Actor Lydia West was already on Digital Spy’s 30 Black British stars of tomorrow list and Grazia’s 2021 Hotlist before last month’s record-breaking UK launch of Russell T. Davies‘ 1980s London set drama It’s A Sin on Channel 4 and its digital platform All4, where it has racked up over 16 million views and counting. In the limited series which is now streaming in the US on HBO Max, West plays Jill Baxter, a drama student sharing a flat—well, more of a queer utopia really— affectionately nicknamed The Pink Palace, with her chosen family of young gay men including her best friend Ritchie (Years & Years frontman Olly Alexander). As the AIDS crisis begins to impact all of their lives, Jill proves herself to be the ultimate ally; courageously and selflessly devoting herself to standing by and and standing up for her friends as they are shunned, stigmatised, and legislated against. In his ★★★★★ review, James Kleinmann praised West for “her understated, deeply moving tour de force as Jill”, adding that she “is the beating heart of the series”. The character and what she represents has resonated with viewers, leading to the hashtag BeMoreJill going viral on social media.
After training part-time at the Identity School of Acting, which boasts illustrious alumni including BAFTA-winners Letitia Wright and John Boyega, the Londoner landed the role of Bethany opposite Russell Tovey in Russell T. Davies’ acclaimed 2019 mini-series Years and Years. The 27-year-old went on to star in last year’s BBC One adaptation of the Bram Stoker horror classic Dracula, created by Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffat. More recently she was reunited with Russell Tovey, playing a music journalist in the upcoming film Text for You, featuring the iconic Celine Dion, and she’s currently shooting the crime thriller Suspicion starring alongside Uma Thurman for AppleTV+.
With all five episodes of It’s A Sin now on HBO Max, The Queer Review’s editor James Kleinmann had an exclusive conversation with Lydia West about her approach to playing Jill, why she thinks the character has resonated so deeply with viewers, how her off-screen freindship with Olly Alexander fed into their close on-screen relationship, creating her powerful climactic scene with co-star Keeley Hawes, and the importance of being a good ally. *Contains plot spoilers, we recommend watching all five episodes before reading this interview.*
James Kleinmann, The Queer Review: Women have often been left out of stories about HIV/AIDS and so I was pleased to see that your character Jill was right at the centre of It’s A Sin. I feel like she represents so many women who were courageous and loyal to their gay friends at a time when it was quite thankless in some ways, as we see for instance in how she’s treated by Gregory’s dad after she’s so lovingly looked after his son. What did you admire about the character and how did you approach playing her?
Lydia West: “I think you’re right to say that, because we haven’t seen that in a lot of past narratives. It’s so important to thank and acknowledge all the allies, all the women and healthcare professionals, and often family members that do help out in times of crisis. It was such an important part of the story and those people were also victims in themselves in some ways during that period, if you think about what Jill went through in the 80s. She is very courageous to stand up and use her voice and use her privilege at a time when there was so much misinformation and she didn’t know what was going on herself. For her to be so brave and to act from a place of love for her friends and to stand with her head held high, that was so beautiful to see. I think that’s what everyone’s reacted to with this whole #BeMoreJill movement, well, it feels weird to call it a movement, but I think people have been appreciating that aspect of her.”
“In terms of how I approached playing her, I have to say that the script was amazing. When I first read it, I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, thank you for awarding me this part!’ She’s such a beautiful and complex character. There are certain moments in the story when Jill has to make decisions that will change her life forever. She’s faced with a dilemma in episode two when her friend Gregory asks her for help. She doesn’t really want to say yes, she wants everyone else’s support and doesn’t want to do this on her own, but she agrees and that decision will change her life forever. That’s a really important moment in Jill’s story when she accepts this new life of caring for her friends. She shows a huge amount of loyalty towards them. Gregory places all of his trust in her and she’s almost responsible for his life now. It was so fun to play such a nuanced person who goes through the years and learns more and confronts people when they’re wrong and stands up for what’s right. I think it’s so gorgeous to see that on screen, to see that voice being heard.”
You mentioned her confronting people and that scene on the seafront towards the very end of the last episode with you as Jill and Keeley Hawes as Ritchie’s mother Valerie is incredible and such a powerful moment in the series. What was that like to prepare for and shoot?
