Warning: mild spoilers for It’s A Sin below.
Few moments in It’s A Sin — Russell T Davies’ moving AIDS drama, which follows a group of young gay men (and one woman) living in the heart of London as news of the deadly new virus slowly trickles in from overseas — feel more cathartic than the introduction of Roscoe Babatunde.
Four minutes into the pilot, we see him unhappily sitting at a table. A large group of family members, all dressed in colorful Nigerian garb, surround him. Everyone but him is bowed in prayer; his mother, holding up a newspaper that says “Gay Pride” in big bold letters, leads the proceedings. “Father, forgive my son, Roscoe,” she says. “He has fallen into the pit of sodomy.” The scene quickly flashes to later that night, when Roscoe looks outside his window as a distant uncle pulls up in front of his house. “I warned you. He’s gonna take you home,” his sister says concerningly, right before pulling out a secret stash of money, handing it to him, and telling him to “take it and go.” Roscoe doesn’t know where he would go and neither does she. All she knows is that Nigeria is no place for a gay man. “They will beat you and bleed you. In the name of God, they will kill you,” she warns, not a trace of exaggeration in her voice.
So he listens. Minutes later, as his entire extended family sits at the dining room table discussing how best to “heal” him in Nigeria, Roscoe bursts in — now dressed in a crop-top and mini-skirt, with a purple scarf artfully wrapped around his head. “I’m going now, so thank you very much,” he lets off. “If you need to forward any mail, I’ll be staying at 23 Pissoff Avenue, London W. Fuck! Thank you and goodbye.” And with that, he’s off, sashaying into the rain-soaked streets, his head held high and his hips assuredly swinging.
Omari Douglas, a stage actor who counts the HBO Max show as his first on-screen role, plays the scene phenomenally, injecting Roscoe with an unshakeable confidence. It’s clear that the 18-year-old is hurt by his family’s intolerance — but it’s even more apparent that he’s too resolute in his own identity to ultimately care. As they scream out that leaving now means he’ll never get to return home, he doesn’t even look back. His eyes are firmly focused on what’s directly in front of him: a future in London, a world away from the bigotry he grew up around.
It’s not a stretch to call Roscoe the beating heart of this five-episode HBO Max miniseries. Witty, stylish, and unapologetic in his fierce sense of self, he’s one of the main tools Davies uses to prevent this AIDS narrative from falling into depressing melodrama territory. Whether he’s keeping his group of LGBTQ+ friends entertained through his managerial position at a gay bar or serving as as a support system when they fall victim to the virus, Roscoe is always a beacon of light.
A week after It’s A Sin premiered on HBO Max, NYLON hopped on the phone with Omari Douglas to talk about the similarities between Roscoe and himself, learning to embrace his queer identity as an actor, the importance of seeing gay Black men in British period pieces, and why he loved playing dress-up in all of Roscoe’s amazing, gender-bending clothes.
Before It’s A Sin, you hadn’t done any television work. Was it intimidating for your first on-screen role to, one, be with Russell T Davies, and two, be about such a heavy topic?
I guess so. I think that, in the years leading up to filming the show, my experiences had prepped me more than I think I anticipated. I just had to trust my instincts and all the foundation that I had. I just had to leave all that fear behind a little bit in terms of the responsibility and the fact that it was Russell and the fact that there was such great weight in the story that we were telling.
I guess, now, upon reflection, I'm like, "Whoa, this really was something big. This was huge." Just seeing the response that everyone's having to it is bringing that fact home more and more every day. But also, Russell was so kind to us. He was a huge mentor to us. I really appreciate the way that he was able to nurture us, but also just let us do our own thing. I appreciated all of that — he didn't become this guarded presence that we never saw and was just sort of leaning over us. He was very much there. He was with us and supported us.
What about the character of Roscoe drew you in?
The audacity of him. He's a peacock — he just breezes through life with this confidence that is kind of admirable but also hard to understand in a way, considering the times they're living through. So it was liberating to live in that space and be him. There's such great joy in being able to embody someone who is so unapologetic and comfortable with who they are because we live in a world where it is so difficult to be our authentic selves. But somehow, he manages to be that at a time when it was quite brave to do so. I really admired that.
You’re originally from Wolverhampton and moved to London as a young adult, which is an obvious parallel to Roscoe. But did you relate to any other elements of his character?
The ambition, I think — just the want to make something of yourself. I definitely identified with that. You associate the big city with starting life over again or just discovering who you are. But also, the want for more independence. I was excited to move away from home. I wanted more independence and to make new friends. Of course, that's everything that Roscoe does as well.
One of the most interesting things about this cast is that the majority of you are all in your 20s. You’re from a younger generation with a much different relationship to HIV/AIDS thanks to the widespread availability of preventative drugs like PrEP and information about being undetectable, etc. I’m curious how it was for you to step into the shoes of someone living through an era when this wasn’t the predominant viewpoint.
