Russell Tovey steamed up screens as Jonathan Groff’s hunky boss on the HBO series “Looking,” about an intimate group of gay and queer friends living in contemporary San Francisco. Impassioned thoughts on the Richie-Kevin-Patrick love triangle abounded. And then the show ended in 2016, after just two seasons. But when it came to embodying gay characters on TV (and stage), Tovey was just getting started.
In addition to his theater work in the 2017 staging of “Angels in America” at the National Theatre in London, the openly gay British actor has gone on to play a passel of gay men across a swath of networks: Daniel Lyons, on HBO’s six-part dystopian drama “Years and Years”; Harry Doyle, a James Bond-type role created with him in mind, on ABC’s “Quantico”; and Ray “The Ray” Terrill, on the CW’s “Arrowverse” crossover, “Crisis on Earth-X.”
Once in a while, Tovey plays straight. That is true of his role in Hulu’s four-part twisty murder-thriller “The Sister” as Nathan Redman, whose past — which includes a dead woman, and a peculiar man named Bob — comes back to haunt him.
Outside of acting, Tovey produces a podcast called TalkArt, which is dedicated to all things art, with gallerist Robert Diament. Their book, “TalkArt,” comes out June 1.
Tovey’s passion for visual art is apparent even on Zoom, where I connect with the actor and podcaster during the virtual junket for “The Sister.” A striking abstract painting hovers above him. “I haven’t got any backgrounds that apply naturally where I can sit,” the 39-year-old says.
Jokingly, I ask Tovey whether every interview he does on this press day will feature a new work from his vast collection. You know, to keep it fresh. “Every interview is a different work of art,” he wryly kids, laughing. “It’s not about ‘The Sister.’ It’s about my art collection. You don’t realize because subliminally you’re seeing it all. You think we’re talking about the show.”
Well, it seems you’ve gotten past the “pizza and wine every night” phase of the pandemic. Where are you at right now mentally, etcetera, etcetera, with all of this?
Mentally, etcetera, etcetera: 10,000 steps a day, trying to get that in. Walking the dogs. Making sure that I’m getting out of the house. You’re right, I did have the pizza and the bottle of red wine a night. That was fun for a while, then I think I got a bit too heavy and a bit out of breath walking from the bathroom to the kitchen. I thought, “This is something that has to change.”
I’ve been filming things. Before Christmas I was doing a movie with Priyanka Chopra and Sam Heughan and Celine Dion, and that was amazing. A rom-com in London. And then last week, I just completed an improv movie I’ve been doing in Wales here, so I’ve been really fortunate that the filming is something that we’ve been allowed to do. Yes, we’ve been getting COVID-tested every two days, but I think everyone’s so determined to keep working and telling stories that you jump through all the hoops, whatever they may be.
I’m glad that you noted that you’re getting tested, because with the movie you’re referring to, “Text For You,” my first thought was: You have to protect Celine Dion at all costs.
Yes, of course! Can you imagine if you was responsible for anything that happened to Celine Dion?
What has been your experience filming during lockdown?
It’s made everything more economical. That feels really great in some ways (laughs). There’s less time to socialize as a group of actors. You do the work and you get out. So that feels good.
With “The Sister,” I was impressed by your ability to cry.
I’m a very emotional person. I’ve got lots of things that I draw on throughout my life: sad events, stories and stuff. This (is) a bit psychopathic, but actors are able to retain the essence of a feeling in our psyche. And what other job can you cry your eyes out and everyone gives you a round of applause after? You don’t do that anywhere else. You’d be straight up to HR and they’d be firing you or giving you, like, some time off work (laughs). But with acting, you are kind of blessed with the fact that you can exercise emotions through the characters you play.
Your story arc in “The Sister” has a poignancy that allows you room to emote. In one of the more poignant scenes, I love that your gray hair got written in. It’s acknowledged in its own line in the last episode.
(He shows off his gray hair.) I can’t get away from it now! It’s happening. It’s a reality. But you’re seeing Nathan in three different sections of his life, and that was what’s so important to me: finding an authenticity at each stage of his life. At the beginning I wanted to make him a really hopeful, enthusiastic, kind guy that you knew was being kind of sexually awoken. (He’s) really excited about the world, and that gets ripped away. I wanted the loss of Nathan to be something that holds him throughout the rest of his life. And as an audience, even though he’s problematic and a flawed character, you feel such pain for the loss of what could’ve been.
With the gray hair, I wonder if there’s been an influx of silver fox comments.
