- Words Solly Warner
- Photography Joseph Sinclair
- Stylist Krishan Parmar
- Grooming Maria McKenna using Fudge Professional and Illamasqua
Callum Scott Howells is the young actor we all need to watch this year as he stars in Russell T Davies' new series, 'It's A Sin'.
All eyes on Callum Scott Howells. Fresh out of the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama, Callum takes on his first major role in, multi-BAFTA Award-winning writer, Russell T Davies’s new drama ‘It’s A Sin’.
Set in the early 1980s, the show follows three boys as they begin their new life in London. Years & Years frontman Olly Alexander plays his family’s golden boy Ritchie Tozer, newcomer Omari Douglas plays party lad Roscoe Babatunde, with Callum playing Colin Morris-Jones, a quiet, unassuming, young man from Wales, about to become an apprentice on the famous Savile Row.
We follow these young men and their ever-changing lives that are pushed to the limit and beyond, along with their friends, lovers and families too. Sepcial importance is placed on the straight-talking best friend Jill, played by Lydia West, who galvanises them in the battles to come. Strangers at first, we see the characters grow together as the rise of the AIDS crisis unfolds. Each episode charts the joy, determination and heartbreak of this group as they endure the horrors of the epidemic across a decade in which everything changed. Every story highlights the pain of rejection and the prejudices that gay men faced during this time.
Tackling important LGBTQ+ subjects and stories, this is a show that remembers those that were lost and celebrates those lives that burned so brightly. It is therefore rightly one of the most anticipated dramas this year. ‘It’s A Sin’ premieres today at 9pm on Channel 4 with all five episodes available to stream on All4 and HBO Max after that.
Before his breakout TV role, Callum racked up extensive theatre experience, having toured with Cameron Mackintosh’s production of the hit musical, ‘Oliver!’, Matthew Bourne’s dance production ‘Lord of the Flies’, and as part of several National Music Youth Theatre shows. To add to his impressive CV, the Welsh actor was also recently cast as Romeo in Gary Owen’s brand-new play ‘Romeo and Julie’, based on the Shakespeare classic which was a co-production with the National Theatre and the Sherman Theatre, Cardiff. However, the production has been postponed until further notice due to the pandemic.
Notion caught up with Callum to chat about all things ‘It’s A Sin’, what he hopes people take away from the show.
And away we go. How are you Callum?
Yeah, not too bad. Not too bad. If my dog jumps up at anytime, I’m really sorry. He’s a little puppy.
That’s quite all right!
But yeah, it should be fine. If he does bark, I’m really really sorry.
No worries at all. So, is everything well with you? I saw your Gay Times cover recently that was pretty cool.
Yeah, it was it was so cool. It was really really cool. Because it was the first sort of thing to kind of come out to do with the show. So yeah, it was a lot. It was really emotional actually. Because it’s been almost a year now since we wrapped. It’s been a long time coming in terms of the show coming out.
Well, I was going to say, first of all, congratulations on your first major role since graduating. I’m sure the time that’s passed from getting the role, to filming, to now, has been pretty crazy?
It has! Crazy in every sense of the word. If it’s not graduating it’s, you know, Coronavirus. It’s absolutely bloody mad. I feel like we’ve all had something in the pipeline, and then it’s been postponed until 2027. You know? Like, it’s just mad.
Definitely. So I just want to jump right into the show –
Have you seen it?!
Yes, I have! I’ve watched it over the last two days. I’ve got through it very quickly!
Oh my god! Bless you. That’s mad. Are you okay? It’s a lot.
Just before this chat, my colleague said, “how much did you cry?” and I said quite a lot!
I bet you were like “I didn’t f*cking cry at all! It was sh*t!”
No, no, no. I genuinely was! But no, it was great. As a young person that wasn’t alive during the AIDS crisis of the 80’s, it may have been hard to grasp the gravity of this matter. How did you go about understanding the seriousness of the subject?
