Viewers will probably recognise Russell Tovey for playing one of two types. The first is a sensitive, perhaps misunderstood young man, as seen in Being Human, Banished, Sherlock, and more recently in Russell T Davies’ Years and Years. The second is, well, not the sharpest tool in the shed – the butt of most jokes, as in Gavin and Stacey and The History Boys, in which he played the well-meaning Rudge.
Tovey’s latest role, in ITV’s darkly comic thriller Flesh and Blood, is an abrupt departure from both types. He plays Jake, a personal trainer separated from his wife, and the only son of Vivien (Francesca Amis), an attractive older woman whose budding romance is frowned upon by her adult children. Jake is particularly rankled, even disgusted, at the thought of his mother’s sexuality.
“That’s the man-child thing, where he doesn’t grow up and he’s not allowing his mum to grow up,” Tovey explains in an exclusive interview with RadioTimes.com.
Speaking about his character, it’s clear Tovey relishes the role. “I think he’s the epitome of toxic masculinity,” he says. “I think he’s exactly what so many thirty-somethings are like. They’re caught adrift at that time in the life and they’ve been enabled all their life to – their behaviours been enabled and then they get to a point where things start screwing up and it doesn’t make sense to them.”
Jake has messed up both his finances and his home life, meaning “he’s got a terribly low self esteem but [a] humungous ego,” Tovey adds.
How did Tovey approach a character like Jake? “With nuance. With, like, respect and with love, I love him – I think I don’t want to hang out with him… but, I think as an actor, he’s a goldmine of emotion.”
“I love the fact that he’s always on the front foot,” he continues, “and sort of says stuff which in his mind is like, ‘That makes me a really outgoing, forward kind of clear-headed person’, but in reality it’s like, dude, you sound like a bit of a k**b, you’re not really editing yourself, you’re not thinking, you’re not 15 anymore. You can’t talk like that.”
Does Jake represent a wider attitude towards masculinity? “I think a lot of people will recognise people – if not themselves, people they know – in him,” Tovey says.
In Flesh and Blood, Jake is one of three siblings, while Tovey’s popular Years and Years character Daniel is one of four. Having a brother himself “absolutely” helps his portrayal of sibling dynamics, the actors says. He reveals that his father once had to hire a car with an extra row of seats to prevent Tovey and his brother from fighting during a driving holiday.
Tovey adds that “family dynamics” appeal to him when he first reads a script. “What drives me to most things is family dynamics, relationships between mothers and fathers and kids and that. And that’s what pulled me into this, and him [Jake] being a dad, and him screwing up his own life, willingly. That was what appealed to me – whereas Daniel in Years and Years didn’t think he was screwing up his life, he thought he was making a better life for himself and someone else,” Tovey says.
In Years and Years, Daniel was (spoiler alert!) the centre of a shock plot-twist, following a daring rescue mission involving his refugee boyfriend. “He [Daniel] thought he was doing the right thing,” Tovey says, “and he was determined, and he was arrogant, very arrogant, and I think he was very much like, ‘It’s fine, it’s not going to happen to me. We’re fine, we’re safe, stick with me, we’re cool. This is what I’ve got going on’.”
While Years and Years was only ever going to be one series, Tovey is “totally” keen to reprise his Flesh and Blood role (although his co-star, Imelda Staunton, may be caught up with her new role in The Crown…).
“This show… it’s heightened and it’s quirky and it’s cheeky and it’s thrilling,” he says, “and you think you know what it is, and you don’t know what it is, and then suddenly you’re in and you wanna know everything.”
Flesh and Blood will air on Monday 24th February on ITV over four consecutive nights