“I’m not sure if it’s sunk in yet” Nathaniel Curtis on It’s A Sin
An interview with Nathaniel on the making of Russell T Davies' landmark show and dealing with its instant impact as a truly important cultural and social talking point.
It’s A Sin, the new Russell T Davies C4 show, has, a week after its release, already become a landmark show. That it is an exceptional TV drama is beyond question: a story of a group of friends coming of age on the gay scene in the 80s amid the confusion and horror of the new AIDS crisis, told with great humour, ingenuity, daring, rage and warmth. Almost immediately it became something more too – a stimulus for many people to share stories of those times, and pay tribute to those lost to AIDS. It has also drawn attention to the scandal of that period where in contrast to today – the drama was filmed in late 2019, but certain moments have become resonant – the virus was largely ignored by the powers that be, so that even as the deaths spiked there was little but rumour for people at the heart of it to understand what was happening. Society as a whole has to look at the way it has historically – and continues – to treat LGBTQ+ people as Other; perhaps the ultimate triumph of the show is to clear new ground for such discussions with everyone, to plot a more inclusive way forward. The show is about people, and people have responded: recording viewing figures on All 4 are testament to that.
The show rests on a set of stunning performances by its vivacious cast, no more so than that of Nathaniel Curtis, who plays Ash. With perhaps one of the greatest opening lines in TV history – which we won’t recount her, not because we’re squeamish but because we wouldn’t want to spoil its genius – Ash is the hot stuff initially courted by Ritchie (Olly Alexander), but in the hands of Nathaniel progresses into a caring, sensitive, appealing person who you hold close to your heart as everything falls apart.
We spoke to Nathaniel a few days after the series had landed on the channel and found him to be as lovely as you’d hope and as emotional as you’d expect from one of the cast of a show in the whirlwind of success.
Firstly, how are you doing?
Well, it’s been a weird week! I am very, very good, I’ve been supported by friends and family but the response has been…a little unbelievable. The amount of love this show is receiving is genuinely touching. It means something to people and that’s what you want.
There’s been great write ups but so many personal stories told on social media too – memories and old photos of people who died who had never been talked about before…have you seen much of that?
I have. For my own mental health I have been limiting my time on social media as much as I can, but I have seen it. Yes, you have people responding well to us as a cast, which I couldn’t be more grateful for, but actually, for us it’s not just about the show it’s about what the show means to people. We knew it was going to say something that needed to be said, but the way its bringing out conversations has been wonderful, where people aren’t ashamed to talk about what happened to people that they know, to people that they loved…
I had a friend message me to say that her mother – who I would not expect to watch a show like this – she watched it and was in floods of tears because she had a friend who she lost in the 80s, and it brought up so much. Its genuinely moving, and I’m so glad it’s making people talk and educating people.
I’m just proud. I’m exhausted, but I’m proud.
Do you have any idea it would have this impact? I suppose with the Russell T Davies script and the cast you must have known it’d be great at least…
Yeah the script left me speechless and I knew – OK, I hoped – the show would do well. This however…I did not expect. And it’s lovely. I think with any job an actor does there’s always a sense of pride but I couldn’t be more proud of this show and more proud of what it says and what it does to people’s emotions. Everyone is in floods of tears! People are letting the show in which I think is so beautiful and so special.
People have been pointing out the echoes with the current pandemic but what’s interesting is the gay community in the 80s had to cope with their virus in a way that ignored by the bigger institutions…
Yep, completely. There are some similarities – you look at Ritchie’s speech [about the rumours about HIV] in the second episode where he says he doesn’t believe it, which was the kind of rhetoric we were hearing during the pandemic. It’s so odd to have that come back. But although yes there are similarities, I think we have to remember how starkly different it was. There was no social media, it wasn’t talked about, it wasn’t reported on, and it was shameful to have this disease. The entire community was completely demonised. It was ignored for years, whereas now it has been picked up quite quickly. The reaction and the speed with which people tried to make a change and tried to help is completely different.
How did you get involved and what you were up to at the time?
In the summer of 2019 I was doing a tour of Romeo and Juliet. The sun was shining, and the show was going down really well. I was sent the script by my agent saying I had an audition to play Ash in a show which was then called The Boys. I read the scenes, three audition scenes, and they were so amazing. The way the characters came across just immediately reminded me of me and my friends. It was so natural and all the characters so relatable. It also had Ash’s iconic opening line in one of my audition pieces. I was like, ‘this is brave…!’ Oh that line…
So I went in and read with Andy the casting director and a week later I was called into recall, and then two weeks later I was out on tour on Winchester High Street and had a phone call saying I’d got the part. I didn’t believe it at first. I honestly thought I hadn’t got it. Sometimes you walk away from an audition and have the intuition of ‘it was good but it wasn’t quite the right one’ – I was completely wrong there! We then started filming in the October.
You get the sense watching it that it was a lively fun set, I’m not sure if that’s true?
It absolutely is true. The filming was one of the best experiences of my life, we get on so well. We text constantly, we have become a little family. On set in the morning we’d cram in someone’s trailer, normally Lydia [West]’s, people would choose some 80s music, we’d have a dance, and all eat together. We worked long days but in the evening we’d have a drink and at the weekend we’d do something together. Every Sunday whoever was in Manchester for filming the next day would always go out for a Sunday roast.
