It's a Sin star Olly Alexander on that 'heartbreaking' finale, being 'annoyed' by Ritchie, and all those sex scenes
The Years & Years singer breaks down the pivotal moments of the new HBO Max limited series from writer-creator Russell T. Davies.
Warning: This article contains spoilers about the HBO Max series It's a Sin.
Olly Alexander's biggest role until now has been as lead singer for the past decade of the British synth-pop band Years & Years. The 30-year-old's musical talent is undeniable — his soaring, signature vocals and magnetic stage presence make him one of the more unique artists at the moment.
While he has had small roles in other projects, his performance in It's a Sin is a revelation on a whole other level. Alexander stars as Ritchie in the HBO Max limited series, which debuted Friday. Written and created by Russell T. Davies, who's also behind the original Queer as Folk, 2019's Years and Years (HBO), and is a former Doctor Who showrunner, the five-episode series chronicles a decade in the lives of a group of friends in London during the rise of the AIDS epidemic — from their jobs and career aspirations, to their social and love lives, and the devastation of the virus' spread.
Alexander's Ritchie is an aspiring actor who's determined to live his best life, though — HIV be damned. Even with loss all around him, and hiding his sexuality at every turn because of the discrimination — not to mention its illegality at the time in Britain — that comes with it, he feels invincible, unwilling in many ways to accept the magnitude of its destruction. He's not exactly a denier, but he's also not someone who's going to let it get in the way of his hopes and dreams.
Ahead, Alexander explains his attraction to the role and how he related to Ritchie in many ways, the moments that changed Ritchie and redefined his outlook on life, the lingering feeling he still has about a scene he wasn't even in, all of those sex scenes, and more.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: This has aired in the U.K. on a weekly basis before hitting HBO Max here, so what has the reaction been like? What kind of comments are you getting from viewers? What are people saying and sharing with you?
OLLY ALEXANDER: Oh my gosh, it's such a range. It brings up such an emotional response from people, and right from people who were there at the time that have no real idea this had happened — because so much of it happened in silence, and so much of it was brushed under the carpet. And then you have younger people who have no idea that this happened — they are completely shocked that gay people were treated this way. So there's a real range, and I've seen a lot of people having conversations between family members and parents watching the show, and then kids watching the show. It's been amazing to see it. I think it's really started a conversation here. It's kind of blown my mind.
Before this script and everything came to you, where were you in that range of how much you knew versus how much you then started to dig in to learn more about this time period?
I would say I was somewhat familiar with this area of history through some books I really love. I read Sarah Schulman, People in Trouble, and Dancer From the Dance by Andrew Holleran. I'd love some works on TV. But it had kind of taken me a long time to get to that place because before that, I had really had this fear to even go towards HIV and AIDS, and I kind of inherited this, like, fear from when I would come to terms with my own sexuality, about what it was, and I was scared. So I think it was kind of a gradual process. And then when I met Russell for the TV show, and I read the script, it was such an amazing opportunity to really intimately engage with it because there were so many gaps in my understanding and gaps in my knowledge about what happened and how it affected different communities and also the specific British context. And I grew up in this country in the wake of this crisis, and so it had a direct impact on my growing up. So it's been really eye-opening in so many ways, and I just continued to learn more and more.
When I spoke with Russell a few weeks ago — and we even talked about this in the SCAD aTVfest panel (video above) — he said that in the first 10 seconds of your audition, he knew you were Ritchie. What was it on the page that you felt you connected with so quickly or easily, or convincingly?
Well, what I love about Ritchie is he has this irrepressible spirit, and he is so driven; he's so ambitious. When he finally admits to himself he wants to be an actor, there's nothing that's gonna stop him. He's got big, big, big dreams, and he's got real determination — and that was exactly the same as me at 18. I was so driven to make a name for myself, and I really saw that in Ritchie's character. But I also saw the way he hid a lot of things from himself and the people around him. I really related to that, too, in a different way in my own life, but I also understood how a lot of queer people do that. I really related to that kind of shame that drove Ritchie to do things. I kind of know a bit about how that feels.
I have plenty of serious things to talk to you about here but I have to ask... that entire montage of Ritchie's sexcapades, if you will — was that "1812 Overture" playing during that?
Well, it was "Hooked on Classics." But, yes, it samples that. [Laughs]
Ah, okay. The fact that the whole thing was set to classical music was kind of brilliant. Music typically comes much later so I assume you had no idea what was going to be playing when you were filming all of that, but once you saw the final cut...
Well, that was always in the script, so actually, it was playing when we were filming. [Laughs] There was a whole kind of timing to it all, and also the energy and the fun, sort of silly nature to it helped. It's also helpful as an actor to just laugh and kind of break the ice with other performers. But yeah, all the music in the show, Russell pretty much [had] in the script. Russell was very specific about what he wanted.
Very smart. And then did you just have a day or two of wardrobe changes and different guys rotating in to film these quick bits?
Yeah, basically. Yeah, it was about six weeks into the schedule; I had two days back to back where it was just sex scenes. And I was exhausted. [Laughs]
Understandably so! [Laughs] Okay, so back to the serious stuff I mentioned. At the end of that first episode, given the subject matter, the audience knows what's coming and how deadly this virus is. These characters don't, of course. So when we see them talking about where they want to be in five or 10 years, even though they're filled with such hope and joy, there is an underlying heartbreak to it. Do you view that question — "Where do you see yourself in five or 10 years?" — differently now, having been in this and experienced Ritchie's life? Is it more about being in the present, or is that still a fair question and something you think about?
