In recent years, there has been a trend on television in which show-runners look to the past to paint sensitive, honest portraits of queer lives and the historical struggles of LGBTQ people. Pose and Veneno are two solid examples of this, and now, a new British show enters the fold: It’s a Sin, the Russell T. Davies series about a group of friends whose lives are abruptly interrupted by the devastating arrival of HIV and AIDS in 1980s London.
It’s a Sin begins as a party—but when the virus interrupts the lives of the twenty-something gay men (and one woman) who live together in a flat they’ve christened “The Pink Palace,” the show does not shy away from showing the devastating reality of illness, mass confusion, and death. The show also doesn’t shy away from the conservative British government led by Margaret Thatcher, and its lack of communication with its citizens about the truth of the HIV/AIDS throughout the ’80s and ’90s.
The woman who lives with the group in It’s a Sin is named Jill, and she is played by 27-year-old Lydia West, an actress known for her roles in Davies’s dystopian drama Years and Years, and Steven Moffat’s Dracula miniseries.
“My character is such a great ally. I was ashamed at how little I knew about the era, from patient zero to the conspiracies and misinformation that was going around, to Section 28 being enforced in 1988,” West explained via Zoom, one afternoon before It’s a Sin debuts on HBO Max in the United States Feb. 18. “All of these things were never taught to me, and I never went out of my way to research them, which I’m ashamed of, but through the show and doing the work to read about the times, it really opened my eyes to what these beautiful people went through, and to an extent are still going through. Trauma lives on and it’s generational. It’s hard to erase that. I hope for our generation that they see this time in not-so-distant history and are informed.”
West, who defines her younger self as having “a very overactive imagination,” grew up in North London, where she and her sister both danced. “My parents encouraged me to dance because I was quite introverted and shy. And acting has allowed me to tell stories, to be confident, to open up—but as a character, not as Lydia,” the cheerful actress explained. Her sister eventually became a professional dancer, but a broken foot during an Irish dance performance for her grandfather’s birthday landed the actress into the very practical career of studying business and eventually working in an office as a personal assistant. Throughout that period, she took on part-time acting classes while working her office job and secretly taking auditions on the side, until she auditioned for a part on Years and Years and got the role. Then she decided to pursue the career full time in 2019. “I was like, okay, I better quit my office job now!” she said.
While working on Dracula in 2020, West discovered that Davies, a pioneer of queer television (he created the groundbreaking 1999 series Queer as Folk, which was adapted into an American series of the same name the following year), was working on another autobiographical series about the lives of gay men. But due to its working title (Boys) and subject matter (young gay men in London wrestling with the AIDS crisis) she wasn’t entirely sure there’d be a place for her in the show.
However, the character of Jill Baxter—based on one of the show-runner’s oldest and dearest friends, Jill Nalder—becomes one of the first to speak out about the injustices the gay men in her life are experiencing in 1980s London. In the series, Jill is the first in the group to recognize the very real threat AIDS poses to them all, the first to help the first friend in her group who succumbs to the virus, visits dying patients in the hospital, and rallies for the British government to change their homophobic laws.
The real Jill also appears in the show in a cameo role as West’s mother. “She gave me such insight into the period. I learned so much about her, about visiting hospices, doing late-hour theater workshops and bringing around collection boxes, and going to marches,” the actress said. “It was so inspiring to have her there on set to give that insight and to feel like we really were there.”
Still, she didn’t want to copy everything about the real Jill Nalder and paste it onto the fictional character Jill Baxter. “What I tried to bring to it was that sense of humanity, and the love and care for these boys. It helped that the main lot of us really got on and became best friends, and they’re all such lovely humans that it was so easy. We were so happy to tell this story of friendship, joy, love, and hope—and all of the devastating things that happened,” West explained. “And I became so attached to the point where now, when I hear Eighties music and I feel a humongous wave of nostalgia, I have to remind myself I was not alive during this time,” the actress said with a laugh.
West also became emotionally attached to her own character, a feat that was not easy to undo at the onset of the coronavirus pandemic lockdown, which began just weeks after production on It’s a Sin wrapped. “It was a mixture of the pandemic, the civil rights movement, everything brought back a lot of emotions I hadn’t really had time to process as myself because I’d been playing characters for 18 months with no break,” she said. “But this year allowed me time to reset, and think about the world and what humanity was going through, and what’s important and what’s not—kind of in the same way Jill does.”
Now that her It’s a Sin days are behind her (though she said the cast does still text each other daily), West is onto her next projects. She’ll star in a romantic comedy called Text For You, with Sam Heughan, Priyanka Chopra Jonas, and Celine Dion. If that last name on the call sheet is surprising to you, it was just as much of a shock to West. “I did the read-through on Zoom and saw ‘Celine Dion’ on the script, but I assumed it would be someone playing Celine Dion,” she laughed. “Then they said it was the real Celine Dion! She’s playing herself in this rom-com which has themes of loss, grief, and trauma, and overcoming that by processing it and not trying to rush that process.”
She is also currently filming an Apple TV+ espionage thriller in London with Uma Thurman called Suspicion, in which her character is related to a suspect who kidnaps Thurman’s character’s son. “I love independent stuff, I love new writing, I love marginalized voices,” she said, “So if any project has those, I will run to it.”