Callum (Callum Scott Howells): “No.”
NPH: “But would there be if you could?”
NPH: “You don’t have to worry about me, I’m not remotely interested.”
For American actor Neil Patrick Harris, all it took was an email from Welsh screenwriter Russell T. Davies for him to say he was interested in a role in Davies’ new series.
“I am entranced by him,” Harris said. “He has an uncanny ability to create characters that you want to know more about immediately. You want to keep talking with him for hours. Like, I want to go on a road trip with Russell T. Davies. He’s kind of miraculous.”
The five-part drama, “It’s a Sin,” airs in the U.S. on HBO Max. USA Today called it “easily the best series of 2021 so far.” But some of the British TV channels that were first pitched the idea weren’t convinced a series about the early days of the U.K.’s AIDS crisis could find an audience.
“There’s a problem with a drama about AIDS: That’s a tough sell, when you can go watch a detective drama, and have a good time, you know?” Davies said.
As the show’s writer and producer, Davies didn’t only want to explore the impact of a once-mysterious and deadly disease had on a generation of gay men, but also the shame that surrounded it.
Correspondent Imtiaz Tyab asked, “When did you realize this was a story you needed to tell?”
“Well, I lived through those years,” he replied. “I was 18 in 1981, just like those characters. So, in a way, the story’s been ticking away ever since I lived through those decades and seen those experiences.”
Based loosely on the people in his own life, Davies imagined a group of gay men and their closest friends living carefree days and nights in London as the epidemic starts spreading across the world in 1981.
Given all we know about HIV/AIDS today, it’s easy to forget the ignorance and fear rampant in those early days. Davies reminds us, people simply had no idea: “Because it sounds so incredible: A disease that affects only gay men? Only gay men who are having sex?”
HIV and AIDS rarely makes the headlines today, which may explain why “It’s a Sin” has sparked conversations across Britain, and beyond, like never before.
Davies said, “It’s fascinating, isn’t it? I was not expecting that. But the big shock to me were the people who were there at the time who had no idea that it was happening on the scale or this ferocity and with this maliciousness, that to see people being shocked was shocking in itself.”
Harris said, “I’ve talked to people who said their takeaway from ‘It’s a Sin’ was that they knew nothing about this at all, and that has encouraged them to learn more about it.”
“It’s a Sin” also made an impact with audiences in another entirely unexpected way; shortly after it first aired, HIV testing soared across the U.K. “They say that testing quadruped, and that’s amazing,” said Davies.
One of the biggest fans and most vocal supporters of the series is legendary musician and AIDS activist, Elton John. “He just saw it and loved it,” said Harris. “All of a sudden, I’m getting texts from him, he’s trying to Facetime me. I’m doing interviews for the show and it just keeps, Facetime, Facetime requests.”
Tyab asked, “What’s it like Facetiming with Elton John?”
“So weird!” he laughed.
Harris, who came out as gay in 2006, acts alongside a largely LGBTQ cast.
Tyab asked Davies, “All the gay characters are portrayed by gay actors. Important to you?”
“It’s very important to me. Right now, in life, in the world – not always, but right now, 2021 – that vibe is one of authenticity. Anyone disagreeing will me will say, ‘But it’s acting, it’s just acting.’ To which I say, ‘Yes, visibly. ‘Cause if you’re casting someone, you’re casting them to be honest and true and real. So, why not cast the gay person? You’re already ten steps closer to the truth.'”
Still, the emotional glue that holds the friendships of the gay leads together is a straight character called Jill, portrayed by London-born actor Lydia West.
“All of the boys are just so beautiful inside and out, and yeah, they’re all just so perfectly cast,” she said. “I think we kind of balanced this, like, dreadful, dark depiction of a period, ’cause it was such an amazing time as well, of just a fluidity and color and openness and that’s what we wanted to show. We wanted to really just shine a light on these amazing lives that burned so brightly, way too soon.”
The series sees Jill morph from carefree best friend, to caregiver and formidable ally.
“She’s not perfect,” West said. “She kind of goes through stages with her friends when she gets very annoyed at them, and she wants them to grow up and be smart.”
For those familiar with Russell T. Davies’ work, “It’s a Sin” may seem like a logical step – among many programs, he is known as the creator of the original “Queer as Folk” series, and also for the revival of the legendary “Dr. Who” science fiction show. “So, in terms of the things that I love, there’s gay men and Dr. Who!” he laughed. “They are both vast in my life. And it’s what I write well, frankly. I write them well.”
For Davies, if “It’s a Sin” has accomplished anything, it’s to shine a light on a dark chapter that’s been fading from memory, and to give a voice back to those lost far too early: “One of the beautiful reactions to the show is that a lot of families have come forward re-writing their pasts, saying, ‘My uncle, who died of cancer in 1985, that was an AIDs death, and we’re proud of him.’
“It’s been the most moving thing.”
To watch a trailer for “It’s a Sin” click on the video player below:
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Story produced by Jay Kernis and Jane Whitfield. Editor: Steven Tyler.