Olly Alexander reflects on how It's a Sin changed his life, and the queer performer he was 'enchanted by'
After a lauded lead turn in HBO Max's It's a Sin, the artist returns with the single "Starstruck," from his newly solo musical act Years & Years.
Olly Alexander is having a moment.
The 30-year-old singer/actor starred in the critically acclaimed HBO Max limited series It's a Sin, from creator Russell T. Davies, as Ritchie, an aspiring actor in early 1980s London who doesn't necessarily believe in the rise of HIV/AIDS happening all around him and his friends.
Then the Years & Years frontman became the Years & Years onlyman, as the band "grew apart musically," Alexander explains; they split up, but Alexander kept the band name and operates now as a solo project. That was followed by his first single, "Starstruck," a lively synth-pop track with an accompanying music video that featured not one but two Ollys.
In the 10+ years he's been working professionally, he's been able to balance acting and singing, finding creative benefits to both: more control as a singer/songwriter - "You really get to inhabit all those roles if you want to, and express yourself in a way that to me is just so incredible," he says - but a discipline that comes with working on the set of a big production like Sin, not to mention how "playing another character really helps you understand yourself and how you feel about your own identity."
Alexander spoke to EW for our 2021 Pride Issue, where he also looks back on his early queer influences, how It's a Sin changed his life, and why making the documentary Growing Up Gay created an opportunity for a conversation with his mom that he wouldn't have had otherwise.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Let's talk music - given that your single "Starstruck" and the upcoming album is the first solo Olly Years & Years project, do you have a different or specific point of view with this one?
OLLY ALEXANDER: Gosh, honestly, not really because the way I've been making music by myself the last 18 months - and prior to that we had finished the first album, we were making the second album, and we had kind of begun to make music separately, so I was making a lot of the music kind of myself back then. And then over the years, we kind of grew apart musically as a band from when we had started. And nothing bad happened, it just kind of happened naturally. And so when we made the announcement recently, for us it had been a long time coming. And I had all these songs I'd made for the last 18 months, and there was this period over the lockdown where I didn't really know what the situation was going to be, whether we would all stay together as a three or whether I would continue by myself, and we just had to really talk about it and really be honest with each other. I guess I'm always kind of changing as a songwriter but I still feel like I'm the same Olly, so when I wrote "Shine" however many years ago, I still love that song and feel connected to it in the way that I imagine that the songs on this next album are going to kind of be a comparison to.
How does "Starstruck" make you feel? What does it awaken in you?
Good vibes, positivity, no problems, just happiness. I wanted to create this moment of joyful abandon. Especially because it wasn't something that I was necessarily feeling at the time.
What was it like to be performing again and shoot that music video, after all of those months in quarantine?
I have to say I was really nervous to make this music video because we had a lot of limitations due to a number of different reasons - COVID, timing, schedules, all of that stuff - and the idea changed lots of times, and we ended up going with me performing a whole lot for the video. I was more nervous than I anticipated - I had just come off having shot [It's a Sin] over a year ago but a music video, it feels like a different challenge and I wanted to be iconic so I put a lot of pressure on myself. But it actually was a really fun experience and I was really happy to be doing my job again.
What's the first performance you saw by a queer artist, or with queer appeal, that stuck with you?
It was a Perfume Genius performance, and it really blew me away. I watched it online - I think it was for a TV show. It was the way he moved and the way he performed that I was just so enchanted by, and I've loved his music ever since. I [also] remember being in Soho for London Pride [around] 2009 and there being a stage in Soho Square and seeing drag performers. It was quite revolutionary to me.
Was it a conscious decision to embrace your queerness and sexuality as part of your musical identity, or did that happen naturally?
I definitely say it was an evolution because when I first started writing songs, I had no idea what I wanted to say. I [was] 11 years old at this point. [Laughs] And as time goes on, you figure out what your voice is, and identity develops and grows. I do remember the first time I referred to another man in a song - in "Real," on our first album, Communion - and that did feel like a choice because I remember thinking, [is] somebody going to say anything about this? But, of course, no one said anything but I was kinda worried someone might. But once I had done that I was like, "There's no going back." I liked the way it felt.
You mentioned playing around with music at age 11, but your professional career actually kicked off with acting in a TV movie, you were on Skins and Penny Dreadful and Great Expectations, and you were Peter Pan in a West End production. So, how does acting fulfill you in ways that music doesn't, and vice versa?
