Russell Tovey has been captivating audiences since the early 1990s. Tovey possesses a charismatic quality in his performances. In-person and on-screen he feels familiar and disarming. He feels like a best friend you would meet for a pint at the pub around the corner. The actor from Essex has taken on numerous and memorable roles like Rudge in The History Boys, Joseph Pitt in The National Theatre’s live theatrical production of Angels in America, including Kevin Mathison in the groundbreaking HBO series and film, Looking. Other notable projects include roles on ABC’s Quantico and the CW’s The Flash and DC’s Legends of Tomorrow. Russell Tovey’s latest project finds him as the lead in a new limited series streaming on Hulu called The Sister. Tovey plays Nathan, a young man that finds out you can never truly bury the past.
We got together with Russell Tovey, for a zoom to talk about some of the most memorable roles in his career, his new project The Sister, and a passion project that has turned his love for art into a critically acclaimed podcast and a forthcoming book called Talk Art: Everything you wanted to know about contemporary art but were afraid to ask.
MM: Let’s talk about your podcast Talk Art and your upcoming book! What was the spark for the podcast?
RT: I’m a total art geek, that’s my absolute passion! I met my kindred spirit in Robert Diament, my podcast partner in 2008 at a Tracey Emin retrospective in Edinburgh, Scotland. We just connected and both speak on a level that is unlike anyone else I speak to in my life. There was a podcast we were guests on where the interviewer didn’t speak…purely because myself and Rob just didn’t stop talking. After that, both our mum’s said, “we have learned more about why you both love art and why you are so passionate about it from this one podcast than we ever have before. You should do this!”. So I said to Rob we should get a studio and start a podcast where we have casual chats about art – what shows we had both seen, what we like, what we don’t like…etc. We then started asking a few friends if they would like to come on and talk about art and we just stuck with it. It’s been so pleasurable to do and it’s just grown and grown. I think we really hit our stride through the pandemic when everyone was on lockdown because we had access to the world. We’ve now got a book coming out in May, Talk Art: Everything you wanted to know about contemporary art but was afraid to ask, which is really exciting!
MM: How do you feel the book transcends Talk Art, and all the access we have to art on YouTube & Instagram?
RT: Well, I think books are something you can have around. They can be an object of art in itself. You have coffee table books but the thing about the Talk Art book is that it’s approachable for everybody. When we were asked to write the book, they wanted us to write our version of the art world and everything that excites us. I was on Broadway at the time and had planned to start the book whilst doing the show but due to the pandemic, everything got shut down and I returned to London. So we properly wrote this book in lockdown. I don’t think I could have written this book and done the play as well. Visually, it is just a satisfying and beautiful object. The artists we have chosen to include in the book are the most exciting, fresh, and game-changing artists and in 10 years are going to be the art history linchpins. There is also this whole queer art movement that is coming up that is so electrifying where Rob and I feel so interlinked with these artists, following them and researching them. This is a moment. I look back at the sensations of the likes of artists Damien Hirst, Sarah Lucas, Rachel Whiteread, and this movement in the ’90s alongside Brit Pop that changed art forever. That was a whole movement that came out of one show. The book is definitely commenting on where we are in history and culture right now and it feels really really exciting and relevant. The book is bright yellow (US) and this pink/magenta colour (UK) and Jerry Saltz has written our forward! I feel so proud of Talk Art and the fact that we built it with our passion. Growing and producing something from the ground up and having it be a success…there’s nothing more satisfying.
MM: Have you had the chance to go to any museums during the pandemic and what has the experience been like for you?
RT: For me, that’s everything! When museums and galleries were able to, they were opening up and allowing people to book dedicated time slots whilst of course adhering to all Covid guidelines. I’m a Turner Prize judge this year so it gave me an added opportunity to go out and see things when we were still able to. As soon as I walk through the doors of a gallery I get a dopamine hit. I am instantly asking myself- what am I going to see, what is this referencing, how does this make me feel, where is this going, who does this relate to…and so on. Now, when I look at art, I have Talk Art in my head and I can gather this art history of notes and a greater understanding of how everything relates.
MM: Do you have a favorite master or modern artist?
RT: Picasso. It sounds a bit cliche but he’s the one that kind of changed the game and everything goes back to Picasso when you look at figurative painting now. Manet and Gauguin…all the greats! Photography wise, Wolfgang Tillmans and Nan Goldin have been with me since my late teens and have been constant energy that has been important to me. As for my favorite contemporary artists, they change all the time.