“Obviously I learnt my lines, but I didn’t want to do too much work on it before the day. It’s such an important speech, it’s all the things that we wish we could say to people but that we often don’t get the opportunity to. It was a moment that could have been very indulgent because it’s so powerful, but that’s what I didn’t want to do with it. I didn’t want the speech to play me. I wanted to be able to speak the speech and bring that truth to it. So I didn’t plan it out too much beforehand because I wanted to see what Keeley brought to it as well. For Jill, that is a moment of absolute clarity. She’s been through so much and she’s so sure of what she wants to say. She is basically speaking to all those people out there who don’t accept their family members, their friends, and the people they know for who they really are, but yet they feel like they’re owed something from them. Valerie is Ritchie’s biological mother, who has never accepted him, she has never understood him, and even in his final days she has an expectation from him. She’s not willing to give him what he really wants, which is to see Jill and to see his friends and to experience joy in his final moments. So that element of it, Jill being so sure of what she’s saying to Valerie was really powerful, and Keeley was amazing to play with. I listened to everything she was saying and then I just tried to list all those things about what shame does to people, and that it is embedded trauma, it’s generational trauma, that has been carried through Valerie through to Richie from his dad Clive.”
“Jill loves Ritchie and she fully accepts him. Jill is his logical mother. Ritchie is the love of her life and she’s not scared to say all these things and she’ll turn her back to Valerie and she will walk away and she will never see Valerie Tozer or the Isle of Wight again. That’s a moment of absolute strength. She doesn’t falter or get confronted with too much emotion. I remember what I found so special about that scene is that even up to those last moments, Valerie makes Jill walk the whole distance on the seafront, she doesn’t meet her halfway, and it’s symbolic of the lengths that Jill will travel to for this friend, for this love, and just how cruel Valerie really is to make Jill walk knowing that Ritchie died yesterday and to not meet her and for it to not be the first thing that she says to her. That scene is just so special and so important to the show, but playing it I tried to approach it with no expectations and then I just listened to Peter Hoar our director and listened to what Keeley as Valerie was bringing, and tried to imagine what Jill would have done in that situation.”
It’s interesting that you mention the importance of listening because coming to it as a character, Jill of course doesn’t know that Valerie is going to say that Ritchie is dead, and we don’t know that as an audience either at that point. It’s quite a shocking, gut-wrenching moment, to learn that Jill and Ritchie have been robbed of saying goodbye to one another, especially after Ritchie told Valerie that he wanted to see Jill.
“Yeah, it’s his final wish. I was even shocked myself watching it back. When Valerie says, ‘He died yesterday’, then there’s silence and the birds stop singing, watching it back I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, Jill can’t ever see him again.’ I almost had an out of body experience watching it, even though I’d been in that scene it was still really shocking to watch it.”
You touched on how accepting Jill is of Richie, I love her description of him to Valerie as “beautifully gay” as they’re sitting in that hospital room. Then Ruth Sheen comes in playing the mother who berates Valerie for not knowing her son was gay, and she’s so amazing with just that one scene.
“I know! Way to steal a scene, Ruth Sheen!”
What was it like to create that on screen relationship with Olly Alexander as Ritchie and the rest of Jill’s chosen family living in The Pink Palace?
“Playing with Olly was amazing. He’s so sensitive and so kind, and so empathetic. I truly believe that all of the casting team cast a bunch of really sensitive actors and put them all together, and as actors we all fed off each other’s energy. We all understood that it was very much an ensemble piece of work, that there’s no lead in It’s A Sin. There was no trying to steal a scene. There were no egos, it wasn’t a vanity project, it was actually just about trying to tell a story and building true friendships and building that true love, and I think that comes across on screen. Olly and I developed a really close friendship off screen, which helped us because we went into the scenes being able to be absolutely vulnerable with each other, with absolute trust. We knew that we had each other’s backs. I would try to support him as much as I could and he did the exact same for me, and when you do that for each other you create something that’s so real, because it would be really hard to make up that chemistry and that connection, so luckily we all built such a close friendship. The boys are just so amazing, I love them all.”
