Culture Trips

Olly Alexander on success, sanity and It’s a Sin: ‘All those hot guys. I loved it!’ | Years & Years

Olly Alexander was so certain he was destined for success that he saw a therapist to help him prepare for his future fame. It was 2014 and his band Years & Years had just signed to Polydor when he visited the shrink.

“I said: ‘The album’s coming out and I really want it to be successful,’ and he said: ‘What happens if it isn’t?’ I said: ‘Well, that’s not an option because I have planned it in my diary since I was a teenager.’”

That diary was less about chronicling the present than a series of promises he made to himself. “I planned my life till I was 25. I would be a famous musician ’cos musicians were the coolest people in the world. The biggest thing in the list was buying my mum a house, and I did that. That was the coolest thing to be able to do with my money.” He smiles. “That was the coolest thing ever.”

Now Alexander might well benefit from another visit to the shrink because he’s about to become a lot more famous. He stars in It’s a Sin, the brilliant new TV drama by Russell T Davies, about a group of young gay men living and dying through the Aids epidemic in the 1980s. The five-part series is funny, vibrant, sexy and heartbreaking.

This is by no means the first time Alexander has acted – he has appeared in the TV series Skins, films such as Bright Star (about Keats), Gulliver’s Travels and Great Expectations, and on stage in the West End alongside Judi Dench and Ben Whishaw in Peter and Alice; a pretty impressive CV. But with It’s a Sin, he knows he has struck gold. “Some actors would wait their entire careers and not get such a good role,” Alexander says, and he’s right. Davies has made a habit of creating groundbreaking TV series (Queer As Folk, Bob and Rose, Torchwood), and this is his best yet.

Alexander’s character, Ritchie Tozer, is an aspiring actor/singer who has just moved to London from the Isle of Wight in search of fame, fortune and a good shagging. He embraces his new freedoms with promiscuous abandon, while also struggling with his sexuality. Ritchie is equally cocky and vulnerable, lovable and insufferable.

Although It’s a Sin takes place in a time before Alexander was born, he says there are so many ways he relates to Ritchie’s life. There is one crucial difference – whereas Ritchie is secretive, Alexander is an open book. If there’s anything to tell you, he’ll tell you, even if he is embarrassed a second later about his indiscretions. It’s an endearing quality, and one that makes him great company.

We meet in his agent’s east London office in December, when Tier 4 restrictions are yet to kick in. Alexander is a boyish 30 – half punk, half catwalk model, with orange hair, earrings, multiple rings, stylish khaki trousers and a handful of inky tattoos. He is garrulous and giggly with a huge toothy grin.

Like Ritchie, Alexander was a stranger to city life when he came to London. He was born in North Yorkshire, went to primary school in Blackpool and Gloucestershire, and a comprehensive in Monmouth, south Wales. He was a natural performer who wrote his first song at the age of 10. “I performed it in my year six assembly.” Can he remember it? He squirms. “Yeah!” Let’s hear it then? “No!” Oh go on! “OK, OK. ‘The leaves are falling outside my window. I’m lay here all alone,” he sings quietly, in that delicate falsetto. He giggles, blushes and continues. “And now I’m a knowin’, the way it’s goin’, we won’t last for ever, for ever my love.’”

Wow, those lyrics are pretty sophisticated – and melancholy. He giggles again. “Oh thanks. It’s about unrequited love. Doomed love. I was getting in early on my themes. I had a bit of help from my dad.” He wrote it after experiencing his first pangs – for a boy in his class.

At secondary school Alexander was a victim of homophobic bullying. He responded with elan. “I would still come to non-uniform day in eyeliner.” Did he fight back? “Sometimes I would scream. I was not a good fighter. We did rugby a lot at my school – a Welsh school. The one time I scored a try, on the way back to the changing room the two popular boys from the year put their arms around me and said: ‘Well done, Olly,” and I was like: ‘I can’t believe it, this is it!’” He pauses long enough for me to get a glowing feeling. “Then they tripped me up and pushed my face into the mud. That was hard to live down.” After that he never went to another games lesson.

When he was 13, his parents separated, and from then he was brought up by his mother, events organiser Vicki Thornton (his real surname – Alexander is his middle name). His father had been a talented but disappointed singer-songwriter who made a living marketing theme parks. Although he gave young Olly a lifelong passion for adventure rides, there were tensions between the two of them. After his parents split up, he broke off contact with his father. When Alexander became successful, his father tried to rekindle their relationship via Twitter. Alexander wasn’t impressed.

