When coronavirus hit New York, Russell Tovey was gearing up to star as Nick in ‘Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?’ on Broadway. In a parallel world, the show opened on 9th April to widespread critical acclaim; perhaps it won a couple of Tony Awards. But in the actual world of 2020, as you can probably guess, the production never made it to opening night.
“We had eight previews, then one of our ushers was the first usher on Broadway to test positive for COVID, so we were like ground zero for COVID,” Tovey says. “And then literally two days later it was over. We flew back and they thought it was only going to be about three weeks. We all thought it would be about three weeks, a month, before we’d be back there doing it again. Obviously didn’t happen.” The play is now cancelled, though the set is being kept in storage in case it can make a Broadway comeback – one day.
Since he landed back in England, it has been a strange – but impressively productive – six months for Tovey. The actor, whose credits include The History Boys, Angels in America (the play), Him & Her, Years and Years, Flesh and Blood, Being Human and upcoming ITV drama The Sister, took a brief pause. Then he got to work.
“I came back and I was in a bit of a daze, for the first two weeks or something, or a month,” Tovey tells RadioTimes.com. “And then me and my podcast partner on Talk Art, Rob Diament, worked out a way that we can record our podcast down the line, because normally we do them in person. And as soon as we worked that out it went nuts and it was the busiest I’ve ever been – because we were literally like, ‘Come on let’s make this moment – let’s really harness this situation!’ So we did, like, 45 episodes in lockdown.”
Over our video chat I can hear occasional little snuffling noises. (“You might hear dogs throughout this, sorry,” says Tovey, though as far as this interviewer is concerned there is zero need to apologise.) The canines in question are his rugby player boyfriend Steve Brockman’s two basset hounds, Archie and Cooper, as well as Tovey’s own beloved French bulldog Rocky; the three dogs are now thoroughly used to having their dads around all the time. Right now they are lazily wrestling on the living room floor.
“They’re just so funny, and they love life,” Tovey says, “And they’re just like, ‘Wow. My dad’s here on tap, I can get cuddled all day long’… they’re completely spoilt.”
The previous night, the dogs were even more spoilt for company. “I’m a bit hungover,” admits Tovey. “I had friends over for dinner last night and then we had too many bottles of red wine, so I feel a bit woolly. Please forgive me.” (And as is now the norm when it comes to discussing social gatherings, Tovey is quick to add a disclaimer: “There were six of us, only six of us, and three dogs – I’m not breaking the law, I’m not breaking the law!”)
But for someone suffering from a painful hangover, Tovey is surprisingly sprightly and articulate and fresh-faced. You wouldn’t guess he had a hangover at all, although perhaps that’s because Brockman has come to the rescue mid-interview: “My boyfriend’s just bringing me juice, water, and Actimel. He can tell I’m struggling.”
Since March, Tovey has poured so much of his time and energy into his art podcast; but now TV shows are starting to come back into production, and the actor was recently able to film his first post-lockdown TV show, No Masks – a one-off Sky Arts drama telling the stories of real-life Londoners at the peak of the pandemic.
The hour-long special is based on real-life testimonies collected from frontline staff in East London, which are performed as a series of monologues by actors including Anya Chalotra (as a junior doctor), Anna Calder-Marshall (as an elderly lady), Eamonn Walker (as a care worker), and Lorraine Ashbourne (as a palliative care nurse).
Then there’s Tovey, who plays a police officer called Noel. “He’s a nice guy, d’you know what I mean?” the actor says. “He’s a cheeky chappy, he’s very sensitive and he’s very kind and thoughtful, and wants to do a good job.” The role was dramatised by playwrights Nadia Fall and Rebecca Lenkiewicz from a real interview with a real cop – but although Tovey had a look at the video ahead of filming, he didn’t speak to his real-life counterpart until just recently: “He slid into my DMs about a week ago to say ‘Hi you’re playing me,’ and I’m like, ‘Ah sh*t. Okay! Let me know what you think on Wednesday night.'”
In a series of monologues, Noel tells us about intervening to get rid of one woman’s abusive boyfriend; about breaking up outdoor picnics; about how he and his boyfriend just took part in an online ‘rave’ from their living room; and about one particularly devastating callout, which will stay with him forever. Noel’s narrative comes together with the other characters to create a broader story about ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances.
“I just got given Noel the police officer’s stuff, and when I actually saw it all put together I was like: ‘Wow, this is really beautiful,'” Tovey says. “And really important to have these people’s words, and it’s real. And to humanise all these people on an individual level is really important, because people can easily get clubbed in together and not have their stories told.”
Then there was the excitement of being back in front of a camera, even if it was strange filming under COVID-safe restrictions.