I feel strange that my first big TV job was the most fun I could imagine.
We had some tough things we had to film, but the love was tangible. The cast, the crew, absolutely everyone on set was there for each other.
What research did you do for it?
The music was a big thing as it’s a big part of the show. Listening to 80s music in the morning would help you slip into it. Also the costumes were such a big part of getting into character. Ian Fulcher the costume designer did the most amazing job. For myself I read books, and there was the Horizon episode on BBC iPlayer about HIV. I knew about the AIDS crisis but I didn’t know an awful lot about it, or Section 28. We weren’t taught it in school, Section 28 was only something I heard whispered on the wind. So I looked into it – disgusting. Shameful. And the fact it’s not talked about how shameful that time was…well, it’s quite telling really.
It was tough to research – the photos you’d come across, the personal stories you’d come across, just completely broke my heart. But it shows how important it is that these voices are heard.
One of the interesting things about the show is giving the generations that came after a good chance to investigate for themselves and see the development since then.
And the differences between HIV then and HIV now there are such stark differences. It’s not been eradicated but it’s the stigma that’s the most dangerous part of this in my opinion. The fact people didn’t even know about that, about the progress that has been made is…sad, really. But it just hasn’t been talked about. It needs to be put into education. And I think Ash in particular shows that, being a teacher, with the monologue about Section 28 that was a gift from Russell. It’s hard not to get riled up when reading up about it and performing that.
Everyone is talking about the sex scenes– did you work out just before you did them to look your best?
I wasn’t expecting that question! Well, Ash spends a fair amount of time in his underwear, especially at the beginning. I use working out at the gym to de-stress and balance my mental health, and I did up my time at the gym by a fair amount. But there’s no shame about how you look in this show, that’s not the story, it’s not like you’re taking your clothes off just for the sake of it, sex is an essential part of this story. I must admit the first time I took my robe off and was there in a little sock, was nerve wracking. But I had Olly – he is such an incredible man and such a good friend – and he along with the crew on a closed set, with intimacy coordinators, everyone made you feel so comfortable that the moment of adrenaline and fear passed very quickly and then you just do your job.
What other things did you learn as an actor?
This was my first screen job so you learn the technical things like how to find your mark without looking, where to stand…I’m very tall, a fair bit taller than the rest of the cast so it was finding a way to lean and fit yourself into the shot! The very first thing I learned was not to fall over the camera. Which I did. I did that. I’m very clumsy.
I didn’t know what to expect but you learn the tricks quite quickly – how to be comfortable on screen is a really important thing. That was something I learnt on the go. We had a beautiful director in Peter Hoar, such a kind and talented man. But I learnt to have a bit more faith in myself doing this job as well.
Being an actor looks like a tough job for maintaining your mental health, how do you manage it?
I graduated drama school and then went five years without a single acting job when I’d been auditioning. I had a new agent at the beginning of 2019 and then things happened quickly, but because I hadn’t had a job before then I found that I’d grown up in that time. 23 year old Nathaniel would not have handled this role in the same way and it’s good that I had maturity in the way I approached the role. It’s not easy being an actor – yes it’s fun but having to dip into the emotions can take it out of you. A couple of the scenes where Ash got emotional really took it out of me, but the key is to have the people around you who are loving. I don’t deserve my friends and family and the people on set who looked after me. The days when it was hard there were a few more hugs. Which I’m a big fan of.
How was it having to deal with the last year in lockdown so soon after making the show?
I have to be honest, it was tough. It was difficult. Having prospects just disappear. Doing this incredible job and then, what, six weeks afterwards the world was completely different. And stupidly I’d taken some time off after filming! To rest for a bit before going back to work – two weeks later…lesson learned.
I’m not someone who can sit still and do nothing so having to sit still and do nothing for months was hard. It was also a scary time. Even now I haven’t seen my family in well over a year. It was tough but I became the master of a Zoom quiz. I feel it should go on my CV.
And all of us the cast were constantly calling and messaging.
It must be a relief for the show to be out now – what happened when it was first screened, on the night of?
I had a Zoom with my close friends from 8 to a quarter to 9, then I popped the bottle of champagne my agent got for me when I got cast, and sat down and watched the show with my phone off. Knowing when my character was coming up and knowing exactly what my character does in the first 10 or 15 minutes made a little nervous. I’d not seen myself on screen before and then you see a lot of me in that first bit. I was nervous but then I was enjoying the episode. And then after I jumped back on Zoom with my friends. It was quite a thing. But it wasn’t even really about me. I wanted to show to do well but it’s blown up much bigger than I thought it would.
It must be exciting to come off the back of this show now, with what lies ahead for you?
Yeah its strange. I’m incredible grateful for everything that’s happening but I’m not quite sure if its sunk in yet. It’s happened very quickly after we were sat on the show for a year. But you can’t help but enjoy this – just the pride I have at the impact it’s having, it’s beautiful actually, it means so much. As an actor and as people it means so much to us. It’s wonderful I couldn’t be happier, but I would kill for a cuddle with my friends.
It’s A Sin is available on All 4 and airs on Channel 4 on Fridays at 9pm
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