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It’s a Sin star Callum Scott Howells on queerness, HIV and why gay sex scenes are just another day on the job

Darren Scott January 22, 2021
It's a Sin star Callum Scott Howells on queerness, HIV and why gay sex

(The Other Richard)

Welsh actor Callum Scott Howells was plucked from college for his television debut. Now the 21-year-old is set to break hearts around the world as Colin in Russell T Davies’ It’s a Sin.

PinkNews sat down with the former head boy to talk getting ahead, queer culture and playing opposite the Hollywood actor he secretly watched late at night…

PinkNews: What was your journey to It’s a Sin?

Callum Scott Howells: I was at the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama in Cardiff, my agent called me and told me about it. The terms throughout my training were that I wouldn’t go up for something unless it was life-changing, something that would be really, really career starting, all that kind of stuff.

So they sent it to me, I read the first three episodes and I just fell in love with the whole show. It was something that was vitally important. I taped for it because I was doing a play so I couldn’t go and meet for it, then I got recalled and then I got the offer the next day when I was back visiting my old comprehensive school. [Laughs]

So it felt really sort of beautiful to find out in that room. It was mad because it was my old head of sixth form’s office. She was so good to me and my school – she gave me head boy! So it was really, really special. It was like it was meant to be, I guess.

Were you aware of Russell T Davies‘ work before?

Oh yeah, absolutely. I grew up watching Doctor Who. Queer as Folk just missed me because I was born in 1999.

Doctor Who is the show that introduced me to Russell’s work. I was obsessed with it for such a long time. “The Empty Child”, which is the child with the gas mask, and he’s like, “I want my mummy”, I just remember being s**t scared when I was really young watching that. I told Russell about that.

Did you then go back and visit his other work?

I did. I watched Queer as Folk first, and then I watched Cucumber. Well, actually, I guess it’s worth saying that I actually watched A Very English Scandal and Years and Years at the time they were transmitted, bear in mind I’d seen those as well, but then I went back and watched Queer as Folk.

Queer as Folk wasn’t something that I was exposed to growing up and I’m gutted because it was f**king brilliant television and I loved it. It was really, really useful to watch that stuff.

How much of the source material for It’s a Sin and the legacy of HIV and AIDS were you aware of?

You know what? Actually, it wasn’t in any of my education growing up, which is shocking.

It’s awful. I remember the first conversation I ever had about AIDS and HIV was to my cousin Elliott. I remember that being a very eye-opening conversation.

It’s awful – awful – that we don’t have these conversations in school. There’s the whole sex education thing but I think the actual show, the Netflix show Sex Education, has done way more for young people than the national curriculum has. And that’s quite shameful.

We should know about it. It’ll save lives, for f**ks sake. It’ll keep people healthy. I could talk about it for days. It needs to be talked about at young ages.

When sex education gets introduced, I think it needs to be part of that curriculum. HIV testing, that’s a really important conversation. They want to eradicate new HIV infections by 2030 and the way to do that is to get tested and that’s a really important conversation we need to be having.

There’s been discussion about the cast of It’s a Sin all being out. Was that something that you had considered before?

In terms of Russell’s comments recently, that’s what the casting process was on this particular production. It’s queer actors playing queer roles. It’s interesting, because I think it’s something to be celebrated in this show.

Was being an out actor always something you were going to do?

It’s interesting. I identify as queer. And that’s something I’ve always been happy to say to people. So for me, it was just part of it. I wouldn’t like to speak for anyone else on that matter. But for me it was kind of: ‘It is what it is.’

It’s refreshing to see a new generation now being able to be who they are.

Completely. It is an amazing thing. It’s an amazing thing that people can just be like, ‘I’m this,’ ‘I’m that,’ and they can just come up and be who they are. And you know what? It’s beautiful.

It’s something that’s really beautiful and I actually feel really proud to be part of a generation that promotes that just to be like, ‘I love who I love,’ and that’s just beautiful. Considering when you look at history, how difficult it’s been for so many people and so many people have really gone through painful times in regards to their sexuality. It’s really cool and it’s something to celebrate.

It's a Sin star Callum Scott Howells on queerness, HIV and why gay sex
Callum Scott Howells in It’s a Sin. (Channel 4)

Let’s talk about your It’s a Sin character, Colin. Poor, lovely Colin. What’s is like having to play those scenes and being given that kind of material to work with?

Oh gosh, it’s such a challenge, those scenes were some of the most challenging things that I’ve ever faced as an actor. Playing a character that has to contemplate death, it’s difficult. It’s really difficult because you’ve got to go there.

We’ve got to go there for the people who we lost, for all those people, those poor lives that were cut short. We knew we were representing those people. So we had to just go there. And I really wanted to make that my mission. And also for Russell, it’s such an important piece to Russell.

This piece is, I think, a very, very, very important piece for Russell. Of his whole canon of work, I feel like this is one that will stand out. Like you were saying, you knew it was going to be painful to watch. But I hope it was also a way to remember those lives that were cut short. And I’m so sorry, if you did know people who passed because that is just awful.

The piece is for them, the piece is for those people. Tragic isn’t even the word, it’s horrific, what happened.

What about the scenes that were a bit more explicit, how were those for you? They’re not in normal day’s work really, are they?

No, they’re not! [Laughs] Here’s an exclusive for you – that was my final day on set. That was my last ever seen I ever filmed.

Were you building up to it?

Well, f**king hell, yeah! [Laughs] It was crazy. It was something I’d never done, I’d never simulated a sex scene before. I was scared, but we had amazing intimacy coordinators who were with us, actually, all the way through the process.

