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‘It’s a Sin’ Stars Olly Alexander & Lydia West Pay Homage To The ’80s – Deadline

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When they met: “It instantly worked”

Olly Alexander and Lydia West were set to play best friends Ritchie and Jill on It’s a Sin, but their very first meeting wasn’t a bonding sit-down. Right away, they had to sing a duet their characters would perform. Luckily, they clicked. “I was already in the room, and then Olly walked in,” West says. “I think it was just love at first sight.”

“We hugged each other, and that was it, it instantly worked,” Alexander says. “You see from the show that Lyds is an immediately beautiful, glowing person that you just want to be around. I was just like, ‘Oh my goodness.’”

A band name brought them together

Creator Russell T. Davies is also behind the show Years and Years, in which West starred, which also happens to be the name of musician Alexander’s band. Could this be a coincidence? Not exactly, Alexander says. “I asked him when I met him, ‘Why did you name your show Years and Years?’ And he told me he was a fan of me and the band. He said he loved the name and it fit for his show. So, I was like, ‘OK, well I’ll let you have that.’ I think it was all a long-term ploy to get me in his next feature film.”

‘It’s A Sin’ Creator Russell T. Davies & Star Lydia West On Learning From The ’80s In HBO Max Series – Contenders TV

Olly Alexander and Lydia West in 'It's A Sin'

Ben Blackall/HBO Max

Richie’s story was familiar: “I instantly related”

Alexander felt a kinship to Ritchie who leaves home for London aged 18 and finds acting work, and embraces his sexuality despite the homophobia he’s experienced. “I instantly related to Richie for so many reasons,” he says. “He had these big dreams, big ambitions. He moves to London at 18, just like I did, and he’s very wide-eyed and wants to impress everybody, and be the center of attention. And I had a lot of that, too.” He instantly appreciated the “fleshed out, complicated characters, and queer characters. It’s just very rare to see roles like that, so that’s so exciting.”

Rehearsals were “like group therapy”

The cast had to recreate a very tight-knit group of friends sharing a house nicknamed ‘the pink palace’, and that onscreen closeness was helped by a special rehearsal period. “It was basically like group therapy where we all just got to know each other for a week,” West says. “We didn’t rehearse really any scenes. We all just talked about our past and our present. It was a group of very sensitive actors put together, and every single one just brought the characters to life.”

Lydia West and Olly Alexander in 'It's a Sin'

Ben Blackall/HBO Max

Embracing ‘80s music and fashion: “I never wear denim”

The ‘80s is associated with some pretty out-there clothing and some distinctive music. Alexander notes that back then, you couldn’t listen to music on demand, so hearing a song felt really special. “I was thinking about hearing those songs for the first time on the dance floor, because you might not hear it again for months, and having a completely different relationship to the way you hear music, the way you wear clothes. Even as Olly, I never wear denim, and Richie just wears denim. On set, we would all listen to loads of ‘80s music, and get together in Lyds’ trailer and dance around.”

West’s mother nursed AIDS patients

West had an important point of reference for her role of Jill, Ritchie’s friend who visits patients and becomes an HIV/AIDS activist: her own mother. “She was a district nurse, and she would go around into the hospices in the ‘80s, and she treated a lot of AIDS patients. She told me what she witnessed and I gained inspiration from her and many others. It was amazing to be able to speak to people who lived through it and it’s just horrifying what these poor people went through.”

Jill is based on a real-life person

West’s character of Jill is actually based on Davies’ real-life best friend Jill Nalder. And in an extra twist, the real Jill plays her mother in the show. “It just added an extra level of just care to the project just knowing that I was based on a character who actually exists and is in the room, and is playing my mum,” West says. “It was amazing.”

“I remember at the readthrough, we met Jill,” Alexander says. “We were looking over to her to see her reaction, and to Russell, because this story was so important and it’s been waiting to be told for so long. It was really a privilege, and you just don’t want to get that wrong.”

Russ Ferguson/HBO Max

When Elton called: “It was very surreal”

“Elton John called us after the show, and it was just so sweet and kind,” West says. “It was just a regular Tuesday, and I was going to work. He was just like, ‘I loved It’s a Sin.’ And obviously he does so much good work with the AIDS foundation. He was saying how much a show like this just brings awareness; a show brought into popular culture does so much in propelling the message that we all just need to carry on spreading about HIV and AIDS for the better. It was amazing for him to recognize our work. And he’s just such a legend, and for him to reach out, that means so much to us. For me as a young actress, it meant a lot. It was just very kind, and that was very surreal.”

The show inspired an increase in HIV testing rates

In February, soon after It’s a Sin aired in the UK, The Terence Higgins Trust reported a four-fold increase in orders for free HIV testing—something they credit largely to the show. “It’s amazing,” Alexander says. “You forget sometimes the power of a TV show. It’s the stories that move us, and that has had such real-world impact, like people ordering more HIV tests. It was just so cool to see people doing that. It’s just great.”

It’s a Sin influenced Alexander’s music

The show title references a song by ‘80s band The Pet Shop Boys, and Alexander has found the series inspired his own music. “I just can’t tell you how appreciative I am to have had the experience, and just how different it was to my usual career as a musician. I just found it really inspirational in so many ways, so many unexpected ways. It just really opened up my mind to enjoying a lot of music from that period. When I went back into the studio, I had this renewed sense of, ‘I just want to make dance floor bangers.’”

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