Interview: Russell Tovey's work experience

The star of ITV's new sitcom 'The Job Lot' tells Gerard Gilbert of his rise to fame

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

Arts and Entertainment
Joel Edgerton, John Turturro and Christian Bale in Exodus: Gods and Kings
film Ridley Scott reveals truth behind casting decisions of Exodus
Arts and Entertainment
An unseen image of Kurt Cobain at home featured in the film 'Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck'
filmThe singers widow and former bandmates have approved project
Arts and Entertainment
Jake Quickenden and Edwina Currie are joining the I'm A Celebrity...Get Me Out Of Here! camp
tv
Arts and Entertainment
George Mpanga has been shortlisted for the Critics’ Choice prize
music
Arts and Entertainment
Roisin, James and Sanjay in the boardroom
tvReview: This week's failing project manager had to go
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Carrie Hope Fletcher
booksFirst video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books
Arts and Entertainment
Damien Hirst
artCoalition's anti-culture policy and cuts in local authority spending to blame, says academic
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
A comedy show alumni who has gone on to be a big star, Jon Stewart
tvRival television sketch shows vie for influential alumni
Arts and Entertainment
Jason goes on a special mission for the queen
tvReview: Everyone loves a CGI Cyclops and the BBC's Saturday night charmer is getting epic
Arts and Entertainment
Image has been released by the BBC
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Will there ever be a Friends reunion?
TV
News
Harry Hill plays the Professor in the show and hopes it will help boost interest in science among young people
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
A Van Gogh sold at Sotheby’s earlier this month
art
Arts and Entertainment

MusicThe band accidentally called Londoners the C-word

Arts and Entertainment
It would 'mean a great deal' to Angelina Jolie if she won the best director Oscar for Unbroken

Film 'I've never been comfortable on-screen', she says

Arts and Entertainment
Winnie the Pooh has been branded 'inappropriate' in Poland
books
Arts and Entertainment
Lee Evans is quitting comedy to spend more time with his wife and daughter

comedy
Arts and Entertainment
American singer, acclaimed actor of stage and screen, political activist and civil rights campaigner Paul Robeson (1898 - 1976), rehearses in relaxed mood at the piano.
filmSinger, actor, activist, athlete: Paul Robeson was a cultural giant. But prejudice and intolerance drove him to a miserable death. Now his story is to be told in film...
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift is dominating album and singles charts worldwide

music
Arts and Entertainment
Kieron Richardson plays gay character Ste Hay in Channel 4 soap Hollyoaks

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Midge Ure and Sir Bob Geldof outside the Notting Hill recording studios for Band Aid 30

music
Arts and Entertainment
Look out: Broad shoulders take Idris Elba’s DCI John Luther a long way
tvIdris Elba will appear in two special episodes for the BBC next year
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: ‘We give them hope. They come to us when no one else can help’

    Christmas Appeal

    Meet the charity giving homeless veterans hope – and who they turn to when no one else can help
    Should doctors and patients learn to plan humane, happier endings rather than trying to prolong life?

    Is it always right to try to prolong life?

    Most of us would prefer to die in our own beds, with our families beside us. But, as a GP, Margaret McCartney sees too many end their days in a medicalised battle
    Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night - is that what it takes for women to get to the top?

    What does it take for women to get to the top?

    Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night and told women they had to do more if they wanted to get on
    Christmas jumper craze: Inside the UK factory behind this year's multicultural must-have

    Knitting pretty: British Christmas Jumpers

    Simmy Richman visits Jack Masters, the company behind this year's multicultural must-have
    French chefs have launched a campaign to end violence in kitchens - should British restaurants follow suit?

    French chefs campaign against bullying

    A group of top chefs signed a manifesto against violence in kitchens following the sacking of a chef at a Paris restaurant for scalding his kitchen assistant with a white-hot spoon
    Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour War and Peace on New Year's Day as Controller warns of cuts

    Just what you need on a New Year hangover...

    Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour adaptation of War and Peace on first day of 2015
    Cuba set to stage its first US musical in 50 years

    Cuba to stage first US musical in 50 years

    Claire Allfree finds out if the new production of Rent will hit the right note in Havana
    Christmas 2014: 10 best educational toys

    Learn and play: 10 best educational toys

    Of course you want them to have fun, but even better if they can learn at the same time
    Paul Scholes column: I like Brendan Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season

    Paul Scholes column

    I like Brendan Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season
    Lewis Moody column: Stuart Lancaster has made all the right calls – now England must deliver

    Lewis Moody: Lancaster has made all the right calls – now England must deliver

    So what must the red-rose do differently? They have to take the points on offer 
    Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

    Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

    It's in all our interests to look after servicemen and women who fall on hard times, say party leaders
    Millionaire Sol Campbell wades into wealthy backlash against Labour's mansion tax

    Sol Campbell cries foul at Labour's mansion tax

    The former England defender joins Myleene Klass, Griff Rhys Jones and Melvyn Bragg in criticising proposals
    Nicolas Sarkozy returns: The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?

    Sarkozy returns

    The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?
    Is the criticism of Ed Miliband a coded form of anti-Semitism?

    Is the criticism of Miliband anti-Semitic?

    Attacks on the Labour leader have coalesced around a sense that he is different, weird, a man apart. But is the criticism more sinister?
    Ouija boards are the must-have gift this Christmas, fuelled by a schlock horror film

    Ouija boards are the must-have festive gift

    Simon Usborne explores the appeal - and mysteries - of a century-old parlour game