More Mr Nice Guy: Why everyone loves Russell Tovey

Time to gobble up some richly deserved plaudits. Russell Tovey is back filming as (frequently naked) lycan geek George in the hit show 'Being Human' – but before that, the actor has the small matter of a Twitter army to please with new BBC3 sitcom 'Him & Her'

Craig McLean
Sunday 05 September 2010 00:00 BST

Russell Tovey has gone topless, and 6,365 people have gone potty. That's how many followers the actor has amassed on Twitter in the 24 hours since creating an account on the social-network site. Being "ordained", as he puts it, by Stephen Fry, the high priest of 140-character ego-bulletins, helped ("Welcome, Russell Tovey, to Twitter," tweeted Fry). "Suddenly," he exclaims in his none-more-Essex accent, "it was whoosh, all these people following me. I was, like, bloody nora!"

The fact that Tovey was willing to post a picture of himself almost in the altogether was a further boost. The veracity of an earlier self-portrait – a caricature on a Post-It, complete with Prince Charles ears and King Charles spaniel nose – had been challenged: was this Twitter newbie really the star of Being Human and The History Boys, or a mickey-taking imposter? So Tovey got his six-ish pack out. Cue blogospheric squeals of delight. What else has he posted yesterday? '

"Picture of my cock... my bum," lies the 28-year-old. In fact, he's still coming to grips with the demands of being on Twitter; Tovey only joined at his PR's behest, to publicise his new BBC3 sitcom Him & Her, of which he is hugely proud. "But it's a big responsibility I've got," he says, mock-soberly.

Mock-soberly, not because he's drunk (he's drinking ginger ale, and is allergic to lager and orange juice), but because he's an actor who likes to act around in conversation. As he is in Him & Her, and in Being Human's lighter moments, Tovey is a bit Norman Wisdom, a bit Lee Evans, verbally and physically dextrous, all high-pitched splutters and facial gymnastics. "Six thousand people follow me around! I'm like Jesus," he beams.

Russell Tovey is not the messiah. He's just a very happy boy. Thrilled to be back making the third series of Being Human, BBC3's "channel-defining" sleeper hit about a vampire, a ghost and a werewolf (George, played by Tovey) who share a flat. Excited to be back working in Wales – on- and off-screen, Being Human has shifted from Bristol to Cardiff – where he filmed cameo appearances in Gavin & Stacey (as Budgie, one of Gavin's Billericay mates) and Doctor Who (as Midshipman Frame in the 2007 Christmas special with Kylie Minogue, and in David Tennant's final episode last Christmas). Chuffed that this weekly schedule allows him to get home every Friday to his new flat in north London, and to his partner. (Tovey will happily talk about his sexuality, although he'd rather not discuss his relationship.)

And Tovey's a funny boy, too. The comic flair he touches on in Being Human is given free and loose rein in Him & Her. Written by young playwright and stand-up Stefan Golaszewski, it's entirely set in an east London flat occupied by Steve (Tovey) and his girlfriend Rebecca (Sarah Solemani). "They've been going out for seven months, so they're in the honeymoon period. It's basically a love story. A modern love story."

Steve and Rebecca drink, loaf, shag, bicker, eat toast in bed, watch Inspector Morse boxsets in bed, squeeze spots, pick each other's noses, fart and pee and poo loudly, and generally slump around. Him & Her is as much slobcom as romcom. There is a beardy weirdo upstairs and a dimwit sister and her argy-bargy fiancé always popping round. There is no laughter track, and the acting and dialogue are in your face. You'll fancy you can taste the intimate, claustrophobic flatulence of a young couple with no jobs, poor personal hygiene and a fondness for grazing on chunks of cheese out of the fridge.

When I first meet up with Tovey, in central London in May, for a private screening of the first episodes for cast and crew, the title of the six-part series has just been changed from "Young, Unemployed & Lazy". Why? "I think they were worried it sounded too like them reality shows like 'Young, Gifted and Autistic'," he says over pre-screening dim sum. "Or 'Angry, Small and... Feminine'. Them triple-barrelled reality shows, which BBC3 do a lot of..."

So Him & Her it is. "But I do think this will appeal to the Big Brother audience who like watching people sit in the living-room of the Big Brother house and drink tea and bitch to each other," he continues. "That's what people are kinda used to. And this docu-drama type thing is completely allowing you to be a fly on the wall."

