Olly Alexander: Filming “It’s a Sin” Was an “Emotional Gut-Punch”

"It’s unflinchingly honest," says the Years & Years frontman.

Spoilers ahead for HBO Max’s It’s a Sin

Olly Alexander is best known as the frontman of dance-pop band Years & Years, but the singer has flexed his acting muscles in series such as Skins and Penny Dreadful. Now he is taking on his biggest role yet in It’s a Sin, the new limited series from Queer as Folk creator Russell T. Davies about a group of friends grappling with the AIDS epidemic in 1980s London.

It’s a Sin’s U.K. debut smashed streaming records and earned the show rave reviews. It even had a real-life effect, with HIV tests quadrupling the week after the series premiered.

Alexander caught up with NewNowNext about the “emotional gut-punch” of the series, filming all of those hookup scenes, and living out his Doctor Who sci-fi fantasy.
 

HIV tests have quadrupled since the premiere of It’s a Sin. How does that make you feel? You’re in this great show that’s also having a material impact on reality.

Yeah, it’s very moving and it makes me emotional. It’s honestly amazing to see a real-time response to the show, and it’s blown me away. I think it’s shown how much there needs to be a conversation really still, about not only HIV, but people’s sexual health, people’s mental health. I think it’s brought out a lot of issues for people. I’m just blown away, really.

Have you been hearing from viewers at all?

Yeah, so I have so many messages on my Instagram or on Twitter about the show. It’s really interesting to see different responses. Lots of people who lived through this time — who lived through the ’80s but weren’t aware of the real scale of the issue and didn’t know how bad things were — they’re saying, “Oh my gosh, I had no idea.” Then you get people who did live through the time and were close to the people that we lost or themselves are living with HIV. And obviously seeing something like the show is opening up a lock inside of them, and they’re sharing a lot of emotion and lots of people are saying how moving it is to see the story being told on a mainstream, primetime channel. Then lots of younger people who had no idea that this even happened at all, some people really do have that response. I knew that it would be eye-opening for people, but you just don’t know what to expect. It’s not surprising because when I read the script, I was so moved by it, such an emotional gut-punch. Russell’s just a genius at the craft of making this show. I connected to it so personally, but you just don’t know if that’s going to be the same for an audience, but it seems to have kind of happened that way.

Russ Ferguson/HBO Max

Russell said you were pretty much the only choice to play Ritchie. Did that make you nervous going into the project?

I knew he had been working on this project for a long time, but he hadn’t finished writing it until after I met him. Russell told me that Ritchie’s kind of the amalgamation of people that he knew, stories that he’d heard. So I really connected with who this person was: 18 years old, moved to the city to make a name for themselves, still in the closet, that’s exactly what I did. Then knowing that Russell had me in mind when he was finishing the rest of the show, I definitely felt nervous because you don’t want to fuck up Russell’s writing. Also, they’re really challenging themes, to be honest, but I just felt so lucky that I was working with one of my queer heroes. I felt like he had enough faith in me as a performer to really push me. Because I would never have been able to do any of those things, otherwise, so I’m just kind of grateful. I feel lucky that this happened because his last show is called Years and Years, so when I met him, I was like, “Russell, what’s the deal? You a fan of the band?” And he was like, “Yes, of course.” He just made [it] up, and so it was just poetic. It made sense in some way that we worked together.

I know I wouldn’t be where I am today if I hadn’t watched that Queer as Folk VHS bootleg in my bedroom when I was a teenager. Were you the same way?

Yes, that was me. I was 14 years old, closeted, didn’t know my own sexuality, and I was at my friend’s house and she forced us to watch it. I was scandalized, but I didn’t know what to make of it. Then over the years I’ve gone back to it, and I’ve known Russell’s other work and loved it. He’s been such an important person in queer culture, and I respect him so much.

As I was watching It’s a Sin, there are a number of hookup scenes, so I just want to know what was that like filming those. Did you like have any say in the casting? Because there were a lot of cute guys.

