If you’ve already binged all five sublime episodes of Queer As Folk writer Russell T. Davies‘ new 1980s London set drama It’s A Sin on HBO Max you’ve likely started dropping “la!” into conversations, and fallen in love not just with residents of The Pink Palace, but also the talented young cast who portray them. For Nathaniel Curtis, who stars as Ash Mukherjee, the acclaimed series marked his first screen acting role. Curtis, who trained at London’s East 15 drama school and stands at a rather impressive 6’5″ tall, received an Offie nomination for playing Shakespeare’s most famous lover, in Romeo and Juliet, and has played Ferdinand in the The Tempest on a UK theatre tour, while also appearing in a stage adaptation of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice at London’s Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre. Like his character, he also has a background working in education.
Following our conversations with showrunner Russell T. Davies and actor Lydia West, The Queer Review’s editor James Kleinmann had an exclusive chat with Nathaniel Curtis about portraying a different kind of British Indian character to those which he’d seen growing up, that awkward first sex scene with Olly Alexander and creating their touching on-screen relationship, the importance of having queer talent telling this story, and receiving a call from Sir Elton John while on the London Underground.
James Kleinmann, The Queer Review: Whereabouts did you grow up in the UK and how did you first get into acting?
Nathaniel Curtis: “I grew up just outside Bournemouth on the South Coast, I’m half Indian half English. Like all actors I think, I first started acting in the Nativity play! Then I just fell in love with acting and as a child I was in school plays and I attended an after school drama class. On a whim I applied to drama school when I was 19 and I got in, and here we are today!”
I was deeply moved by It’s A Sin, what was your initial reaction when you read the script for the first time?
“I was actually in the middle of doing a play at the time. My agent submitted me for the role and I got sent the scripts for the first three episodes and they were just incredible, I absolutely fell in love with the script immediately. I made the mistake of reading them on public transport and of course I was a mess! Russell writes so beautifully and I couldn’t help but fall in love with the characters within the first half of the first episode. I was like, ‘Well, I’m completely invested in all of them, and I just want to protect them from what I know is about to happen.”
I love that we get to see these characters over ten years, what was it like to play Ash as he evolves over that time?
“Ash is very interesting to play because he doesn’t say an awful lot, but he’s always there. What’s really lovely about him is that he’s always strong, steady, and reliable. When you first see Ash he’s so young and he likes the attention that he gets from people, but he’s also very kind. There’s a lot there for him as a backstory that isn’t explicitly said, but when he’s younger it’s almost like he’s run away from something and you don’t find out what, but you see him grow. He depends on these young people that become his family and the way that they click and have their different paces within the group is really beautiful. To be able to play Ash through those years was just gorgeous.”
One of the things that I discussed with Russell T. Davies when I interviewed him recently was how sex positive the series is, which is so important as a counterbalance to the shame and stigmatization associated with gay sex and HIV/AIDS in the 80s. What did you make of that aspect of the show and what was it like as an actor to be part of some of those sex scenes, including one very awkward first encounter between Ash and Ritchie, played by Olly Alexander?
“Since the series has aired in the UK I’ve had people shout my line from that scene with Olly at me in public—’You need a bit of a wash’—which is really exciting! What I really like about the show is that it didn’t shy away from those things. The first time we hear Ash speak he is informing Ritchie about sexual hygiene. That isn’t something that I’d seen portrayed on screen before and it’s not done to make a joke of Ritchie or to make Ash seem like a nasty person, it’s just life. The intimacy coordinators and Peter Hoar the director made sure that Ash and Ritchie are shown having sex face to face, because obviously in a lot of media homosexual sex acts aren’t shown like that and actually the intimacy between those two characters was incredibly important for later on down the line. I’d never done a screen job before so when it came to filming the sex scenes it was interesting! It was a little bit nerve-wracking to be honest, but because we had the most wonderful people around—the cast, the crew, and the coordinators—although I was nervous, I was completely surrounded by love and professionalism.”
When Russell was first talking about the series in the UK he spoke about the importance of casting gay actors in gay roles, which sparked some interesting conversations. As well as having LGBTQ actors on-screen, there was also a gay writer, producer, and director, and I wonder how you feel that having so many queer people involved impacted and informed the making of the series?
“I think that having a queer cast in particular was very important because there was an authenticity there, we weren’t acting having experiences with men. I’m 30-years-old, just a couple of months younger than Olly, and then you had a whole range of ages down to Callum who I think was 20 at the time that we were filming. Having Russell as the showrunner and Peter as the director was important, they’ve lived more experiences than we have and I think that the show tackles such a painful subject that it had to be approached with love and care, and with a knowledge of the history and I don’t know if it would have been handled in the same way with a non-LGBTQ+ team behind.”
Tell me about creating that really beautiful friendship and at times romance between your character Ash and Olly’s character Ritchie?