The show's closest antecedents are The Royle Family (which was also produced by Him & Her producer Kenton Allen), and, Tovey likes to think, Rising Damp. It's not nearly as funny as either – in fact, it's quite nose-wrinklingly, lip-curlingly off-putting in places – and Tovey admits that other actor friends who auditioned for the part of Steve "didn't 'get' it. But I just got it. It's completely my taste. I love the fact that it allows you to just be," he says, and such is his geezer-ish affability that he manages to say that and not sound like a total luvvie knob.

Does the staginess of this intimate, close-quarter show appeal to the actor who spent three years touring the world with the West End-to-Broadway-to-big-screen phenomenon that was The History Boys? "I love that," he nods vigorously. "Close proximity like this, you pick up everything. It's not broad filming. It's really detailed. I'm all about looks. I'm all about nuances, the minutiae of performance."

Again, chipper, bouncy Tovey gets away with such seemingly arty-farty pronouncements. In reality he's a blokey-bloke who was thrilled that The New Review's photographer, for these portraits, let him keep on his manky T-shirt with food down the front. An Essex geezer who ran away from his parents' airport coach-shuttle business to join the acting circus. A birrova dweeb who used to collect coins, was a teenage metal-detecting enthusiast, and gets positively rhapsodic when we discuss London's blue plaques ("I saw Sylvia Plath's in Primrose Hill the other day!") and Britain's royal history. "I was obsessive about Edward the Seventh, the Boy King. I thought that was incredible – an eight-year-old who went to the throne! The Tudors are the most fascinating period, aren't they?"

In sum, he's a blokey-bloke Essex-geezer history-buff dweeb who's gay.

"I sort of challenge people's perceptions of what a gay man is," he offers, "which is kinda good. A lot of people become mates with me and say, 'Let's go and watch football together...' Not that I watch football, but they assume that I'm straight, then they get to know me and realise I'm not. And I think by that point, they go, 'Oh, actually, I like him, he's all right...'"

"All right for a poof..." I say.

"Yeah!" he laughs, "they do say stuff, like, which is incredibly offensive! But it's done in a charming way that you can't really pick 'em up on it – 'Um, you're not actually allowed to use that word...'"

At school in Billericay, Tovey's favourite subjects were drama and history. "Until history went down the war route at senior school; then I just lost interest. It's too current for me. I like to know about all the old shit that went on."

He had begun acting in his pre-teens. His first role was in The Bill – "I was a gypsy who threw a ball at a policeman" – then, aged 11, he landed a recurring role in children's TV series Mud. It also starred a young Russell Brand. After leaving school he took a performing-arts course at college, secured an agent, and began working in theatre. When he was 19, he appeared in Patrick Marber's Howard Katz at the Royal National Theatre in London, and soon after he was cast alongside Dominic Cooper and Samuel Barnett in Nicholas Hytner's stage adaptation of Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials, again at the National.

In 2004, he, Cooper and Barnett were asked to audition for a new play by Alan Bennett that Hytner was planning to direct. Alongside his fellow His Dark Materials alumni, as well as future firm friend James Corden, Tovey the history geek became Rudge, the History Boy.

"I didn't understand a word of what was going on," he admits of the early readings of Bennett's script about a group of 1980s grammar-school boys preparing for Oxbridge entrance examinations. "It felt really long and complicated and with so many references to quotations and literature that I just didn't get. Larkin and Proust..." he exclaims with a shake of the head, "...I didn't have a clue. But it was an education in itself – Alan would sit there and read poetry to us and we'd take it in turns to discuss it."

The original plan, Tovey says, was for a 40-performance London run. He estimates that they ended up doing a world tour involving some 560 outings, including an award-strewn run on Broadway and the well-received 2006 film adaptation.

It was, he thinks, "brilliant casting" on the part of Hytner and Bennett. The playwright is now a good friend. Tovey recently remarked that the 76-year-old lettered Yorkshireman would soon have his own blue plaque in London. "Fuck off!" replied Bennett, reminding Tovey that you had to be dead to be so honoured.

"The History Boys was a gift, really," reflects Tovey. "Back home so many English actors were just spitting feathers because we got to do that. It was a privilege."

Tovey's acting career had lift-off. Meanwhile, his elder brother had gone to work with their parents, managing their coach businesses. "We're like chalk and cheese – growing up, I was the attention-seeking drama queen and he wanted to play guitar and sit in his room and write poetry."

Wondering whether Tovey was ever under pressure to join the family firm – his parents refused his request that he attend stage school – I ask if he has his PCV (passenger- carrying vehicle) driving licence?

