Nathaniel Curtis on Ash's love story and why It's a Sin is "not an AIDS drama"

David Opie
·10-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 Nathaniel Curtis about his role in Channel 4's new drama It's A Sin.

From Queer As Folk and Doctor Who to Cucumber and Years and Years, Russell T Davies has proved time and time again that he's one of the most important voices we have working today. But even among so many impressive shows, It's a Sin stands out as his masterpiece.

It's no wonder then that Nathaniel Curtis "instantly fell in love" with the script. "I was in the middle of doing a tour of Romeo and Juliet," he tells me. "And my agent sent me the first three episodes. I read it, and I was desperate for it."

Thankfully, Nathaniel nailed each of his auditions and went on to be cast as Ash, a quietly confident young man who falls in love with Ritchie, the lead character. Compared to some of the other Pink Palace residents, we don't learn as much about Ash's backstory. But that in itself hints at past struggles which are fleshed out further by Nathaniel's gorgeous performance.

We called Nathaniel up to have a spoilery chat about Ash and what the future might hold for him beyond these five perfect episodes. Along the way, we also talked sex, Ash's love story, and why It's a Sin is "not an AIDS drama" in the traditional sense.

Photo credit: Channel 4
Photo credit: Channel 4

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

Well, everyone’s talking about how It's a Sin is the first time we’ve seen it through the eyes of the British. What’s interesting about the show for me is: it’s not an AIDS drama. It’s a story about a group of friends who love each other so ferociously.

They’re just trying to get by in life. They’re trying to find themselves. They’re trying to discover who they are. But then they have this awful battle. This horrible disease sweeps in, and they’re just trying to figure out how to just be young, in your 20s, in London, and living the best years of your life.

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?

There were times it was quite intense, but I was lucky – the cast, the people who I got the chance to work with, were so lovely and fun and understanding in the times where it was difficult, and you had to take a breath.

The people on set, the crew – oh, the crew. Everyone just looked after you, and you had the time and space that you needed to just get the best out of yourself. I felt incredibly supported, even in the times I found it difficult.

There were tough days, but I think because everyone got along so well, it wasn’t tough.

What was it like to explore the intersection between queerness and the biracial experience in an '80s context?

You don’t learn an awful lot about Ash. He doesn’t talk about his family, and any time he’s actually asked about his family, he just shuts down. So I think that for myself…

I mean, I’m half-Indian. My mother is English, my father is Indian. So I know the culture. And I also know that there are times when the culture is very unforgiving towards LGBTQ+ people.

It’s obviously different now what you can talk about. For me, in terms of researching who Ash is, I already have bits of him in me. It was more just researching time periods.

Sex plays a huge role in this show. What was it like working with an intimacy coordinator? Did things ever get awkward?

I think the most awkward thing was that one of the intimacy coordinators was a very old friend of mine. I turned up to set one day and I was like, "David, what are you doing?!"

But the intimacy coordinators are some of the most patient, caring people I’ve ever met. You could not have done those scenes without them. I don’t mind taking my clothes off – that’s not really a problem for me, but it was a bit weird. I’m incredibly, incredibly lucky in that my scene partner, Olly Alexander, is one of the best people in the world.

It was cold. It was in the morning. We got there a bit half-asleep, bare bottom, which was an experience I don’t think I’ll ever forget [laughs]. But everyone on set was so patient, and everything was very careful, down to the choreography of the scene. You know, it was like: "Arm goes here. Leg goes there. You move your head this way."

Because it’s so much like a dance, it wasn’t as awkward as it could have been. But again, just having the people there who put so much care and so much attention into it, that made it less awkward. I mean, it’s a bit weird, having nothing but a little sock on in front of a few people [laughs]. The crew, Olly, the director, everyone, and the lovely intimacy coordinators – the love that you get, even when you’re a bit self-conscious, it’s so warm there.

What did you find particularly challenging about this role?

