By Alex Moreland
“I don’t think I ever would have expected to jump straight into something of this magnitude,” says Omari Douglas. “I feel really lucky to have had this opportunity.”
We’re discussing It’s A Sin – Russell T Davies’ new five-part drama for Channel 4, and Omari Douglas’ first television role. Douglas plays Roscoe Babatunde, described by Channel 4 as “a wild, brittle party boy, always on the run”; Roscoe is one of six friends in London, the series tracing their lives across a decade alongside the AIDS crisis.
One thing that’s clear about Douglas is how much he values collaboration, how important that is to his creative process. Asked about his biggest influences, he doesn’t highlight a particular childhood inspiration as many actors often do, but instead talks about how much he’s learned from the people he worked with on It’s A Sin. “I was learning as I went on. I was surrounded by so many brilliant people – I was inspired every day just seeing the work of my friends, the people I was acting alongside.”
“But then wider than that,” he elaborates, “just the craftsmanship that goes into putting a piece of this scale together, so many different departments coming together. There are hundreds more people working on a television production than you’d find in theatre, but it was [just as] collaborative. And I was really grateful for that, I felt supported. I felt invigorated and inspired every day.”
He emphasises that again later in our conversation as we discuss what he’d like to do next in his career; he’s enjoyed a lot of early success so far in the theatre, with rave reviews for his performances in Wise Children and Rush in particular, but It’s A Sin nonetheless represents a big personal and professional step. In fact, Douglas has already started appearing on rising star lists, and deservedly so, raising the question of what he’ll do with the increased profile that his first major television role will bring. “I don’t really like to put goalposts on anything – I feel like it’s restrictive – I would just hope that I can just keep flourishing, finding my way and working with great people” he explains.
“I’m just keen to learn,” he says. “I think it’s always amazing to feel like you can come away from something having learnt and feel like they’ve gifted you with that – because that’s what it felt like! Working with all these people was like being gifted their talents, in being able to admire what they do and allowing that to inform and improve what you do.”
It’s really no wonder then that the cast of It’s A Sin have become so close. Describing his co-stars as “friends for life”, Douglas explains that “there was so much laughter and joy on the set. Most mornings we’d be dancing to ’80s songs in the trailer. It was the best way to gear ourselves up for a rollercoaster of emotions in one day, just making ourselves feel comfortable and ready to dive in.”
What is a surprise, though, is when Douglas reveals that “in the casting process none of us read with each other” – watching the It’s A Sin cast, you’d be forgiven for thinking they’d known each other for years, rather than only meeting once their auditions had been successful. “I’ve said to most of them, it’s bizarre how close we’ve been able to become. I think it’s almost a miracle, in a way,” Douglas laughs, before going on to highlight casting director Andy Pryor’s keen eye for chemistry.
Douglas is also full of effusive praise for Russell T Davies, who wrote all five episodes of It’s A Sin. A fan of Davies for years (“I was still at drama school, actually, when Cucumber came out, and I remember it being a weekly event that we’d all sit together and watch”), Douglas reflects on when he first read the scripts for It’s A Sin. “I was just completely transfixed by it all, by how vibrant and brilliant the characters were. I felt an immediate honour to be involved with such a prolific writer’s work, on something so profound, [in terms of] the community that we’re engaging with.
“That sort of engagement that we were having just made it all the more significant to be a part of,” Douglas continues. “We were really lucky to do some work with the George House Trust, who are a HIV and AIDS charity. I only knew so much before I started, and – not that the series is scientific or medical in that sense, but I think it’s a good opportunity for people to zone in and really reflect on what happened.
“I hope that it means that people will really engage with what was happening then, because I don’t think we’ve seen it from a British perspective before, how HIV and AIDS and the management of it unfolded in this country.”
Douglas made an effort to lose himself in the period – something that, he explains, is always a key part of his process. “With any project really, I just go immerse myself – when approaching [It’s A Sin] there was so much content and story and culture to be immersed in. I love being able to drop yourself into a period of time. There’s just something magical about that for me, that chance to escape into another period of time. I like to inform myself as much as I can.”
He started building a playlist (featuring Grace Jones’ Slave to the Rhythm, Neneh Cherry’s Manchild, Sheena Easton’s The Lover in Me, and more) “from the day that [he] got the role”, and is now facing a return to the present day in 2021. “I’m still in the thick of it! I feel like it’s going to be really hard to almost let go of it because we spent maybe four, five months… and actually I’d say six or seven because of the time before, leading up to it. I formed a relationship with all of that stuff and I really love it.
“Now that the show’s out” – or, almost, anyway – “you realise it’s like, ‘Oh my gosh. It’s done’. There’s an actual finished product from that now. I sort of wish I could just be waking up and doing it again every day,” he says, though because of his continued closeness with the rest of the cast, “it feels like we’re going through it together. We’ve been FaceTiming each other every day, getting excited and nervous and experiencing all of those feelings together. It’s good to have that support.”
“The past year for a lot of people has been [about] spending time on their own,” he continues, explaining what it’s like to make such a big career-step in a very changed world. (It’s A Sin was filmed between October 2019 and January 2020.) “That was a really brilliant opportunity for me to reflect on the experience that I’ve had: I’m really grateful for that moment of solitude now, [because it] just allowed me to settle.”
He’s aware, too, that this means It’s A Sin, a drama in part about a pandemic, will take on another layer of meaning they didn’t anticipate during production (“I’m sure people might pick up on lines and moments that really ring true of what we’re living through right now”) but notes that the drama would’ve been resonant no matter what. “There’s just always a cultural relevance in [Russell T Davies’ writing], and I think that is so amazing to have that skill. I mean, you almost can’t teach that kind of thing – it’s a testament to his craft and his brilliance that across the whole body of his work there is always this relevance.”
It’s what Douglas loves about Davies’ work, and what he’s hoping people take from his own, too. “I hope that there’s always something people can identify with, and feel that I am taking them somewhere – and I hope that people can see a glimmer of something that they identify with in my work. An embrace of individuality and an enthusiasm for telling stories.”
It’s A Sin starts Friday 22nd Jan, 9pm on Channel 4. All episodes will be available on All4 after the first episode has broadcast. If you’re looking for more to watch, check out our TV Guide.
A special production of Rush, with Omari Douglas reprising his role from the play’s earlier run, was staged by the BBC as part of its Culture in Quarantine series, and is available on iPlayer until May.