"No," he shoots back briskly, as if this might have been the subject of many family conversations. "I didn't take it cos I didn't want to get called at three in the morning and have to drive someone to Gatwick. Not my idea of fun. And it took me four attempts to pass my driving test. I don't think," he grins, "they trust me anyway."

What was it like being gay in small-town Essex?

"Um, fine," he shrugs. "Ah, fine," he repeats, faltering briefly. "I didn't really come out in senior school cos you don't. But I sorta knew. I told a couple of people I was bi," he says, adding that he did have girlfriends. "That's the way into it. You ease your way in."

He himself had been eased in – not in that way – by Susie Blake, who played Rovers Return manageress Bev Unwin on Coronation Street. She was in Mud, too. On that show, "I was really screwed up. 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." It's only later that I realise that Russell Brand, another Essex boy, would have been about 19 when he made Mud. Was the leather-trousered lothario breaking hearts even then?

"I thought I loved him when I was that age," Tovey continues of the unnamed actor. "And one day we was meant to be on set and I was sitting on the beach and I was crying. And Susie said, 'You know you might be gay?' 'Really?' 'Yeah, but it's great if you are... And if you're not, that's great. It doesn't matter.' Then she gave me a big hug, and we went back on set. And it meant so much to me. I really cherish her."

Coming out to his parents when he was 18 was initially difficult. He was a bit militant about it – "I'm gay, deal with it, Dad." But, he acknowledges, "it's a generational thing as well. They grew up in Dagenham and Ilford and they don't know gay people. Who do they know? What do they reference? They see Julian Clary on TV and then they hear about Aids. It must be horrible and terrifying for a mum and dad."

But the birth of his nephews – "Nathan and Mackenzie, the best two boys in the world" – helped change things. "All the shit just disappeared completely. Cos you suddenly go, 'These little boys love us so much, and if they ever saw their granddad or dad and Uncle Russ having a massive row, it'd be horrific.' So, yeah, the pressure was off. We don't need to do that any more... [My sexuality] doesn't mean fuck-all any more."

I meet Tovey again in mid-August, in his local pub near Archway, north London. Since our first interview he's become a stripper on Twitter (sort of), and had a short story published in renowned literary journal Company. "It's not highbrow," he grins of the women's mag's celebrity summer-fiction special. The opening line had to be: "The air was thick with the heady scent of suntan lotion..." Tovey wrote of a girl called Janet who keeps hearing the voices of dead fashion designers. "I did it, Peaches Geldof did it, and some guy out of the Hoosiers..." He shrugs good-naturedly. "The reason I did it is my mum got a massive goodie bag and she's over the moon."

Plus, it gave him a chance to flex his writing muscles. Tovey has written three (as yet unperformed) plays, and a short film for which he and a friend are trying to raise funding. Called Victor, it's about "an old guy whose wife dies and he's always been gay and he falls in love with this rent boy..." Soho, he says, "fascinates" him. After some thought he agrees that, while it has no bearing whatsoever on his acting, his sexuality feeds into his writing.

"That's the world I kinda live in, so I think I'll be able to reference that with a clearer eye than someone who isn't gay, maybe. I'm slightly obsessed with drag queens and performers. Their quips and their one-liners, their style, their singing... I find it fascinating. And thoroughly entertaining. I'd love to play one."

But right now Tovey is back playing a werewolf, and an albino pirate. The latter is a "voice talent" gig on the next Aardman Animations spectacular Pirates. The former is for series three of Being Human, which will broadcast in January. The new season of the cult drama, he reports, combines the humour of the first season and the darkness of the second. Robson Green has joined the cast as another werewolf, and the flatmates – on the run from a vengeful vampire – have a new pad: a former B&B in Cardiff.

"The set is huge compared with the old one," he says, and the "scale and scope" of the scenes have increased. He's already filmed all his "transformation scenes". But his wolf double has been playing him in the final stage of lycanthropy, "because that werewolf is on stilts. The insurers wouldn't let me put the stilts on – but they would let me run around naked in the woods at minus three. They're not worried about my manhood or my ability to father children in the future. But they are worried about stilts."

Last year, he and his cast-mates would socialise in the evening, going to the gym or restaurants together. "But this year the workload seems more intense. So it's quite nice just to go back to our apartments, have a shower, watch some porn and go to bed!"

So: werewolves watch porn, and Tovey's been getting his tadger out in the woods again. You heard it here first, no Twitter feed required.

'Him & Her' begins tomorrow at 10.30pm on BBC3. 'The History Boys' is on BBC2 at 11.50pm this Friday

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