I think there were nerves in the sex scenes. Challenging? I’m not going to lie, I had a whale of a time. I know people are probably going to talk about this a lot. But the filming of it was the most incredible experience. I’m so lucky that it was my first job. And I just had fun for four months with people who I care about so much.

Photo credit: Channel 4
Photo credit: Channel 4

I think that the challenge is… it was tough to research. Not because it was hard, but hearing the stories, seeing the photos, watching the videos – it just absolutely devastates you. Having to immerse yourself in those times is quite overwhelming.

Also, it was super-cold in Manchester at times. Filming outside – it was so cold [laughs]. I felt most sorry for Omari, who had these incredible costumes, but they were not built for thermos.

Ash and Ritchie share such a beautiful relationship that many queer men will relate to. Can you tell me more about the connection they share?

There’s something about the love story between Ash and Ritchie that I think is so normal. I think we’ve all had times where we fall for our friends. Look, we’re all human [laughs]. And I think that what is nice about them is that although yes they are in love, it doesn’t envelop them. This isn’t a story about two men being in love. It’s a story about everything you go through as a young person.

What I really liked in the script is that it’s not these big, sweeping love speeches with rain and violins. It’s just two people trying to get by.

And I like the way that it shifts. The first time that you see Ash, Ritchie sees him as this absolute 10, and Ash is so confident, and he’s so full of himself – not in a nasty way, but he’s so young, and he’s full of youth, that self-confidence you have when you’re 19 years old, and the world is your oyster.

But then as they grow up, Ash becomes… He’s still very certain of himself, but he doesn’t need to exert himself in the same way. Whereas I think with Ritchie, while he becomes this incredible, vibrant character, Ash just chills a bit. And I think that’s really good for them. I love the way they kind of switch. And of course, it’s just devastating. Just devastating.

Photo credit: @nathaniel.curtis - Instagram
Photo credit: @nathaniel.curtis - Instagram

What are your thoughts on that emotional ending?

I’m not someone who really cries, and I spent a lot of time crying about it. Again, the way that these scenes, the tough scenes, were approached, you had people who just took care of you.

I remember, there was one scene where I had to cry, and it was a bit much. I’d spent the entire day crying. And I just said that I needed to go and get some air. And they immediately, without even asking… there were no questions. The producer was like, "Nathaniel’s stepping out."

It was the way you were taken care of, filming those scenes. And they are tough scenes. I’m very lucky in that I’ve never lost someone that way who I’ve been in love with. Just trying to tap into that – it was just so heart-breaking. It really stays with you, actually, filming those kind of scenes. And I love Olly to pieces. I couldn’t imagine that.

If we could follow Ash after the credits roll, what do you see next for him? What are your hopes for his future?

I think that one of two things happened to Ash – in my mind, obviously. Don’t tell Russell [laughs].

But I think that Ash either sticks with the Pink Palace lot and changes his job at some point. He’ll probably move into more of the activism side of things. Or I think that Ash would just, one day, drift off and try to leave it all behind.

Ash is the only character whose family you neither see or are barely mentioned. He doesn’t have anyone to go back to. He doesn’t have anyone to fall back on. I think that losing people is just – as someone who has lost friends – it’s tough, to lose people so close.

But I like to think that he and Jill would probably end up very happy together somewhere, the two of them, and then Roscoe pops in every now and then. I’d love that for them.

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

Resilience. The resilience of young people who know what they’re fighting for. And I hope that… I heard Russell mention this beautifully – he just hopes that you miss them. And I think that’s a really lovely way to put it. I would love for people to walk away and think, "I recognise that friendship. I recognise this trait in that character."

I mean, we’re going through a very interesting time at the moment, but the differences are so stark. It’s not just about the AIDS crisis in the '80s. It’s about a group of people who fight. You talk about the AIDS crisis sometimes with almost a hushed voice. But I think being able to turn around and say, "They were brave. They fought. They loved. They tried." – I would really like that.

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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