Following our interviews with It’s A Sin‘s writer and executive producer Russell T Davies and cast members, Lydia West and Nathaniel Curtis, The Queer Review’s editor James Kleinmann had an exclusive conversation with actor Omari Douglas who portrays Roscoe Babatunde in the acclaimed 1980s London set drama which follows five young friends as the AIDS crisis impacts their lives.
Having grown up in Wolverhampton, Douglas graduated from London’s ArtsEd drama school with a Musical Theatre degree in 2015. Since then he’s racked up some impressive credits; Cole Porter’s High Society and more recently Emma Rice’s adaptation of Wise Children at the Old Vic; Peter Pan and Jesus Christ Superstar at Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre; Kneehigh’s Tristan & Yseult at Shakespeare’s Globe; The Life at the Southwark Playhouse; and Annie Get Your Gun at the Sheffield Crucible. In 2018 he starred in Willi Richards’ queer play Rush at the King’s Head Theatre. That work was due to open in the West End in June 2020, but with theatres still dark, Douglas took to Zoom to appear in a reworked socially distanced filmed reading of Rush alongside Rupert Everett as part of the BBC’s Culture in Quarantine series.
Here, Omari shares what it was like to inhabit his character’s liberation, boldness, and sense of style, and discusses the importance of the sex positive aspect of the series, his favourite music of the 80s, directing his first music video for artist Tom Aspaul, and what he loves about the original production of Dreamgirls.
James Kleinmann, The Queer Review: congratulations on the series and the incredible reaction to it. I think we’ll look back on this as a watershed moment when people started to talk more openly about HIV in the mainstream.
Omari Douglas: “Yeah, it definitely feels like that. I’ve had some really open discussions with my family as well. It’s just been amazing and I think we’ve broken through.”
I think this has got to be one of the best introductions of a character in a TV show ever as Roscoe leaves home. What do you admire about him and what he was like to inhabit as a character?
“I was kind of blown away by the sheer audacity of him as a being. It’s beyond my day-to-day way of being, so to be able to live in that for a little bit was really freeing and I think there’s a lot to be learned from him in terms of how we are able to express ourselves and hold on to our truth and our opinions. He’s so grounded in what he believes in and I love how firmly he wants to stand on his own two feet. He’s so determined, and despite everything that’s going on in his life and in the lives of his friends, his ambition never seems to cease, it’s just constantly present in him. He’s always chasing after the next thing, not that it’s always a positive thing, because I guess he then learns that there is a family that he has to go back to, both his family of friends and his biological family. I think he learns a lot on that pursuit of what he perceives to be happiness; chasing success or acknowledgement or whatever it is that he feels like he’s gaining from being in these places, like in episode four when he’s really moving in different circles. At that point he’s lulled into this idea that he’s living another life or he’s become another person or he’s moved up in the world, but then he gets knocked back down a few notches and he’s like, right, I should probably keep my feet on the ground now. I admire that too, because he’s just such a big dreamer and I think everyone can relate to that a little bit in the burning ambitions that we have. He’s not afraid to go and chase all of those things. It was fun to live in all of those moments. In episode four when it becomes a little bit farcical at times, like that sequence at Westminster with Stephen Fry, I had so much fun filming all of that stuff. He’s a creature of pure innovation and sheer joy and exuberance and I loved being in that place.”
When it comes to Stephen Fry’s Tory MP character Arthur, they’re interesting characters to put together aren’t they because you talk about Roscoe being free and expressing who he is, whereas Arthur is closeted and has some internalised homophobia.
“It plays out in a really interesting way because they are polar opposites and yet they get on. I wonder what it is about Roscoe that allows him to infiltrate that space, which is intriguing and perhaps a little intimidating for him. I think Roscoe inhabits all of the things that Arthur can’t have in his life, so I guess that’s why he welcomes him in, but only so far, because he doesn’t really want to admit to himself that he’s gay. So he’ll have a little bit of it and when he’s done, he’ll kind of go away. But I think the power is still with Roscoe in a way because he’s he had a good time.”
When I spoke to Paapa Essiedu last year about I May Destroy You, one of the things that we discussed was the lack of queer Black characters on screen and I wondered what your take on Roscoe was from that perspective, in terms of representation.
“I think there’s something really important about seeing a proudly gay Black man in a period context. In Britain, I can’t think of when we’ve seen that before, I genuinely can’t. I did come across an old BBC sitcom that featured a Black gay character, but on the scale we see in It’s A Sin, with this much plot and Roscoe being the main focus in a story, that felt unheard of. I was really taken by that and it’s a nice thing to sit with and take a bit of pride in.”
Growing up, or more recently, can you recall a character on screen who made you feel seen and represented, a character you could really identify with?
“I can’t recall anyone that felt directly or closely related to me, but I always remember feeling both scared and seen whenever there was a gay storyline in a soap. Christian and Syed in Eastenders was iconic. In fact a couple of months ago on the BBC iPlayer in the UK they revisited some of the most iconic episodes of the decade and I watched all of that stuff again. I remember when it first aired it was the kind of stuff that you would talk about at school, but back then I was talking about it to people with a certain sense of distance, but meanwhile I thinking, ‘Oh, my God, this is me, this is everything that I relate to and identify with.’ I remember that there was a gay storyline in Footballers’ Wives too. There was always stuff on the telly that I watched, but I kept it to myself and appreciated it, but I was scared of it at the same time.”