Even if I was going to them, I didn’t, but even if I was worried from day one about that scene, I could go to them because they were present throughout the whole process. So it wasn’t just about the work on that day, it was about the whole work leading up to the day.

They’re such professionals and they’re just brilliant at everything they do, it’s really, really cool. Also, it’s vital work. When you look at the MeToo campaign, this stuff really champions that.

It’s really amazing work that intimacy coordinators are doing. They just make sure everyone’s comfortable and just you’re able to then express yourselves within the realms of the character. And I think that’s really important.

You know they never used to have those…

I speak to loads of actors about the lack of intimacy coordinators before now, there are probably so many stories that are not even public. It’s really interesting.

I know I took so much comfort in our intimacy coordinators, they just really helped make us, me and my scene partner, feel just so comfortable. And then it just becomes another day at work then!

What was it like working with Neil Patrick Harris?

He’s just exceptional at what he does. Neil is such a seasoned pro. He’s a real craftsman. And he does it with heart and with love and with generosity.

He’s someone that I’ve looked up to for a really, really long time. When I was young, I watched the Tony Awards in my bedroom, really late at night. I used to stream it illegally, and I remember the year Neil hosted it.

Neil Patrick Harris in It’s a Sin. (Channel 4)

Watching him in that and then literally, what, five, six years later I’m f**king working alongside him! It was mad. It was absolutely mad.

I had to actually f**king process what was going on at one point, being like: ‘Oh my gosh, that’s Neil Patrick Harris, what the hell’s going on?’

You mentioned the Tonys and you’re also a queer guy that likes football…

Yes! The Rainbow Laces campaign is really amazing, that’s a campaign within football which is very important and really, really cool that all the clubs back that. I think that’s f**king brilliant what they do, what that campaign does.

What other parts of queer culture interest you in 2021?

In terms of queer culture outside of football, I love RuPaul’s Drag Race. I think that is such an amazing, great show. And Pose! I’m a really big fan of Pose, Ryan Murphy’s drama, that is such an incredible show. I can’t even, I don’t know where to start…

Did Pose make you cry as much as It’s a Sin did?

Oh f**k, that’s a good question! Yeah. I think Ryan Murphy and Russell are very different writers, they do things very differently.

Pose's Elektra Abundance
Pose’s Electra Abundance, played by Dominique Jackson. (FX)

And they both to me are exceptional at what they do. Pose is a very different show, a very different community, it’s important not to blur those lines, but you know, gosh, it’s amazing isn’t it?

It’s such a great show. Those ballroom scenes are just amazing. They’re just amazing.

If the sky was the limit, where would you want to go next in your career?

I love being part of real stories, stories that are based on truth and real people. I love playing that.

I grew up really admiring films like Erin Brockovich. I love Julia Roberts’ performance in that.. I’m a big fan of Michael Sheen and all the amazing real people he’s played.

What amazing pieces of work they are, I’d love to be part of work like that. But you know, whether it’s film, television, theatre – anyone who’d have me, to be honest. [Laughs]

Now that you’re playing a lovable gay on television, are you ready for the gays to slide into your DMS?

[Laughs hard] Awww! You know what, it is what it is, isn’t it? Bless. It’s just one of those things. You’ve got to be like: ‘Hey…’ [Laughs]

But, you know, I have… [Bursts out laughing] I don’t even want to say anything!

Why didn’t you want to be a footballer?

Well, because I wasn’t good enough. I was s**t! [Laughs] I was rubbish. I was never good enough to be a footballer.

At one point I was training in front of a Swansea scout, and I’m a Cardiff fan so it’s quite dodgy territory. I remember my brother telling me that the scout thought I was decent.

So maybe, who knows, if I really, really pursued it, I maybe could have. Who knows.

It's A Sin: Callum Scott Howell wearing an orange striped zip-up polo against a green background
It’s a Sin star Callum Scott Howell. (The Other Richard)

But I know that acting is something that I’ve adored and loved for my whole life and it’s my means and way of expressing myself and I just get so much joy out of it. It’s not about the airs and graces of acting. I just love telling stories – where, when, how, honestly doesn’t bother me.

It’s just about playing characters, I get so much joy out of it, I have from such a young age.

It’s really important because it’s escapism at the end of the day – who knew that this coronavirus would come about and yet all we’ve relied on is television to keep us going and old recordings of theatre.

Watching those back, they’ve been really good and healthy. So I think in times of need, drama and arts really seem to deliver, and I think I want to be part of that.

What do you think it’s going to be like, getting real-time feedback on It’s a Sin?

This is my first time experiencing it, so who knows? It’s exciting but equally, I’m equally s**ting myself. [Laughs]

It’s been a year, you know, it’s been a long time since we wrapped. Gosh, who knows? Who knows what it’ll be like, but I’m excited.

I just want people to watch it and experience it. And I think that’s all I can say really because it’s something that means so much to everyone who was involved in creating it.

You’re going to have to get used to people telling you how much they love It’s a Sin.

It’s one piece of work so far, and who knows, I could never work again.

Well, then you could just fall back on being a s**t footballer.

Maybe I’ll do that! Exactly. I’ll just go back and I’ll retry and see if I can play for my local football team and try to earn a living out of that! [Laughs]

It’s a Sin is on Channel 4, Fridays and streaming on All 4.

More: AIDS, Callum Scott Howells, Gay, HIV, HIV/AIDS, It's a Sin, neil patrick harris, Queer, russell t davies

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