On stage with Years & Years.
On stage with Years & Years. Photograph: REX/Shutterstock

With the sod-you eyeliner and supreme belief that he would make it, he sounds incredibly robust. So what else was in that teenage diary? “Pppprrrr.” He blows his lips as if feeling a sudden chill. “It’s a bit dark. I used to write that I really wanted to be skinny.” He exhales deeply. “My mantra was always: I’m not going to eat this again, I’m not going to eat cake again. I’m never going to eat pasta.” He was barely into his teens when he became bulimic and started to list the things he wouldn’t eat. Actually, he says it was worse than that. “I was writing down: don’t eat, don’t eat, don’t eat. Did he have a weight problem? “I was a little chubby at primary school, but no.” What does he think it came from? “It was something I could control. I felt very out of control in the rest of my life. I was struggling with my sexuality, my parents were divorcing, and I wanted to punish myself.”

I want to give him a hug, but I’m not sure he would appreciate it, particularly in the pandemic. Why did he want to punish himself? “It was self-loathing. I didn’t want to be gay. I was convinced I was the reason my parents were splitting up.” He never considered that their divorce may have had nothing to do with him.

He started to cut himself, too. Has he still got the scars? He points to his upper arms and thighs, “because people can’t see there. I was deeply ashamed of doing it. I wanted to hide it.” Are there many scars? “No. A friend saw a plaster on my arm and jokingly asked if I’d been cutting myself. After that, I was so embarrassed that I mostly stopped doing it. Bulimia carried on well into my 2os, but it became less and less frequent. It’s really hard to hold down any kind of job if you’re throwing up food all the time, and ultimately you have to choose.” It becomes a full-time occupation? “Yes, it’s all you think about. And you’re doing so much damage to your organs. I got taken into hospital once with my mum because I had this irregular heartbeat, which can happen through constant purging, and that really scared me. I thought I’d done something irreparable to my body, and my mum was so distraught. She couldn’t understand why her son was throwing up all the food she was trying to give him. She found out because I hadn’t cleaned the toilet properly.”

After studying performing arts at Hereford College of Arts, he moved to London and was liberated. He had a heady time of it – more drugs, clubbing and sex than even he had hoped for, while also getting regular work as an actor. But there was a downside. He saw friends struggle, sacrifice themselves to excess, fall by the wayside. “Everything was about going out and connecting with people at the clubs. I had a great time, but it was also a dark time. A lot of people took too many drugs. A few friends attempted to take their lives and one succeeded. That was devastating. You can see how easy it is for a party lifestyle to turn into something negative.”

With Jeremy Irvine in Great Expectations.
With Jeremy Irvine in Great Expectations. Photograph: BBC Films/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock

Alexander has a strong survival instinct. There was his destiny to fulfil, the house to buy for his mother. He still struggled with his mental health, so he cut down on the destructive stuff. Today, he says, his main drug of choice is the antidepressant sertraline. “I was worried about longterm use, and the doctor said: ‘Well, the latest research shows it can promote neurogenesis, and I was like that’s the coolest thing ever.” Neurogenesis is the process by which new neurons are formed in the brain. “She was basically saying antidepressants are giving you superpowers, and I was like: ‘Amazing, I’ll keep taking them for ever.’” He starts giggling, and he can’t stop. “Neurogenesis – ooh, I love that. I’m going to be neuro-supercharged.”

Years & Years formed in 2010. Founder member and synth/bass/keyboard player Mikey Goldsworthy heard Alexander singing in the shower and asked if he wanted to become lead singer. When Alexander joined, Years & Years were a five-piece band, before shrinking to an electropop trio (Alexander, Goldsworthy and fellow guitarist and keyboard guru Emre Türkmen). Alexander, the main songwriter, has an ear for great sweeping choruses (think Sam Smith meets Pet Shop Boys with a dash of New Order). Their first album, Communion, went to No 1 in the UK, while the song King topped the singles chart and its follow-up, Shine, reached No 2. Many of their songs are about yearning and doomed love – particularly on their second album, Palo Santo – just like the first one he wrote aged 10.

Alexander also became known as an LGBTQ campaigner. He made a documentary, Growing Up Gay, for the BBC in which he talked to his mother in a tear-filled exchange about coming out; he also interviewed people about struggles with their sexuality, the pressure to be promiscuous and take drugs, and addressed schoolchildren about homophobia and mental health problems. Does he think of himself as an activist? He shakes his head. “It does a disservice to actual activists. There’s a tendency to use that word for anyone in the public eye speaking up about any issue. Going into schools and talking about mental health isn’t activism. I like doing that. If I can be helpful, I want to help.”