I spoke to Russell T Davies about how sex positive the series is which felt very healing to me to have that joy associated with sex, given the stigmatization about the virus and sex at that time which continues to some degree. What did you make of that aspect of the show and what it like being part of some of those sex scenes?
“They were dealt with with such care. The intimacy coordinators, Ita O’Brien, Elle McAlpine, and David Thackeray, were all amazing. We did lots of workshops in our preparation and it felt like just another facet of putting the jigsaw together of making the show. It felt like learning choreography. We treated those scenes with respect and they treated us with respect. As soon as you’ve established that kind of relationship, you can just fly and still have the same kind of autonomy over those scenes as you do with the rest of them. That sex positive attitude that is carried throughout the show is really important because when you think about the stigma that has been attached to the virus, which has kind of kept sex and the virus hand in hand, it makes you think that there was something really seedy that was kind going on for it to happen and of course that wasn’t the case. These kids were having the time of their lives and sex is all part of their self-discovery. The way that HIV/AIDS was sensationalized in the media contributed to people’s reaction to sex. You need to see the joy in it that these kids were having to understand why it was all the more shocking and unfathomable for them when this thing crept in and they were told, you need to stop doing this. But it’s just a human thing. It’s just what humans do.”
I love Roscoe’s sense of style, what did you think of the costumes and what do they say about him as a character?
“There was a lot of description in the scripts. For instance in one of the bar scenes in the first episode, Russell says something like, ‘Roscoe’s doing drag, but it’s not full drag. He’s a bit like Adam Ant, he’s a bit punky, but still really camp.’ So when I first got the role and started to think about the character I looked at visual references and began to get an idea in my head of what the aesthetic would look like. When I got to the first costume fitting with the costume designer Ian Fulcher, I looked at the rail and straight away I completely got it. I didn’t have to question anything, I trusted everything because it just made sense to me. I think part of it was because I enjoyed wearing the clothes, but I spoke to people who were embodying that punky draggy androgynous thing that was going on in the 80s, and they talk about how it was a concerted effort to be different and an act of fierce rebellion. Thinking about that sex positive thing, he’s not afraid to show his body and so I really enjoyed getting into all of that stuff as well. He’s constantly wearing vests and showing his skin and I loved that about him. It was collaborative with Ian Fulcher, we talked about it a lot and there was a journey with Roscoe’s style throughout the show. As you get towards the end of episode four, and especially in episode five, obviously we’re 10 years on from when we first met the character and by then his style is really pared-down, but it’s still Roscoe, he hasn’t lost any sense of himself. He wears lots of big jumpers and jeans towards the end, so it’s not as complicated and crazy, he has a long chain necklace on, but it’s not as extravagant anymore but it’s still quintessentially him.”
It’s A Sin has an incredible 80s soundtrack, what are some of your favourite tracks or artists from the decade?
“Gosh, there are so many songs, I could just reel them all off to you! Self Control by Laura Branigan is a song that I absolutely love. I love Slave to the Rhythm by Grace Jones. In fact I love Grace Jones’ entire body of work, from the disco stuff coming out of the 70s and then all the more experimental pop stuff in the 80s. I saw her live a few years ago at Afropunk in London and she was completely naked, just wearing body paint which was incredible. She’s just otherworldly and amazing. All the Quincy Jones stuff that he produced in the 80s is incredible. I also love Janet Jackson and all the visuals from the 80s, like her videos and Paula Abdul’s. I love Steely Dan as well. I’m always wanting to find the next thing to put on my 80s playlist, I love all that music so much.”
You recently co-directed a music video, how did that come about and was that a first for you?
“Yeah, it was my first foray into that. Tom Aspaul is an artist who is also from Wolverhampton. Funnily enough we went to the same school, but a good few years apart from each other. From us both working and living in London we reconnected. His album that came out last year, Black Country Disco, was about him returning home and reconnecting with his roots. He made a short film last year called Black Country Disco The Movie that was directed by Sam Taylor-Edwards and recently he’s working on a remix album called Black Country Discothèque with amazing artists like MNEK and Kim Wilde. Tom said to me, ‘I’ve got concept for this video and I want you to direct me.’ I absolutely loved it and I think he is an astonishing artist. I’m not just saying that because I know him, I really look up to him and everything that he does, and he does it all independently. He’s taking ownership of his creative life and it’s just so inspiring. I love everything that he does. We wax on about music and art to each other all the time. I was always going to say yes when he asked me to do anything because I love working with him.”
Finally, what’s your favorite LGBTQ+ piece of culture or person? Someone or something that’s had an impact on you and resonated with you over the years.
“I know how much that original 1981 production of Dreamgirls meant to queer people. So many people have told me how insane it was when the album came out and then suddenly And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going became this disco remix. All of my groundwork is in theatre and I hold any vintage musical theatre close to me. I’ve always loved that show and that production in particular, because it just really glam, it’s stunning. Michael Bennett was amazing and shows like A Chorus Line were incredible. Of course we lost him to AIDS, but like all those great creative people that we sadly lost far too soon, his legacy is really powerful.”
By James Kleinmann