Simon Hattenstone’s “Guardian” article:
You want laddish? Russell Tovey‘s your man. In the beautifully observed TV sitcom Him & Her, he plays Steve, an unemployed procrastinator whose ambitions stretch to drinking, watching porn and shagging his girlfriend. As bewildered werewolf George Sands Junior in the supernatural drama Being Human, he makes his girlfriend pregnant but just wants to be one of the boys. In the new TV whodunnit What Remains, Tovey’s Michael is again preparing, reluctantly, to be a father. He tends to play boy-men who find themselves in grown-up situations against their better judgment. He often gets the girl, but you’re never sure why, or whether he’ll keep her. There are few actors who exude such irrepressible down-the-pub blokeishness. Tovey is also one of Britain’s few out gay actors.
We meet at a park in London’s Soho. Tovey is accompanied by his gorgeous French bulldog, Rocky, or the Rock if you know him well. There’s something instantly likable about both of them. Rocky introduces himself by giving me a thorough face wash, and Tovey starts telling me why he didn’t join his parents’ coach company (they own the Gatwick Flyer, which runs between Essex and Gatwick airport), how he got into trouble at school time and again, and how his ambition as a nine-year-old was to be a father by the time he was 14.
Tovey grew up in Billericay, Essex, to parents who worked all hours to build their business. He had one of the highest IQs in his year at school, but applied himself only to things that interested him. He was easily bored, and liked to make people laugh. That’s how he got into trouble. He never did anything really bad, just daft or disrespectful – like the time he called his French teacher sweetheart. “I got escorted by the head of PE and a security guard to the office of the deputy headmistress, Mrs Palmer.” Mrs Palmer asked if he would call her sweetheart, and he said, only if he knew her better. Tovey was suspended for two days. His next suspension was for eating cake. Well, if we’re being pedantic, for following girls into the toilet after they had refused to give him some of the cake they had made in Home Economics, and stealing it from them. “I turned round with a mouth full of victoria sponge and there was Mrs Palmer.”
Then there was the time he was thrown out of Barking & Dagenham College. He left school at 16, was doing a BTec in performing arts, and was due to be in the chorus of the college production of Rent when he was offered a part in a commercial. “They said, if you take this we’re not going to invite you back, and also if you leave you’ll never work again. Anyway, I left.” The college now cites him as one of its famous former students.
Tovey says he spent one school holiday just watching movies, and that was that. “Dead Poets Society was a big one, Home Alone, Stand By Me, Labyrinth, things like that. I thought the films were brilliant, but more than anything I wanted to be a part of them rather than just watching.”
His first part was as an extra in The Bill in the last year of junior school. He played a traveller who shouted “Oi” and threw a football at a police officer. It wasn’t much but he loved it. He started making money while at school, but says nobody noticed because most of the children had loaded parents anyway. Tovey’s mother always warned him not to show off about his work, so he kept quiet. “Mum said, if people ask you about it, it’s fine, but don’t boast, don’t talk about anything. So it’s always felt very private, what I do. If you’ve seen me, great, and if you want to talk about something, brilliant, but I’m not going to come in and say, ‘Did you see me on this, what did you think?’ That’s just not in my nature… Oh my God! Look at that, he’s trying to hump you!” His voice rises a couple of notches in shock. “Rocky! Don’t do that! What’s wrong with you?” He gives Rocky a severe talking to, apologises on his behalf, then tells me it’s not easy being a French bulldog. “If you’re human and you feel sexed up, you can do something about it. But if you’re a dog I don’t think you can, can you?” He looks at Rocky’s underbelly. “Rocky can’t reach his,” he says sympathetically.
A holidaying Brazilian family walk over and ask what breed Rocky is. It’s funny, Tovey says when they’ve gone, he worried that Rocky might make him more recognisable, but it’s worked the other way – strangers approach him all the time, ask about the dog, have a few strokes and toddle off without so much as a hint of, “Aren’t you …?”
From 11 onwards, Tovey acted regularly in professional productions. But it was only in his early 20s that he made his name with Alan Bennett’s The History Boys, alongside Dominic Cooper and James Corden. Tovey was already out, and Bennett could happily have cast him as Posner, an angsty gay boy infatuated with one of his fellow students. But somehow it didn’t seem right; Tovey was always going to be more convincing as sporty, plain-speaking Rudge, who is given the brilliant line: “How do I define history? It’s just one fuckin’ thing after another.”
