In some ways, Callum Scott Howells’ big breakthrough moment couldn’t have come at a more opportunity time. It’s A Sin – the critically-lauded Channel 4 drama in which the Welsh actor played the loveable “Pink Palace” resident Colin – arrived in January 2021, at a time when much of the country was not just in the grip of another miserable winter, but also back in lockdown.
With most of us stuck indoors for weeks, the show, written by Russell T Davies about a group of close-knit friends navigating a very different epidemic in the late 1980s, was an instant hit. It earned rave reviews, quickly became the most-binged Channel 4 show in the broadcaster’s history and of the show’s main cast members, five – including Callum – were nominated for TV Baftas.
In particular, viewers took the wholesome Callum’s character into their collective hearts, and the heartbreaking scene in which Colin discovered he’d contracted AIDS was even nominated for a TV Bafta of its own, in the Must-See Moment category.
But the pandemic was hard on a lot of industries, and entertainment was one of them. Going almost immediately from filming his first big-budget drama in late 2019 to life in lockdown came as a shock to Callum, and while It’s A Sin may have given him overnight success, restrictions meant he wasn’t able to celebrate as he might have wanted to.
All of this, coupled with personal grief due to Covid, means he’s had an especially turbulent few years.
“It was a crazy, crazy time,” Callum recalls. “I can’t lie to you, it was probably the hardest two years of my life.
“I lost my grandparents to Covid, nine hours apart from one another. I then had a show that I filmed while they were alive come out, which was hugely emotional for me, and was also a life-changing moment for me and my family. And then I was locked down for a year in my house in Wales.”
For his latest role, Callum has moved on from one of the most popular TV series of recent history to the biggest shows on London’s West End. And his performance as the outrageous, imposing and, at times, genuinely menacing Emcee in Rebecca Frecknall’s reimagining of the much-loved musical Cabaret is about as far away from his It’s A Sin character as you can get.
The 23-year-old admits that while he wasn’t “actively thinking about” distancing himself from the role that made him famous when looking for his next project, the stark differences between Emcee and Colin were still a “massively important” factor in what attracted him to Cabaret.
“When I got the role, I really wanted to challenge everyone’s ideas that they had of me,” Callum explains.
“Obviously, Colin is a character I cherish, and I’ll love him forever. I’m very grateful for the opportunities that character gave me – and I also love him just because he’s such a loveable character, even on the page I fell in love with him.
“But also, I’m an actor, and I never want to stick to one thing. I want to play roles which challenge me and challenge people’s views. And that’s something I want to carry with me for the rest of my career.”
The current production of Cabaret opened its doors towards the end of 2021, with Eddie Redmayne and Jessie Buckley in the lead roles of Emcee and Sally Bowles.
Callum actually came to watch Cabaret for the first time around then, when his It’s A Sin co-star Omari Douglas was playing Clifford Bradshaw, and immediately “fell head over heels for it”.
“I was such a mega-fan of this production,” he enthuses. “On stage it’s so much more powerful – not taking away anything from the film – but the theater production is so much deeper and darker, and delves into so many more complex aspects.
“Essentially, after that, I said to my agent, ‘I really want to be seen for Emcee when Eddie leaves, I’d love to play it’.”
Unfortunately, due to scheduling issues with a new film he was working on, this “didn’t work out” at the time, but a meeting was eventually set up with the show’s director about taking over from Eddie’s successor, Fra Fee.
“Rebecca [Frecknall] is probably right now the hottest ticket in town to work with in the West End,” Callum says of the director. “We had such a fun meeting, and then after that I got offered the role – it’s just mad.
“It sounds quite lucky when I say it like that, but I really did work hard. It wasn’t just a case of, ‘I want to play that part’, it was very much a process. And Rebecca wasn’t going to hand the reins over to just anyone – it was always going to have to be someone she thought was ready and prepared to do it.”
At just 23, Callum initially feared he’d be perceived as “maybe too young” to play a character as commanding as the Emcee, but this also fueled him even more to pursue the role.
“I just wanted to fucking do it,” he says. “I knew that I was ready to work as hard as I could to make the role mine and put my own stamp on it.”
Of course, “putting his own stamp” on a role which theater fans already have such strong associations with – from Joel Grey’s original version of the character to more recent interpretations from actors like Alan Cumming, Will Young and, of course, Eddie Redmayne ( who this year won an Olivier for his performance in Cabaret) – is no easy feat.
“Oh my gosh, absolutely,” Callum says when asked if he felt the pressure. “You want to really come in and keep up the incredible work of people who’ve played it before you have done.
“I felt very proud to be taking on the role after two actors that I admire and respect. I loved what Eddie and Fra did with the role, respectively, but I also wanted to put my own mark on it, for myself.”