Well, we had intimacy coordinators — I don’t know if you know, I think they’re going to be considered best practice now moving forward for all shoots, which I think is amazing. You choreograph everything. It’s like a dance. But it was actually such an interesting experience because I found it so challenging to begin with, because I was so nervous. I actually went into it thinking like, “I’ve got this. I’m a confident guy; I like sex.” But I got more and more nervous as the date approached. I was just really glad that there was support with the intimacy coordinators and the director and the whole team were there to make us just feel comfortable. But just the fact that we’ve met beforehand and rehearsed made the actual filming so much better. Then it was kind of enjoyable. It was awkward, but we just laughed the whole time because it’s ridiculous. You’ve been working with your colleagues for however many weeks, and now you’ve just taken off your clothes and you’re simulating sex…you’ve got to laugh about it.

Yeah, it looked fun.

It was fun! What’s not to like? They were gorgeous guys. I didn’t sadly have any involvement in casting, but I was very happy with the choices that were made.

Ben Blackall/HBO Max

Was filming therapeutic for you? Were you able to process things about your sexuality or the queer community that maybe you hadn’t realized before?

Yeah, 100%. I don’t even know how to articulate how exactly the process made me feel, because it really did feel like some kind of therapy. I keep a diary, so I was looking at it the other day, but I’m interested in going through it again because obviously the story is so emotional. But rehearsing, filming was so intense, and I felt so connected to these characters. Playing one of them, it was such an amazing experience. It just felt very different and I’d be so angry at the choices Ritchie made, but then I’d be so sad at the reality of what was going to happen to him and I would understand the choices he made because the way he grew up. I had a lot of love, anger, grief, all these emotions for Ritchie and for his friends, and I just can’t tell you how profound that feels — to have shared that with a bunch of other people who are queer, who are also connected to the story, too. I don’t know. It’s going to take me a while to really understand how it felt. It was an amazing experience. I feel so grateful for it.

Preparing for the role, did you read or watch anything about the AIDS epidemic to prepare you?

After I met Russell, I was reading work about this period just more generally and a lot of American stuff, so I really loved Dancer From the Dance by Andrew Holleran.

Me too.

People in Trouble by Sarah Schulman, and The Great Believers by Rebecca Makkai — I read them back to back and I love those, but there’s a lot of amazing stories about this time. I’m always here to read more queer authors and everything, and then the specific ’80s stuff. I wanted to understand the cultural references. Also, Ritchie is in an episode of Doctor Who, and the whole style of acting was different back then, so I tried to reach that standard a little bit. I tried to do some specifics and then it was kind of a mixture, I would say, of different little tasks.

What was it like filming that Doctor Who scene?

It was so fun! It was the funnest thing ever. I was just like, “Wow, this is literally a dream come true. I get to act out a space fantasy.”

Another scene I wanted to ask about was the one towards the end, when Ritchie is in the hospital and was talking about having sex with people when he knows that he’s HIV positive. I feel it really complicates the audience’s relationship with Ritchie. How did you feel about that scene?

Russell would say Ritchie’s at a stage of his diagnosis, of his condition, where he’s kind of free to talk like this and to say things he’s never been able to vocalize before. Everything that he says in this scene is true, but it’s also at a point where he’s being honest for the first time in his life. He’s also kind of self-loathing in that moment, and I think it was really bold for Russell to kind of let Ritchie get to that point and say those things and kind of confront the audience in terms of whether anybody is “to blame” or not, or is guilty. It gives me chills to think about that moment, that scene. I think it’s really beautiful. That’s what, I think it closely mirrors human biases, this kind of real ambiguity. Russell’s thing was always that these boys aren’t villains. They were maybe stupid, horny, but they didn’t know, and the shame is what led them to hide it from themselves and from the people around them for so long. It’s unflinchingly honest, I think. It’s not tied up in an easy bow for you. It never is. It’s always some real situation where it’s so complicated.

I feel like it’s almost a good thing that you filmed It’s a Sin with all the intimate scenes because 2020 was all about no touching.

Exactly.

You got it all in before.

I know, I did it all in one condensed period!

It’s a Sin premieres this Thursday, February 18 on HBO Max.

I write about drag queens. Dolly Parton once ruffled my hair and said I was "just the cutest thing ever."
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