what makes a man?
Above image: all clothing and accessories by Ermenegildo Zegna SS21
In the opening scenes of Channel 4’s It’s a Sin we meet Roscoe Babatunde, held tightly by his parents in prayer as they beg forgiveness for their gay son. Roscoe is to be taken back to Nigeria where his ‘sins’ will be ‘cured’, but instead of escaping quietly upstairs, he bursts back into the room of his congregated relatives wearing a crop-top and a mini-skirt, before announcing: “I’ll be staying at 23 Piss Off Avenue, London, W-Fuck,” and slamming the front door.
It’s this magnetic combination of explosive charisma and defiant self-expression that drew British actor Omari Douglas to Roscoe, as it did millions of viewers. The opportunity to play an openly gay Black man living out his youth in the shadow of Britain’s HIV/AIDS epidemic made for an unforgettable screen debut, one that forced Douglas to confront his own experiences and embrace parts of himself he had previously shunned.
Finn Blythe: It’s been more than a month since It’s a Sin came out, can you give me any idea of what these weeks have been like for you?
Omari Douglas: [exhales] I think the exhale partly sums it up because it’s been a roller coaster. I can’t believe at the end of this week it will have been five weeks, but in a few months it will be two years that It’s a Sin has occupied my life, because I auditioned for it in either June or July 2019. There’s been so many crazy bookmarkers that have made it such a significant process. When I found out I got the job, I was sat with two of my best friends, one of whom I unfortunately lost just before Christmas. And so the way the dots have connected between all of these events… I mean, obviously this is my first television role but I feel like it’s kind of entered my life. The show felt like a part of me that I had to inhabit and it’s affected my life in so many different ways. I think what’s been amazing as well is that I came away from filming having met so many amazing people. They are like my brothers and sisters. I’m close to them all, but there’s a couple of people in particular who I’ve been super close to like Callum [Scott Howells] and Lydia [West]. We’ve all really leaned on each other this whole year of prolonged anticipation.
“The show felt like a part of me that I had to inhabit and it’s affected my life in so many different ways”
Obviously, the show was meant to come out last October and that year of anticipation just brought up so many feelings. It took me a long time to feel excited about it coming out. The nerves kind of took precedent, mainly because of the magnitude of the project and the fact we’re honouring a whole community at a particular moment in time that people have such vivid recollections of. You’re nervous about serving that community well and when that first episode dropped there was just this huge sense of relief in a way – relief and then gratitude. The gratitude really hit me like a wave because the messages we were getting from people were just completely… I don’t know, I was just constantly bowled over by the way the show resonated with people. People who had very first-hand, direct experiences of that time and then people for whom it was very much something looming in the shadows, which they didn’t really know about or have any connection to.
FB: And when you hear things like the Terrence Higgins Trust [a leading UK-based HIV and sexual health charity] reporting a massive increase in the number of people being tested for HIV since the show was released… To have an impact that real must feel extraordinary.
OD: It means that it’s more than just a piece of television. It feels like this public service event, I don’t really know how to describe it. I don’t want to call it a phenomenon because I feel that almost takes away from its importance and like you said, the effect it’s had on public health. But it’s not just seeing those figures go up, it’s seeing MPs stand up in Parliament to tell Matt Hancock [UK Secretary of State for Health] we need to make sure the Covid-19 vaccine is available in HIV clinics because people are still scared to disclose their HIV status in other clinics. That was Jonathan Ashworth [Member of Parliament for Leicester South] and he actually referenced the show. You just think, “My God, how often does television do that?” Of course we’re in a time where everyone’s on the sofa and more immersed in TV than normal, but I just think it goes to show there’s a much greater power in television and the arts than the general public, or the powers that be, give credit for.
all clothing and accessories by Ermenegildo Zegna SS21
FB: It’s interesting what you say about people being stuck on their sofas. It reminds me of something Paapa Essiedu said in last’s autumn’s issue of HEROINE when he was talking about the release of I May Destroy You. He said the fact it came out in lockdown meant its impact was quite surreal. On the one hand, like you said, it felt like the whole country was watching, but then you miss the more palpable buzz of being out in public and gauging the reaction that way.
OD: Well I connect a lot with what Paapa said, actually. I think with social media it is quite easy to get wrapped up in the toxicity, but this has forced us to connect in a way we haven’t before. That can be said of lockdown in general: we’re experiencing everything virtually and trying to forge real connections through these mediums. I think we’re so quick to dismiss what connection means through technology and social media, but right now it’s all we’ve got. These connections are real and people have been reaching out to us and we’ve been reaching out to them.
