Throughout her career so far, actor Lydia West has proven to be something of a shapeshifter. Over the past two years, she has already played a trans-human teen in the HBO and BBC co-production Years and Years, a vengeful vampiric beauty queen in the miniseries Dracula, and Jill, the universally adored female lead in cult hit It’s a Sin, which explores the lives of the queer community during the 1980s HIV epidemic. Watching West, it never feels like she’s acting, though: there’s something understated about her, even in the most outrageous of roles, as she lives and breathes through her characters.
Ironically, her ability to transform so convincingly into someone else comes from a strong understanding of who she is. “I spent a lot of my time in my early acting career trying to be someone who I thought the directors, writers, producers, casting directors and agents wanted to see,” she says, smiling over Zoom from her London flat. “I’ve realised that all I can bring to a role is myself and be truthful and honest with what I’m saying. When I watch things, I can see when someone’s genuinely meaning something and they have intention behind their words and it’s not just a script. If I can bring myself to a character, that will translate on screen.” Her other secret? Quite simply, to leave her ego at the door. “Your job as an actor is to try to make everyone else look good. As soon as you’re doing that, you’re making yourself look good.”
“Your job as an actor is to try to make everyone else look good. As soon as you’re doing that, you’re making yourself look good.”
This naturalistic approach is something she partially attributes to her education at the Identity School of Acting: the drama school that has trained talent including Letitia Wright, John Boyega and former HUNGER cover star Malachi Kirby. “Identity have some amazing alumni and it’s a great school that focuses on bringing truth into what you do and owning the skin that you live in,” West says. “Those training ethics and morals follow through with the students who attend there.”
The 28-year-old is on the road to travelling the same award-strewn path to Hollywood as the aforementioned Identity alumni – even if, for the time being she modestly says that, “I look up to Letitia and John, I don’t see myself on their level.”
For now, being able to dedicate herself full-time is still a blessing for West, particularly given her own unconventional route into the industry. Having attended an arts school and trained as a dancer for many years, West abandoned the arts to pursue a more staid path: studying business at university and becoming a personal assistant after graduation. It was at that point, in her early twenties, that she started looking for ways to reconnect with her creativity and caught the acting bug via local amateur theatre and, later, classes at Identity. But never could she have foreseen where picking up this hobby would take her. “I didn’t go out and become an actor to [make a career out of it], it was more just a way to express myself. I didn’t think in my wildest dreams that it would come to quitting my job and becoming a professional actor,” she says. “I didn’t think that was on the cards.”
And whether or not West felt prepared for stardom, it came knocking anyway. Working “non-stop” since landing her first role in 2019, in January of this year she had her breakthrough with It’s a Sin. By March, the series had been watched almost 19 million times on the 4OD streaming site, catapulting West to leading-lady material. Her character, the resilient and lovable Jill, who supports her queer family against the backdrop of the HIV crisis and Section 28, became such an audience favourite that #BeMoreJill trended across Twitter and has since been emblazoned on bootleg fan merch.
Having such a big moment in her career in the midst of a pandemic (one that, in some ways, mirrored the themes of the show) and reentering a newly opened world has been hard to come to terms with – to say the least. “The world just changed this year and you come out of the pandemic and things are very, very different for every one of us. Then on top of that, people have seen you on TV and know who you are,” West says. “It just feels surreal really. I don’t get recognised that much – I can go to the supermarket and no one knows who I am in the bread aisle – but it definitely feels as if something has changed.
“I don’t get recognised that much – and I can go to the supermarket and no one knows who I am in the bread aisle – but it definitely feels as if something has changed.”
While it broke new ground for her career, It’s a Sin was a continuation of West’s collaboration with writer-producer Russell T Davies, whose other credits include Doctor Who, Queer As Folk and Years and Years, the series that they met through. For West, her relationship with Davies isn’t just about work, it’s about friendship. “Russell is an absolute gem of a human. We have such a great professional relationship that has now turned into this friendship, really,” she says. “He saw something in me for Years and Years and I learnt so much from him and what he wants and he expects from his actors. If I ever get a Russell T Davies script in my inbox, I am doing that project.”