MM: Switching gears to your new project out now on HULU, The Sister. Let’s talk about what drew you to the role of Nathan?
RT: The fact that you’ve seen him through three lived experiences. We see him at one stage where he is very young and eager and innocent and excited about life. His energy is buoyant. Then you see him in the middle stage of absolute fear and anxiety and depression and is suicidal. Then he comes out of that and has to maintain this energy to live for Holly, his wife. He has made a choice and he keeps his secrets incredibly close. The fact that you’re playing someone incredibly conflicting for an audience is always appealing to me. He’s done something; it was a mistake but he is a good person and the audience is with him and they want him to be ok. In reality, should he be ok? Is that ok for him to be ok? I love the fact that I can play around with this character that is totally flawed and totally problematic. I wanted to give him empathy and for people to want to forgive his crimes. I always look for emotional characters with depth and Nathan was very deep with a lot going on.
MM: When you look at a character like this where do you gather insights and references to build Nathan into a real person as an actor and do you pull from TV, theatre, movies, and other books?
RT: With theatre, you have time to craft the character but on TV, it is more like ‘we are doing this in five weeks, here is the script.’ For many years I was obsessed with Angels in America before I did the stage show. I must have watched the HBO show 15 times all the way through. Obsessed. Every time I did a TV show and I was trying to get into the character, I would imagine I was in the HBO production of Angels in America. It would take me somewhere where I could be my best. But in reality, the characters I play are based on people I’ve met. I like to base my characters on real people that I could have met. A lot of the time I go back to being in senior school and how I projected people around me felt. Tonally, I do think of other shows, yeah.
MM: Since we follow Nathan during three different timelines how do you and the team achieve that change in mood and aesthetic for Nathan?
RT: When they wrote it they assumed you would film in sequence. In reality, you could never schedule a show like that. Sophie Slotover, who was our makeup designer, had the responsibility of transforming me into three different ages, several times a day every day. One morning I would be like twenty, an hour later I would be 26, and after lunch, I would be in the later stage. It was a relentless schedule. My responsibility when playing Nathan was to maintain this energy at the three different stages of his life and everyone else around me had to do all the dancing around my hair and makeup and lighting.
MM: Playing Nathan must be a heavy character to play. Do you take him home with you, and how do you decompress?
RT: For many years I didn’t take a lot home with me. I could play an intense character but leave it behind and just shake it off. There have been few roles the last few years that have fucked me up. They stayed with me. The Sister was one of them and playing Joe Pitt in Angels in America was another. With The Sister, a lot of what I took home with me, came from the work schedule. Every day was full on with every scene being filled with the anxiety of lying, fear, crying…etc. It was a very intense state of mind and you trick your body into having these reactions but your body doesn’t know they are not real. There is some sort of physical and chemical reaction that you carry around with you. This was a three-month shoot so it was a lot to go through. With Joe Pitt in Angels in America, I loved that show because there’s so much hope for Joe but he doesn’t get his moment of release. He is just slapped and then left. I would come out of the curtain call and then go home and thought this feels shit, this feels really shit. That stayed with me but that felt so rewarding because it was so felt. Even though it was hard and that feeling wasn’t pleasant there’s a pleasure in the fact that you are experiencing it, because that is art. That is the type of role that means you have really taken it under your skin. It was 13 weeks of rehearsals. It was a tough project and I am really proud of it. It changed my life and career and everything.
MM: It sounds like for some of these deeper roles it is like unlocking a beast inside of you, how do you put that beast away?
RT: I go to therapy, and practice mediation and yoga. For a while, I was definitely broken after Angels in America. They were doing the show on Broadway when I was in New York filming Quantico and I didn’t go anywhere near the theatre. I saw a couple of the actors briefly but I knew I couldn’t go anywhere near there. That’s the nature of the beast. If you are going to draw on deep shit, that is what being an actor is about. If you want to be the best, you have to go there.
MM: Talking about great roles, did you have any idea going into playing the role of Kevin in Looking, that it would turn from a series into a film, and further did you know it would impact the gay community so much?
