The night before the first read-through for It’s a Sin, the British drama set during the early days of the HIV/AIDS pandemic that premieres February 18 on HBO Max, Lydia West received a text from the show’s writer and executive producer, Russell T. Davies. “Lydia, I don’t want to alarm you, but [your character] Jill is based on a very, very close friend of mine who lived through the time,” the text read.
He then revealed that his real-life inspiration for the character, Jill Nalder, would be playing West’s mother, and that the two women would meet face-to-face for the first time at the table read the following day. “It was so emotional to be playing this part and to sit opposite from someone who was around during that time, who had lived these experiences,” says West, 27, via Zoom. “I just felt so honored.”
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Growing up in London, West was an imaginative child, concocting elaborate scenarios and performing them for family and friends. “I lived in a bit of a fantasy world, and [acting was] a form of escapism,” she says. During high school, she studied drama and dance, but pivoted to business for college. “I graduated and started working in a few offices, but I didn’t feel fulfilled,” West says. So she signed up for classes at London’s Identity School of Acting (which boasts Letitia Wright and John Boyega as alumni). While enrolled, West learned of an audition for the role of Bethany, the studious, doe-eyed teen in Davies’s brilliant family drama Years and Years.
“[Bethany] was written as very quiet and withdrawn,” Davies says. “And Lydia very cleverly wore a long jacket so she could curl her hands up inside the cuffs as if she was shy and embarrassed. When this person right in front of you becomes a different person, that’s what you’re looking for in an actor. We auditioned her a couple more times and very quickly came to the conclusion that she wasn’t only right for that part, she was a superstar in the making.”
During the filming of Netflix’s horror-drama mini-series Dracula, one of the co-creators asked West if she’d heard about another series Davies had in the works. She hadn’t. “He joked that I was on Davies’s ‘bad list,’” she remembers. But a few weeks later, she received an email from It’s a Sin’s casting director. West admits it was “quite a long journey,” but she eventually landed the role of Jill, a charming young woman who befriends three gay men (Ritchie, Roscoe, and Colin) who’ve left their respective homes to start a new life in London in 1981. “Jill comes from a very stable, loving, emotionally available family,” West says. “Obviously, she’s Black, so she’s a minority herself. And she was always made to feel comfortable in her skin; that’s her parents’ doing. I think that’s what Russell was trying to show—that the boys didn’t have that.”