It’s really encouraged cross-generational conversations, particularly within the queer community, which you don’t get all the time. Obviously everyone’s yearning to be together, I absolutely am, but especially at a time like this I just want to see Lydia and Callum and Olly [Alexander] and Nathaniel [Curtis] and everyone and give them all the biggest hug in the world. We want to celebrate this thing but actually, we just have to be resolved with the fact that all we’ve got is our laptops and our phones, but we can invest in that communication and still celebrate the show that way.
FB: I think you’re absolutely right to focus on what this period can bring instead of what it can’t. You’re wearing Ermenegildo Zegna for this feature. What’s your relationship like with clothes and dressing?
OD: This was my first foray into collaborating with fashion and being able to kind of take someone’s work and put it on myself and tell stories that way. Because fashion has always been a big part of my life, it’s been amazing to actually start doing more work and express myself again through fashion and clothes. I’m always itching to do something, and as actors we’re always looking for different avenues to express ourselves – this is a hell of an opportunity to do that. Everything that I saw on the rail that day [of this shoot] was really evocative and so I didn’t have to do too much, I immediately looked at it and thought, “This is me.”
“I think we’re so quick to dismiss what connection means through technology and social media, but right now it’s all we’ve got.”
FB: The clothes gave you something to respond to?
OD: Yeah, exactly. I put the clothes on and it sort of… just clicked.
FB: Zegna have worked with some great archetypes of what it means to be a man today, like Mahershala Ali [star of Ermenegildo Zegna’s 2019 What Makes a Man campaign].
OD: Riiight! Oh my god. Talking about this idea of modern masculinity, I guess there is no definition when you think about it. It’s interchangeable and everyone’s experience is different, but for someone like Mahershala, I mean I will never forget watching Moonlight at the cinema. I was so moved by its quietness and sensitivity, and especially for Black men, it was so refreshing and inspiring and kind of a relief to me. I think for a very long time I struggled with trying to understand what society expects of me, particularly when you’re an artist and a Black male, I guess there’s so many things you feel like people want you to adhere to or expect of you.
And seeing that softness is something that I definitely related to, not just as an artist but as a human being. Seeing people like Mahershala fly that flag is just really encouraging for me and we are seeing more and more of that, people like Billy Porter and Benjamin Clementine who I really admire. I think it’s high time we see people like this in the public eye who are really challenging what it means to be a man. I’ve been reading a lot of James Baldwin during lockdown and he, again, is someone I found comfort in because there’s so much passion in what he speaks about and what he stands for. It’s that softness and gentleness that I struggled to see growing up.
“I think for a very long time I struggled with trying to understand what society expects of me, particularly when you’re an artist and a Black male”
all clothing and accessories by Ermenegildo Zegna SS21
FB: Who are some of the individuals that have shaped your perception of masculinity more generally?
OD: Well my mum, first and foremost, she raised me alone. My mum is one of six: three brothers and two sisters, and my grandma’s been around as well so there’s definitely been a maternal element to my family. I grew up with my aunties so I’ve always been surrounded by women and on reflection, I think having that in my life has always kept me in tune with a feminine sensitivity. When I was at school, I was always aware that I didn’t necessarily fit into the boxes that a lot of the other boys did. I was the kid running around the perimeter of the playground at lunchtime because I didn’t want to get hit by the football, and a lot of my friendship groups were girls. I think that came from my understanding of women and I think, by default, my mum just passed that on to me.
I spent a very long time being quite shy about that but I’ve been really learning to embrace it, celebrate it, because it’s made me who I am. I don’t think it takes anything away from who I am as a man. If anything it kind of fleshes it out, and I like to think it means that I’m compassionate and sensitive because of that. I’m always grateful for the very feminine and female upbringing that I had. So I would say my mum and all the women in my family because it has made me the man that I am. Thinking of other people along the way who’ve influenced me, obviously I’ve not been in his presence but I was talking about how James Baldwin’s writing spoke to me during lockdown. I was trying to think of the best thing I read of his and I think it was The Fire Next Time. In those essays he talks about religion and politics and sexuality, and it was just a perspective I hadn’t seen before.
“I was the kid running around the perimeter of the playground at lunchtime because I didn’t want to get hit by the football, and a lot of my friendship groups were girls.”
There’s loads of reasons for that: I didn’t necessarily have the access or knowledge, but going out and finding that was really invigorating for me, the way he owns truth and stands in it. Obviously his later writing is more reflective, but I’m really inspired by people who are able to own their truth. It’s easy to hide those things away or be scared of past experiences that have made you who you are, but they’re all formative and that’s very much a place I’m in right now. I’m looking back on how I grew up and the things I probably felt traumatised by or was shy of – all those things I was talking to you about formed me right now. So being able to stand up in those moments and just own them is what I’m aiming to do.