I think I started off by literally just looking at videos. I wanted visuals. My way of accessing stuff for me that I’m aware of or unfamiliar with is just by watching real things at the time. So, I’d watch things like the Larry Grayson show or something like Margaret Thatcher’s inalienable right to be gay speech, and things on section 28. I watched a really amazing documentary called Horizon. Well, I mean, it was a series of things. But there was an episode called “Killer in the Village”, which was about basically aids really, really early on in the epidemic, like literally 1980 I think it starts. They didn’t even know what it was. There’s this amazing part where the documentary makers, or the guy who’s obviously the journalist on the documentary, is asked, “what could it be? What could it be?” And he says, “perhaps it’s a virus”. This is how little people knew about it. So, for me I needed to watch stuff like that. Because, you know, we started in 81, where people don’t have a clue. There’s that scene with Neil and he mentions that it could be psittacosis. It wasn’t human what was going on.
No one had any idea. Obviously, the AIDS epidemic is still ongoing and now that the world is experiencing a pandemic with COVID, in a strange way, do you think this is quite a good time for the show to be coming out because people may have more of an understanding and empathy towards the LGBTQ+ community and what they’ve gone through?
I hope so. I really hope so. So, people have some understanding of what it’s like to live in a pandemic now. As a modern society, I feel like we know what it’s like, all too well really. But I think with the AIDS epidemic, it’s really important to me that, it wasn’t it wasn’t affecting everyone. It was affecting really badly the LGBTQ+ community, particularly gay men. Also, there were things like, drug users, that was another part of it. But mainly people call this a “gay disease”.
That’s said a lot in the show as well.
Of course, yeah. There’s that really amazing bit where Valerie (Keeley Hawes) and the Tozer family are all watching the advert.
Yes! It’s crazy.
Where the tombstones come crashing down. You’re just like, “what the f*ck was going on?”
It was like propaganda!
That scene really shook me up because I was thinking “this sort of thing was actually shown on the TV”, and it’s just so incomprehensible!
And we’re still suffering the consequences today because of that stuff. People are homophobic because this propaganda was on the f*cking television. It wasn’t just a poster; it was like a f*cking advert. Imagine watching X Factor or I’m A Celebrity and that coming on in between you just being like, “what the f*ck?”
I know! It’s appalling. Crazy stuff. So, with the show you worked with Russell T. Davies. Were there any particular pieces of advice that you got from him or the rest of the cast that you felt helped you take your role forward?
I think there’s two things that I really remember with Russell. So, there’s a lot of group scenes, particularly early on. We had a week before we started shooting where we spent a lot of time with Russell and Peter, our director, just to talk about, you know, our characters, ourselves and the show and the importance of it. It was it was an amazing week. It was fantastic really, because we just delve straight into it. But Russell said, mainly, “play the joy of it”, because these people at the time had no clue what was going on Solly. Really, they had no clue what was to come, I guess? You know what I mean? They had no clue what was around the corner. So, in that sense, we had to play the joy of it, because people loved the 80s! If I was alive then I would have f*cking loved it! It was an amazing time.
But also, then, in terms of my character, there was a day where we were on set in the Pink Palace, and Russell was there because sometimes he would come to set and watch, and it would be really amazing, and he’d offer up all of his knowledge and his wisdom and all that kind of stuff. I was speaking to him about how there are some quite intense moments and it’s really important. I needed some guidance with some stuff because I really respect what he says. I remember talking to him about a particularly big scene. It was just a classic Russell scene, he just goes in, he doesn’t care. So, I remember Russell said, “just go there”. Colin is 24 by this point and he just goes back to being a child, calling for his “Mommy”.
You can really feel the innocence. It’s a very intense moment. Going back to what you were just saying before, any crisis is obviously devastating, but people often search for a way to find joy in the worst of situations. Can you tell me a bit more about how the even though the show is very sad, there are also some very funny moments in it as well?
