy… Number one on the callsheet and in every day, but he led the project so beautifully, and that trickles down and sets the tone. We had the pleasure of him breaking into song quite a lot as well. Actually, they all did! Years & Years were slightly off my radar, then I heard a song on the radio and went: Oh my God, that’s him! I had no idea.
Why do you think this is an important story to tell, and why is it important to tell it now?
People say we’ve never lived through anything like this Covid pandemic, but we have – the timing has become accidentally extraordinary. The way people were treated before they knew what AIDS was, the alienation of those people who were suffering in isolation, people with PPE and so on, all the conspiracy theories about a gay cancer – there are so many parallels to now, before we got a clearer understanding of Covid. I follow this brilliant Instagram page called the AIDS Memorial. Every day people post pictures of people they’ve lost with the hashtag #whatisrememberedlives – each and every story is different, from the 80s to the present day. Reading them makes all the lives in It’s A Sin feel more real, because some of them are so similar and they’re people that deserve to be remembered.
What do you remember of the era?
I grew up very close to St Mary’s Hospital in Paddington where there was an HIV wing, one of the first ones I think. I remember walking past that quite often and feeling a sense of foreboding. A teacher at my primary school, when I was a bit older, went away and was ill and died of AIDS, but it wasn’t something people wanted to say out loud. Nobody wanted to put a name to it, he was just “unwell”. It all came flooding back. All the 80s came flooding back, to be honest – the design team did a phenomenal job. Sitting in that house, eating Bourbons or making boiled potatoes with no salt or butter… I do have waffles, Vienetta and Arctic Roll in my freezer at the moment, so maybe I can’t let go…
This isn’t the first time you’ve gone back in time to the 80s on screen – is it a decade with which you have a particular affinity?
I suppose so! I grew up in that decade and feel quite sentimental about it, but I wouldn’t want to relive it.
What do you hope audiences take away from the drama?
I don’t think my 20-year-old son has much idea about this, it’s not something studied in schools, because HIV is something you live with, you don’t die from it in the same way. It’s not a death sentence. So I think it will act as a reminder to some or even be news to younger generations.