“Silver daddy” — yeah, yeah, yeah. I mean, I’m gonna be 40 this year, so I’m definitely officially daddy status, I guess. And I have embraced my graying hair. It’s pretty full gray now. So yeah, every now and then I’ll get “yes, silver fox!” “yes, daddy!” on my Instagram and I’m all for it.
Is there a different kind of challenge in playing a straight role like this that you don’t get playing a gay role?
Every character that I play, I just want to find the truth of who they are emotionally. Gay, straight, bi, anything, I just want to make sure that I can feel their honesty and I know who they are emotionally. I guess it comes up when you’re in sex scenes. I guess that’s a time when you really do consider what this character is. But fundamentally I don’t really look at it too much like that. It’s like you’re pretending and tricking your body into feeling things. Emotionally connecting on a level to something that you’re not fully aware of. I’ve played aliens, I’ve played werewolves. Whatever you do, whoever you’re playing, you just want to root them in a reality that people can connect to.
“Queer as Folk” creator Russell T Davies, who you worked with on “Doctor Who” and “Years and Years,” recently said that gay actors should play gay roles. The argument made by some is that, if that’s the case, only straight roles should go to straight actors. What’s your take?
It felt really important for him that there was an authenticity in such a very kind of queer community-based piece (Davies’s new HBO series “It’s a Sin”). But my feeling is that we’re in a world where there are marginalized people — be it sexually, be it racially — that haven’t got an opportunity to tell their story, so until there is space made that everybody can authentically tell their story, whoever they are, then there’s more work to be done.
And I’m not saying, “Take these jobs away from other people,” because I’m an actor and I love acting and I love to pretend to be everything, as we’re saying about playing straight. But we need to make space (for) the people who haven’t authentically become superstars by telling their truthful story of their authentic life lived.
You wanted to be an actor in hopes that you could make people feel the way Robin Williams made you feel when you watched him in “Dead Poets Society.” Reflecting on that, which of your roles have made you feel like you’ve achieved that?
You mentioned “Looking.” I think that was an incredibly important show for me, creatively, personally — the people I worked with, the way it was made, the stories it was telling, the time it was telling the stories. I thought, “That’s a show that’s going to be discovered forever.”
I feel like all queer stories sometimes get marginalized and overlooked, but they remain beacons of hope for so many people around the world who can discover them at all different stages. (With) “Looking,” I’m a fan of that show. Even though I’m in it, I can watch it and care about Patrick and Richie.
What are they up to? It’s been five years. I want a second movie.
Are Patrick and Richie still together? Unsure, I don’t know. But I think (my character) Kevin is someone that has probably rebounded a few times, cheated on his boyfriend a bit more, still with his boyfriend, and probably had a couple of other experiences similar to his experience with Patrick. I would say that he is someone who hasn’t really done the work on himself. I think he’s probably had a “fuck it” button that he’s pressed after the kind of rejection of Patrick, and I think Kevin is someone who doesn’t do well with rejection.
It sounds like you have a script ready to go.
Everybody at the time — (the show) was so attacked in some ways. The people who are discovering it now are like, “This is a work of genius, and it is beautiful.” Out of everything I’ve ever done, that is the one show where I would literally bite the hand of whoever it was who said, “Do you want to do a special? Do you want to do another season?” They brought “The Comeback” with Lisa Kudrow 10 years later; it would be amazing to do a revisit of “Looking.” I would love that.
Do you have Zooms with Jonathan Groff? Are you still in touch?
Yeah, yeah, yeah. We still talk. He’s doing incredibly well. I love him. He’s a superstar. Just this wonderful, big-hearted genius that is the most perfect person you could ever meet. He’s not on any social media, so I don’t think he’s contaminated by all of the crap… . I don’t think he knows what a troll is, do you know what I mean? (Laughs.)
With your TalkArt podcast, how did you connect with Elton John to get him on it? Do all British gays just know each other?
(Laughs.) They kind of do. They’re kind of connected! But I’ve met Elton a few times, and so I connected to him way before the pandemic and he was like, “I’m busy, I’m touring the world.” And then obviously lockdown happened. I just emailed Elton and he was like, “Yeah, let’s do it.” So that’s how we got Elton, and the same with Billy Porter and Rufus Wainwright.
It felt really important for everybody to connect with other people, and what better way to connect than through art and culture, because that’s the best way as humans of understanding the human experience. Through art we can understand other people. And through art, if you see yourself represented or hear yourself represented, then you cannot be denied your existence.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.