The many lives of Russell Tovey

The stage and screen star spoke to The Big Issue about changing the world with art and why it was important for the anti-Trump Years and Years to go out in the US

“This feels like therapy.”

Russell Tovey is relaxing on a chaise longue in a nondescript hotel suite as he prepares to face The Big Issue. He’s in high spirits. Life is good. 

His new film, with a double bill of national treasures, is out this week, he is midway through making hotly anticipated TV drama Because the Night by Luther writer Neil Cross, and Broadway beckons in January. Film, television, theatre – talk about a triple threat.

“And don’t forget the podcast,” says Tovey, bouncing up to a sitting position, grinning widely. So yes, not forgetting Talk Art, the accessible but informed discussion of modern art and how to collect and enjoy it, which he hosts alongside art dealer Robert Diament, Tovey is now a quadruple threat.

“It feels good to be multi-disciplinary, multi-faceted,” he says, “and we are at a time when you can diversify. Back in the day you had theatre actors and TV actors and film actors and never the twain shall meet. Now you can cross all those media with no one saying ‘stay in your lane’. The snobbery is not there now, thank God. Because theatre actors can now pay their mortgage!

“Look at Ian McKellen. He is in our new movie, he is currently in the West End and he was in Coronation Street. Amazing.”

Tovey stars with McKellen and Helen Mirren in The Good Liar, which looks set to be a pre-Christmas box-office hit. It’s a thriller with outlandish twists. Further discussion risks spoilers, but Tovey is relishing such esteemed company. “They are proper acting royalty. It feels wonderful to be included with them, on a par. I already knew Ian. We did a short film for Dior with Marion Cotillard about 10 years ago. And I know him socially, we both do a lot for the Terrence Higgins Trust and Albert Kennedy Trust.”

Tovey has been an acting mainstay since playing Rudge in The History Boys – first at the National Theatre in 2004, then on Broadway and in the 2006 film version.

“For me, the play’s the thing,” he says. “If a good play comes up, that beats everything else. So next year I’m doing Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? on Broadway, with Rupert Everett from January to August. There’s some sort of magic about being a Brit on Broadway that audiences seem to feel charmed by. 

“I’m excited about the focus I’m going to have there because my life at home is busy. I’m very social. I am all over the place doing loads of things now. And it’s wonderful. But when I’m doing that play, I’m doing that play.

“And plays have been the things that have really changed my life or the trajectory of my career. They have been the key moments.”

He talks through his progress – how doing The Recruiting Officer in Chichester as a teenager led to Howard Katz at the National, then The History Boys, and how more recently A View from the Bridge landed him Angels in America, which led to two years on TV show Quantico as well as Virginia Woolf.

On screen, Tovey has been just as prolific. He broke hearts as loyal Midshipman Frame in the 2007 Christmas special of Doctor Who and lovelorn John Chivery in Little Dorrit the following year, played lovable, nerdy werewolf George in cult hit Being Human, took a small recurring role in Gavin & Stacey as a favour to his pal James Corden, and has appeared in Sherlock, hit US series Looking and Jimmy McGovern’s Banished. 

But last summer saw his finest screen role to date. Tovey is still basking in the afterglow of Years and Years, which was arguably the most compelling, provocative drama in, erm, years and years.

“Completely joyful from start to finish,” says the 37-year-old of Russell T Davies’ recent triumph.

“And the fact it also went out in the States and is so overtly anti-Trump at times, so political and on the nose, felt really necessary. Really important. If you have a really joyful experience and the audience gets emotionally invested, it’s the best feeling ever. That’s why you do it.”

The reaction to Years and Years has had Tovey pondering whether art can change the world. 

“Culture is the only way really that a message gets out,” he says. “For generations the dialogue of creating art is to get what it is to be alive, to be human and to connect with other humans. That’s what culture does.

“So in Years and Years we were able to cover massive ideas about the state of the world through a domestic situation and within the family. Because it does feel like a time where in the States you have Trump-voting parents and anti-Trump children, and in the UK Leave parents and Remain children. Families are divided.

“This show could live for ever. It’s of now and talks about the future we’re going into. It will be interesting to revisit in 10 years, to look at the state of the world and see how Nostradamic Russell T Davies is.

It feels good to be multi-disciplinary. No one says ‘stay in your lane’

“I just made that word up. But I like it. Maybe we can make it a thing?”

It doesn’t take Nostradamic vision to predict that Tovey will remain in demand – with his rare ability to mix vulnerability and sensitivity with a steely core, and pepper innocence with a dash of cynicism. Yet he admits craving more time off to indulge a passion that was initially inspired by the excitement of the Young British Artists movement – Tracey Emin, Sarah Lucas, Damien Hirst and co – in the 1990s.

“Art is my absolute passion outside of acting. Acting is my thing. It has been my drive in life. But art now is equally important to me,” says Tovey, plotting out his planned route through the galleries of New York when he arrives.

“I would like a foundation of my own work and to support emerging artists with an apartment where they can live, work and show their work in London.”

DID YOU KNOW…

There are currently around 1,450 Big Issue sellers working hard on the streets each week.

Before leaving, I ask if he knows about his namesake David Tovey – the ex-homeless painter and performance artist who now runs the One Festival of Homeless Arts. He doesn’t. But Tovey leans in, wide-eyed, full of questions.

“We should try to get him on the podcast, that would be really interesting,” he says. “Yes! I’m going to look up David Tovey. I’m really excited about that. Imagine if he was literally my cousin and I didn’t know for all this time…”

The Good Liar is out now in cinemas

This interview originally appeared in The Big Issue magazine. Pick up a copy from your local vendor or buy it from the Big Issue Shop.

Image: The Guardian/SIPA/USA/PA Images