Actor Nathaniel Curtis: ‘I realised It’s a Sin was a hit when Elton John called’

The actor on breaking through in Channel 4’s It’s a Sin, his title role on stage in Britannicus – and always being seen as ‘the tall one with the long hair’

Nathaniel Curtis, 31, grew up near Bournemouth and trained at London’s East 15 Acting School. After five years of struggling to find work, his breakthrough role came playing Ash Mukherjee in It’s a Sin, Russell T Davies’ series about a group of gay friends growing up in the shadow of Aids in 1980s London. The critically acclaimed show became one of Channel 4’s biggest ever dramas and won multiple awards. Curtis now takes the title role of Britannicus in a new production of Jean Racine’s Roman tragedy at the Lyric Hammersmith theatre.

When you first read the It’s a Sin scripts, how did you react?
I just wept. It’s a part of history that wasn’t taught at school or discussed in my home. I knew [the Aids crisis] had happened but didn’t realise the details. The script opened my eyes – so much that I couldn’t stop crying. And I was reading it on a train. Note to self: don’t read Russell T Davies scripts on public transport.

Did you see British-Asian characters like Ash on screen when you were growing up?
No – Indian characters were either smart or funny, very rarely both. And definitely never sexy. One of my audition scenes was where Ritchie [Olly Alexander] assumes that Ash is Muslim or Hindu, which does happen. But apart from that conversation, Ash being Indian is nothing to do with who he is. Russell wrote that so beautifully.

It was your first TV job. Was that nerve-racking?
God yes. I tripped over the camera on my first day. I fell over it so many times, poor Dan the cameraman ended up making a joke of it. Whenever I walked past, he’d say “Let’s give Nathaniel some space.”

Were the sex scenes intimidating too?
They could have been if it weren’t for Olly being brilliant. Also, the intimacy coordinator turned out to be an old college friend. I heard this voice go “Oi, your hair’s well long”, turned around and it was David Thackeray, who was on my foundation course. He’s a sweet, relaxing presence.

Your Twitter bio is ‘The tall one with the hair’. Is that how people tend to describe you?
Always. When I meet people, instead of hello, they say “You’re so tall.” I didn’t realise how much attention my hair would get after It’s a Sin. I prefer it long. With short hair, I look like a very tall baby.

When did you realise It’s a Sin was a huge hit?
When I saw someone watching it on the London Underground. I thought, “Are you sure you want to be watching this in public?”. My phone didn’t stop vibrating for months. Friends and family from all over the world were sending me photos of the poster. And Elton John called me out of the blue. I was on the Tube myself at the time and was so embarrassed but he’s a lovely man.

As Ash in It’s a Sin with Olly Alexander as Ritchie.
As Ash in It’s a Sin with Olly Alexander as Ritchie. Photograph: Ben Blackall/Channel 4

How were the 80s fashions? I heard there was a transformative pair of trousers When you’re 6ft 5in and all leg, you cannot find trousers that fit properly. But there was one pair of high-waisted black silk trousers that, let me tell you, changed my life. Thank you, Ian, the costume designer.

You worked in education before landing the role of Ash. Did his speech about Section 28 – after he’s told to go through all the books in the school library and remove any references to homosexuality – resonate with you?
Yes, I worked with primary-school and special-needs children. Ash being a teacher was fortuitous. At school, I was the child who spent their lunchtimes in the library. Books have always been one of my greatest pleasures, so that monologue meant a lot to me.

What’s the legacy of the show?
It’s a Sin started conversations that needed to happen. It opened a chapter of history that certain people had tried to keep shut. It showed the devastation of losing an entire generation of queer people. It led to a huge rise in HIV testing, so the awareness-raising aspect is important too.

Before It’s a Sin, you struggled to find roles for five years. Was that a tough time?
It was. I left drama school at 23 and went five years when I didn’t land an acting job. It’s hard being fresh out of drama school and not really knowing what you’re doing. I feel for young actors who’ve graduated in the past two years. It’s even tougher now.

Did you come close to quitting?
Absolutely. I had a conversation in 2019 with my elder sister and said, “What am I doing? I can’t do this!” She said: “No, you’ve got to keep trying.” A week later, I landed a new agent. That led to me getting Romeo and Juliet with Open Bar Theatre company, then It’s a Sin. So thanks to my sister Sarah for the pep talk.

Is there still a lack of opportunities for openly gay actors of colour or is that improving?
The industry is opening up. Seeing more diversity on screen is not only important, it’s also life. The world is vast and has many different faces. It’s wonderful to see people who don’t all look the same.

Recent weeks have seen the first black star of Doctor Who announced, and the first professional footballer coming out for 30 years. Is change in the air?
I truly hope so. Ncuti Gatwa is insanely talented and will be an incredible Doctor. And how brave of Jake Daniels. How wonderful for young sportspeople to have him as an influence. We’re seeing amazing changes. It makes the world a better, brighter place.

You appeared in the Bake Off special last Christmas. Was Paul Hollywood scary?
Those eyes are very, very blue. Also he’s very quiet and I don’t really know what to do with that. But he was quite taken with my little pretzel reindeer. I’ve been a Bake Off fan since the beginning, so getting that phone call was a dream. And I won, so it was clearly meant to be.

Next up, you’re in Netflix prequel series The Witcher: Blood Origin. What can you tell us?
I filmed that last summer and can’t wait for people to see it. Going from It’s a Sin to The Witcher, from a historical drama to a fantasy series, was quite a shift. It’s cool to show a bit of range.

Which actors’ careers do you admire and want to emulate?
I loved Helen McCrory. When she passed, it really affected me. And I could watch Daniel Mays read the phone book.

Curtis in rehearsals for Britannicus at the Lyric Hammersmith theatre.
Curtis in rehearsals for Britannicus at the Lyric Hammersmith theatre. Photograph: Marc Brenner

Your latest role is in the Roman tragedy Britannicus. Was it a story you knew before landing the lead?
Nope, didn’t know it existed. I knew bits about the emperor Nero. When I read the script I thought, “Well, that’s incredible.” It was written by Jean Racine but it’s been adapted by Timberlake Wertenbaker, who’s done a sensational job. It’s a beautiful combination of modern and classical. It hasn’t been on a major London stage for 10 years, so I’m thrilled to be part of it.

What’s your character like?
Well, he’s tall and looks half-Indian with a lot of hair. I can’t think why they cast me [laughs]. Britannicus is complicated – the Roman empire was meant to go to him upon the death of his father but he was usurped by his stepbrother and he’s not thrilled. It’s intense, high-stakes and all set within a 12-hour timeframe.

Do the play’s themes feel timely?
It’s full of corrupt politicians and it’s about abuse of power, so you be the judge. You can certainly relate it to 2,000 years later.

Is there a buzz about theatre audiences since lockdown lifted?
Absolutely. After so long being scared of it, it’s electric being back in a place where everyone is there together to enjoy one thing – be it sport, be it theatre, be it a gig. It’s kind of like coming home.

• This article was amended on 22 May 2022 to remove a personal detail.

Britannicus runs at the Lyric Hammersmith theatre from 26 May to 25 June


Michael Hogan

The GuardianTramp

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