Callum Scott Howells and Neil Patrick Harris on the Huge Impact of It’s a Sin
With a storyline set during the harrowing early days of the AIDS pandemic, the cast of It’s a Sin is experiencing the show’s acclaim through the lens of another global health crisis. Written and developed by Russell T. Davies, creator of the original Queer as Folk, the Channel 4/HBO Max, the series follows a group of gay men who navigate early adulthood in London, as the still-mysterious virus begins to creep into their community. Unsparing in its depiction of the hostility and isolation AIDS sufferers endured under Margaret Thatcher’s Tory government, the 5-part miniseries is a testament not only to the human condition’s fragility, but also its strength in the face of such uncertainty. For 21-year-old Welsh actor Callum Scott Howells, who plays Colin Morris Jones in the series, the impact of the current pandemic includes giving interviews from the attic bedroom of his child hometown of Tonyrefail, including one with his It’s a Sin castmate, Tony award-winning actor Neil Patrick Harris. Here, the co-stars reminisce on filming pre-pandemic, the show’s lasting impact, and a mutual fan named Elton John. —JOSEPH AKEL
NEIL PATRICK HARRIS: When are you coming to the States?
CALLUM SCOTT HOWELLS: When I can. Will you be my tour guide?
HOWELLS: What if I get lost? Can I text you?
HARRIS: Of course. If you come to America and you don’t come to New York, you’re crazy. And if you come to New York and you don’t come and see me, you’re out of the will.
HOWELLS: It depends if you’re there. Also, I saw you talk recently, and you have a project with Nicholas Cage. What was this?
HARRIS: It’s a movie called The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent. Nic Cage plays himself and I played his agent, and they filmed a lot of it in Budapest, Hungary. I went there right mid-lockdown. All of Budapest was locked down. And the day I started filming my scenes, the director called, and he got COVID. So, the director had to be directing remotely for the phase that we shot.
HOWELLS: That is so mad. But the thing is you’re going to look back and you’re going to say, “We did this. That thing we shot, we shot it in that way.” I actually think that’s bloody mad, because when did we shoot [It’s a Sin]—in November? The November before lockdown. We were one of the last things to shoot in a normal situation.
HARRIS: So normal that no one even knew what was happening, what it was. The pandemic conversation has been such an integral part of our day-to-day, hour-to-hour living for the past year-plus, when you now think back to a time when that wasn’t happening feels like a lifetime ago.
HOWELLS: Like when we were all crammed on that bus.
HARRIS: Yes. Out in Manchester. Up and down that super gay street.
HOWELLS: Yeah, and I was basically sitting on your lap.
HARRIS: Well, that was just between takes.
HOWELLS: We can never talk about that.
HARRIS: Where are you now?
HOWELLS: I’m in a place called Tonyrefail in South Wales. It’s my family home. I’ve been here since lockdown and since we’ve finished filming, a whole year.
HARRIS: This brings me to questions about the show. Because now that It’s a Sin has come out, it’s received the most understandably lovely reviews and response, more than I was expecting, and now you’re being called a breakout star from it. You are. You’re reading everything, right? How are you dealing with all of this newfound attention, especially since you’re still just in your hometown?
HOWELLS: I don’t even know. I feel like I’ve been sort of living through my living room. Do you know what I mean? Because I genuinely haven’t left much. Like the other day, I ventured to Cardiff, which is 10 minutes down the road. I was walking the dog in Roath Park and this woman sort of clocked me and was like, “Colin.” I think that was the thing for me which reminded me that it’s not just going on in my house, it’s actually going on in other people’s living rooms as well. Even when I was in London the other day doing some publicity for the show, the guy at the hotel was like, “Oh, congrats on the show.” It’s little interactions like that.
HARRIS: Are you unaware of what the show has accomplished for you? Are you only reading It’s a Sin-adjacent things? Are only talking with Nathaniel [Curtis] and Omari [Douglas] and Lydia [West] and Olly [Alexander]?
