jamessuttonHollyoaks‘ John Paul McQueen once made up half of one of Attitude‘s favourite ever gay soap couples, but in recent weeks viewers have seen the out teacher played by James Sutton bullied and abused by two of his pupils. The storyline reaches a horrifying climax in tonight’s (Thursday 9th Jan) episode, as 16-year-old Finn O’Connor (Keith Rice) rapes John Paul. Ahead of the episode, we caught up with James to find out more about this incredibly provocative storyline.

Obviously you’ve been on our screens as John Paul again for just over a year now. How are you enjoying being back at Hollyoaks?
Yeah, it’s been great. I’ve really enjoyed coming back, I’d kind of missed it actually. I thought I needed a break and I had a great time at Emmerdale but coming back has been really lovely.

When did you find out about John Paul’s current bullying and male rape storyline?
Bryan Kirkwood, our producer, and I had a meeting where he outlined this big rape and sexual abuse storyline and I thought, “Yeah I’ll have a little bit of that. That sounds exciting.” But I’ve had to wait for a year unfortunately for it all to take shape! I came back and kind of foolishly said I had this massive storyline, and any time John Paul did anything at all people would ask, “Is that supposed to be your big storyline?” And I was like, “No no, it’s coming, it’s coming!”

What can you tell us about the circumstances around the attack?
Well, Finn has punched John Paul’s nana in the street and John Paul finds out and is going to ring the police, so to sort of shut John Paul up Finn decides to take some retribution and that’s how it all happens. I don’t want to give too much away but that’s the premise of it. Finn takes it really far and actually rapes John Paul, to strip away any power that John Paul’s got and emasculate him.

The actual attack is taking place off-screen, but just how difficult is it to tackle this kind of issue in a tea-time show?
J: It’s suggested. I mean, this is something we have to deal with a lot really. We have to work within the confines of our time slot and also the age of our audience. But we do like to tackle stuff that’s important and hard-hitting. We don’t want to just do frothy and light-hearted storylines; we like to do stuff that will push boundaries and make people think. It’s difficult and it’s a fine line because the last thing we want is to get in trouble with Ofcom, but they’ve pulled a blinder with this. It’s really cleverly shot, in a way that manages to convey the distress and horrific-ness of what’s going on without the audience actually seeing anything. A lot of that is gonna be played out in Friday (January 10)’s episode, which is the aftermath and also the more interesting part for me as an actor.

And where will this storyline lead John Paul in the long-term? Is this going to drastically change him as a character?
It’s going to affect him and everybody around him as well. He goes on a kind of path of self-destruction really, which just gets worse and worse and worse. I mean, the stuff that I’m shooting now will go out in May or June and it’s so far removed from what the audience have seen from John Paul so far. He’s almost unrecognisable as a character, the situations he gets himself in. So it’s going to run and run, but I like to think there’ll be some closure at some point.

Are viewers going to see Finn face repercussions? It seems more difficult because he’s a main character and not just some ‘villain’ that’s been brought in for this storyline.
Absolutely. That’s one of our responsibilities as a show, that we show that actions have consequences. Someone can’t get off with something as horrific as that, so somewhere down the line he will face the music, but like you say he’s an important part of the show and a real credit to the show as well. Keith’s a young actor who hasn’t been in the industry long but he’s really thrown himself in and proved what a great actor he is.

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A lot has been made of the fact that Finn is only 16 and also straight: people have asked how he could be able to do this to John Paul? It’s not right for people to call it “gay rape”, is it?
Absolutely. It’s rape – it has nothing to do with sex or sexuality; it’s about power and control. The fact that John Paul’s a gay man isn’t really a factor at all – or that Finn’s straight. Rape can be a gay man on a straight man or a straight man on a gay man, and that’s something we’re really keen to get out there. And secondly, John Paul is frozen by fear. I’ve spoken to people that have gone through this and you do get paralysed by fear, even big, big guys. It doesn’t have to be a big guy that’s doing the deed. It’s horrific, it’s the single worst thing a man can have done to him, and that’s something we’re keen to get across. It doesn’t matter about his size; it’s the situation he puts John Paul in that makes all the
difference.

How much research have you had to do for this storyline? What kind of advice have you been given?
There’s a company in Manchester called Survivors and it’s incredible. Their support centre for victims of sexual assault and rape – specifically men – gave us a wealth of help and advice. My gosh, some of the things they’ve told me are just horrific – men that have taken their own lives because of what’s happened to them, or men that have turned to selling sex on the street because they’ve become so dehumanised to sex. If people are going through this they really need to contact people like Survivors and get help. But it’s a male thing isn’t it – it’s very difficult for men to seek help.

Why do you think male rape is still seen as taboo? Obviously Hollyoaks tackled the issue with Gary Lucy over a decade ago, but many younger viewers won’t know about it and there’s not really been anything similar since.
I think for a lot of men we still have this culture of not dealing with things like that and not talking about things like that. I think that’s why men don’t seek help. They don’t want to be perceived as weak, especially when you’ve gone through something as emasculating as that, that makes you feel so weak and vulnerable. Hopefully this will fire people’s imaginations and I know it’s a cliché but if a couple of people come forward and get help because they’ve seen this storyline, that would be amazing.

It must have been really emotionally draining to film these scenes.
It’s been really difficult. You hear of actors saying they take their work home with them and some of this stuff’s been so heavy. When I get home at night my poor girlfriend has been having to deal with this fucking depressed, grumpy guy sat on the sofa! Bless her. But it’s one of those things, you’ve got to go there and you’ve got to invest in it or it won’t look good. But I am exhausted!

But between this and the John Paul and Craig saga you must be pleased that you’ve been involved in two pretty historic Hollyoaks storylines?
It’s weird, it’s very strange for me. I had such a great run last time – I had such a lovely time. I felt so proud of everything we achieved and I still get people writing to me today saying that they came out because of that storyline, which is incredible for someone like myself to read. A straight 30-year-old actor getting a letter from a 16-year-old gay guy saying “your work changed my life” is huge.

Do people still ask you about Craig in the street?
Oh yeah, fuck yeah! Absolutely. I get it all the time.

Are you still in touch with Guy Burnet?
Yeah, occasionally. He lives in America now so he’s kind of off doing his thing, but yeah. I know people sometimes ask him to come back as well and he’s very coy on the issue, but you never know, maybe in the future. Get the old gang back together! Get Justin Burton back as well, I think he’s off rapping now or whatever he does… Shouldn’t have been rapping anyway! But yeah, it’s been great to come back, even though it’s a mostly different cast now though. We have some real talented actors, some really big names now amongst the older actors.

Yeah it’s a strong cast at the moment. You’ve had Gillian Taylforth come in…
Oh god, I fucking love that woman. I love that woman.

Is she as amazing as she seems?
Honestly, she’s amazing in every single way. She’s just the most warm, lovely person. Jeremy Sheffield as well. I was very excited to work with him, obviously, because of that Natalie Imbruglia video – I mean, Christ, you’d love that on your CV!

And finally, why do you think Hollyoaks has such a great record when it comes to representing LGBT issues and characters on screen?
I don’t know, but it might be to do with our time slot. I often think we have a certain responsibility as well not just to entertain but to educate our audience a little bit. And also because it’s typically a young person’s show – I know that’s a bit of a trite thing to say but it is – but the young people I know are very blasé about sexuality now. Whether that’s down to shows like Hollyoaks or not, people don’t seem as bothered now and that’s exactly how it should be. It’s not a big deal now, and I think we’re a fair reflection of that.

Hollyoaks airs tonight and every week night at 6.30pm on Channel 4.