Seyan tells DIVA all about her character Lizbeth in the hit Channel 4 show
BY SOPHIE GRIFFITHS
Already heralded as one of the best queer TV shows ever made, It’s A Sin has had a huge impact on the community. With the first episode aired on TV just two weeks ago, the show from award-winning writer Russell T Davies has already garnered 6.5 million views on All 4, making it the streaming services’ biggest ever instant box set, their third biggest series to date and the most binged new series ever.
There’s no stopping this beautiful and painful glimpse into the AIDs crisis of the 80s as it continues to inspire and touch audiences everywhere.
One character we were particularly drawn to was Lizbeth, who comes to campaign on behalf of Colin and a gay rights group for his release from a Welsh hospital. As a queer, muslim woman her dedication to this fight would have been radical and we couldn’t wait to find out more about the woman behind the character, Seyan Sarvan.
DIVA: How has the reaction been to the show so far?
Seyan Sarvan: It’s been such a whirlwind. It’s been beautiful to see the change that the show has created already and the conversations that it’s opening. I knew about the AIDs epidemic because of movies like Philadelphia and Angels in America, but most people in my age group don’t know about what happened during that time. It’s opening up the conversation for people in the LGBTQI community because we always need to look back to the past and what was done for us to have the rights that we deserve today.
Growing up I wouldn’t have had a TV series like this and it’s so amazing that people have that now. Imagine if you’re discovering yourself and you see a show like that when you’re in school? It opens up so many things no matter what your sexuality is.
How did you get involved in the show?
I got called in by the casting director Andy Pryor and he’s known for being really diverse in his casting. When I first received the script I was hooked straight away, everybody had that feeling. It was a page turner. I was struck by the stage directions about Lizbeth – queer, female, Muslim, lawyer in the 80s. She was defying so many prejudices and so many boxes she was being trapped into.
I was researching what it was like for gay women and female lawyers during that time and there’s so many things that she had to fight against and she still, rightly so, had the determination to fight for other people.
How did you prepare for a role like this?
I really stuck my teeth into it. I never had to force myself to research, I wanted to. I watched loads of documentaries from the 70s and 80s about AIDs. I watched loads of films. Then I began to research health organisations and what was happening at that time. They didn’t want to put money into the research of this disease because it wasn’t affecting white heterosexual men.
I wanted to shadow a barrister and the level that Lizbeth was at at that time was really high. I contacted Lady Hale because I knew she was around at that time. I was calling all of these London law firms and I sounded like a lunatic. I just wanted to be around them.
I went to the Royal Courts Of Justice and shadowed for a week, wearing a suit I thought Lizbeth would wear. I also went to the Royal Free Hospital. I contacted the HIV department which is led by Professor Margaret Johnson who created the first AIDs wards. She’s so brave and it struck me that I was the first person that had gone there since those events and asked her questions about what happened during the time. That showed me that the conversation didn’t follow on, it just disappeared.
It was harrowing and painful to hear about the suffering. She found it difficult to hire medical staff who would want to go near a gay man. She still researches HIV to this day. I really learnt that in a time where nobody wanted to help, she was there. I could see in her eyes that prejudice and homophobia didn’t exist in her mind. She just wanted to help.
Why do you think you connected so much with Lizbeth’s character?
Her being a muslim, queer woman connected with me so deeply. How many times do you see that on TV? Me and Lizbeth have so many similarities. We’re both gay woman and we’re both from a minority religious background and we’re both breaking through industries that haven’t seen anyone who looks like us.
I’m from a conservative Indian background that I had to fight against. What is key in the public reaction to this show and my character is that it wouldn’t matter what character I play, the fact that an actor like me is on screen is so important. When you see someone that looks like you and has the same sexuality as you helps so much. In a society where you’re shown shame it makes you think that things are bad and you won’t be celebrated.
What’s the main thing you’d like people to take away from Lizbeth’s story?
The real reason that we all exist is to use whatever gift and resources we have to help other people. Secondly, that we’re all so powerful and capable when it comes to creating change. The third thing would be to celebrate who you are even if you’re different from the ideal figure that society wants you to be. You can be uniquely you. I bet Lizbeth had so many stereotypes pushed on her about what she should be like as a woman during that time, but she didn’t conform to any of that. She expressed who she was. I would encourage people reading this to live proudly, truthfully and authentically to who you are because you don’t know who you might inspire.
Why do you think now is the right time for this story to be told?
It’s the right time after George Floyd’s death and everything we’ve seen happening with Black Lives Matter that’s showed us as a society the ground upon which we’ve been building our lives isn’t stable. No light or positivity can grow from it and it’s time for change. It’s sad that such a brutal event made people wake up to that. We’re all stuck at home and everything that goes into our brain is seen through our screen. The powers that be in the entertainment industry are seeing that the audiences want these stories, change, representation and visibility. Even I have seen the benefit of it. There’s been a huge shift in the stories that we’re telling and leading women are being written differently now.
It’s A Sin airs every Friday at 9pm on Channel 4. All episodes are available to watch on All4 now. Don’t miss Seyan Sarvan starring in her debut feature film Spin State later on this year!
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