I know that you’d often meet up in your trailer before shooting a scene to dance to some 80s tunes to warm up and get into the era. Did you have a favourite track to get you feeling that 80s vibe?
“Yes, my go-to track was Luther Vandross’ Never Too Much. I also love Gwen McCrae’s All This Love That I’m Giving.”
My friend Michael appeared as Luther Vandross on Stars in Their Eyes, do you remember that show?
“Oh my God, yes! That is iconic!”
You worked with Russell T. Davies before on Years and Years, and to me his writing often has a distinctive rhythm to it that seems to demand a certain energy and pace from the actor. What is it like to speak his dialogue and tell me a bit about collaborating with him on It’s A Sin?
“When you’ve worked with Russell you understand his dialogue and what he wants from it. Everything Russell writes is on the page for a reason. Every punctuation mark that he uses tells a story. To have that kind of clarity from a writer is so beautiful, because as an actor you’re there to do a job, you’re there to speak the lines and to mean them, so to have such gorgeous writing to do that with makes your job so easy. I learned all that on Years and Years, and then coming to this script as Jill I could see some similarities. It’s a case of recognising details like, he’s written an ellipsis after this point because he wants the thought to continue and then for it to go into this next thing. It’s a case of understanding that everything he does is for a reason, so knowing that and then having him as a showrunner, who is also the writer and an executive producer, who is so involved, and so on board is really refreshing. I’d get a message after all the rushes saying how we delivered it exactly the way that he wanted it and if I had any questions about Jill’s moments or her character, or what she means here or there, then I could just text him and he would reply instantly. He’s so gorgeous to work with. I’ve been absolutely spoiled by Russell T. Davies, I’ve been spoiled rotten. I fear in my future if I don’t have showrunners and writers who are as on board as him I don’t know what I’ll do. I’ll be like, ‘Erm, can I speak to the writer, please?!'”
Russell told me that he gave you a crash course in how to say, or intone rather, The Pink Palace greeting of ‘La!’ He told me that he does it best! What was it like having him teach you that and how quickly did you all pick it up?
“Because it was a private joke with friends, I guess it’s one of those things that no matter how someone else says it, it’s just not going to be the same. You know it so well and everything that goes behind it and you associate it with the friends that you did it with. So it was a case of Russell trying to educate us about how the joke originated and what tone it was and why it makes sense. When I read the script initially at the read-through, I just went, ‘laaah’, it was quite flat and just spoken. Russell was like, ‘No, it’s not that’ and we learned it was ‘La!’ It had to be very staccato, very high-pitched, and it wasn’t necessarily tuneful! It was so interesting to do. One of the things that was so fun about the rehearsal process was that Russell was there for it. So at one point we were all just sitting around in a room in this dilapidated old school practising and speak-singing ‘la’ in all these different ways; ‘laaaaa’, ‘laaaah’, ‘la’, and then we finally mastered it!”
It’s almost like it means different things when you say it in different ways!
“Exactly, every ‘la’ tells a story!”
Russell’s friend Jill Nalder, whom your character is based upon or inspired by, appears on screen playing fictional Jill’s mum. What did you take away from spending time with her and did you get a sense of how she reflects upon that period now?
“I’ve spoken to Jill so many times, especially since the show in interviews, and she is so humble. She says things like, ‘I don’t want to be seen as Mother Teresa’ and ‘I didn’t do as much as other people did’. She has such a humility and it’s so gorgeous to see. It’s who Jill is as a character in the series too. She isn’t motivated by anything but love and she gives so much to her friends and she doesn’t want a round of applause. She’s a true hero. To be in Jill Nalder’s presence and to understand her aura and the way she is and the times that she went through was extraordinary. She lived in The Pink Palace, had all the parties, went to all the marches, and did all this charity work with her theatre company and on the West End in the shows, so to hear about that was fascinating and I loved listening to her anecdotes and hearing about these gorgeous friends that she sadly lost. To have someone on set like that was amazing in itself, but then to have her play my mum was double amazing. To realise that she’s one of Russell’s closest friends, and that I had been entrusted with this part was incredible. I appreciated every moment of it and I was so grateful to be able to draw on her for massive inspiration.”
