Men Up star Paul Rhys warns of homophobia ‘backslide’ as he appears in BBC Viagra drama

Welsh actor Paul Rhys speaks to PinkNews as he stars in BBC drama Men Up as a gay man hiding his sexuality during one of the first medical trials for Viagra.

The heartfelt feature – written by Matthew Barry and executive produced by Russell T Davies – follows five Swansea-based men who hope the new drug will save their strained relationships as their sex lives are impacted by conditions such as erectile dysfunction and pulmonary arterial hypertension.

Each man brings their own interpersonal drama to the table, including Tommy (Rhys), who is madly in love with his partner Rhys Lancey (portrayed by Nathan Sussex) but feels deep shame in the bedroom after struggling to have sex.

Desperate to find a solution, Tommy is inspired by his friend and clinical nurse Moira Davies (Joanna Page) to join Dr Dylan Pearce’s (Aneurin Barnard) local drug trial – but institutional homophobia forces Tommy to keep his identity hidden amidst the heterosexual participants.

“Ten years ago it would have been a lot of beer-drinking blokes, that’s all,” Rhys tells PinkNews about his joy at seeing LGBTQ+ representation in this 90s-set drama.

The core five at the heart of the BBC drama. (BBC)

Based on the true story about the invention of the life-changing drug Viagra, (known for its controversial but lucrative legacy) trials for the drug started in 1994 in Wales, and it was cleared for medical use across the US and Europe by 1998.

“Of course [writers Russell and Matthew] should include a gay story. Russell is gay and Matthew is gay. I’m sick of everything being heterosexual. It’s just tedious. It’s not true of life. I’ll be criticised for this but most people are on a nuanced, shifting scale.”

Men Up is Rhys’ latest high-profile role this year following turns in Napoleon and Saltburn, and is his most personal yet. The out and proud bisexual actor, who grew up in a South Welsh town called Neath, remembers telling his mother about his crushes on both boys and girls from as young as 14.

“I don’t get a chance to play many gay characters, funnily enough. I know Swansea from the ’90s and it was not easy to be gay in that area,” he shares. “I grew up in absolute poverty. I was intimidated and bullied and it’s a very lonely experience if you live like that.”

He’s channelled all his life experiences into Men Up‘s Tommy. “All of the prejudice I experienced, all of my own internalised homophobia, [it] was given a place to come out and be seen. It came straight from my heart. There wasn’t anything I had to push for, it was all there.”

Paul Rhys and Nathan Sussex in Men Up. (BBC)

Although Rhys admits he has had a “very tiny sexual life”, he believes the film hits on the “hyper-importance” many gay men have placed on sexual activity, especially historically when they “didn’t have marriage or the prospect of having children”.

“There is a very particular story in gay life. If you lose your dominant phallic power, what are you?,” Rhys says. “Tommy’s a person who would have contemplated suicide, certainly. I think that’s not uncommon.”

Rhys hopes this role can be a cog in the wider machine that challenging an increasingly anti-LGBTQ+ Conservative government and show people the risk of “sliding back” into the visceral homophobia of the 1990s, fuelled at the time by the impact of the AIDS crisis and anti-gay legislation.

“I hope we see the end of this despicable boys club soon,” Rhys says. “We’re sliding back to Section 28, sliding back into the worst parts of Men Up here and in the United States.

“We’re witnessing things that I’m shocked at. I was a child through the 1970s and we thought that [our] freedoms would incrementally increase for the rest of our lives. Now we’ve turned a corner to see them being reduced on a daily basis. It’s absolutely shocking.”

Paul Rhys as Tommy. (BBC)

Continuing to take aim at politicians in the UK, he continues: “They don’t know what they’re talking about. They’re not fit to be there. Why aren’t there more gay faces in Parliament? They couldn’t find them. Weren’t they good enough? No, this is prejudice.

“I would like to do whatever I can with the rest of my life to help. Tommy is a small wheel, driving that little truck along.”

More than that, he hopes Tommy’s story can serve as a source of inspiration for young working-class Welsh boys who have gone through similar struggles like himself.

“If a boy or a girl saw this and saw their own story in me, I’d be so proud,” he says. “It would make my otherwise meaningless life mean something.

“Especially over that horrible time, Christmas and the New Year, which for people already in loneliness is f**king merciless. If this show gives a little bit of sparkle to such a person’s life, I’d be incredibly fulfilled by that.”

Men Up airs on Friday 29 December at 9pm on BBC One.

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