I believe in aliens, I believe in ghosts, I believe in ancestors looking after us...” says Russell Tovey, star of Years and Years and Being Human, hugging one knee. “All of that stuff. I don’t like the idea of dying, and that’s it, black screen forever. I definitely have hope that I’ll see my nan and past pets and hang out on a cloud with the Care Bears. That would feel good.” Alas, the ghosts that crop up in his new supernatural thriller The Sister aren’t exactly of the Care Bear variety. The ITV series, which airs over four consecutive nights in the lead up to Halloween, is creepy, disquieting and tinged with poignancy.
The 38-year-old stars as a happy-go-lucky everyman involved in the death of a young woman. He had to “slightly f*** myself up” to play the role of Nathan, who ends up burying the woman in the woods and then marrying her sister in a misguided attempt at atonement. Such is Tovey’s ability to coax empathy from his audience that you end up rooting for him. “Was you satisfied with the outcome?” he asks, eagerly. Yes, I say, but I felt morally conflicted. “Exactly! You sort of forgive him, even though what he did is so screwed up.”
The crux of the show, says Tovey, is that “good people can make bad mistakes”. It is what makes it more terrifying, in his eyes, than a show about a sociopathic serial killer “who tormented puppies when he was a kid”. And it’s why he found it so hard to shake off at the end of each day. “This sweet guy made a mistake and now it’s ruined his life,” he says, so forlorn, you’d think he was talking about a close friend. “Anybody could make that mistake. Anybody could get in a car after they’ve had a few too many drinks and run someone over. And they could be the most open, giving person and make a stupid mistake and that defines them for the rest of their life. And that kind of scared me. There’s only been a couple of jobs in my life that I took home. I took this home.”
Tovey is speaking over Zoom from the converted Shoreditch warehouse he shares with his boyfriend, the rugby player Steve Brockman. Behind him are two framed Will Boone artworks, one with bold red letters layered over each other, the other an orange, spray-painted hourglass symbol (at least that’s what it looks like to me). Canvases adorn Tovey’s every wall; he loves art so much that he even has a podcast about it, Talk Art, which kept him sane during lockdown. The only thing he loves more is his French bulldog Rocky, whose bark I occasionally hear, followed by the sharp, admonishing snap of someone’s fingers off-camera.
Tovey has a sort of puppyish quality himself, a gentle Jack-the-lad demeanour that he deploys in his many roles as “a loveable dickhead” – the brusque, underestimated Peter Rudge in Alan Bennett’s The History Boys (on-stage in 2004, and on-screen in 2006); a neurotic werewolf in the comedy-drama Being Human; one half of a lazy couple in the BBC sitcom Him & Her; and Smithy’s friend Budgie in Gavin and Stacey. He’s wanted to be an actor ever since he saw Robin Williams in Dead Poets’ Society as a boy. “I remember thinking, ‘If I can do something that makes people feel the way that I felt watching him in that movie, that’s an amazing gift.’”
His first big break, in a ketchup advert at the age of 12, wasn’t quite “O Captain! My Captain!”, but it got him noticed. Before long, he was cast in a kids’ TV show, Mud, and by 19, he was starring on the London stage. When Nicholas Hytner took over as artistic director at The National Theatre, Tovey became a regular, with supporting roles in plays like Henry V, His Girl Friday, and eventually The History Boys. While there, he and a handful of other promising young actors would be plonked at a table with “a group of billionaires” to try and persuade them to donate to the theatre. “I ended up becoming more Dickensian, more common, ‘cus I thought that’s what they wanted,” he recalls, smiling. “I definitely played into that, and it worked for me. It seemed to benefit me.”
Since then, despite the elitism and snobbery that exists in the world of acting, Tovey’s working-class background – he grew up in Billericay, Essex, and his parents ran an airport coach service – has worked to his advantage. “I’m working class but I’m aspirational,” he says, with a slight laugh and then a frown. “I don’t know if that’s the right thing to say. I think as a working-class actor, I’ve been able to navigate a career where it doesn’t define me, but it also enhances my character choices. So there are a few things I’ve never wanted to iron out. I’ve never wanted to pin my ears back – and I’ve been told multiple times, ‘You’ll never make it in Hollywood if you don’t get your ears pinned back’ – and I’ve never been embarrassed of being an Essex boy.”