Yeah. Well, exactly that, just enjoying those moments. I talked about the psittacosis moment, like what you get in parrots and Colin says, “well, you haven’t got a parrot have you?” and Henry (Neil Patrick Harris) goes, “well of course I don’t have a f*cking parrot!” What is so amazing about Russell’s writing is that one minute it can be really awful and terrifying and then the next, you’re pissing yourself. Russell just loves to ebb and flow into those moods and vibes, and not just in It’s A Sin, in all his dramas. Years and Years was similar. Like, you know, Emma Thompson as Vivienne Rock, she was awful but then also, she was so funny, you know what I mean? You can’t help but laugh. I always look up to him (Russell) and I know I’m not the only one, but I think he’s brilliant like that.
Yeah, and the show needs it, because I think it’s a reflection of the reality of the time, and I’m sure that’s how these people were dealing with these situations. These young people want to be themselves and joke around and still go about their lives.
Yeah, that’s life, right?
Gosh, I mean, literally, I lost my grandparents really early on in COVID right? And basically, it was mad, it was all really awful. But, on the day of the funeral, we had to go to the gates, we weren’t even allowed in the cemetery because only f*cking 10 people were allowed, so obviously, my father went. Literally, we came home, and we were just laughing about stuff. Obviously, it was tragic what happened, but we were like, “well we can’t even get pissed. We can’t even get drunk in the football club!” * Laughs * As humans, I think we find joy in the most awful of things. I feel like that’s what makes us human right? Like it’s w*nky and cheesy but it’s true.
It’s definitely true. Can you talk to me about some of the outfits in the show? You play an apprentice on Savile Row – were you able to learn anything about tailoring? And please tell me you got to keep at least one of those suits!
Oh, I mean, I got to keep one of the ties. The suits were so well fitted. They were amazing. Ian Fulcher, our costume designer on the show, he’s amazing. We love him to bits. It’s worth saying we were all so close. Like everyone, Luana, our set designer, Ian, our costume designer, like we were all just so close. We were like a group because we were doing something that was so important, we felt like we had to all bond. Ian’s amazing but I wish I got to keep one of the suits, but I didn’t. I got to keep a tie and I got to keep, it’s like a frame with all buttons, they’re different buttons so that was really cool. That’s in my bedroom. But yeah, I mean, outfits were amazing. I feel like Colin my character didn’t get to where the really cool 80s stuff. It was a bit simpler because that’s the nature of him. But, oh my gosh, you look at Roscoe, Omari Douglas’ character… Oh my goodness his costumes. There were days where we’d rock up to set and I’d be like “you look amazing!” No one could fit into those costumes quite like Omari. He’s so beautiful.
I know! He looks so tall as well.
Him and Nathaniel (Nathaniel Curtis who plays Ash Mukherjee) are very tall. I was like the little dot. I mean, I’m a little bit shorter than Olly. I’m always the shortest one! I wasn’t the shortest one growing up, but I find myself being more and more the shortest person in the room and it’s really annoying. When I hug people, I tend to be nearer their crotch than their head.
*Laughs* Gosh. Again, as the 80s is obviously an amazing time for music, how important do you think the soundtrack is in the show?
Ah it’s vital, isn’t it? There’s not a scene where there’s not either an amazing Murray Gold score, or an 80s classic. You know, my favourite bit in the whole show is…Could you imagine if I said one of my scenes! * Laughs * It’s the Hooked on Classics song when Olly is basically doing that sex montage in episode 1. Ah I just love it. I absolutely love that bit, not just because I’m a perv. I’m not a perv, it’s the way they’ve timed it all, the sex, the music. That’s my favourite bit in the show, I think because it gives me goosebumps when I watch it.
Staying on the music theme, Olly and Lydia have quite a few scenes where they’re singing together. Was this just a constant thing that was happening on set all the time?