Personally, I don't feel that way any longer. I definitely used to. And this was another thing I really related to with Ritchie when he kind of plans [for the future]. In episode 3, he's talking to Donald and he says, "I've got it all planned out. I'm going to transition to movies, I'm going to do this and..." I was like that. I had a real plan. And I think sometimes you need that and that can really do you a wonderful thing. But, yeah, now I feel just really in a different place and blessed to just experience the day-to-day I'm having. But you're right, that's such a beautiful scene for all the characters.
I want to talk about some of the other characters and how they relate to Ritchie's life and experience. Callum Scott Howells as Colin, when he dies and everyone finds out, Ritchie hangs back from the group and is just sitting on the floor...that was really tough to watch. Take us into that moment and how it alters Ritchie.
Oh, my gosh, that scene is when Ritchie realizes his life is gonna have to really change. Everything. He cannot ignore it. Because even right up to the end, Ritchie doesn't really know Colin much. He's just too involved in his own mind and other things. He just doesn't think he's that important until it's too late. That's one of the things that makes me so annoyed with Ritchie, but it all changes for him once Colin dies. It's such a huge moment in the show. And honestly, when I first met Callum, who plays Colin, the first day I was just... he is such a natural star. Everything that comes out of his mouth is gold. You laugh. And he is such a wonderful actor at the same time. I was just like, I can't wait for the world to see you. And the same with the rest of the cast — it's a real ensemble show, and everyone is just really brilliant in it. I think what's great is you see the dynamics of the friendships change so much in such interesting ways. I love that about the group of friends, how they all kind of treat each other in different ways and they grow with each other towards the end, and I think that's really beautiful.
Let's talk about Ritchie's boyfriend, Donald, who you mentioned. Ritchie sees that spot on his back. He's been in denial and a bit reckless until that point. So in that moment, what was going through Ritchie's head? Fear? Betrayal? Accepting his fate?
It's where the cracks are really, really getting bigger. For a long time, he kinda believes he's invincible, and then it starts to get more and more apparent that he's not. But seeing what he thinks is [a spot caused by HIV], but maybe it's not — it's a Kaposi sarcoma, a lesion — that's kind of chilling for Ritchie. That was a turning point for him too. He never sees Donald again — he can't face him, and he just dropped him. [Sighs] Yeah.
The episode with Jonny Green as Martin, Ritchie's old friend whom he drunkenly confesses his love to — there's so much going on here. Ritchie was working up to tell his family that he's gay, then he gets in the fight with them and leaves; he goes to the bar and basically starts self-medicating with alcohol. Break all of that down for me and its importance in the bigger picture.
I was definitely apprehensive or nervous to shoot all those scenes because it's such a pivotal moment in the show. But what was amazing was, we managed to shoot in sequence for a lot of this, whereas most of the show we weren't able to. So these scenes where I'm working up to speak to Martin we shot in sequence. Jonny is an amazing actor, so it was really fun. [Throughout the show], a lot happens in a lot of the scenes. But then there are also the scenes which really relax into the dialogue, but they are sparing. And when they happen, the writing is just so gorgeous, and as an actor, you want to get that right, but I remember doing that scene on the beach with Martin — this really, really long scene, just the two of us talking and it was probably the longest takes we did in the show, just talking to each other. But it was amazing to be able to do it like that because it just felt real — this is a real situation and Ritchie was really on the edge, and I just remember trying to... get it right. [Laughs] Yeah.
Lydia West as Jill — I think everyone needs a Jill in their lives. She's a best friend to everyone; she's a mother-figure when one is needed. She's a volunteer for a hotline, answering calls and talking to gay men scared of coming out or HIV-positive and need help. She organizes protests. And she's based on Russell's real-life friend, Jill. Tell me about creating that dynamic and how important that relationship was to you?
Anybody that means Lydia would say the same because she's joyful, positive, funny. She's just so fun to be around; she makes everyone around her happy. She is just one of those people — I can't describe it. She makes everyone happy on set — she comes in, and everyone lights up. And as a group, we all just clicked straight away... that's kind of an element of luck. And Jill, she does so much. She really bears such a large burden throughout the whole show. I think you see through Lydia's performance how she can really shoulder that and how much it takes for her to take that on. And you see her journey towards the end; she's been through so much, she's given so much of her life to taking care of people — I think it's a really amazing performance from Lydia. That character really touches people because where would we be without that person in our lives? Nowhere. We'd be nowhere. And they don't always get the gratitude and the thanks that they deserve. I think a lot of people are kind of recognizing that.
Let's get into those finale scenes with her. You are not in those scenes but you know what's in the script — what did you think when you watched the showdown, for lack of a better word, between Jill and Ritchie's mom? And Keeley Hawes, by the way, is just phenomenal in this. But tell me about the first time you watched the end.
I get chills thinking about it now because there's so much at stake, and there's so much at play in that moment. You're watching two performers just absolutely smash it out of the park. I remember watching it the first time, and I still feel an element of grief because they were hoping to get closure with Ritchie, and that got taken away from them, and that is just so heartbreaking. That's what Ritchie wanted, and he didn't get to have it. And that's the moment...it just [gasps] took my breath away. It's interesting to me — a lot of people have different reactions to that scene, and for Jill, it's the culmination of this lifetime of just this crazy experience she's lived, this crazy life she's lived, and it's now coming out at Ritchie's mom, and his mom has been so unable to see what happened to her son and she's been so blinded by shame and fear that she's just about to sort of maybe make the bridge to Jill, but she can't quite get there. There's so much humanity, I think, in her performance, and it just breaks my heart every time. [Sighs] It breaks my heart.
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