Russell Tovey is an enthrallingly naturalistic actor, fast becoming as prominent on our screens as his ears are on his head. We are propping up the bar in an East End pub where we are meant to be discussing season four of Being Human, in which he will play werewolf George Sands for the last time. But we’ve got distracted by tawdry tales of his past. Still, as with so many things in life we can, perhaps thankfully, blame Russell Brand.
The last time I interviewed the star of The History Boys, who recently shone in the Sherlock episode The Hounds of Baskerville, was in 2010. He was promoting the first series of Him & Her, BBC3’s cohabiting-couple six-parter. “When it started, I think people were expecting it to be like Two Pints of Lager and a Packet of Crisps, with canned laughter or a live audience,” he says now of the studio-shot series, which was recently recommissioned for a third outing. “But it’s found its groove now, and people have got it. And the second series just did so well because of that.”
During that previous encounter, the Billericay-born actor had discussed his debut acting gig, in children’s TV drama Mud. He was 11 at the time, and the experience coincided with his first inkling that he might be gay.
“I was really screwed up,” Tovey recalled. “I was so young, but I’d fallen for an older actor in the show. I was 11, so he must have been about 19.”
Also starring in Mud: Dagenham lad Russell Brand. So, when I meet Tovey this time, I ask: all those years ago, did Essex boy Russell T fall for Essex boy Russell B?
“No, it wasn’t him,” Tovey replies with a smile and a sip of his blackcurrant and lemonade (he’s allergic to lager but partial to a vodka). “But Russell was great – and he offered me a porno mag when I was a kid. I think I declined.” And then we’re off, talking about below-the-belt stuff. Maybe we can blame the environment: a Friday night in a busy pub run by Sandra Esquilant, the characterful landlady-cum-arts patron who is one of Tracey Emin’s best friends (Tovey’s also a discerning collector of modern art).
Or perhaps it’s fatigue: he’s just put in a long day’s rehearsal on his first London play since The History Boys. Or maybe it’s the subject of that play – written by Him & Her’s Stefan Golaszewski, it’s called Sex with a Stranger, and it’s about dying relationships and one-night stands. Whatever the reason, soon Tovey is describing his teenage “mucky book” years. “A kid at school used to cut pictures out of his dad’s magazines and I’d buy ’em off him,” he laughs… which leads to a discussion of “manscaping”.
Readers of a sensitive disposition may wish to look away now, but Tovey admits that for reasons of cleanliness and appearance, and seemingly like many a male of his generation, he’s not averse to shaving “downstairs”. Really? “Absolutely. I trim every morning, in the shower.”
Speaking of losing hair, the fourth season of Being Human is Tovey’s swansong. For not much longer will viewers thrill to the sight of the monthly transformation of the increasingly buff Tovey (he’s an ardent gym bunny) into a hirsute and terrifyingly toothsome loup-garou.
In the cult supernatural flatshare drama, he’s following the example of Aidan Turner (vampire Mitchell), who departed at the end of the last series, having been killed by Tovey’s character. Fangs for the memory and all that, and the show’s rabid following will be agape when they learn of the manner of George’s departure, but why is Tovey leaving too? Did Turner’s exit change things for him?
“Yeah, I just felt that I’d been with it since the pilot, and I’d done three series – and for some reason I’ve got it in my head that three’s the magic number. It’s like when you come to the end of a relationship or you need to move house – you suddenly go, ‘I’ve got such happy memories here, and everything’s been lovely. But I just know that I’m ready for the next step now.’”
Those next steps are already in motion. Tovey is one of our most versatile actors. Him & Her has shown his comic chops, and an appearance in Doctor Who – as Midshipman Frame in the Christmas 2007 Voyage of the Damned episode – won him the kiddy vote. Sherlock was, of course, a huge hit. “With those two and Being Human, I feel I’ve done the holy trinity of cult shows,” he beams.
Now he’s parlaying those small-screen triumphs into big-screen ambition. He has three films coming this year, four if we include his voice-acting gig in the next Aardman adventure, The Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists. He was recently in Venice shooting Effie (made by Him & Her director Richard Laxton), in which he plays the butler of 19th-century arts patron John Ruskin (played by Greg Wise). Grabbers, a comedy-horror filmed in Ireland on a small budget of €3m, was selected for this year’s Sundance Film Festival. Finally there’s Tower Block, a London-set thriller about a sniper shooting up a council block, which gave him the opportunity to work with Sheridan Smith, for whom he professes his adoration.
More immediately, he has his London play, in which he’s starring alongside Jaime Winstone, daughter of Ray. Then, after a fact-finding trip to the city last year, he wants to return to Los Angeles to pursue an American dream.
“The goal is to go over there, book a pilot for a new show, shoot it, come back here, do the third Him & Her, then go out there and do the series.”
But he doesn’t want to do comedy. He wants a Six Feet Under-type show, or something like Nurse Jackie or Breaking Bad – dramas with a twist. “I don’t have kids, I don’t have ties, I’m absolutely up for the challenge. I’m ready now.”
And what have the Hollywood agents said of his sexuality? He’s previously queried their readiness to accept a gay man in straight roles. Nope, he smiles, not been an issue.
“I came out in one meeting!” he laughs. “They weren’t aware. One of them got very excited, and the other one said, ‘Oh, we can go shopping together!’ But,” he shrugs, “I’m out [as a gay man] – if it doesn’t work because of that, it doesn’t work. I’ve got an amazing career here, things are great, and people don’t really seem to care – people are allowing me to be who I wanna be.
“I’m never going to be Orlando Bloom,” he adds. “Certain people find me attractive but I’m never going to be billed as the romantic lead. I’ll always be the anti-romantic lead, the guilty secret crush. But for me that’s the most interesting thing. Being gay sits absolutely fine with that. I’m not trying to be someone I’m not.”
Being Human is on Sunday at 9:00pm on BBC3
This is an edited version of an article in the issue of Radio Times magazine published 24 January 2012