Callum Scott Howells delivers my favorite performance of the season. In Russell T. Davies’ devastating and life-affirming limited series, It’s a Sin, Howells plays Colin, an innocent young man who learns to come out of his shell thanks to his vibrant group of friends in London throughout the 1980s. In a series full of high emotion, Howells gives a subtle performance of heartbreaking power. We lost an entire generation of queer men, and we will never know how many Colins never reached their full potential.
Colin has a very strong tie to his mother back home in Wales, but he finds a glimmer of hope as an apprentice to Neil Patrick Harris’ Henry Coltrane. Henry recognizes Colin’s abilities and his sexuality almost immediately and takes him under his wing. After work, Henry and Colin get to talking about family and Henry says, “I’ve moved on from them”–a line that carries tremendous weight to any gay person. It’s something that Howells spoke about as an important moment.
“His family is everything. His mother is such a pivotal part of his life and what we gather, she has been the most important person. He comes from such a loving family and it’s scene that means a lot to the people involved with us on the show. One of our producers, Phil Collinson, said he thought it felt like a moment–not just in the show but in time. It was three gay men at a table during a time when being gay would open up such a toxic can of shit. When Colin hears that, there’s so much depth there. I never spoke to Neil about it but I would love to hear about what he thought. Colin doesn’t bring it up again.”
Audiences are connected with Colin because of his sweet nature and because he is the outsider of his group of friends. He starts the series quite buttoned up–sometimes literally in a formal suit–but Howells explained that he couldn’t play the inactive choice of being a saint. What happens to Colin is tragic, but he wouldn’t focus on that throughout his scenes.
“What was very important to me was getting that relationship with Ross right. I am very interested in what happens behind closed doors, at night, and those scenes with Ross really interested me. Those scenes at the dinner table in the morning and Colin askes if Ross’ parents are out every Thursday. There is this thing there that we don’t see right before he’s going to clock off. I am still trying to figure it out. How aggressive did it get. That relationship was so interesting to me. If we are going to explore Colin, there is a lot unsaid in those scenes. That all happens before he meets his friends and he comes into his own more. That’s not me–that’s Russell’s genius. It’s technically a whodunnit with Colin and Russell wanted to get it right. It could’ve been Mr. Hart, but that’s not right because it’s the moment where Colin stands up for himself. That’s when he drops this good guy thing that he carries with him. It’s been more of a year since we filmed it, if you know what I mean?”
Every time I’ve seen It’s a Sin, there is a line that Colin utters to his mother in the hospital. “I’m not dirty,” he almost whimpers to her. Cleanliness is part of our queer culture. Gay men ask each other on hookup apps if another is “clean” referring to their HIV status. It’s an immediate stigma that a lot of HIV positive people feel after their diagnosis. It’s a quiet, seemingly simple line, but it’s fraught with so much pain and embarrassment.
“It’s the idea of being infected and it’s a thread with Mr. Hart. It was all in the research. I watched so many documentaries about that time, and there are so many HIV wards weren’t clean and they were neglected. The nurses and the staff didn’t take care of them. There is a history of people feeling dirty. Colin is staying in a room where the toilet is in his room, and there is an intrinsic room that pushed him to feel that way. He was being pushed around so much. There is a line that Keeley [Hawes] says, “Men have sex with shit.” Even now there is so much shame.”
Howells watched several documentaries to get Colin’s physicality correct. He sometimes watched videos up to 50 times to embody the stiffness of someone with epilepsy. The scenes where he experiences fits are so hard to watch.
“It was so important to me to give it time. I saw a great documentary that was part of the Horizon series called “Killer in the Village” about men with nonlinear thoughts and you can’t figure out how they are trying to communicate. Having seen that, because it was such part of Colin’s story, and seeing people having epileptic fits because of AIDS. I had to get it right. There wasn’t a question in my mind. We watched so many videos and had movement guys to talk about the tension. I’m a visual learner and that way I feel like I can hold it in my body.”
Although Colin is a fictional character and Howells learned about the AIDS epidemic around the age of 17, he acknowledges how much stigma still exists for infected queer people. Howells will never take his chosen family for granted because Colin taught him to fiercely love those close to him.
“It’s why I feel so proud to be part of It’s a Sin because being so much of this show is getting rid of the stigma and telling people it’s not like this anymore. It’s moved on leaps and bounds from when this show takes place. It’s the idea of never taken your chosen family for granted and always being grateful for them. Not your family or your parents or grandparents of guardians. It makes me so grateful for my friends and the amazing people in my life. Colin’s friends allowed him to thrive. Without them, who knows what would’ve happened to him. He had HIV and AIDS and through the last few years of his life, they brought him so much joy and so much life. Never take those people for granted.”