“The beauty of it is that it’s all in scripts. What was really lovely is that I hadn’t met any of the cast before the read-through, but by the end of that day we’d already started to get to know each other. It was very clear that there was an electricity between all of us, and over the four months that we filmed they became some of my favorite people and closest friends. We didn’t have to pretend that there was a friendship between us because there was one. We would spend all of our time outside of filming together. Olly is such a beautiful and kind man, and he’s very patient. With this being my first screen acting role there were times when I just wasn’t quite sure what I was doing and I doubted myself a lot, but Olly was always very loving. And I mean it’s Olly Alexander, so you can’t not fall in love with him, so that wasn’t difficult to portray at all.”
There’s a beautiful moment where Ash lies next to Ritchie in his hospital bed, what was that like to shoot?
“I loved filming that scene, it’s not a very long but it was difficult to film because of the emotion that’s there. There were a couple of moments when I had to take a breath. I want to give a shout out to absolutely everyone who was there that you don’t see on screen, the crew were the most wonderful group of people. They were just so kind all the time and I know that I throw the word kind around a lot, but actually that’s what it was like on set, it was a huge family. Doing that scene with with Olly was such an important moment for them because it’s when they can finally speak, but it’s just a little bit too late which is so devastating.”
Then Ash announces to Ritchie’s mum Valerie that he’s his boyfriend which doesn’t go down very well.
“Oh God! Ash is saying that because he’s actually trying to comfort her by showing her that Ritchie is loved by everyone around him, but Ash doesn’t have a way with words in that moment and it’s terrible timing.”
You have quite a showstopper of a speech with Ash talking about being a teacher in the time of Section 28, how did you approach delivering that?
“I wasn’t very aware of Section 28, I’d heard it mentioned, but in doing the research for the show what I came across was just really embarrassing actually, the fact that this happened at all and that it was only repealed in Scotland in 2000 and in England and Wales in 2003 is ridiculous. Section 28 was shameful. Poor Ash has to go through all these books in the school library to find anything LGBTQ. I as Nathaniel love reading, it’s one of my favorite things and it always has been, so being able to give that speech that says actually you don’t see queer people at all in history and that moment where he’s so exasperated was amazing. Ash is finally letting go, well at least in his mind he’s letting go. That’s such a powerful speech and all credit to Russell for giving me that absolute gift of a speech. I felt really grateful that I could tell that story. I worked in education myself before I filmed It’s A Sin, and so knowing what has been taught and what isn’t taught, it meant a lot to me to actually be able to do that speech.”
The cast have spoken a lot about their 80s music warmups in Lydia’s trailer before you started a day’s filming, what was your own favourite track to help get you into that era?
“I’d always trust a Omari with his music choices. I do like music, but I don’t have an expansive knowledge like Omari and Olly do. They both know absolutely everything, so it was quite nice to get an education in music from them. A classic for me though was Hey Mickey by Toni Basil. When that came on I had to have a bit of a dance! We would all go and dance in Lydia’s trailer every day like you said, but when we were filming the protest sequence I think it was Chain Reaction that came on and Neil Ashton, Georgia Bruce, Omari, Lydia, and I were all dancing along to it and it was so much fun! Actually it was so cold that day so we just had a bit of a warm up dancing to that in the middle of the shoot and then went straight back to filming, it was so wonderful. Luckily, I had some layers on and I had a thermal underneath my costume, whereas poor Omari was freezing. Omari is a very beautiful man and he looks good in absolutely everything, but his costumes were not built for a Manchester winter, when we were filming!”
In terms of the feedback you’ve been getting about the series, what has meant the most to you?
“The fact that people feel like they can share their experiences with us is so genuinely moving. I’ve had some absolutely gorgeous messages and some of them have been so heartbreaking. People have told me that they’ve felt able to have conversations with their parents that they haven’t been able to have before since watching the show. As a man of dual heritage, having people from the Indian community come out and say that it’s been lovely to see a character like Ash being played by a man who is not white has been wonderful. As a teenager I longed to see Indian men portrayed as something other than the academic or the comic relief, and in being entrusted with the role of Ash it was really lovely to get to do that. The feedback about that has been wonderful. I love the fact that, with the help of Russell and Peter, I was able to show that Indian men can be sexy.”
You also had some feedback from Sir Elton John I believe, who has been in touch with the cast to say how much he loved the series. Did he call you?
“Yes, I was on the tube when he called me. So the first thing I ever said to Elton John was, ‘I’m on the tube!’ He was so lovely, what a wonderful man. That hit quite hard because he is such a Titan of a human and he’s done so much. He was so kind in reaching out. It was just so lovely.”
What’s your favorite LGBTQ+ culture or person? Someone or something that’s had an impact on you and resonated with you over the years.
“There’s a book called The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller. I’ve loved mythology since I was a child and I actually considered studying classics at university, and The Song of Achilles is the tale of the Trojan War told through the eyes of Patroclus, but as Achilles’ lover, not his cousin, or his friend – and in mythology he was his lover. That story broke my heart and it’s beautiful. It’s poetry. I like a lot of books, but even to this day that’s got to be one of my favorites.”
By James Kleinmann