Beyond the individual impact that It’s a Sin has had on West’s life (and what happens when she pops out to the shops), she continues to be amazed at its wider social ramifications. While West’s character opened up conversations about allyship, the series itself has been linked to a rise in HIV testing and was praised by the chair of the British HIV Association for “communicat[ing] the facts about HIV today through popular media”. This isn’t something West takes lightly. “It’s amazing to see some of the messages of people going home and talking about their positive status or confronting a loved one or family member. It’s wonderful to hear these stories and know that you had some sort of effect on it,” she says. “We wanted everyone to see this show and to be educated on this period of time in queer history. Being recognised for something so special and important, it just feels like the best kind of recognition.”
For West, the project marked a new standard of advocating for social issues through her work, one that she is looking to maintain throughout her career as it picks up momentum. “It’s a Sin has helped me find my own voice. It started as just a project but when you’re promoting the show, you’re speaking up and becoming almost an activist. It takes your responsibilities to another level. You’re no longer an actor, you’re a spokesperson, and that’s something that I now can’t close the door on,” she says. “I have to keep these conversations going and keep doing the work. I hope more of my roles allow me to do that and delve into historical times, or communities, or characters that I wouldn’t necessarily know about in my everyday life.” Believing passionately in the power of positive representation, West makes it clear that in a post-It’s a Sin world she wants to work on more diverse sets, both in front of and behind the camera. “I really want to work with female writers, directors and producers and work with people who have faced adversity in their lives and haven’t been given the voice and the platform to tell stories. If we do that, it will help contribute to a change.”
This integrity and openness seem to be paying off, with West’s future looking especially bright – and that’s even without mentioning the slew of high-profile projects she’s now attached to. Speaking of which, West has been busy. Talking me through each new opportunity, she is brimming with enthusiasm, clearly aghast at the glitzy turn her life has taken. First up, there’s Text for You, a PS I Love You-esque look at love and grieving that also stars Priyanka Chopra Jonas (who apparently is “just a queen!”), Céline Dion and Sam Heughan. Then Suspicion, an espionage thriller series starring Uma Thurman, in which West plays the little sister of Black Mirror’s Georgina Campbell, whom she immediately hit it off with – “I always get, like, one best friend on a new job,” West says with a laugh. And it doesn’t stop there: there’s also the death-row miniseries Inside Man with David Tennant and the Stanley Tucci, and The Pentaverate, Mike Myers’ comeback for Netflix, about a secret society that runs the world.
At this point, it sounds like West’s phone contacts might be starting to look like a who’s who of Hollywood elite – but she’s still firmly in touch with reality. “I just feel so blessed to be working with such amazing actors,” she says simply, grinning ear to ear. Even for someone who’s been on set with so many legends, working with Myers, in her first comedy role no less, has left her particularly starstruck. “I remember watching Shrek and Austin Powers,” she says. “And then I’m with Mike and I was just like, ‘What? You’re Shrek, this is crazy!’ It’s bonkers.” Also in the cast are comedy legends Ken Jeong, Keegan-Michael Key and Jennifer Saunders – so no pressure for this comedy newbie. Despite the scale of the project, West is refusing to feel overwhelmed, instead seeing it as the ultimate learning opportunity. “It’s like going back to school, seeing how all these amazing comedians, these beasts of comedy, work,” she says. “I’m learning so much from them, [comedy] is so different from drama. I understand why people do it, it’s so fun.”
Between working with Dion, nabbing her first film role and taking an on-set crash course in comedy, it seems like West can do, well, anything. Whether or not that proves to be true in practice, she’s certainly going to do her damnedest to try. As she puts it: “I want to do everything.” As far as we can tell, she’s already on her way.
This interview is taken from our Taking Back Control issue. Order your copy here.