NOTathaniel Curtis, 31, grew up near Bournemouth and trained at East 15 Acting School in London. After five years of struggling to find work, her breakthrough role came playing Ash Mukherjee in It’s a sin, a series by Russell T Davies 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 dramas and won numerous awards. Curtis is now in 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 cried. It’s a part of history that wasn’t taught in school or discussed at home. I knew [the Aids crisis] had happened but did not realize the details. The script opened my eyes so much that I couldn’t stop crying. And I was reading it on a train. Personal note: Do not read Russell T Davies scripts on public transport.
Did you see any Anglo-Asian characters like Ash on screen as a kid?
No – Indian characters were either smart or funny, very rarely both. And certainly never sexy. One of my audition scenes was where Ritchie [Olly Alexander] guess Ash is Muslim or Hindu, which happens. But other than that conversation, Ash being Indian has nothing to do with who he is. Russell wrote it so well.
It was your first television job. Was it annoying?
God yes. I tripped over the camera on the first day. I came across it so many times that poor Dan the cameraman ended up making a joke of it. Every time I walked past he said, “Let’s give Nathaniel some space.”
Were the sex scenes so intimidating?
They might have been if Olly hadn’t been brilliant. Also, the intimacy coordinator happened to be an old friend from college. I heard this voice say “Oi, your hair is so long”, I turned around and it was David Thackeray, who was on my basic course. It is a gentle and relaxing presence.
Your Twitter bio is ‘The big one with the hair‘. Is that how people tend to describe you?
Still. When I meet people, instead of saying hello, they say, “You’re so tall.” I didn’t realize 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 realize 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 watch this in public?”. My phone hasn’t stopped vibrating for months. Friends and family members from all over the world sent me pictures of the poster. And Elton John called me out of the blue. I was on the subway myself at the time and was so embarrassed, but he’s a lovely man.
How were the fashions of the 80s? I heard there was transforming pants …When you’re 6-foot-5 and have all the legs, you can’t find pants that fit you well. But there were black silk high-waisted pants that, let me tell you, changed my life. Thanks, Ian, the costume designer.
You worked in education before landing the role of Ash. Did his speech on Article 28 – after he was told to go through all the books in the school library and remove any reference to homosexuality – have an impact on you?
Yes, I have worked with elementary school children and children with special needs. Ash being a teacher was fortuitous. At school, I was the kid who spent his lunch in the library. Books have always been one of my greatest pleasures, so this monologue meant a lot to me.
What is the show’s legacy?
It’s a sin started conversations that needed to happen. She opened a chapter of history that some had tried to close. It showed the devastation of losing an entire generation of queer people. This has led to a huge increase in HIV testing, so the awareness aspect is also important.
Before It’s a sin, you struggled to find roles for five years. Was it a difficult time?
It was. I left drama school at 23 and went five years without landing an acting job. It’s hard being fresh out of drama school and not really knowing what you’re doing. I feel for the young actors who have graduated in the past two years. It’s even harder now.
Did you almost quit smoking?
Absolutely. I had a conversation in 2019 with my older sister and I said, “What am I doing? I can not do that ! She said, “No, you have to keep trying.” A week later, I landed a new agent. This led me to get Romeo and Juliet with the Open Bar Theater company, then It’s a sin. So thanks to my sister Sarah for the pep talk.
Is there still a lack of opportunity for openly gay actors of color or is it getting better?
Industry is opening up. Seeing more diversity on screen isn’t just important, it’s life. The world is vast and has many different faces. It’s wonderful to see people who don’t all look alike.
Recent weeks have seen the first black star of Doctor Who announced, and the first outgoing professional footballer for 30 years. Is change in the air?
I really hope so. Ncuti Gatwa is incredibly talented and will be an amazing doctor. And what courage from Jake Daniels. How wonderful for young athletes to have him as an influence. We are seeing incredible changes. It makes the world better and brighter.
You appeared in the Pastry shop last Christmas special. Been Paul Hollywood scary?
Those eyes are very, very blue. Also, it’s very quiet and I don’t really know what to do with that. But he was pretty taken with my little pretzel reindeer. I was a Pastry shop fan from the start, so getting that phone call was a dream. And I won, so it was clearly meant to be.
Then you’re in Netflix’s prequel series The Witcher: Origin of Blood. What can you tell us?
I filmed this last summer and can’t wait for people to see it. Came from It’s a sin for the witcher, from a historical drama to a fantasy series, was quite the change. It’s cool to show some range.
What acting careers do you admire and want to imitate?
I loved Helen McCrory. When she died, it really touched me. And I could watch Daniel Mays read the phone book.
Your last role is in the roman tragedy Britannicus. Was it a story you knew before you landed carry out?
No, I didn’t know that existed. I knew bits and pieces of Emperor Nero. When I read the script, I thought, “Well, that’s amazing.” It was written by Jean Racine but it was adapted by Timberlake Wertenbaker, who did a sensational job. It is a beautiful combination of modern and classic. He hasn’t been on a big London stage for 10 years, so I’m delighted to be a part of it.
How is your character?
Well he is tall and looks half Indian with lots of hair. I can’t think why they dumped me [laughs]. Britannicus is complicated – the Roman Empire was supposed to go to him when his father died but he’s been usurped by his half-brother and he’s not thrilled. It’s intense, high-stakes and it all takes place within a 12-hour time frame.
Do the themes of the play seem appropriate?
It’s full of corrupt politicians and it’s about abuse of power, so you be the judge. You can definitely relate it to 2,000 years later.
Has there been a craze for theater audiences since the lockdown was lifted?
Absolutely. After so long being scared of it, it’s electric to be back in a place where everyone is there to enjoy one thing – whether it’s sports, whether it’s theater, whether it’s a concert. It’s a bit like coming home.