Lydia is amazing, isn’t she? Lydia is not really a singer but she just went in and smashed it. She and Olly – I feel like she and Olly need to be a double act now. I think he needs to leave Years and Years and start something up with Lyd. But yeah, I mean, you know, they were brilliant. That was actually their first day working together. So, their first day working together was working on one of the songs and it was prior to the read-through as well. Olly and Lydia met that day and they just got on like a house on fire. I mean, we all did but Lyds and Ol had to because Ritchie and Jill are like the core of the piece.
Exactly! Now, I know it has been a particularly strange time for young creatives, like yourself, but I guess this year has allowed for some positive time away from usual busy schedules. So, have you been able to spend your time elsewhere over the past few months and discover any new interests or hobbies? Or has it still been quite full on with the shows?
It’s been on and off with the show, really. I did some ADR and some other bits and bobs, but luckily, I’ve been able to switch off from the show, which has been quite nice because it was really intense. It was amazing, but naturally, it was a lot you know? Every bit of it I loved but I came out of it and I went straight back to drama school because I needed to finish. I went and did a play. I went and did two plays. The second play I did, we were in the dress rehearsal and basically someone came on and was like, “guys, lock down. We need to all leave.” So, what we did was, as a year group, we did our plays in front of each other just so we could see each other’s work and then literally Solly, we never went back. I still haven’t been back. It had just gone. Bye! *Laughs* Bye!
I bet that was intense. I’m sure it’s been intense for quite a lot of students because it’s such a big buildup and I think probably especially for people like yourself, investing into plays and spending all that time with other students and your friends and for that to just finish out of nowhere on one day. I bet that’s quite a lot.
It was a lot. It was a lot. I disappeared to the Brecon Beacons for a bit just because I thought this thing was going to last like two weeks and it didn’t, obviously. I went to the Brecon Beacons for like three weeks and it didn’t blow over and whilst I was there, I remember watching Boris’s speech being like, “we are now entering a national lockdown” and I was like, “well, f*cking hell. This is mad.” Then after that, it was crazy, right? That happened and then about two weeks later my grandparents got it, and it just went from zero to a hundred in the space of no time at all.
I guess having this show and knowing how much you’ve invested into it, and how emotional it must have all been to film, I’m sure that’s been something that you’ve been able to look forward to as well.
Definitely! Ah! It’s been the lifeblood of my time during COVID. We’ve all been Whatsapping every day or just talking. We’re really excited. Also, I don’t even want to tell you how much time I’ve spent on my PS4. Like, I love my PlayStation, so it has been intense. I feel like my controllers are about to fall apart. In all seriousness, it’s been great to have the guys, we’ve all been really close.
Just to round things up. What do you hope young people like you and I take away from watching ‘It’s A Sin’?
I hope people acknowledge and understand how difficult it was to be a gay man in the 80s. But also, even still to this day. We’re still suffering the consequences of what happened, of how the government dealt with it. That’s what I hope people understand. I hope people understand that the LGBTQ+ community have been through the wringer. It’s mad, it’s actually mad. So, I really hope people understand that and acknowledge it because I feel like it’s vital in order to really achieve progress, I feel like that needs to happen. Look at the amazing work of the Black Lives Matter movement. It’s sad what happened with George Floyd, it’s horrific. But thank god for Black Lives Matter, that they’ve been able to use this awful event to really try and achieve progress. They are not the same, they are not the same at all. But people need to wise up basically and understand. Look, the series will hopefully tell that in itself, but it was a mad time, and nobody needs to go through any more horrendous things. After this year especially we need all great things to happen. Like Barbara Windsor died! Like what the f*ck! This year has been atrocious. Why did we need that today? What did we do to deserve that?
I know. It seems like we’re just waiting for some sort of big climactic finale.
I literally hope… You know in some Marvel movie where everyone wakes up and everything’s just gone and you’re like “oh my god! We’re free! It’s all over!” I hope it’s like that.
I wish you all the best with the release of the show and any future projects.
Thank you so much.