HOWELLS: No, I am, I’m trying to read things as much as I can, but I’m also scared that people will say nasty things. So, I’m kind of trying to read things if Omari and Lydia send it. If they send it, I know it’s going to be fine, because it’ll be nice. And you’ve been leading the way in America, which has been amazing, like going on the Ellen Show and talking about it. I can’t believe it, Neil. I actually forget that you live this life. To me, you’re just Neil.
HARRIS: It’s a Sin has affected a lot of people. People of many generations are able to key into ideas about the show and people from an older generation, even older than myself, are really emotionally affected by the show. I’ve been getting random emails from people I haven’t spoken to in decades saying how moved they are by it. What is up next? Are you in a good position where you’re getting sent scripts and things to read and audition for? Are you putting yourself on tape up in your attic rooftop bedroom?
HOWELLS: It’s a lot of taping for shows and films. I wish I could talk freely about what is possibly happening, but you know.
HARRIS: There are things that are possibly happening?
HOWELLS: There are. Which is great. And I feel very lucky. But also, who knows, it could all come tumbling down, and I could never work again. So I’m just sort of trying to ride the wave. Remember that final night we had in Manchester where you said to me, “Always focus on the work and do good work”? That’s what I’m trying to do.
HARRIS: What other kind of roles would you want to play if you had your choice?
HOWELLS: A porn star. I’m joking. Can you imagine, the next thing after Colin is me playing a porn star? It would be very fun, but I also feel like that ship sailed with [Channel 4’s] Adult Material coming out over here in the U.K.
HARRIS: You could have an OnlyFans account.
HOWELLS: That’s it then. I’ll start an OnlyFans.
HARRIS: In your bedroom. You never have to make your bed again.
HOWELLS: I think I just want to tell important stories. I know that a lot of people say that, but I think I had so much joy in terms of the show, like you say, reaching out to people and it meaning so much to them, I think I’d love to just be part of projects like this.
HARRIS: So, the film bug has bitten you? Do you want to do more roles on camera?
HOWELLS: Not just film and television. I love the stage, and you know I grew up being lucky enough to watch you do all your amazing stuff. And this is no joke here. I’m not just saying this because it’s you, but gosh, Neil, part of the reason I act and the reason love what I do is through watching you. And your amazing community in the States. Like staying up late in the night and watching the Tony awards and streaming it illegally in this room, on this bed right here. I’m so lucky to have shared that week [filming] with you. And I love you not just as an actor. I love you as a friend now, which I’m really grateful for.
HARRIS: I’m super grateful for you. I’ve found that it’s not very often that I’m given the opportunity to do something that affects people socially the way It’s a Sin has. It’s hard to do unless you’re creating your own content. And even as an actor, I think the writers are the ones who come up with content. Russell [Davies] being able to write about something that he knows about, living through a decade of HIV-AIDS in the ’80s, gives him the breadth and the knowledge of how to write towards that. I have one final question: did Elton John ever call you? Did you get to FaceTime with Elton?
HOWELLS: Yeah. He rang on the phone.
HARRIS: I was doing interviews for the show, and my iPad sitting next to me keeps going off, and it’s a number that I didn’t really recognize, so I kept shutting it off. It kept ringing, like 11 times, and finally, I called the number back and it was Elton. He was understandably so moved by the show and by everyone’s performances and by the attention to AIDS. He said he loved you. He went into great detail about how he had a crush on you and that you were amazing. And then I said, “I’m sure Callum would love to hear from you.”
HOWELLS: Before It’s a Sin, what project did you feel had a similar sort of vibe?
HARRIS: I’ll tell you which one. When I did Hedwig on Broadway.
HARRIS: In point of fact, that role was very challenging for me as far as overcoming my own internal kind of homophobia that I had about femininity and about posturing and about being observed by others in a way that that didn’t signify strength. And so, going through all of that was really challenging and an important process, personally. Getting to do that on a nightly basis was very empowering and I miss it.
HOWELLS: I’d love to see you in those heels again.
HARRIS: I bet you would.