How Callum Scott Howells found joy and beauty in the most harrowing moments of It's a Sin

David Opie
·11-min read
Photo credit: Channel 4
Photo credit: Channel 4

From Digital Spy

Rainbow Crew is an ongoing interview series which celebrates the best LGBTQ+ representation on TV. Each instalment showcases talent working on both sides of the camera, including queer creatives and allies to the community.

Next up, we're speaking to Callum Scott Howells about his role in Channel 4's new drama It's a Sin.

It's impossible to pick one standout moment in It's a Sin because the whole show is full of them. Across five episodes, the story veers wildly between euphoric moments of joy and devastating scenes of sorrow that will stick with you in equal measure.

So how does one pick a favourite scene in Russell T Davies' masterpiece? As a longtime Pink Palace resident, Colin plays a key role on the show, but for Callum Scott Howells, the actor who plays him, it's not one of the big dramatic moments that stayed with him.

"A scene that will live in my head for a very long time is the one with Juan Pablo and Henry Coltrane, where Colin goes for dinner with them." Talking about this seemingly innocuous moment instantly brings tears to Callum's eyes. "It gets to me now. It just hits me so hard."

"But what is so beautiful about that scene," Callum continues, "is that they can be together; they can love each other; they were all fully existing and being, in this world which is so full of horrible people. In this moment, in this little house in London, these three gay men got together, and just shared stories. I just think there's something, for me, that was so important about that scene."

Photo credit: Channel 4
Photo credit: Channel 4

This passion is typical of Callum as both a performer and an interviewee. Onscreen, he brings an incredible vulnerability to Colin's story, and chatting via Zoom, Callum is open and trusting with every response. Join us as we have a (very) spoilery chat with Treorchy's most famous resident and find out more about Colin's heartbreaking story.

First off, it's great to see Welsh representation in a show like this, especially one that's so intrinsically queer.

Russell is brilliant at that. He gets us in, and that's good. To see some three-dimensional – four­-dimensional – Welsh characters, it's just brilliant. We want meaty roles. It's important.

The AIDS crisis has been explored on screen before, so what sets It’s a Sin apart for you personally?

Whenever I heard about the AIDS crisis before, my personal experience is that it was always told through the eyes of heterosexual people. It's never going to be the same as when you're talking to someone that's from the community.

So what the show did for me personally is it allowed me to fully immerse myself in what it was like – actually like – to live at the time, and be with likeminded people, people who are intrinsically similar to you. For me, that just opened my eyes.

What blows my mind to this day is that people had no idea what was coming. They just lived their lives normally, like you see in the show. And when we've spoken to people who lived at the time – it's that whole thing of, "We could get hit by a bus tomorrow, and we wouldn't know about it".

We have to play that, because otherwise the show doesn't really have the impact that it should have. These boys, this group of friends, had no idea really. They knew there was something there, but they had no idea of the severity of it all, how hard it will hit them.

It's a Sin does a wonderful job of balancing the pain and joy in these young people's lives. Was it challenging to manage those shifts in tone? Did you find it quite intense at points?

Definitely. Russell doesn't hold back. He goes in, and… Oh my gosh. He does it so incredibly.

Reading the scripts was just the biggest pleasure, probably of my life, to date. I had goosebumps. That was why I was so chuffed when I got the offer. It wasn't to be in a TV show. Nobody's in it just to be on telly. It was just to be part of something that is so powerful.

The script, it was just a remarkable piece of work. I mean, I'm 21, what do I know? But I like to think that I have taste [laughs]. I thought it was just amazing.

When we were filming, there were days where we really had to be there for each other. We had to support each other. I think that's what really brought us together as a group. It's hard. We made such great friends, and then to do scenes where you're watching your friend simulate death [laughs] – it's difficult.

Me and Lyds (Lydia West) had one day where I was in the bed, and Lyds… after the scene, we both had a moment. It was really hard-hitting, because you're like, "F**k."

So it was hard to switch off after filming the tougher scenes on set?

We had to switch off. As a young ensemble, we had really great nights together, and loads of fun. But, it wasn't just going out willy-nilly. If there were scenes the next day that were particularly important – really heavy or of that nature – obviously, we wouldn't go out.

Photo credit: Channel 4
Photo credit: Channel 4

But the party sequences and stuff, we just had to enjoy those days. You've got to know what it's like to party, so we did it! [laughs]

Was there anything else you found particularly challenging about this role?

I think probably my first day on set, because I was really nervous. This was my first telly job, and it's something so important. It's so significant to so many people. I felt prepared, but I was absolutely pooing my pants [laughs].

