Russell Tovey is pondering which relative is to blame for his sticky-out ears. “My mum and dad are fine, my brother’s got none of it,” he says. “When I was younger I had terrible skin … my mother has terrible skin. Male-pattern hair loss is starting to come in … my dad is bald. It’s so unfair; my brother’s tall, has perfect skin, great hair, but I’m like the runt.”
In person, Tovey’s ears aren’t that noticeable. Just as the camera makes actors look wider, his shell-likes are exaggerated on television – in fact, he’s much better looking off-screen. Perhaps it’s the sort of characters he’s played: the none-too-bright Rudge in Alan Bennett’s The History Boys; John Chivery, the lovesick prison guard in Little Dorrit; George Sands, the geeky werewolf in Being Human; layabout Steve in the brilliant BBC3 sitcom Him & Her. “Loveable dickheads” is how Tovey describes them.
We meet at The Groucho Club, Tovey being a member. “Yes, but I’ll hang out anywhere … I’m a scruff,” he says. Dressed in a (borrowed) Louis Vuitton T-shirt, he looks anything but scruffy; more a young man about Old Compton Street. Openly gay since he was a teenager, the 31-year-old has a favourite Groucho story about Damien Hirst urinating in a sink, and how the club’s letter of admonishment found its way into one of Hirst’s artworks.
It’s a tale that would appeal to Tovey’s latest character – Karl, a fine art graduate in ITV’s upcoming sitcom The Job Lot, set in a Birmingham Jobcentre. “Karl had ambitions to become the next Andy Warhol,” says Tovey, “but it didn’t quite happen, so he got a job in a Jobcentre and he’s been there ever since.”
Not since the glory days of Rising Damp have the words “ITV” and “sitcom” tripped happily off the tongue together, but it seems that ITV – inspired by Sky’s massive investment in comedy – is determined to get back into the game, and The Job Lot, which co-stars Sarah Hadland from Miranda, is actually rather funny.
It’s made by Big Talk Productions, which is also responsible for Rev and Friday Night Dinner, as well as Him & Her. A fourth series of Him & Her, a sort of anti-sitcom with Pinteresque flourishes in which Tovey and Sarah Solemani play lazy, flat-bound twentysomethings Steve and Becky, starts filming in July. “It’s my baby, that show,” he says proudly.
Solemani was apparently one of the few actresses willing to tackle a comedy that doesn’t shy away from bodily functions. “So many girls read and said, ‘Oh no, I don’t want to be seen doing a poo on screen,’” says Tovey, although he adds that later episodes have been toned down. “This year, there was a scene where there’s cum on the bed which she’s trying to dry off with the hairdryer before her parents come over. I think if that had been in the first series you would have seen a shot of it.”
Tovey grew up in Billericay, in Essex, where his parents run a coach company transporting people to Stansted Airport. His older brother, Daniel – the tall one with great hair and non-protruding ears – is now managing director, but Tovey opted out. “I’m not going to do my bus licence so you can ring me up at 4am because someone’s broken down,” he says.
He got an agent when he was a child attending local drama clubs, and began appearing on children’s TV and in adverts. “My mum was, ‘Go for it’; my dad thought if it didn’t work out I’d just be some misfit who could tap dance, so he was panicked. But now they’re over the moon.”
Expelled from a performing arts course in Barking for turning down a role in the college musical in favour of an advert for McDonald’s, Tovey’s first big break came after appearing at the Chichester Festival Theatre in a play directed by Debra Gillett, the wife of Patrick Marber (Closer; Notes on a Scandal), who wrote a part for Tovey in his play at the National Theatre in 2001, Howard Katz.
And it was at the National where Tovey had the life-changing good fortune – as did Dominic Cooper and James Corden – of being cast in Nicholas Hytner’s smash hit production of Alan Bennett’s The History Boys, touring with it to the Far East and Broadway. “We’d all say it was like our Rada. Dominic went to Lamda, but James and I didn’t go to drama school.”
Corden cast Tovey when he went on to write Gavin & Stacey, during the filming of which Tovey met Rob Brydon, who then cast him as the TV producer in his comedy Rob Brydon’s Annually Retentive. That role in turn caught the eye of Russell T Davies, who cast Tovey in the 2007 Doctor Who Christmas special and mentioned in a blog that he thought that the actor would make an ideal replacement for the departing David Tennant.
“Russell texted me to say, ‘Look, I’ve said this quote about how you should be the next Doctor Who, so if it goes a bit crazy ...’ And I was, ‘Oh, that’s fine …’, and then suddenly it just went everywhere: people messaging me from my childhood and lots of remarks like, ‘His ears are too big for the Tardis, they’ll be flapping about.’ People were starting to get really personal.”
In the event, Matt Smith was to become the 11th Time Lord, but Tovey, who was screen-tested, professes to have been more relieved than miffed: “It would have terrified me,” he says. “I don’t know what I would have done with all the attention.”
Tovey would have been the first openly gay actor to play the Doctor, although he says he shuns playing gay men. “Every character I play is straight, which is unique, my agent says, because it’s not really been done before that someone who is completely out is able to play straight roles. So for me to play gay it has to be something special, because it might actually be more of a risk. So I’m waiting for that role – I want it to be something that moves things forward.”
In the meantime, he’s been in America, managing to get down to the final two in auditions for a new HBO series, and has just finished making a four-part whodunit for BBC1, What Remains, in which David Threlfall from Shameless plays the investigating detective. And then there’s Emma Thompson’s biopic of the Victorian art critic John Ruskin and his teenage bride, Effie, starring Greg Wise as Ruskin and Dakota Fanning as his eponymous love interest, in which Tovey plays the former’s manservant. He’s also been involved in a British horror flick, Blackwood, featuring Ed Stoppard and Sophia Myles. “I play the village weirdo,” Tovey says with satisfaction, it being his stated goal to start winning darker roles.
“My character in What Remains is a bit twisted, and I did a play last year called Sex with a Stranger [playing a character] who was a manipulative arsehole. I’m not just playing the soft, smiley, sweet guy any more. I’m playing the soft, smiley, sweet guy who’s just killed his family.”
‘The Job Lot’ begins on ITV at 9.30pm on Monday