Cabaret takes place at the Kit Kat Club around the rise of the Nazis in 1930s Germany. In past productions of the musical, the Emcee has been interpreted as a mirror to the city of Berlin, growing and developing as things change within the plot.
In this new show, the character begins as a physical embodiment of the fun-loving, debaucherous and hedonistic atmosphere of 30s Berlin but ends, as the Nazis seize power, as something altogether more sinister and unsettling.
“With this role, the limits are endless, really,” Callum explains. “It’s quite an open field when you’re going into it, which is really fun but also fucking terrifying.”
As a whole the creative process, Callum was keen to “bring something to the show that I thought hadn’t been explored yet”, which led to his unique take on the Emcee as a “child with a toybox”.
“Actually the Emcee, to me, is like a little boy, and all the people in the club are his toys,” he says.
“He’s the Master of Ceremonies and his fundamental job – certainly in act one – is to make everyone who comes feel like they’re having the fucking time of their lives. So, I really wanted to come in and make people laugh, make people feel sexually awakened or whatever – to just have a really good time.”
“And then,” he continues. “In act two, we start to delve into the real themes of the piece.
“And actually this man who’s been running the show, you think you like him, but guess what, this is who he really fucking is. You think you trust him, you’ve laughed with him, you’ve worn party hats in front of him… well actually, look what he’s capable of.”
Callum observes: “I think that says so much not only about that time, but also the world we’re living in now, I feel.
“We didn’t really think about this during the rehearsal process, but recently I’ve been thinking about Boris Johnson and his time as prime minister, and how… we laughed about him serving those journalists tea on his driveway, and people said, ‘he’s so funny, he’s such a clown’. But look what he did during his time in power, with the parties and all this kind of stuff. And actually, what he was capable of were things that were really fundamentally evil.”
Indeed, themes within Cabaret, from the rise of anti-Semitism to abortion rights, have become prescient in ways the cast and crew might not have predicted when the new production opened a year ago – something which is certainly not lost on its new star.
“It’s just so interesting how history repeats itself, isn’t it?” Callum observes. “And actually… some people just never learn.
“And I just think, you know, the production now is very pertinent and relevant in many ways… now more than ever, I think it’s hugely relevant.”
It has to be said, though, that delving into so many heavy themes in such an intense way on a nightly basis can’t be easy for even the most accomplished of actors, with Callum admitting it can be difficult to switch off when it’s all over.
“I’ve always got snot running down my nose and sweat all down my body – I’m like a walking swimming pool to be honest,” he jokes.
“So I come back to my dressing room, and I’ll have, like, a flannel on my face. I really need that 20 minutes to calm down. It is a lot to shake off. But I wouldn’t change it for the world.”
He also has a ritual with co-star Madeleine Brewer (of Orange Is The New Black and The Handmaid’s Tale fame) to celebrate making it through another night.
“Act two is sort of horrible, especially all the stuff with Sally and the treatment of her and stuff,” Callum explains. “And Maddie is such a good friend of mine, so it’s horrible.
“So we always make sure that we hug at the end of the show in the bows as well, because it’s a tough old act for both of us, act two.”
With one project about the AIDS crisis and another about the impact of fascism in fairly quick succession, you’d be forgiven for thinking Callum would be eyeing something more on the light-hearted side for his next venture. A nice comedy, perhaps?
“It’s funny, because in the other project I’ve got coming out in the new year, I play a reformed heroin addict,” he reveals with a laugh, referring to Netflix’s upcoming football drama The Beautiful Game.
“One day I’d love to do comedy, of course. I’m such a fan of Armando Iannucci, and I love shows like Stath Lets Flats. But right now, there are various deep crazy [projects] that sort of keep challenging me.”
While he’s already looking ahead, Callum does still have moments of reflection of how he went from relative unknown to Bafta nominee and West End leading man, all while navigating the aftermath of a pandemic.
“It’s been mad,” he says of the past few years, in something of an understatement. “But I’ve got to say, for me, it was hugely transformative.
“I feel like I was a boy going into the pandemic, and now – this is so cliché – I sort of feel more like a man now. Even though I know I’m a boy at heart, I feel much more comfortable with who I am, and I feel very lucky to be doing what I love.”
“I just want to continue to work hard,” he adds. “That’s what the pandemic taught me, to always be grateful for every opportunity. And never be a dick.”
He laughs: “I was literally thinking today about how the fuck I got here! But I’m having the time of my life. I really am.”
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
See Callum Scott Howells in Cabaret at London’s Playhouse Theater until 28 January 2023. Visit the show’s website for more information.