So that first day on set was scary, but Peter Hoar, our director... I'm going to be forever grateful to that man because he just made me feel so comfortable. He's just a fantastic director. I really hope people acknowledge Peter for this because he's a wonder.

We adored the scenes that Colin shared with his mum – they were so touching. And you were both able to bring some levity to the sadder moments as well.

You know, there's that line where Colin's like, "faggots or peas?" [laughs] That's how well Russell has captured these relationships – young gay men's relationships with their mothers. Me and my mother, we have so much banter in the house.

Andria Doherty, who plays my mum, she's just amazing. I said to Russell, she's the unspoken powerhouse in this show. You know, the scene where she gets sent the faeces – it's just horrific. It's awful. That scene for me was just harrowing.

And the storyline where Colin is locked up… That really happened. It was a case where they basically locked them up because they didn't want them to be released to the public.

It's just… when you look at stuff like that: what the f**k? What the f**k was going on?

And it wasn't even that long ago!

Yeah. It wasn't. I did a radio interview really early on when we were filming. I said, "It's a period-drama." Then Scott stopped me, and said, "I grew up in the '80s. What are you telling me? It was a period-drama?!"

I was like,"Sorry Scott… I didn't grow up in the '80s!" [laughs]

Photo credit: @callumhowells_c - Instagram
Photo credit: @callumhowells_c - Instagram

Can you tell me more about the scene where Colin is trapped in a hotel room with his boss?

Nick, who plays Mr Hart… He's one of the most beautiful men ever. He's so experienced. He's done Game of Thrones and everything. He's the Spice King [laughs]. Can you believe it? He's amazing.

Those scenes were really hard to film because Nick is so gorgeous as a person. You look at it, and you think, "Gosh, Mr Hart is such a bastard, but he's played by the loveliest of men."

They were scenes that really had to be pitched right. We really worked on that dynamic of Colin and Mr Hart. It's very complicated, that relationship. Mr Hart has got this weird fascination with Colin, and clearly likes boys like him. As Henry says in episode one, "He's got a type" [laughs].

Colin's never experienced something like that. He's really trying to work that out. And that scene in the room [laughs] – Colin's probably going, "What the f**k is going on?" It's really interesting. And that moment when Mr Hart sees the papers, the magazines… We spent so long looking at that. What is actually going through Mr Hart's head when he sees that?

We like that it's left unspoken. There's just that silence, and you have to fill in the pieces. Of course, sex plays a huge role in this show. What was it like working with an intimacy coordinator on set?

We had an intimacy coordinator called Ita O'Brien. She's famous for Sex Education, Normal People... She's done big pieces of work. She's the go-to now for intimacy.

Photo credit: Channel 4
Photo credit: Channel 4

Intimacy coordinators, they're so vital. They made sure that it's really done professionally, that everyone's happy and comfortable.

You hear stories – obviously pre-#MeToo – of people being like, "We just improvised it." Oh my gosh – what the f**k? It's actually mad. When you think about it, it's actually mad.

Colin's whole arc, particularly at the end of episode three, was just devastating. How did you feel when you read Colin's final scenes?

First of all, I was really scared of it, because the fits were something that was really big to take on. So many people are epileptic, and they suffer with daily fits. So we had to get that right. There was a whole process with that, and then with the dementia stuff, that really required a lot of research.

It was intense. I was scared shitless! [laughs] I was bricking it. But when we were doing it, it was a privilege. I'm still so proud that Russell and all the creative team chose me, because – I don't know, who would have me David, otherwise? [laughs]

How do you think Colin's life might have played out if things had gone differently?

That's a really, really good question. I really hoped that he would fall in love, and find someone. I think there's something deeply romantic about him. He sees all these boys around him – especially Ash and Ritchie – and there's that really tiny mention of Colin fancying Ritchie. That's really interesting, isn't it? How does Colin feel?

I hope he'd fall in love. But more than anything, I hope he becomes the boss of the printer place where he ends up working [laughs].

Gilroy, who plays my boss in it, he's amazing. I somehow think Colin would work his way up, and start running his own shop. He might open his own shop or his own tailor's. I think he'd be successful in some ways. He's too lovely. Maybe that would be to his detriment as well. Who knows?

It's so cute when he gets excited about the keys.

[laughs] Yeah! He loves those keys. He just loves them.

What do you hope people take away from It's a Sin once they finish all five episodes?

I hope people remember these characters, and they remember these people. Because these people were real, you know? They're fictional, but they also represent the real people who suffered and who we unfortunately lost. I just hope that people go on to remember these people for a long, long, long time.

That's really important to me, and it's really important to all of us on the show. Because we have to remember – we have to look back in order to move forward.

It's a Sin airs on Fridays at 9pm on Channel 4. All five episodes are now available to watch on All4.

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