He’s also never been reticent about discussing his sexuality, speaking about being gay at least as early as 2010, back when interviewers thought it was OK to call him a “poof” to his face, and when Rupert Everett was declaring that he “would not advise any actor necessarily, if he was really thinking of his career, to come out”.
Tovey is delighted at how much the world has changed since then – and in the 20 years since he would sneak into the library to look at Tom of Finland’s homoerotic art as a teenager, terrified that someone would catch him. “My generation, we had Section 28,” he says – until 2003, it was illegal to “promote” homosexuality in schools. “It was ‘male, female, that’s it. Anything else is weird, wrong, dangerous, disgusting, not acceptable.’ So that’s what you were taught as a kid – you keep it a big, big secret and you don’t tell anyone. We’re in a world now where people are choosing their pronouns. They’re having the opportunity to not define themselves by anything and their peers are accepting of that. I find that really inspiring and so exciting. And I’m slightly envious.”
Then again, he adds, “generations above us would be super envious of the fact that I’m able to sit and talk to you like this now”. For people a decade or so older, “being gay was illegal, their friends died of Aids, they had no rights… and now here I am in a world where we can get married and have kids and it’s all becoming normal.” He points a pen at the camera, as if to punctuate his sentence. He does that whenever he’s feeling particularly strongly about something, which is often. “I’m standing on the shoulders of giants. What they did for us, to be able to sit here now and just talk like this... you can’t ever thank them enough.”
It took Tovey a little while to play gay characters, though – but perhaps that was as much down to a dearth of queer roles than anything else. Since 2014, things have changed. That year alone, he played a closeted footballer in The Pass at the Royal Court (a role he reprised for the excellent, intimate 2016 film); a happily gay video-game designer in the HBO drama Looking; and had a haunting cameo in Pride, as a man who it is implied is dying of Aids. A number of queer parts followed, among them closeted Republican lawyer Joe Pitt in a starry National Theatre production of Angels in America. He had watched the HBO version of Tony Kushner’s gay fantasia “over and over and over again” as a young man, and felt like he’d “astral-projected” his way into the role of Joe.
“There isn’t just one queer story,” says Tovey. “There are billions and billions of queer stories. So I don’t think there’s a finite way of playing a gay character. What it comes down to is what the script is saying, how it’s moving the dial. Is it authentic? Is it showing diversity? Do I believe this?”
I get the sense that Tovey’s favourite queer roles are those in which his sexuality is intrinsic but incidental. Perhaps because they show a life he didn’t know was possible when he was young. Take Daniel in Years and Years, last year’s weird and wonderful BBC drama, which imagined a dystopian future that is already starting to play out. “He was gay but it wasn’t everything about him. He wasn’t struggling with his sexuality, he wasn’t having to tell his family… it was just like, ‘There’s Daniel, he’s got a husband.’ That is when them stories become clearer and we move on, because it becomes background noise to life.”
Tovey is borderline evangelical about the power of art to change the world. “Culture is the quickest way to move a message across the globe,” he says. “More than any political, government propaganda. Why did they build amphitheatres thousands of years ago? Because people needed to know stories! Because they needed to connect to their common man! And if you don’t understand the struggles of other people through culture, then you’re not gonna understand the world.” He despairs at the idea that subjects such as drama and art are classed as “superfluous” in schools. “That is something we have to fight for more than anything else. I say get rid of f***ing maths. I hate maths. And you can quote me on that.”
Tovey dreams of a future in which everyone’s stories can be told – even if none of them know how to do algebra. “From people of colour to women to queer people, everything that is not white, straight male has had to fight for space to be seen and heard,” he says. “And so my advice is just keep pushing. Keep going. Because when you do break through, you are changing history.”
The Sister airs over four consecutive nights on ITV One; the first episode airs at 9pm on Monday 26 October