Why It's a Sin didn't show that final death: 'I know a good twist when I see it'
Creator Russell T. Davies and stars Olly Alexander and Lydia West join EW's The Awardist to talk about their HBO Max limited series. Plus, the packed Emmys supporting drama actor and actress races.
Of all the series Russell T. Davies has created — the original Queer as Folk, Years and Years, A Very English Scandal, the Doctor Who spin-off Torchwood, among them — his most recent is arguably his most personal... because he lived it. HBO Max's It's a Sin isn't a true story, per se, but it is about real events — in this case, how the rise of HIV and AIDS in 1980s England affected a group of young friends in London.
On the latest episode of EW's The Awardist podcast, Davies and stars Olly Alexander (Ritchie) and Lydia West (Jill) reflect on this simultaneously joyful and heartbreaking limited series in which some of the main characters die, though never on camera. And it's all by design.
"I know a good twist when I see it," Davies says of the "narrative trick" he played on the audience. "Within a show about people dying, you need to pull some tricks to keep things buzzy. But actually, it's not just a trick, it's the whole point that this really happened. In real life, this happened countless times — friends and lovers were forbidden to be at the bedside of people who were dying. Families would come in... and, bless them in their grief and their anger, they would handle things wrongly and say the wrong things and do the wrong things, so boyfriends and friends and lovers were not allowed at their bedside. That happened so many times."
He continues, "So the audience goes through a similar experience. That's what it is. You want to be there, you want to hear [their] final words, and you're denied it. And I know people living with that anger and that loss to this day."
Davies says much of this story has been in his head since the early '90s, and here, he gets to say many of the things he always wanted to — like in the climactic moment between Jill (based on Davies' own friend Jill), the central group of gay men's close pal-turned-activist, and Keeley Hawes, who plays Ritchie's angry, confused, grieving, self-righteous mother, Valerie.
"When you have a speech like that, as an actor, you are just so blessed. It's so gorgeous," West says of the emotionally charged scene in the final episode. "At that point in the script there's so much that Jill's been through, and it was amazing to get to that place — and it was very early on in the shoot, but it was a really special moment."
The show awakened long-hushed conversations in the U.K., where a story of this magnitude about the early years of the AIDS epidemic has not been told. The cast says they've been overwhelmed with people sharing stories of their families and friends. It even gave Alexander a chance to reflect on his own life and community.
"I got to fill in all these gaps in my understanding about the culture I had grown up in," the Years & Years singer says of the series' impact on him. "I was born in 1990, right at the end of It's a Sin, and I never really understood how deep the stigma and the pain that happened because of all of this [was], the arrival of HIV and the way it affected communities. It connected a lot of dots for me in a way that I'm so grateful for."
He adds, "I was really scared to find that stuff out, in a way... and I was also scared about the world finding out. Like, 'They're going to talk about it and, oh my gosh, that sounds scary too.' And then, to be so surprised in a good way by the response, how people really wanted to share and engage with this topic in a sensitive way has just been — ahh! — amazing."
Davies says HIV-testing levels increased fourfold in the U.K. following the show's run earlier this year. "Lives were being saved," he says, proud of the unexpected impact It's a Sin has had there. One man has already raised nearly £500,000 (about $695,000) for an HIV/AIDS charity with sales from a T-shirt adorned simply with "La!" — the inside greeting and expression of love the core characters use throughout the series.
"It's been like nothing I've ever seen before — and a lot of that is led by this cast," Davies says, turning his attention to Alexander and West. "You don't have to do this actually — you can say the lines, you can go on, go home, and you can go and make your next thing. And to see all of you actually becoming activists by choice has been magic."
Before our conversation with Davies, Alexander, and West, we break down the very crowded Emmys supporting actor and actress races in the drama categories, featuring several performers from The Crown, The Handmaid's Tale, In Treatment, and Lovecraft Country.
Check out more from EW's The Awardist, featuring Emmys analysis, exclusive interviews, and our podcast diving into all the highlights from the year's TV shows and performances.
- Olly Alexander reflects on how It's a Sin changed his life, and the queer performer he was 'enchanted by'
- It's a Sin star Olly Alexander on that 'heartbreaking' finale, being 'annoyed' by Ritchie, and all those sex scenes
- Years & Years are splitting up, Olly Alexander to continue group as 'solo project'
- How It's a Sin landed a pop star for its lead and why it's so different from other AIDS stories