Pictures: Channel 4
Olly Alexander may be best known as frontman of synth pop trio Years & Years - but his acting work stretches way back. The out gay 30-year-old's film roles, for example, include Bright Star (2009) and Le Week-End (2013), while his TV credits include Skins (2013) and Penny Dreadful (2014).
However, for Olly, the starring role dreams are made of has arrived in 2021: he plays Ritchie Tozer, a sex-mad gay man in 80s London, in Russell T Davies' drama It's A Sin, launching tonight on Channel 4.
Here, the 'King' singer reveals all about his complicated new character, working with Bodyguard's Keeley Hawes and new a new Years & Years era (which kicked off today with this Pet Shop Boys cover...)
Tell us about your character, Ritchie...
Richie's born and raised on the Isle of Wight. He's one of those kids who wants to get out of his small town and escape to London as soon as he can. He's very ambitious, likes to be the centre of attention.
What was it about IAS that drew you back to acting?
Hearing that Russell was making something new was enough for me. Russell's such an iconic voice in British storytelling, especially queer storytelling, and I would have done anything to work with him. And that was before I'd even read the script.
The drama is set almost 40 years ago – what do you think young people today might be able to take from IAS?
At its heart, the story is so universal. Anyone that's ever experienced growing up or falling in love, having their heart broken, can empathise with what all these characters go through. Also, I personally have realised how many people are unaware of this specific moment of history and how people were treated, the lives that were impacted.
I think it's going to be quite eye opening for a lot of people. Just speaking as a gay man, it's a really important part of our queer history, and that we share it. And I think it's really helpful to understand some of the ways in which homophobia has persisted and the ways in which the Aids crisis really, really impacted such a huge community. And in many ways the legacy still remains today, and I think it helps shed some light on a really complicated issue that doesn't get spoken about very much.
Keeley Hawes plays your mum. How was that?
It was so fun because Keeley's such a pro and an amazing actor and just to watch her and be across from her during scenes was so entertaining, but also incredibly valuable for me as an actor. I think the part she plays is very complicated. Ritchie's mom, Valerie, is a complicated woman. I think she just does it so brilliantly.
There’s a real “gang” at the heart of the drama – did you become as tight-knit off-camera?
Absolutely not! Only joking! It was instantaneous. When we met each other, we really did fall in love. I was surprised at how quickly we all bonded. I think all of us, we were such a gang, you know, and we still chat to each other all the time.
The drama doesn’t flinch from some of the more challenging, unvarnished realities of the people’s experiences and responses to the virus during the time. Was that particularly challenging to play, as an actor?
I think it's so exciting to play a character that is so complicated and makes choices that surprise the audience and which surprised me reading it. Ritchie's response to the Aids crisis, his attitude and the way Russell portrays him, is so important because lots of people felt like that. Ritchie's is not necessarily a voice you would expect to hear in a TV show about this topic.
But Ritchie's whole life is led by fear, and a deep shame, and he's hiding so much from himself, from his friends, from his family. And to cover all of that up, he's decided to be the funniest, best looking person in the room. He thinks if he can make people smile, get into bed with a boy, if he can get on stage do a great performance, if he can shine in this way then he can overcome all the other stuff that he's hiding, and that I 100% related to. I just know what that feels like.
I myself am a performer and I'm gay, and I've tried to think about my own shame and how that's been internalised. And I thought to myself, well it could have manifested at a different time and in another way and I would have been Ritchie. So, it was this wild process, and it really was kind of life-changing.
On the flipside, there’s a huge amount of joy and fun imbued throughout the drama – which is unusual among many other works which have explored the Aids crisis. What do you think this dimension adds to the experience of making and watching IAS?
I think that's a really, really beautiful decision on Russell's part. I think the moments of defiance and euphoria, amidst the loss and pain, is so well done. This period of time for a lot of people was so hard, but I think it's the moments of joy that come to define it. It's the resistance and the willingness for people to live on. And I think it's really important to celebrate that. And that's what I love so much about the show, that it really does breathe joy in life into a lot of these people. We want to remember the moments of joy and the moments where people pulled together and celebrate it.
What do you think a period drama like IAS can do for today’s LGBTQ+ community today?
Art has a huge capacity to change people's hearts and minds. I hope that the show encourages a conversation, and I hope that it brings some issues to a new audience, across queer audiences as well as straight audiences. And I think it will be a good opportunity to have some conversations between those groups. First and foremost, I hope people are moved by it. I think it will mean different things to different people too. I think we just need more queer stories, more queer storytellers.
We’re living through a global virus pandemic. Are there any parallels you could draw between what happened during the Aids epidemic of the 80s and the current coronavirus pandemic?
I was so amazed how the spread of misinformation and of rumours is just the same as 40 years ago. I was actually genuinely shocked by that. When the pandemic first started being reported and people were spreading all these rumours, saying it came from this place, or it did this, or this is how you got rid of it, or you could use bleach...all of this crazy, crazy stuff, I was just like, "I can't believe what I'm reading.”
I think there's a lot that it says about human beings too. I just can't help but think of the inaction, and the poor response that happened with the Aids crisis. It took so long to really find out what it was and why it was affecting communities in the way that it did, and then even longer for any treatment or prevention. And demonising people too. Why is it that human beings have this knee-jerk response to blame someone or to demonise people? And that you saw that exactly with Aids and with Covid. It's really upsetting.
You’re working on some new music for Years and Years. Can we expect 80s influence?
Yeah, it really has influenced it. In a big way. And I'm kind of annoyed because I see other people kind of doing that at the moment. I'm like " No! No, you're not allowed!" I need to hurry up and bring the music out. Because I'll tell you what, the music in the 80s is phenomenal, but it was really the spirit of those songs that got played in the clubs and on the dancefloor, and the spirit of crying, of dancing through the pain, and I really feel like this era epitomised that and that's just so inspiring, and that really inspired me in the studio for sure.
It’s A Sin premiere this Friday 22 January at 9pm on Channel 4. All episodes will be available to watch as a boxset on All4 immediately afterwards. For the full version of this interview, visit Channel 4.
The Attitude 101 February issue featuring 101 LGBTQ trailblazers is out now.