'Sin' and Sensibility :: Omari Douglas Opens Up about the Hit HBO Max Drama

by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Tuesday March 16, 2021
Originally published on March 10, 2021

"It's a Sin," Russell T. Davies' hit HBO Max series, follows a group of young queer Londoners navigating the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s and early 1990s.

Ritchie (Years and Years frontman Olly Alexander), Roscoe (Omari Davis), Jill (Lydia West), Colin (Callum Scott Howell), and Ash (Nathaniel Curtis) live together in a Soho flat, nicknamed the Pink Palace, that's a little ramshackle but spacious enough to contain their big personalities. Roscoe's fearless, fashion-forward style is the most out and proud of everyone; he's a Nigerian immigrant who escapes his homophobic family as the series begins.

How the epidemic impacts each member of the group becomes the story's focus and is, understandably, heartbreaking; but the series also brims with joy, showing how the friends cope and triumph through activism and the creation of their own alternative family.

"It's A Sin" shattered records both for traditional viewing (Channel 4 broadcast an episode each week), and also for streaming (the entire series was available online as soon as the first episode aired).

The show's success has the potential be transformational for Douglas' career, especially given that "It's A Sin" was his first work for television. That doesn't show in his work; Douglas takes the role of Roscoe and makes it his own. His work on the series is as strong as that of anyone else among the uniformly excellent (and widely praised) cast, which also features turns by Neil Patrick Harris and Stephen Fry.

EDGE had the great pleasure of chatting with Omari Douglas about Roscoe, the camaraderie of the Pink Palace, and what it means to revisit a grim, yet energizing, chapter in LGTBQ history in the context of today's COVID crisis.

EDGE: How did you come to be part of the cast of "It's A Sin?" Did your stage work bring someone from the show to you, or did you hear about the project and decide to audition?

Omari Douglas: The stage work was just kind of going, and my agent submitted me for the role. He said, "You might be in for an audition for this new project that Russell T. Davies has been working on." I was like, "Oh, my gosh!" I went in and I met Andy Pryor, the casting director, and did a few auditions, and then the role was mine.

I kind of was taken aback, because it's my first [television role], and you don't always expect to have something this huge just come to you as a [first-time] experience. I was shocked, honored, and amazed by it. Just from reading the first two scripts during the auditions I was completely bowled over by the sheer fun of it all — which might seem kind of strange to say; I remember them saying in the synopsis that this is a show about the HIV/AIDS epidemic and how it plays out in London, but then you're opening the script and seeing all these vibrant characters who are have such an amazing time, and [you're seeing] all of that friendship. I was like, "Wow, I need to be a part of this."

EDGE: HIV testing in Britain has increased as a result of the show. Is that a result you would ever have expected?

Omari Douglas: I think the show is grabbing people's attention and forcing them to sit up and look at the wider issues, and say, "Oh my gosh, this really does still happen." I think the HIV testing figures going up by thousands is proof of the effect of the show, and how it's making people want to take responsibility for their own health. It's amazing.

EDGE: And the fact that we're watching this series about the HIV epidemic in the '80s even while we're struggling with the COVID pandemic, that's strange timing.

Omari Douglas: It's strange and, of course, completely unplanned timing. We filmed it all before the pandemic even kind of reached our shores, and I think the parallels that people are finding are interesting,. But then, equally, I think there's a lot of difference in how it it played out, and hopefully people are recognizing that. We see hints of the prejudice and open homophobia that came about with the onset of HIV in the UK, and there's definitely been a different approach to tackling the [COVID] virus. So there are parallels and differences; initially, I was kind of like, "Oh my gosh, this is exactly the same," and then I was like, "Wait, no it isn't — because [HIV] was handled in this way, and yet [the COVID situation] was handled with so much more care." It's so bizarre, isn't it?

EDGE: Roscoe's wardrobe also had a real impact on fashion trends. You've got a great fashion sense, yourself, so did you make the costuming a part of your work for the role?

Omari Douglas: I can't lie; when I saw what Ian Fulcher, our costume designer, had — when he showed me [the wardrobe] the first time I went in for a costume fitting, I just said, "Yes!" I looked at everything and just said, "That's him." And we still collaborated, and we had such a good relationship. I think the world of Ian. I think he's incredible at what he does, and it was so good to feel like the there was a sense of ownership of it. I loved the journey that we went on with the style. It think it's quite easy with style and fashion to just pass it off as something quite secondary, when actually, for Roscoe, it's part of who he is, and it's how he ticks. It's part of his survival, I guess you could say.

EDGE: Roscoe has been called "flamboyant," but it seems to me he's just who he is, and he's not going to apologize for it or hide it.

Omari Douglas: Exactly. It's inherently political, I think, because it was a time where, you know... even still now, people are sort of scared about walking down the street holding hands with a partner. But back then, the media had such a firm hand on how it was portraying gay and queer people that it left people with no option other than to flip everything on its head in order to stand up for themselves. And standing up for yourself is subversive! All the flamboyance and the campiness, it's a way of protecting yourself, and also standing firmly in a sense of defiance against the system, saying that the system isn't going to oppress us anymore. That's what Roscoe does. He expresses himself that way.

EDGE: We get a glimpse of the family dynamic Roscoe comes from — a kitchen table with all sorts of interesting people, including one auntie who laughs and claps when Roscoe shows up in his crop top and miniskirt and declares who he is, while everyone else is appalled. In preparing for the show, did you create a backstory for Roscoe and his complicated relationship with his extended family?