In fact, Tovey auditioned for Dakin, the handsome smoothie eventually played by Cooper, even though he knew he was unlikely to get the part. “I had loads of spots, but I went in and said, look, I want to play this part. Dakin was meant to be the lead, lothario, sex object, and nobody was going to lust after me, this spotty, pasty, big-eared thing. But Alan Bennett really liked me and he thought, well, he obviously wants a bigger part, so he wrote up the part of Rudge for me.” Tovey’s skin problem almost led to him quitting the production. “My skin was so bad, I thought, I just want to leave. It was really affecting me psychologically. You go into makeup and they’d paint each spot. It was self-esteem-crushing. Horrible.”
Tovey has perfect skin today, but he has had to work at it with medication. “I still feel I’m going to wake up any moment and my skin’s going to break out all over. If I get one spot now, this absolute cloud comes over me.”
Despite this, he was never exactly lacking in confidence.”I thought I could charm people. I never felt I was attractive to women. I felt I was attractive to men when I was growing up. And even now, if a woman fancies me, I find that a bit alienating. A bit like, ‘You’re sure you’re not taking the piss?’ Because, having the skin, it always felt, I don’t know, not good enough. Whereas with men it was a bit like, it’s rough, it’s fine, don’t worry. Do you know what I mean? Growing up having sticky-out ears, pasty skin, then going through teenage years with spots.” Did he consider having his ears pinned back? He looks appalled. “No. I’ve never felt anything apart from love for my ears. My eldest nephew’s got them now, and he’s so proud of them because he’s got his uncle Russell’s ears. They’re my trademark.”
At school he always had girlfriends. It was only when he got into his mid-teens that he realised they didn’t do that much for him, that he was attracted to boys. “Looking back, I always knew. But you don’t reallyknow till you get to a point where you go, oh, that’s what makes me happier.” At 18, he came out to his family and his father tried to talk him out of it. “My dad was of that generation where it’s changeable if you get it early enough.”
How would he have changed you?
“Hormone therapy or shock treatment, all of these horror things that you watch. You see, they had all this Aids thing. It was all, ‘Don’t die of ignorance.’ My nan thought being gay was a disease. It’s just a generational, educational thing. And Dad was like, ‘I wish you would have told us sooner because we would have done something about it.'”
Were you surprised by the reaction?
“No, I was prepared for it.”
Was it based on prejudice or fear?
“Not knowing. Not knowing anybody else who is gay, not experiencing it, hearing of people dying of Aids and seeing, say, Larry Grayson on TV and thinking, that’s it. Seeing gay men appear in stories in which they were miserable and sad. And I think he felt sad and worried for me, that I’d have a terrible life if I made this choice. And he thought it was a choice, because being straight is so natural, why would you want to be anything different from that?”
It’s touching how determined Tovey is to understand his family’s fears of his sexuality.
“You want your kids to be perfect and at that time it felt like it was an imperfection. Whereas now a lot of people are like [enthusiastic voice], ‘Are you? Cool! Well, make sure you look after yourself.’ It seems like it’s a different time. I sense that with younger generations, when they have after-school clubs where they talk about being gay. I meet a lot of kids who’ve come out at school, and I’m like, ‘What! You came out at school! Did you get bullied?’ ‘No!'”
He smiles. He’s just remembered something that amuses him. “My mum used to think it was the pill that made you gay. There was too much oestrogen in the water, and people started taking the pill in the 60s and it made everybody gay.”
On screen, Tovey is forever snogging girlfriends or flashing his bum. Does he enjoy his sex scenes? “I have quite enjoyed my sex scenes.” Hurrah! He’s the first actor I’ve ever heard admit that.
“I don’t get embarrassed by sexual parts. I want to protect the girl. Nine times out of 10, girls are more embarrassed.” He thinks about it. “You know what? Actually, if I was doing a gay sex scene, I’d probably feel really embarrassed.”
