It’s a Sin star Omari Douglas tells PinkNews about working with Stephen Fry, his views on authentic casting and how filming the show was an education.
A five-part drama documenting the human cost of the AIDS crisis doesn’t exactly sounds like the most joyful of experiences. But Russell T Davies’ It’s a Sin, which bursts onto screens Friday (22 January), has a certain catharsis to it, with moments of unbridled queer elan among the cruelty and devastation.
“I can’t pinpoint what it was exactly, but there was such an energy – the friendships and the joy of it, and the youth,” is Omari Douglas’ best attempt at summing it up.
At 26, the actor is making his TV debut in this landmark Channel 4 series as Roscoe Babatunde: one of the the central characters.
Roscoe is “pretty fearless” from the get-go. In the first episode (very mild spoiler) we meet him as his homophobic, God-fearing parents are preparing to send him to Nigeria, to be cured of his gayness (Douglas can’t relate, he says he’s “very lucky to have a very accepting and loving family”). Roscoe storms out before he can be taken away, eventually starting a new life with new friends: Olly Alexander’s Ritchie, Callum Scott Howells’ Colin, Nathaniel Curtis’ Ash and Lydia West’s Jill.
Of the group, Roscoe is the most independent. “His fabulousness, which manifests itself in so many ways, as much as it is this joyous, vibrant, part of him, it’s also a shield,” explains Douglas. “It’s like, if I’m going to run away from that environment, then I’ve got to protect myself. He’s not gonna let anything get in his way of getting what he wants. The values that he’s been brought up with contradict too much with with what he really feels – I guess that is the tussle for a lot of people.”
Part of getting what he wants leads Roscoe to meet a Conservative MP, Arthur, the type to (literally) get hard for Margaret Thatcher. He’s played – brilliantly – by Stephen Fry, part of a starry supporting cast which also includes Neil Patrick Harris and Bodyguard’s Keeley Hawes.
“The first scene I shot with [Fry]… in the script it just says, ‘Roscoe sees Arthur and goes up to him and whispers something really dirty in his ear.’ Our director, Peter, said to me the night before the shoot: ‘Do come with your A-game and have some ammo for him.'” It worked, apparently, but laughing, Roscoe refuses to be drawn on just how far he went.
Working with a gay cast who lived through the AIDS crisis ‘cements how important it is’
Douglas and Fry filmed their scenes over a week, and the night before they began shooting together sat down for tea.
“Everyone knows how legendary he is. He was so generous with his time and just lovely. I could listen to him tell stories all day.
“What is incredible, and just makes the making of it even more poignant, is the fact that he lived through it. It’s weird that this is a period piece and yet, we still have access to those people. It’s not like you’re just having to rely on reading lots of things, we can still speak to people, which just kind of cements how important and significant it is.
“He was telling me stories about working on Broadway, and then going back to visit, and then hearing that half of the cast had gone because of this horrible, horrible disease that just appeared from nowhere. So it was really harrowing. But equally, we had the most joyous time – it was so fun, so easy.”
Douglas was born in the ’90s, meaning he grew up after the worst of the AIDS crisis. He was aware of the history before shooting, of course – no thanks to his schooling, where he says he doesn’t remember even hearing the word HIV thanks to the “taboo” that existed (and continues to exist) in the aftermath of Section 28. But working on the show naturally meant he began seeking out a deeper understanding of the crisis, one that can’t be drawn from statistics and death tolls.
“It’s just a human thing, seeing how people dealt with the loss, doubled with all of the prejudice that they were facing,” he says. And because he “has a relationship” with the history now, Douglas thinks he’ll keep “chipping away” at the kind of journals he’s been reading, the films he’s been watching, the photographs he’s been poring over. “And maybe people will be compelled to do the same,” he says, hopefully.
As well as from Fry, Douglas received an education from Russell T Davies, who explained how gay men at the time had no option but to “live for the enjoyment, because no one knew that this was going to happen. They carried on and endured”. He also pays homage to Nathaniel J Hall, a theatre-maker, performer and HIV campaigner from Manchester who lives with the virus, and was part of the cast. “He’s so inspiring, and being in the presence of him, it forced me to read more and to clue myself up.”
This brings us onto the topic of authenticity in casting, something that’s dominated news cycles since Russell T Davies said that he wouldn’t cast a straight actor in a gay role (in It’s a Sin, gay actors play gay and straight roles, but there are no straight actors playing queer).
I don’t think casting gay actors in gay roles is trying to spite anyone.
Casting this way, Douglas thinks, gives actors an “immediate engagement” with the subject matter that just wouldn’t exist otherwise.
“It’s not the kind of engagement that’s like, ‘Well, you know, I’m an actor, I should look into this stuff probably’. It’s, ‘No, this stuff is kind of connected to me, I would be wrong not to be engaging with it.’
“You can’t please everyone with with an answer to this debate. But I do think that with a story that is so personal – and also, I think people need to remember that this is a story that is personal to Russell – as a creator of that story, and to have lived the experience that he has himself poured into that text, you do have the right or the autonomy to cast it in the way that you want to cast it.
“Of course, anyone could flip the argument and do the devil’s advocate thing. But that’s not what this is trying to do. I don’t think casting gay actors in gay roles is trying to spite anyone. I think it’s just trying to redress the balance a little bit, and just to be celebratory and to honour the story. I don’t think that there has been enough opportunity for people to tell stories that represent their own community. And I think that’s what Russell is trying to do.”
As well as his gayness, Roscoe’s Blackness is also something that defines his experiences. Having such a vibrantly queer Black character on a major TV event (and a period show at that) is sadly unfamiliar and feels groundbreaking. But Douglas is quick to point out that really, it shouldn’t be.
“I feel like there’s a world of people almost thinking that proud Black queer men, of any gender actually, are sort of a thing of now. But they’ve been around since since time began, it’s about visibility.
“It is amazing that we have got the presence of more prominent Black queer people in media and in stories, but historically, I think it’s wrong to think that they weren’t there because they really were. And in fact, a lot of those people were blazing a trail for the cultural landscape of the queer scene, like the nightlife, the music, the fashion. And that’s what inspired me in terms of Roscoe, actually. Because he really does do his own thing, he’s carving out his own path and he doesn’t conform in any way. And I really enjoyed that element of him.”
He recalls a short documentary he watched on the Gay Black Group, a meeting of gay, Black and Asian (politically Black, at the time) communities in the ’80s at the Gays the Word bookshop. In a way it echoes It’s a Sin perfectly, documenting a time that seems so far removed from now, but is also painfully relatable.
“It’s literally like someone’s taken a mirror and put it up to the conversations that people are having now, they’re waxing on about exactly the same things that we discus right now. Times do change, and things do progress. And yet some things do just last as the same.”
It’s a Sin premieres on Channel 4 at 9pm. All five episodes will be available to stream on All 4 immediately after.