Omari Douglas on It’s A Sin, the 1980s era drama about AIDS and the euphoric joy of queer love
WRITING: ELIE CHIVI
In the first episode of It’s A Sin, Roscoe Babatunde (Omari Douglas) cusses out his unsupportive parents, who are on the verge of shipping him off to Nigeria, while wearing a mini skirt and sparkly eyeshadow. It’s amongst the first impressions we get of this exuberant character at the heart of a buzzy new miniseries depicting the lives of a group of gay men and women living in London during the HIV/AIDS crisis in the 1980s. It’s A Sin, which is from Russel T. Davies (creator of the seminal ‘90s gay series Queer as Folk) oscilates bewteen the joy and pain of that period – from sexy club nights to police protests. Co-starring alongside Olly Alexander, lead singer of the synth pop trio Years & Years and Neil Patrick Harris, Omari Douglas is It’s A Sin’s scene stealer. Here, he joins us over Zoom to chat about gay culture in the eighties, sharing scenes with the legendary Stephen Fry and what clothes he got to keep from set.
There’s something quite special about having a show about queer people, made by queer people – we don’t get that often. And you can tell there’s amazing chemistry between you cast. What was it like on set?
Omari Douglas: Pure unfiltered joy. This show is such a roller coaster and we didn’t film anything chronologically either so the days were just up, down, up, down, up, down, but we were so close. Sometimes you get into your little bubble when working and you enjoy the chemistry and then you leave the set and then everyone parts ways. But this definitely feels like a lasting friendship. And I’m just so grateful that we’ve been able to connect via something so important and I’d like to think that some of the enjoyment that people have found in the show is also because they’ve related to our friendship.
It’s A Sin was created by Russel T. Davies, who also made Queer as Folk, which so many Millennials watched growing up (likely in secret). Did you also watch it as you were coming out or were you too young?
Omari Douglas: I remember the adverts and it feeling scandalous like a lot of television that I remember growing up that any gay storylines were kind of scandalous. And I always remember people talking about on soaps like Coronation Street or East Enders, and there was a show called Footballers Wives – as soon as there was even a mention of a glimmer of a gay character or a gay storyline, you were going to know about it and that’s where my eyes were certainly drawn to. I was like, what’s going on here? This seems a little bit naughty, a little bit odd, but, then naturally you just kind of go, oh, something’s going on here. How does this relate to me?
The show is set in the late eighties and early nineties, which is such a seminal time for queer culture. Did you do a lot of research on those years?
Yeah. There were two really distinct worlds really, and I guess that was the world of the virus, and how it played out in the U.K. that really stood out to me because it’s such a significant moment in British history. And I don’t think that it’s ever acknowledged in the same way as other moments in history. I think about being at school and learning about the Battle of Hastings in 1066, and that’s all fair and well, but what about the fact that this huge crisis happened in the eighties and there’s real lasting effects on our current lives. Reading about how it played out and how it was neglected was completely shocking to me. But then on the other hand, there’s also this world of incredible cultural innovation and amazing music. I just kind of wish I could have been on the dance floor just to experience what everyone was experiencing then in terms of the euphoria you got in the club. I just love all of that.
I was shocked to learn that this was your first screen role and to have so many scenes with the iconic Stephen Fry. What that was like for you?
It was so fun! Before we started shooting we went for a cup of tea, and we chatted a lot. He wanted to find out about me and was really interested in my response to being in the show and learning about everything because it was everything that he lived through. And he was telling me some really harrowing stories. When he rewrote Me and My Girl, which obviously was a huge success in London, and then went to Broadway. He was telling me about how he went to go and visit the show on Broadway and so many guys in the ensemble of that show had passed away by the time that he’d gone back. It’s weird for me because I come from a musical theater background. So it’s weird thinking about just how much of a dramatic effect the virus had on a community where all my groundwork. So that really brought it home.
But when we got into filming, I kept thinking that I’m in this huge star’s presence, he was really supportive and he allowed it to be fun and… at times mad and farcical. Like that whole sequence in Westminster is completely insane. It was pure joy to be running around and chasing after him. And that poor little trolley girl…
Roscoe is very much a “protest” character. He also represents countless nameless queer black members of the community whose shoulders we essentially stand on. What was it like preparing to walk in his shoes?
I remember reading the script and being completely bowled over by his truth and his honesty. He’s really unapologetic and it was scary to me because it required a great deal of lack of like inhibition. I feel like that with any projects that I do. there’s always a moment of stepping into new territory and out of my comfort zone. And, once I did here, it was liberating and freeing. I felt like there was a duty and responsibility by doing that because like you said, he is a protest character. And I love that you said that because that is everything that he embodies and represents in the show.
I’m sure everyone’s asked you about your character Roscoe’s big dinner scene, where he wears a mini skirt in episode one as a big “Fuck you” to his unsupportive family. Your character uses fashion to express himself in such bold ways. What other outfits stood out for you?
One of them is at the funeral scene in the beginning of episode four and he’s got a knitted little T-shirt with a deep scoop neck and tiny little buttons. And then he’s got a three quarter-ish kind of blazer, and all of his chains on and he’s got the sort of smartish trousers on. You can’t really see, but he’s got these pointy toe steel cap boots on as well. Like, gosh, he’s going to a funeral and he’s still, really conscious about what he’s wearing. I absolutely love that.
Did you get to keep anything?
I got to keep a pair of black Doc Marten shoes!
Watch Omari Douglas on It’s A Sin on Amazon Prime in Canada and HBO Max in the U.S.
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