Omari Douglas: I think that Roscoe knows that something isn't right [on the night he confronts his family]. Like, something huge is about to happen because there are people being introduced into the household that aren't normally there — like Uncle Basil, who represents the danger [of Roscoe being sent back to Nigeria]. His sister says that to him. She says, "Uncle Basil's here. I told you." You know? If Uncle Basil is coming, this means that something really bad is going to happen.

The way I saw it is, when Roscoe comes downstairs and he says what he says, and he flings the door open, to me that was like... you know when you're a kid, and you suddenly get that instinct to stand up for yourself, and you open your mouth — and you might regret what's coming out of your mouth, but you let it out anyway. "I'm going to stand up to my relatives for once and all!" I think that's what he's doing, and it comes out in a garbled flurry, and yet he's still able to be defiant and firm in who he is.

There's a hysteria in that moment, in all the different reactions. Like, I think about the auntie laughing, and that laughter is shock. But also, to me anyway, the laugher is, "Oh my god, the audacity of him to be so confident in this moment!" The moment is bizarre, and I love that about it.

EDGE: As I understand it, Russell T. Davies had a real intention about casting gay men for these roles. What did that do for the experience of being in the cast? Did that make it easier? Did it change the dynamic?

Omari Douglas: It kind of accentuated the dynamic, I guess you could say. It brought us together, and it meant that there was an immediate connection with the material and what we were talking about. It meant that we could just be comfortable around one another.

We spent a week before we started filming just sitting with each other, the six of us. We just sat, and we spoke with each other, and we got to know each other. I think that was really important, to lay the foundations of our chemistry and our connection with each other. It meant that we were always going to be committed to everything, to the context surrounding the show. Otherwise, it could have been a more passive response to the material, like "I'm an actor, I should probably look into this material." Whereas, for us, it was like, "This is a part of our history, so of course we're going to be connected to it."

EDGE: The camaraderie on the screen is so appealing, and so warm. Was that also part of the experience on the set?

Omari Douglas: Yeah! We would just sort of take our friendships from the trailers and sitting around off-set together, and bring it on-set. In between takes or back in the trailers, we'd have a great time and appreciate each other's company. I'm really grateful to have met and been able to work with these people, because obviously not only are they great people who I enjoyed the company of, they're also extremely talented and inspirational, as well. There was just so much to appreciate — it was just nice to be able to take that sense of play that we had onscreen, and take it off-screen with us as well. We're all such good friends. It's all real. It's all real! None of it is faked. It's genuine.


EDGE: And you also had a chance to work with Stephen Fry. It seemed to me there was a sense of playfulness there, as well; the two of you were bouncing off each other, especially leading up to that gag where Roscoe plays a prank with a pot of coffee.

Omari Douglas: I loved getting swept up in the kind of physical madness of what was going on — chasing after him, walking down these corridors and opening doors and closing doors. Stephen is such a great collaborator, and he's really generous. I think when you have someone who is that generous it makes it easier for you to feel relaxed and have that playfulness with them. It was so much fun. I had a great week with him — we did all his stuff in a week, and he was just so generous with his time and warm and kind, and he's so knowledgeable. It was great to hear his experience of living through all of it, as well.

EDGE: Roscoe has some very nice scenes, one-on-one, with Jill (Lydia West), and also with Colin (Callum Scott Howells). Those are very different relationships, but also very poignant, when you get to see them on their own, apart from the melee of the group.

Omari Douglas: We see Roscoe's vulnerability, and there are elements of him that are soft. I think he surrounds himself with this bravado. He's like a peacock, isn't he? I guess he's willing to show the softness to certain people. I liked being able to have that with those characters, and I think that came just because I was close to those actors. When you share that chemistry, that's when I think all that stuff comes out. I was grateful to have those moments, small as they are.

EDGE As a viewer, I was moved to all sorts of emotions — joy, rage, sorrow, shock, all of it. Did you have the same kind of emotional experience as an actor — did you also feel those ups and downs, that broad palette of emotions that the show gives us?

Omari Douglas: Yeah, that was your day. In a day we could jump from a hospital ward in the morning and then, in the afternoon, straight after, you'd be back in the flat, having a party. For me personally, I tried to take every moment as it came and enjoy it, and enjoy the moments that were fun and lively, and then just allow yourself to immerse yourself in those moments where you did have to grieve or suffer with all of the loss that's going on. Everything felt quite momentary — like, nothing lasted for too long, because the schedule was so fast and you couldn't really dwell on anything. You just had to move quite quickly — which is difficult, at times, but that's the nature of shooting such a big project under such a tight schedule.

EDGE: One thing that people my age tend to say is that younger people just don't have any idea what it was like back then, and what was going on, not just with HIV and AIDS, but the world at large, with its anti-gay attitudes. As you were reading the script and doing the research, were there times when you said, "No, that can't be right — that can't have actually happened!"?

Omari Douglas: I was shocked constantly, but I think what's great about Russell is he doesn't bombard the viewer with that sort of thing. I think a lot of my further understanding came from reading a lot more, and as I started to read more my jaw was on the floor. Now, of course, there are moments in the script where you're like, "Oh my god — that can happen?" Like the scene where Jill and Ritchie (Olly Alexander) are talking about the mortgage on the flat. You couldn't get a mortgage if you were gay. And just the language, the rhetoric that was used around gay and queer people — it's unfathomable, really. It's completely shocking.

The generation of people that think younger generations don't have a grasp on it, I think maybe it's a fair observation to have, but I think that it's shows like these that are allowing people to have at least a catalyst for trying to lean more and trying to understand and know where we come from, and to understand and acknowledge the history.

"It's A Sin" is now streaming on HBO Max.

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.