RT: Well, I knew it was an incredible idea. I screen-tested for Patrick originally. It was between me and Jonathan Groff. I flew over to Los Angeles, did all the screen tests at the HBO center for two days with Andrew Hake and Michael Landon. It was a really exhausting couple of days. I was back home in London and in the middle of the night was checking my phone and on Twitter, it said ‘Jonathan Groff is playing Patrick in HBO’s Looking’. So I found out via Twitter that I hadn’t got the role and I was gutted. Andrew and Michael said they really loved me and if it goes to series that they would write something in for me. You hear that all the time. When they said it got picked up I was curious as to whether they would contact me, and they did! They said, “we’ve got this American boss that comes in, will you put yourself on tape and send it to us?” So I did this ‘American Boss’ type as a British version and sent it off. They said “we love the Brit, we want the Brit” and I was like ok cool! So I came over as a guest actor. They sort of developed it as they went along and what was beautiful about Looking is that you had Michael Landon’s blueprint but we were allowed to improvise. It was really amazing to connect with Jonathan because I felt we had such great energy and that we were able to kind of go everywhere. The second season came back and I came back as a regular. I knew it was special because I had been offered many gay roles before and had played a few gay roles but for me to properly go through it, I wanted it to feel like the right thing for me at that stage of my career. With Looking, here I am playing an openly gay man in a gay show, this feels like ‘the one’. I feel like if the show came out now, it would have a completely different impact. At the time, we were kind of picked apart too much, or not allowed to just be. There was apprehension for it appealing to everyone. Some shows get high praise and some people just tear it to shreds. Gay bloggers were anti-Looking following the pilot, but as the show went on, they changed their minds. By the time that happened the damage was done. As a show that was deemed ‘niche’, it took some of the magic out of it as there were too much noise and expectation of what people felt were not fulfilled. But for me, that project is one of my happiest and proudest shows I have ever worked on. The whole experience from beginning to end was just joyous. I could talk about Looking as a fan, even though I am in it, I can objectively watch it and enjoy it and get excited about what Dom is doing with the Chicken Shack and I can’t believe Augustine is doing that and Doris, oh my god! What was so brilliant about it was; it was post-AIDS, it aired in the middle of when same-sex marriage was legalized and suddenly there was this heterosexual blueprint that we sort of avoided or weren’t allowed to partake in that was suddenly there. Then this show happened and it was like, this is happening now. It’s just about a group of mates existing in the world right now. It’s so refreshing and brilliant and if you watch it today, it was actually so ground-breaking. I would love for that to come back. Being with the boys would be amazing.
MM: Shifting gears more to the fashion side of things. How would you describe your sense of style or general aesthetic?
RT: When I was younger I used to really try to create a persona that was very fashionable. I used to wear a lot of Vivienne Westwood and spent lots of money on things and looking back on it now…I looked ridiculous. I need my clothes to be sort of neutral and well-made with beautiful cuts, so I always go for simplicity over logos or something that is really flashy. It needs to feel comfortable. I have a lot of ‘go-to’ brands; Paul Smith I absolutely love and have dressed me over the years. Louis Vuitton dressed me when Kim Jones was the Creative Director and what he did there was amazing. Kim is just a genius and is someone I have always watched. He is a really lovely man to know and he is obsessed with art. He is coming on Talk Art soon. He has an incredible art collection and collects literature, like first editions of Virginia Woolf. He is investing in such beautiful things in the archive of magic. So people like that give me great fashion inspiration. For my daily life, I love Stone Island, I can spend a lot of money there. Also, J.Crew is closed down in the U.K. but you can still buy it online. I love a J. Crew T-Shirt and chinos. Normally at home, I and my boyfriend just share the same jogging bottoms, a T-Shirt, and just slob about. On the back of the door, we have jogging bottoms hanging and we just shove them on in the morning, it’s so easy. When I walk the dogs I think if someone would take a photo right now I look like a clown. We sport our Nikes when we go for a more art market chav look.
MM: Words to live by?
RT: Carpe Diem.
Talk Art: Everything you wanted to know about contemporary art but were afraid to ask is available for pre-order on Amazon. You can download Talk Art wherever you subscribe to your podcasts.
PHOTOGRAPHER Joseph Sinclair
STYLIST Joseph Kocharian, Gary Represents
STYLING ASSISTANT Parisa Gohar
MAKEUP Justine Jenkins
FEATURING Murad Skincare
HAIR Shukeel Murtaza, The Only Agency
FEATURING Oliver J Woods & Typology Paris
LOCATION SoHo Hotel
EDITOR Seth Travis
Man of Metropolis Digital