It’s a Sin was definitely part of that self-discovery because I’ve always been quite scared of my feminine traits and thought that in my career they wouldn’t necessarily have any value or currency. Having a role like [Roscoe] I was forced to dig into those things and pull them out of me. Another huge influence is a really, really brilliant man called Simon Money, who was my voice coach at drama school. I thought about him specifically because in a few interviews recently people have been talking about education, so I’ve been thinking about the role of educators and teachers. Teachers have far greater responsibility than just teaching a kid how to pass exams. It’s a time in which you’re discovering who you are. Obviously drama school was much later for me, I went when I was eighteen, but Simon, who’s a great friend of mine, had this approach to teaching that was very sensitive. He taught with a kindness that is hard to express in words and I just think it’s quite extraordinary when a teacher goes beyond the simple function of passing on information. He actually encouraged me to embrace those bits of myself I was scared of.
FB: Were there any particular moments or specific bits of advice he gave that stuck with you?
OD: Simon always told us to never compromise who we were. I’m paraphrasing but that is something he always encapsulated: don’t feel like you have to give up elements of who you are for other people. As I’ve learned from being in the industry for six – coming up seven – years, it is your uniqueness and individuality that you bring to the table, that is what makes you an artist and sets you apart from people. We’re constantly in this space of insecurity and self-critique because we’re constantly putting ourselves in front of people to be judged. It’s like we’re making offerings of ourselves. So the more you shy away from what is inherent and innate in you, the less you’ll be able to express yourself or make your best offering.
all clothing and accessories by Ermenegildo Zegna SS21
FB: Do you feel like that period provided you with the tools to better pick apart your own history in your preparation to play Roscoe?
OD: It’s an ongoing journey. I don’t think by doing this show there’s anything final on that journey but I definitely consider the process of becoming Roscoe a hugely formative part in understanding myself and the way I tick. I think what’s interesting about Roscoe is that he’s really unapologetic, he owns his truth and his experience and just lives authentically. I definitely spent a long period of my life shying away from the things that form my own authenticity. I think it’s just that insecurity, worrying about what people think of you – especially as a gay man, the lens is hyper-focussed on you. Are you going to be this kind of gay man or that kind of gay man? So I think by seeing how Roscoe carries himself in life, his determination and sheer disregard for what other people think about him, was an incredibly liberating headspace to live in for a while. All you gain from being in that space is a greater enjoyment of life! You see how much he loves life and you know, I think Roscoe really taught me to have less fear about the way that I’ve lent myself to the world.
It kind of links back to what Simon told me about never compromising who I am. When I picked up the script and saw that person, there was something instinctive that thought, “I can do that.” Going into that audition room and taking the risk of putting that on the table, which was really scary to expose myself in that way – I think the results have only been positive. I adore Roscoe’s ability to be so authentic in a space where he could have been so vilified. He’s still able to stand up and say, “This is who I am and I don’t care what you think, I’m going to go with the way I see fit.” So there’s so many life lessons from just reading him on the page, and having had that experience and lived in it, I’ve taken those lessons into my own life, not to be so frightened about what the outside perspective of me is as a Black gay man in this world.
FB: Just on your initial discovery of Roscoe in the script, at what point did it dawn on you that he might potentially become a role model for so many others? Someone who might help clarify their own personal conceptions of masculinity. Is it at the moment you read the script or does it only become clear once the show is released?
OD: I tried not to get too bogged down or let that idea of the significance of Roscoe to other people come into play. I think the scale of the project was daunting enough, so to add that layer on top of it, you don’t want it to creep too much into your headspace. Saying that, I was always aware that he was going to be a role model for people because we’ve not seen that kind of representation – if ever, or enough – on television. For everything I’ve said about it being quite scary to put myself out there, I was actually enthused by it because this was an opportunity to present a man who doesn’t conform, in any way, to what society expects.
Whether that’s his physical presentation, his ambitions or the fact he seeks pleasure so unashamedly, there were so many facets of him I’d hidden away for so long in myself, I guess I could only be enthused by the opportunity. There must be so many queer kids out there who see aspects of themselves in Roscoe’s story, if they can identify with just one thing then it’s a job well done. For kids struggling to understand their identity, it can be so isolating to feel like they’ve not got anyone to connect to, so to be able to see glimmers of that on TV, realises the whole thing for them and hopefully doesn’t make them feel so alone.
Feature originally published in HERO 25.