That was the big question. You’ve articulated it so well in terms of the way that I was kind of questioning [our characters’] experiences. I was like, "How were they enjoying life so much when there was all this great catastrophe going on around them?" It seems quite bizarre. I was reading as much as I could. But I was also going out, speaking to people, and asking them what it was like living through this time, and a lot of people said, “Well, first of all, our understanding of it was so delayed and prolonged that people were just still living as they were before.”
You see that in the show, [that they keep on living normally] until there are these really immediate effects on their lives. But obviously, going clubbing and being a part of the nightlife was also a way to deal with all that stuff as well — to sort of vent and have that release. I was able to let [that knowledge] inform my ability to enjoy all those moments instead of predicting all of the drama and the tragedy that is eventually going to happen in their lives.
I recently talked to Russell about the show and one of the things that we discussed was this idea of creating an AIDS drama that celebrated the lives of these men that were dying rather than solely focusing on their deaths, which I think has been the predominant trend for AIDS narratives up until this point. What was your history with AIDS-related art before this and did those past experiences inform how you approached It’s A Sin?
I’m from a theater background, so Rent has been in my sphere for as long as I can remember. That was very present in my life. I also remember when Team America [World Police] came out, and at school, everyone would do an impression of that parody of Rent, the AIDS musical. So I guess there's always been this element in my understanding that [AIDS] has become, I guess, the butt of jokes in certain types of media. It was definitely something that was taboo, definitely something that was scandalized. It wasn’t until much further down the line that I had an awareness of your Tony Kushners and your Larry Kramers and, more recently, Matthew Lopez.
So it's definitely been a journey. And actually, it's all been through an American lens and [about] the American experience. I didn't really know a lot about how it played out in the U.K. It wasn't until getting into my research for the show that I started to discover how it played out here and how it was equally as bizarre and sort of unfathomable as it was in the US, in terms of the way that the government dealt with it. I feel like, somehow, this country has gotten away with the ignorance that they showed towards it. We don't talk about it. It's never taught in school at all.
In my opinion, AIDS narratives have been pretty white in the past, which is partially why it was so nice to see It’s A Sin featuring the Black perspective in the main storyline — especially since Roscoe doesn’t just “happen” to be Black, a lot of his storyline is explicitly informed by that. How was it for you to add a sense of color to this narrative?
What was amazing about this role is that I didn't have to play too much into being victimized for my Blackness. Of course, Roscoe definitely comes into contact with racism and a lot of ignorance, but I loved the fact that this is a proud, celebratory, very confident, gay Black man. I love that, if you put these characters onto a spectrum, Roscoe is there to be positive, to be proud and open and extroverted. And on a completely basic level, there just hasn't really been many out and proud gay Black characters on TV in the U.K. — especially in a period context. It's always current, which makes people think that it's this new thing that suddenly appeared.
It was also refreshing to hear about how much effort Russell put into ensuring that all the gay characters in the show were actually cast with gay actors. As a gay actor who's probably no stranger to the audition process, how did it feel to know that your queer identity was actually going to being embraced here rather than forced to be hidden?
I think it's a moment that I needed in order to understand and embrace myself a little bit more. I’ve spent so much time feeling that I had to keep certain things at bay because I’ve worried that it would bring my validity, my currency, my value, and my worth down in the industry. So by playing Roscoe, I definitely have tapped into parts of my artistic expression that I guess you could say I wouldn't have had an opportunity to do otherwise. It just meant that we were in a comfortable environment where we could bring all of those parts of us to the roles. It meant that there was such an immediate connection to the material and everything that was going on.
If you'd said maybe a year ago that I was going to be standing on this platform and talking about what it means to be an openly gay actor, I think I would've felt the qualms of doing something like that. But I'm actually really proud to be standing in this moment and just living in that because, now, I can only live in that truth a bit more. And that only enriches the work, right? It only enriches everything else that I do. So I'm so grateful for this moment.
Since finishing the show, I think the thing about Roscoe that has stuck with me the most is his wardrobe, which is just incredible. How did you like getting to play dress-up?
I loved it. Ian Fulcher, who was our wardrobe designer, is an absolute legend. I trusted him from the minute that I walked into the room and saw that costume rail. I was literally like, Yeah. I get it. And it wasn't just like, Aww, they're really nice clothes and I want to wear those clothes. I actually understood what it was that allowed Roscoe to be wearing those clothes, because, at least at the beginning of the show, everything's made up. He kind of fashions things out of things that shouldn't be those things — like, he takes padlocks and puts them onto bracelets. It all has to do with this sort of punk element; that’s the influence that he draws from.
I think Russell describes it in the script as “half-drag.” So he's got the eye-shadow, but that's all he needs. He wants to play with the gender thing a bit, so he'll wrap his head in a purple headscarf. I also loved showing a bit of skin because I don't normally do that in my day-to-day. It's like Roscoe’s style elevated me. But in general, I've always loved dress-up. Fashion is really important to me because it's part of my creativity. I like putting things together in the same way that Roscoe does.
It’s A Sin is streaming on HBO Max now.