Olly Alexander: ‘I want to make the community proud. I don’t know if I’ve always got it right’
As Ritchie Tozer in Russell T Davies’ devastating 1980s-set drama It’s A Sin, Olly Alexander told a story from a tragically formative decade in gay history. As himself and as front-man of synthpop trio Years & Years, he contributes to a new narrative. The insecurities and anxieties written into minority identities are not just a personal challenge. They can shape stories told by, for and about all his peers.
It is the afternoon before It’s A Sin is broadcast to the nation and its star, 30-year-old musician and actor Olly Alexander, is buying a cat cushion. “It’s for a friend!” he says, mortified to be caught in the act of buying a plush feline.
Where once being the star of a prime-time Channel 4 drama might mean greenrooms, watch parties and a celebratory afters, this is January 2021, so a flame-haired Alexander is sitting in his kitchen, drinking a smoothie the exact same lilac as his top.
“I’ve had a lot of restless energy,” he says. He binge-watched The Real Housewives Of New York City. And, in between doing lots of squats and “watching homoerotic YouTube workout videos”. It’s not quite the normal build-up to a game-changing drama. However, is there a better way to remember peacetime than watching a show filled with period pieces such as “friends drink indoors” or “strangers have guiltless sex at a house party”? It’s A Sin is both a masterpiece and a reminder that someday we will, once again, be able to be eaten out by hot men. “You’re so welcome,” Alexander says, laughing. “If I can bring anything to the British public, it’s a lesson in anal hygiene.”
Deeply realistic and fantastically homosexual
Anal hygiene are two words we have probably never published together in GQ. And, more importantly, are probably not the subject of many – if any! – scenes in a piece of media not uploaded to OnlyFans. They are, however, the subject of a crucial scene in the first episode of It’s A Sin, in which Alexander’s character – an 18-year-old fledgling queer from the Isle Of Wight called Ritchie Tozer – gets rimmed by his campus crush, Ash Mukherjee (Nathaniel Curtis). No gay men watching came out of that scene not feeling seen and, like all the other sex scenes in It’s A Sin, it feels deeply realistic and fantastically homosexual.
“I can tell you I’ll never forget being practically butt-naked with my arse in the air in front of colleagues,” says Alexander, laughing. But by that point, he says, he had done so many sex scenes that it felt somewhat rote. “‘Ritchie’s got a dirty bum! Stick that arse in the air and look disappointed!’” What was interesting, he says, was the dynamic of trying to produce the most authentically gay experiences possible on camera.
‘We understood these characters with a kind of shorthand that gay people understand’
They were working with Ita O’Brien – a movement director and arguably the OG intimacy coordinator – but, for her sins, not a gay man. So while everyone would have an input in how a sex scene would be best shot, “There came a point when they would say, ‘Please tell us, because we’re not gay men.’” So then the writer, the performers, the director and O’Brien’s team would come to a consensus on how to make a threesome look like three men shagging, yet also make it look the best it could on camera and make sure “you never touch each other’s genitals, basically”.
Alexander says O’Brien’s input was a “lifesaver” for him on set. Although by the end he felt comfortable, he was at first intimidated by just how exposing this would be. “I had a bit of a hysterical breakdown. Was really worried I couldn’t do it. I just didn’t feel safe.” This was interesting to hear from Alexander, the proudly queer front-man of the band Years & Years, who “spent four years on the road performing and finding this character that I do feel sexy in”. It was then that O’Brien and the team asked him to bring whatever made him feel comfortable on stage into the room before the cameras rolled. “So I would sing before the takes, be a little bit of Olly on stage,” he says, laughing. “That was my way of tricking my brain and thinking it was a character. Which, of course, it was.”
This article was originally published by GQ