“It felt like a really good muscle just to go: ‘Ah I’m an actor again for a day!'” Tovey says. “I only had one day on it, but I think no matter what the process is, whatever insurance is in place, no matter how many times you have to get tested, no matter what – we’ve just to keep working. So I think everyone’s like: ‘This sucks, this process, but on the other hand what’s the alternative? We don’t make art? Well then that’s not an alternative. We have to just power ahead and keep going, no matter how uncomfortable at times it feels, no matter how ridiculous it might seem trying to create stuff, you’ve just got to keep going.’
“And I think that’s everyone’s feeling, because everyone wants it. No one’s being like, ugh I’ve got to go and film. Everyone’s being like, I want to go back to work – I want to create! I need to create! So whatever it takes, I think just keep going and I think it’s going to be the same when theatres properly open, just whatever it takes – just get out there, put your mask on, have your hand sanitiser squirting every two minutes, but just get out there.”
Of course, Tovey isn’t just about the acting these days. Having started out as a child actor (remember that famous Ketchup ad he did as a kid?), he’s built up an impressive CV across stage and screen – but he’s also devoted to his podcast. And on top of that, he’s also been writing; his latest short story has just been published in the anthology A Short Affair, with illustrations by Tracey Emin.
“It sort of happened organically,” Tovey says of his varied career. “But I also think we’re in a time where you’re allowed to switch lanes, you’re allowed to diversify and create in other fields. The podcast happened organically and the writing stuff happened organically, it wasn’t like: right today I’m going to be a writer. It all goes hand-in-hand. And it’s all, it’s a really nice feeling to just be able to have that creative output because I think if I was just waiting for an acting job now I’d just go nuts.”
After No Masks, the next time we’ll see Tovey on screen will be in his new ITV thriller, The Sister – although that was filmed in pre-corona times, before Tovey went off to New York for his ill-fated Broadway play.
The Sister is written by Neil Cross of Luther fame. “It’s a completely different character for me to play,” the actor says. “It’s really scary, it’s a complete thriller, but it’s psychological, very emotional… and as an audience, you’re going to be very entertained, scared, but conflicted with your feelings towards the character I play.”
Perhaps unsurprisingly given his upcoming TV project is titled “The Sister”, Tovey reckons he tends to go for the roles roles that have something to do with family. “I’m always drawn to family connections,” he says. “I’m always drawn to amazing dialogue, but I’m always drawn to families – mothers and sons, brothers and sisters. Things like Flesh and Blood and Years and Years are very family-oriented TV shows that I did about love, about connection, about the nuances and the dynamics within a family. That’s something that’s always excited me.”
He adds: “If there was a Coen Brothers movie about a mother and a son, where me and Frances McDormand go round on a road trip, and – do you know what I mean? That would be the dream. Something like that would be incredible.” (Casting directors, take note.)
What about a role like James Bond, I ask? “Never say never. Again, it isn’t something that I’m like: ‘I have to play James Bond.’ I would rather play the baddie or I would rather play –” But he suddenly breaks off to ask Brockman: “Why are you pulling a face? You think I should say I want to play James Bond?”
Turning back to me, Tovey confirms: “I want to play James Bond.”
Laughing, he adds: “I don’t know. I love it, but I also love, like, Q. I love all the ones – the singled-lettered person in James Bond seems like it’d be more – you know. I could be P, or M – I’ll be R, can I not be R? I’ll be R.”
For now, Tovey is looking back on what he’s produced over the last six months, and how it fits into the artistic record of this extraordinarily strange period of human history.
“This is the stuff that’s going to be taught in schools, when we’re all dead,” he says. “This time is so bizarre for the world. ‘Unprecedented’ – that word just gets bandied around so much – but it [No Masks] is a time capsule. That’s what we sort of felt like with the podcast as well… we’re talking to people on a huge bandwidth of culture, all about what they’re going through at the moment, and it is a record of the times. Artists, collectors, singers, actors, how they’re dealing with this – it’s really fascinating to have that now as a document.”
And while he’s scared for the future of the theatre world and the creative industries, he’s also proud of the way everyone has coped and adapted. “I think it’s really inspiring the fact that we don’t just sit and go, let’s wait for this to blow over and go back to what we did before,” he says. “Everyone goes: ‘Well we’ve got to keep moving with the times, we’ve got to keep telling stories. How can we do that?'”
No Masks airs on Wednesday 30th September at 9pm on Sky Arts. Check out what else is on with our TV Guide, or take a look at our new TV shows 2020 page to find out what’s airing this autumn and beyond. You can find Russell Tovey’s work in A Short Affair, with illustrations by Tracey Emin, available now on Amazon.