The week before we meet he was named celebrity of the year at the British LGBT awards. He doesn’t know why – he says he didn’t do anything in 2020. “Maybe they heard about my upcoming role and got in there early!”

He says he has learned so much from making It’s a Sin – not least about acting, and how tough it can be. “Doing an acting job where you have to turn up every day is really challenging. I was so used to my musician lifestyle, which is usually: get up late, get in a car, get driven to an airport, get on a plane, fall asleep, arrive somewhere, get driven to the venue, roll out of the car and do the show. It was too much like hard work every day. I thought I’d got past this!”

We see a lot of Alexander in It’s a Sin – in every sense. He gets more than his share of sex scenes, and says it was fascinating being taught how to do them properly. So he enjoyed them? “All those hot guys. That aspect I loved! And going into it I thought, I’m going to have so much fun doing this, I’m a confident-ish guy, love having sex, it will be great.” That’s so refreshing, I say, to hear actors admit they enjoy sex scenes.

In It’s a Sin.
In It’s a Sin. Photograph: Ben Blackall/Channel 4 undefined

Ah, well, he says, it wasn’t quite that simple – he initially became self-conscious. “I broke down into hysterical tears, like ‘don’t fucking touch me’. I found it really hard.” Then the intimacy coordinators got to work on him. “They were a life-changing experience. Intimacy coordinators are there for safety ’cos there’s a lot of shit that can go wrong between what a director wants and what an actor wants, and boundaries being crossed. They’re there to rehearse everything beforehand with the director and the performers. You talk about animals you might imitate, the sounds you make.” He pays tribute to intimacy coordinator extraordinaire Ita O’Brien, who introduced the Intimacy on Set guidelines in 2017 and worked on Normal People as well as It’s a Sin. “Anything with sex in it, she’ll be involved. She’ll be on all fours at one point, saying: ‘Now I’m going to be like a cow and moo in ecstasy.’ She’s amazing, amazing, amazing.” And yes, he did start to enjoy the scenes.

Did he find them arousing? Now it’s my turn to blush and I apologise for the question. Did he start to enjoy it too much? “No, that’s what I want to know. What if someone gets a hard-on – how embarrassing would that be? Ita said: ‘It’s natural and normal for certain body parts to get excited and if you get an erection that’s absolutely fine, but it’s not appropriate for the workplace.’” He adds a caveat: “Depending on what kind of job you’re doing. And she said: ‘If that happens, you just take a time out. So you’re all there thinking, OK, how embarrassing – because you say time out and everybody knows it’s because you’ve got a hard-on. Hahahhaa!” Did he have to take a time out? “No!” Did anyone? “Not to my knowledge.”

Who did he have most fun with? “I’d say best kiss was the guy who plays Ash [newcomer Nathaniel Curtis]. Great kisser.” And the best shag? “Sexual simulation,” he corrects me. “Best sexual simulation was Roscoe [Omari Douglas, another relative newcomer].” Has he told them? “It’s all coming out in this article, Simon.” And I can sense him calibrating what he has just said. “It’s going to ruin my standing!” But a second later he changes his mind. “No, that’s a compliment right? I compliment them both. Hahahaha!” And he laughs giddily.

I ask about the future. You sense he’s not sure where to go from here, acting-wise – that it can’t get any better than It’s a Sin. Fortunately, he owes the band an album’s worth of songs. He had them done and dusted before the pandemic. “But all that time in my flat going insane made me realise I didn’t like any of the music, it didn’t feel relevant. I just wanted to start again, which is what I did. Now it’s almost ready – again.”

It will be only their third album in seven years. “I know,” he says. “It’s embarrassing. Ariana Grande has had about five out in the time we’ve done one.” In the meantime, he says, Türkmen has had one baby, with another on the way.

What about his own love life? “It’s pretty dire.” Sex? “I’m hopeful to have more sex … it’s very difficult in the age of Covid if you’re single. I actually tried to lock someone down who would be my ‘friends with benefits’ sex buddy, because I saw that Holland were advising people to do that. In the first lockdown I said: ‘Look, we can just have sex with each other. I trust you, you trust me, we’re not together, but this is an arrangement. I’ve not had sex in six months, what do you think?’ But he said no. I was quite upset. So yeah, not a lot of sex in 2020.” For a split-second, the puckish Alexander looks forlorn. Then he grins his toothiest grin yet. “But I’m hopeful that it will pick up in the new year!”

It’s a Sin is on Channel 4 on 22 January at 9pm

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