There’s a lot of joy in the series and it is really funny, but I imagine it must have been pretty emotional to shoot at times, particularly the scenes set on the hospital wards. They looked so authentic with those details like the alarming signs about infectious diseases. I know those scenes took around three weeks to film, what was it like to shoot in that environment?
“It was heartbreaking. The first week, I was kind of just shocked that it all existed, like those signs on the wards and the locks on the doors, and I was like, ‘Okay, this is it.’ Then the second week, I was starting to feel it and I thought, this is quite dreadful, this is so awful. By the third week I was at the end of my tether. I was so emotionally drained. I was by Colin’s bedside, when he was going through the early onset dementia, and Jill had to remain so strong and positive and just be Jill. I can remember acting in that scene and thinking, I don’t know if I can do this. That never happens to me, I’m always able to disassociate myself from the character, but this wave of emotion came over me and I couldn’t continue. So I had to take a moment to sit down and have some tea and some chocolate and remember where I was and what I was doing and the story that we were all part of telling. Everyone was so supportive in that moment because we were all feeling it, we all really leaned on each other. I think when you’re telling a story like this, to be able to desensitise yourself from it is not really human. I was very sensitive to what all these people went through and it really affected me emotionally, but it was amazing to be surrounded by so much love and support to the degree that I felt comfortable enough to have that moment and to vocalise that I felt a type of way.”
You’ve been part of telling such an important story and you’ve spoken about not knowing all that much about this period before you started work on the series and that it’s something that you weren’t taught about, which I think is very telling in itself, that it’s not on school curriculums. Because of the stigmatisation of gay men at the time and of being HIV positive, which continues to some degree, this particular chapter in LGBTQ history has not really been told very much, particularly in this way on such a mainstream platform as with It’s A Sin has it?
“I completely agree with you and it was eye-opening for me to learn so much about it. I think the only way we can move forward is to look back and to see what happened and to be able to appreciate what people went through. As you say, it is a massive part of LGBTQ history and for the younger generation to see it in a digestible format like in It’s A Sin, and to be able to understand and also to have that representation and have their voices heard and to be able to connect with the characters, is so important because it’s our truth and it’s what we want to see and it’s not shown on screen a lot. From an educational standpoint, in our national curriculum we’re not taught about it so we have to educate ourselves. So to have a show that targets the mass population covering these topics helps so much with future generations.”
“The fact that we’re not taught about it and that it’s not really brought to our attention just goes to show that the stigmatisation, the prejudice, and the discrimination is still happening with HIV and AIDS and we can’t move anywhere and we can’t try to destigmatise it without knowing more about it and without confronting it and trying to remove those barriers and boundaries and realise that you can be HIV positive and live a very happy, healthy, fruitful life; no one needs to die and your status shouldn’t define you, it shouldn’t be shameful. So I believe opening those conversations up and teaching younger generations that it’s okay is really progressive.”
It’s incredible to see all of the conversations that this series has opened up and I think we will look back on It’s A Sin as a watershed moment when people started to talk more openly about HIV and AIDS. In terms of the response, I imagine that your DMs have been buzzing, what feedback has meant the most to you?
“Every day the amount of messages I get is incredible and I’m so touched by them. A lot of people have told me that having watched the series they’ve gone home and told their parents about their positive status. Hearing that is something that has really affected me. People are opening these conversations as you say, and remembering their friends and those people that they lost in the 80s and that they never talk about, so that’s been very moving. Also, allies have been reaching out to me and saying things like, ‘I was on the wards and I went to the marches and I saw myself in Jill’. Other people have been saying, ‘I want to be more Jill’. That means so much to me and the fact that a TV show can have that effect on people is incredible. That they watch it and then go back to their own lives and start to do these acts of absolute bravery is so touching. I just wish that I could reply to them and say, ‘Yes, I’m so proud of you’ to every single person, but I just simply can’t sadly.”
Finally, what’s your favourite piece of LGBTQ+ culture or a person who identifies as LGBTQ+? Someone or something that’s had an impact on you and resonated with you over the years?
“Tom Eubanks’ Ghosts of St. Vincent’s. It’s an amazing book which I’d read before and then I read it again while we were filming the show. I just love everything about it. It’s mesmerising. So it would definitely be that.”
By James Kleinmann