“I bumped into someone the other day who is doing a play and getting a bit stir-crazy on it and they reminded me of a story I told them about when I was in New York,” Russell Tovey tells me laughing, recalling his days on Broadway with The History Boys. “I would fantasise about getting stabbed on the subway so I’d get a couple of shows off. Not a fatal wound, just a surface wound would be enough to get me hospitalised for a few days.”
This story is characteristic of Tovey’s refreshingly honest and unselfconscious disposition. During our chat that takes place in 30 stolen minutes from Tovey’s packed schedule, the Being Human actor also reveals a talent for storytelling to rival Jackanory. It’s a case of life imitating art then that Tovey has found himself playing characters equally as frank and upfront. In the BBC’s grimy sitcom Him & Her, Tovey and co-star Sarah Solemani give the most naturalistic, realistic, body odour and grabby hands-included performance. Now Tovey is starring in the series’ writer Stefan Golaszewski’s new play Sex With A Stranger.
“I can’t wait. I cannot wait.” Tovey tells me with a habitually dramatic tone when I ask whether he’s excited to be returning to the stage after a three year hiatus. A love of theatre aside – “My dream would be to do a play a year” – the chance to work with Golaszewski was a big part of the incentive to take some time off from screen work, which has recently seen him appearing in Sherlock and Doctor Who, and spend a month at the Trafalgar Studios 2. “Stefan said I’ve got this play I’ve written, I want you to do it, so I said ‘Absolutely, let’s make that work’. I really feel like it’s an exciting relationship that I’m building up with him.”
“We’re still discovering what type of kissing it is.”
For Him & Her fans, the play should tick all the boxes, tackling the subject Golaszewski is making waves for exploring, a celebration of the average. “It’s kind of the mediocrity of being 20-something and it doesn’t really glamourise that period of one’s life. There’s definitely a parallel with the tone of Him & Her.”
We can expect then that Sex With A Stranger will be both painfully and wittily observant, and that there will probably be more than your average quota of physical contact. As Tovey confirms, there’s already been lots of it in rehearsals. “It’s kind of odd, you’re just standing there kissing and there’s a room full of people just watching you. You have to bite the bullet and you have to make sure that you feel like you trust the other people you’re working with.” But, as Tovey tells me, amused by the intellectual tone we’re taking when discussing, well, snogging, it’s not quite as simple as one might think. “We’re still discovering what type of kissing it is. There are so many different ways of kissing which you don’t really think about, you just do your kissing and you get kissed back, but when you’re playing a different character who feels insecure or uncomfortable or confident or there’s hidden agendas…” Cue quick pause to break into laughter again, “as in the words of Cher, ‘It’s in his kiss.’”
As Tovey’s co-star Jaime Winstone, who he describes as “a dream”, laughs in the background, the actor is keen to impress the seriousness of the play. “It feels like we’re making something that’s not really covered in art, this kind of dead period that people have in their 20s” While ‘dead period’ may sound slightly depressing to anyone successfully making their way through a decade which can equally be quite a lot of fun, it’s undeniable that Golaszewski will hit a nerve with numerous people when it comes to Tovey’s character, who he describes as “an average guy. I think he’s reached the point where he just wants something exciting to happen in his life.”
His way out of a safe but boring relationship is to have a one-night stand, a solution that doesn’t quite live up to the glamour Hollywood would have us believe. But it is something that Tovey himself can relate to. “The way this play works is you’ve got three sides to the way people conduct themselves with other people in a relationship or sexually. I can probably vouch for every single side. I’ve been in the position of settling and not having the balls to break a pattern, I’ve been the person who is in denial and pretending everything’s great, I’ve been the person who has had quite low self-esteem, I’ve been the person who’s been a bit cocky with it and cool.”
“There’d be days when you’d just go ‘I can’t do it anymore, I can’t play this anymore and keep it up’
But for Tovey, his 20s are a thing of the past having celebrated his 30th birthday last year, a fact he’s pleased surprises most people. “I feel like I own 30! I suddenly, in a weird way, feel more adult. Also the reaction to it from most people is ‘You’re 30? You don’t look 30’, so I have the maturity but youthful, moisturised skin on my side.” He must have sidestepped the ‘dead period’, I suggest, knowing he’d already forged a successful career before reaching the milestone. Tovey tentatively agrees, “I really feel like I’m secure in what I’m doing and it’s kind of going the way I want it to go which is brilliant.”
Tovey’s breakthrough moment, like many of the other seven young actors cast in the show, came in the National Theatre’s runaway hit The History Boys. While Tovey freely admits to having been “hysterical” having to perform it so many times, he also fully knows how lucky he was to have been involved. “There’d be days when you’d just go ‘I can’t do it anymore, I can’t play this anymore and keep it up’, and being homesick because we were all still quite young. But on the other hand we were absolutely living the dream.