Oh, well, when you get to write the song, you're the director, the writer, the star performer. You really get to inhabit all those roles if you want to, and express yourself in a way that to me is just so incredible. And I get to have a lot of control over that. I'm lucky that I get to do that. Whereas, as an actor, you're really inhabiting someone else, even though it's so personal, but you're being someone else and you're usually doing someone else's work and helping their vision or helping the collective vision create something, which is an amazing process too. So I was so happy - because I've been on the road touring for five, six years - that I got to do It's a Sin; that kind of discipline and working on such a big team like that, on a script like that, for a show like that, was such an amazing experience. And I got all this other stuff from it - playing another character really helps you understand yourself and how you feel about your own identity, and it was such a great experience, so I just feel lucky. I just want to keep doing both.
Between the U.K. and U.S. airings of It's a Sin, you got to talk to people about it a lot. But now that it's in the rearview mirror a bit, do you have a new perspective on it based on audience reaction rather than just the perspective you perhaps had from playing Ritchie? Are you able to fully see yet what being part of It's a Sin means to you?
I don't think I have properly processed it, to be honest. Also, the lockdown has kind of made things all feel extremely surreal. For me, making the show was honestly a life-changing experience - playing that character, getting the chance to tell that story, engaging with an issue like HIV, which is so personal to a community that I'm a part of - and it changed my life, it really did. And then, a year it was released into the world and it seemed to have a similar effect on a lot of other people. And there's a lot of trauma that gets re-earthed at that point, there's a lot of difficult conversations that happen, and I'm still kind of processing those and still having them, if I'm honest. It's not something that I think is going away, which is a good thing. I'm happy that it will continue because it's shown me that this era in history is not only totally misunderstood, but there's a huge willingness for people to talk about where we are now and the stigma that still persists now and where we're going from all generations
This seems like something that people will be asking you about 20 years from now.
Yeah, exactly! Which is great.
It seems like music is your priority and focus right now, but are you getting a lot of acting offers?
[Laughs] I have had a few scripts sent my way. It's so, so good to say that. [Laughs] But really, it's gonna be so hard to top that experience... It was so fun and I would love to have another experience doing something else, for sure. I just don't know what it's gonna be yet.
I don't remember which social media platform I saw this on recently, but I came across your speech from Glastonbury Festival a few years ago, and you were talking about the importance of honoring the history of LGBTQ people and how progress in this community also means fighting racism, sexism, bigotry, climate change, all of that. I'm wondering a couple of things: Was that a one-off moment and speech, or was that something that was part of your shows and that tour? And why was it important for you to use your platform to say that?
Well, I had played Glastonbury twice before, and each time it had fallen around Pride Month, around the same time as London Pride. So, the first time we played, I just said a few words about Pride, because I was missing it in London and I said, "Happy Pride" and, like, "Showing love to all the LGBTQIs in the audience." And then the next year, or it might have been the following year, it was a similar time of the year and I just felt like I wanted to say something. It had been a really crazy year for the world and I remember the Orlando shootings had happened and we were in a Trump presidency and Brexit and all of that stuff, and it felt like if you aren't saying something and you're being silent, then...I just wasn't willing to kind of do that, I wanted to say something. And then the following year, it was like a tradition now that I'm saying something at Glastonbury, and this is the biggest stage of my life. "This is the biggest audience I may ever play to, so what are you going to say, Olly? You've got to say something." So I did. [Laughs]
The last thing I want to talk about here is the documentary that you made, Growing Up Gay, where you were very open about your mental health struggles. And a lot of other LGBTQ people, of course, feature as well talking about that. What for you was the most satisfying aspect of making that documentary?
There are so many things about making it, but one thing - and you see in the documentary - is that I got to have a conversation with my mom, that I needed to have basically, that I'd never asked her before the way she felt about me, or had she known I was gay. These questions I had been holding on to. And she was really honest with me, and I wouldn't have had that without the documentary. So I'm really thankful for that. And also the people that I met through it... it was just such a beautiful experience to meet them. When we made it, I knew that mental health was an issue that needed to be talked about, especially within the LGBTQ community, but I didn't know if an audience would connect with that or if they would want to, if they would even agree, but the response showed me that it definitely is something that still needs to be addressed and talked about. We've seen mental health be a part of the discussion everywhere, and it really needs to be, so I'm glad that it's a part of that. People still message me and say they've watched it and it's helped change something for them or it's encouraged them to talk about something or something's moved them about it, so I'm still happy that's happened.
To read more from EW's 2021 Pride Issue, order the June issue of Entertainment Weekly - with covers featuring Lil Nas X, Mj Rodriguez, Bowen Yang, and Lena Waithe - or find it on newsstands now. Don't forget to subscribe for more exclusive interviews and photos, only in EW.