The Observer – Michael Hogan – It’s a Sin’s Callum Scott Howells: ‘Cabaret’s the most playful thing I’ve done’

04 September 2022

The Welsh actor on breaking hearts in Russell T Davies’s hit drama, losing to a dog on Britain’s Got Talent and having dinner with Elton John

Actor Callum Scott Howells, 23, grew up in the Rhondda valley and trained at the Royal Welsh College of Music & Drama. After singing in the youth choir Only Boys Aloud, his screen breakthrough came in 2021 playing Colin Morris-Jones in the hit drama It’s a Sin, which became Channel 4’s most streamed show. He takes over as Emcee in the Olivier-winning West End production of Cabaret next month.

You’re currently in rehearsals for Cabaret. How is it going?
I had costume fittings this morning, then went into rehearsals, minced around for a bit and now I’m on my lunchbreak. It’s such fun. The most playful thing I’ve ever done. I watched the film version when I was a child and loved it but also remember being quite scared. You know, Joel Grey’s Emcee with his painted face and the whole dark vibe. Then I rewatched it in lockdown. Now here I am.

It’s a very different role from Colin in It’s a Sin, isn’t it?
I’m excited about flipping that on its head. I have a lot of adrenaline at the moment. In some ways, the role is there to shock and meddle with the audience. To make them have a good time but also subvert their expectations. It feels weirdly relevant today. Earlier on, we were discussing the Emcee’s parallels with Dominic Cummings, which is the most ridiculous reference point. That’s the thing with this play, it provokes all sorts of mad ideas.

Your It’s a Sin colleague Omari Douglas was in the Cabaret cast last year, playing Cliff Bradshaw. Did you ask him for advice?
We’ve spoken a lot – not so much about our roles, more about the historical backdrop. Between the wars was a fascinating period for Germany, with the transition from the Weimar republic to Hitler’s rise to power. Me and Omari don’t normally talk about such deep things, trust me. It’s usually just pop culture and reality TV!

You were still at drama school when you read the It’s a Sin scripts. Did they resonate?
So much. I was at the end of my second year when my agent said: “Russell T Davies is looking for a young Welsh character in his new series.” When I read Colin, I really connected with him. Not just that he’s Welsh but that he’s queer and on this journey. I worried I wasn’t ready but thought: “I’ve got to do this.” I gave it some welly and got the part.

How nervous were you, walking on to the set for the first time?
It was terrifying. I have a vivid memory of my first day being the scene where Colin’s in the Two Brewers [a Clapham gay pub], sitting in the corner, shaken up by seeing all these men kissing. I was red in the face from raw nerves and didn’t have to do any acting. When I watch it back, I’m like: “Crikey, that’s real. There’s no pretending, that’s just me being fucking petrified.”

Neil Patrick Harris’s character, the tailor Henry, was Colin’s mentor in the show. Was your relationship similar off-screen?
Definitely. I learned so much from Neil. Not just in terms of acting but how to conduct myself and manage my time. I don’t think he’d ever heard a South Wales valleys accent before. He couldn’t get over the way I said “beautiful” and made me say it about eight times. He also played Emcee on Broadway, so when Neil was over here filming Doctor Who recently, we had dinner and discussed the role. It was brilliant to nibble on his ear about it. My nerves just dissipated.

What happened to Colin was devastating. Was it daunting to play his decline?
I was very aware that it was based on real stories, on people that Russell knew, so it needed to be portrayed accurately. Particularly the seizures, dementia and when he loses his dignity in front of his mother – I wanted to make sure that was told truthfully and felt visceral. There was no room for airs and graces – I just had to go there.

How did it feel making millions of people cry?
It was strange. When the show came out, the world was shut down. The first time that lockdown lifted, I remember walking through Soho and three separate people came up in quick succession to talk about it. One of them even called me Colin! While we were making It’s a Sin, we felt like a family and the show belonged to us. But when it aired, it became everyone’s. There’s real beauty in that. The medium of television goes straight into people’s living rooms and it’s magical. Last weekend, I saw a whole gang wearing “La!” T-shirts. It’s lovely the way it’s entered mainstream culture.

Didn’t you get a call from Elton John?
There are certain moments in my life I’ll never forget. One of them was answering the phone and a voice saying: “Hi Callum, this is Elton.” I was like: “Oh my gosh, what the fuck?” We went over to his house for dinner last Christmas. Having ruddy cottage pie with Elton John and David Furnish. How mad is that?

What’s the legacy of It’s a Sin?
It’s one thing how people really responded to it emotionally. But for me, it’s the way it drove an increase in people getting tested for HIV. Charities like the Terrence Higgins Trust and the George House Trust do incredible work, year in, year out. To be just a small cog in helping them achieve their targets is an incredible feat for any TV show.

What were your most memorable experiences in the Only Boys Aloud choir?
We entered Britain’s Got Talent and got to the final but lost to Pudsey the dog, which is fair enough. We also sang for Harry and Meghan at Cardiff council, which was wild.

Next up, you’re in the Netflix film The Beautiful Game. What can you tell us?
We shot it in Rome and London last summer. It’s written by Frank Cottrell Boyce and it’s about the Homeless World Cup, this annual football tournament where homeless people represent their country. Bill Nighy plays the team’s coach and he’s the don.

Are there other genres you’d like to try?
I’m open to anything. I love comedy and political drama. I was a big fan of the original House of Cards. I just love being part of powerful stories. I say all this, but my career could come crashing down after Cabaret. For now, strap in and hold on tight!

Book Tickets