“The first preview was the most incredible experience I’ve ever had on stage because we didn’t know how funny it was and suddenly the audience was just a wall of laughter, it was phenomenal. Especially my line ‘How do I define history? It’s just one f***ing thing after another.’ I was sitting there going ‘don’t laugh, don’t smile’ and the laughter just went on and on and on and it was amazing. I thought ‘blimey, I’m pleased I got that line and I bet the other boys are jealous!’” When the play transferred to New York, Tovey was suddenly thrown into a world where the cast were treated “like the Spice Girls. People would come backstage all the time” – Tom Hanks, Julia Roberts, Paul Newman and Harrison Ford are just a few of the phenomenally famous people he mentions – “I met Dustin Hoffmann and we went on a little mini run around Central Park. Things like that that were just unreal, it was like an absolute fantasy.”
Tovey’s career had in fact started long before the all-conquering production. He starred as a child in kid’s shows including Mud, famous for also kicking off Russell Brand’s career. With no theatrical blood in his family, it was his overactive imagination and obsession with films The Goonies and Home Alone that made him so serious about joining the profession. “My mum was always very behind me and my dad was panicked that I wouldn’t have an education, that all I’d be able to do is tap dance, [that] I’d become one of those weird show kids that have don’t have an adulthood and live in the past. But luckily that’s not been the case.”
After being suspended twice from school for probably the most amusing reasons ever invented; once for running into the girls’ toilets to steal their cakes and the other for calling a teacher ‘sweetheart’ – “I got escorted down to the headmistress’s office and the Head of Maths said to me ‘This is Mrs Palmer, the headmistress. Would you call Mrs Palmer sweetheart?’ And I said ‘Yeah, if I knew her a better’” – he was eventually politely asked to leave college for refusing to turn down acting work.
Tovey’s work ethic hasn’t swayed since. When I ask him if he thinks he’ll ever need to take a year off, he adamantly insists “No, I’d never stop no. You give yourself a holiday and you chill out but I’m a lot happier when I’m working. When I’m not working, the washing piles up, nothing gets posted, things don’t get sorted. As soon as I’m working and I’ve got no time at all, everything is covered, it’s really weird.
“You read so many gay parts and the gay character is always quite a tragic story and there’s always a terrible ending.”
“I’ve actually told all my friends and put on my Facebook status ‘I’m on lock down’ because I literally have no time to do anything.” Adding with a deliberately tongue-in-cheek tone, “When I do have free time I’m down the gym because I’m topless in this.” Although he admits being in the “average man casting bracket” where there’s no pressure on the number of packs you can boast, he jokes: “I want to hear gasps [on stage]. It’s a Brucey bonus you get with me! You don’t expect it!”
It can’t hurt either for his next adventure which will take him to the bizarre world of pilots’ season in Los Angeles when Sex With A Stranger finishes its run on 25 February. With cult BBC hit Being Human reformatted for US television and an American remake of Him & Her in progress, he’s in the fortunate position of already being on the radar of producers over the pond. “I went before Christmas and did a power week of meeting all the studios and all the casting people”. Laughing, Tovey adds, “Everyone said you’ll go over there and they’ll make you feel like you’re going to change the world and I said ‘okay fine’ and I left and thought ‘I’m going to take over the world’ basically.”
Tovey’s decision to leave the BBC’s supernatural drama Being Human after four successful seasons was partly due to his desire to be open for filming elsewhere, but also came down to a gut feeling. “You just know when you know, you know? It was like the end of a relationship when you’ve had a really lovely time, you really care about each other but you know it’s not the one for you. I had a lovely time and then Aidan [Turner, his Being Human co-star] leaving made me sort of go ‘hmmm’ and I’ve been with it a long time playing that character.”
If acting wasn’t enough to keep him busy, Tovey is also taking tentative steps to make his way to the other side of the camera. He is the author of three plays but also, somewhat unfortunately, has a short attention span. “They have all had readings, then they’ve suddenly gone ‘we want to see a second draft or a third draft’ and I think ‘I’m bored of that, I want to write something else now’ so I’ve never followed through with anything.” The actor has also spoken at length about the lack of interesting gay roles, so I wonder if it’s a role he would like to write himself? “Yeah. You read so many gay parts and the gay character is always quite a tragic story and there’s always a terrible ending or they’re terribly lonely or they get AIDS, I just want to play someone who’s kind of sorted, not something that’s going to break boundaries, just something that’s going to tell a different side.”
Different sides is something Tovey has lots of. He may be the cheeky Essex boy I’ve read him described as numerous times, but to me, he mainly stands out as being as interested in and fully engaged with as many things as he possibly can be. When I ask him what he’d be doing if he weren’t acting, without a beat he answers: “When I was a little boy I used to want to be a history teacher,” a passion he manages to get into our conversation during the interview. “If I wasn’t doing that I would do something in contemporary art. I’d be a curator or I’d run a gallery” he adds, before reeling off a list of names of artists he’d love to play.
Perhaps those American casting agents should widen their brackets. An average man he is not.