Do women playing his love interest see him as a challenge? “No, because most of my leading ladies are in relationships, and their partners are thrilled when I get cast with them in these intimate roles because I’m not a threat. I think if I’d been straight I would have slept with a lot of actresses by now and there’d be a lot of broken relationships.”
Really? He laughs. “Is that quite an egotistical thing to say? It’s just the leading man/leading lady thing, which happens again and again. You’re playing being in love and you fall in love.”
Tovey says he’s looking forward to his next part in What Remains because his character is a bit darker than normal. There’s also a new series of Him & Her coming up, which he loves. (“It feels very Pinteresque to me. If I wasn’t in it, I’d watch it religiously.”) And he’s busy writing: he’s written three plays so far, which have been read at the Soho theatre and National theatre studio but have yet to be performed. He describes them as being “about people in the margins”.
I ask Tovey if there was one thing he could change in the world, what it would be? “Right now? I feel, as a taxpayer who’s self-employed, I hate the fact that you have to pay on your projected earnings for the following year. Can’t we get rid of that? Let me earn it, then I’ll pay it back to you. Don’t say, well, you owe us half of what you might earn next year. That’s it. Haha!” Blimey, he sounds like a proper Tory Essex boy. “Tory? No, absolutely not. I was in the House of Lords recently for the whole debate about gay marriage. It was incredible, just sitting there watching all these really old white, middle-class, crusty men talking about how they thought it was wrong. They feel very removed from what is happening in the real world outside.”
It’s interesting that Tovey says it’s so much easier to come out today than when he was a boy. If anything, among actors, the opposite appears to be true. Whereas years ago the likes of Ian McKellen, Anthony Sher and Rupert Everett came out (admittedly in middle age or when already established), there are few openly gay stars of Tovey’s generation. “Well, there’s the guy who plays Spock in the new Star Trek film, Zachary Quinto.” He tries to think of others, but fails.
The fact that you can name only one gay actor in Hollywood suggests there is still a taboo, I say. What about well-known young British actors? He racks his brain. No, no one he can name – not publicly, anyway. “I assume there are a few. Whether they are out or not is not for me to say.” That is crazy, I say. “Well, I hope it’s changing… I’ve found out over the years that the conversation about casting me has come up: would it affect the show and the audience if I’m a gay man playing a straight character? These conversations are being had still.” Everett has said that coming out crippled his career, that now he’s largely restricted to playing gay. Perhaps the difference for Tovey is that he was out from the start, and because he didn’t make much fuss about it, nor did anybody else. As for the viewing public, he says they couldn’t care less. “You’ve got to remember that of the millions who watch TV, most people don’t give a fuck about your private life or know who you are.”
Tovey says he is keen to play a gay man, but there are very few good parts. “I really want to do it properly, with something that is clever and moving everything forward rather than covering old ground. Not someone who’s gay and miserable, dying of Aids, secluded, a bit weird. I want to play someone who’s normal and just happens to be gay.”
Shortly after I meet Tovey, the actor Ben Whishaw issues a statement saying he is gay and happily married. I contact Tovey to ask what he thinks. “I’m just happy he is a well-adjusted dude and out now, another good role model who isn’t defined professionally by who he wants to share his personal life with.”
Tovey has been with his boyfriend for four years. They live together, are very happy, and that’s all he wants to say because it’s private. He’s wearing a couple of rings. I ask about their history. The one on his middle finger, he says, is his father’s old ring and he never takes it off. And the other? He blushes. “It’s just another ring. It’s on that finger… which means something. I’m not married or anything. It’s just a symbol of commitment, I suppose.” Yes, he says, he would like to get married, and still fancies being a father.
Tovey says he always knew it was important for him to be open about his sexuality. Why? Simple, he says. “I love my personal life and having a social life. And I didn’t ever want to have to compromise. I could imagine being at this stage now and having skeletons in the closet, and you sitting here going, ‘So have you got a girlfriend?’ and me saying, ‘I’ve not got a girlfriend at the moment, I’ve not met the right girl, there’s a few people around.’ And in my head going, I’m going back home to my boyfriend in five minutes.” He pauses. “D’you know what I mean? I just can’t be arsed with that.”
The above “Guardian” article can also be accessed online here.