Saturday, August 28, 2010


NB. Picture above was taken on the same day as the previously posted promo shots for "Him & Her"

In a taxi Russell Tovey...

By BENJI WILSON 28-9-2010

The Essex lad turned History Boy has no complaints about being a likable chap with famous friends and, er, distinctive ears.

So, we’re trying to work out what makes actor Russell Tovey so approachable. He may have appeared on TV in Gavin & Stacey, Little Dorrit supernatural comedy drama Being Human and Doctor Who, but by his own admission he’s not an intergalactic star. Yet wherever he goes, people always stop him.

‘Your face is quite distinctive,’ I say, as cabbie Carl from Bexleyheath takes us to Regent’s Park for photos. ‘You mean my ears are quite distinctive,’ he comes back, laughing. I didn’t say that. ‘Yeah, but you went like that, you nodded at my ears.’ Hmm. OK. May have done…

Yes, his ears are quite distinctive, but successful, diverse acting careers are not built on ears alone. People come up to Russell because the shows he appears in are always so likable, and Russell is always likable in them. Him & Her, his new BBC3 sitcom, is a case in point. It’s basically a vehicle in which Russell, 28, gets to pad around and be amiable.

‘It’s an observational comedy about a couple called Steve and Becky. It’s like a love story but they never leave their flat. They’re young, they’re unemployed, but they’re quite happy about it. When I read it I thought, “I know exactly who that character is, I know exactly what his world is and I want to be part of it.”’

One thing Steve and Russell don’t have in common is that Russell is gay and Steve is not. Contrary to the Hollywood perception that audiences are flummoxed by the idea of gay men in straight roles, Russell’s sexuality hasn’t affected his British castings.

‘George in Being Human is straight. Budgie [in Gavin & Stacey] is straight and Rudge in The History Boys – he’s like the jock! America’s a different kettle of fish it seems, so that you can’t be a gay man playing straight, but as much as I love the acting business, I want to be a happy person. The stress of hiding it would be a headache and I just can’t be bothered.’

Russell was born and bred in Essex, and only recently moved to North London. When he was ten he watched The Goonies, Dead Poets’ Society, Home Alone and Stand By Me and told his mother he wanted to be an actor. He started going to a local drama club in Hornchurch, signed up to a children’s agency and within two weeks was on The Bill. ‘I was a gypsy kid who threw a ball at a police officer. And then I got this children’s TV show called Mud which ran on CBBC.’

‘Tom Hanks was backstage and I went for a run with Dustin Hoffman. It was crazy’

At 16, he left Shenfield High School and started a B-tec in performing arts at Barking College. After a year he was thrown out – he refused to sacrifice acting jobs outside college, including a McDonald’s ad, for a part in the chorus in the college production of Rent. ‘I said to my teacher, “I’ve got these jobs,” and she was like, “Well, ring your agent and tell him you’ve got a music show at college.” I was like, “I’m not going to do that.” She said, “If you leave you’ll never work again.” I was like, “Right, fine.”’

His teacher got it wrong. Russell went from regular TV work to prime stage roles, including a part written for him, aged 18, by the playwright Patrick Marber in his play Howard Katz. A role in His Dark Materials at the National Theatre led to Alan Bennett’s The History Boys, and two and a half years touring with The History Boys led to almost everything else. The play made stars of Russell, James Corden and Matt Smith. The History Boys was made into a film with the original cast and the play toured all round the world.

‘There were times, especially in New York when it was on Broadway, when everybody knew who you were. There were eight of us boys and we were like the Spice Girls – one for every taste! We were like proper celebrities, hanging out with cool people. I met Paul Newman, Harrison Ford and Julia Roberts. Tom Hanks was backstage and I went for a run with Dustin Hoffman. It was just crazy.’

Russell goes from strength to strength. On top of Him & Her he also has a movie role in Ben Miller’s directorial debut Huge. A lover of modern art, friends with influential folk such as Tracey Emin, Alan Bennett and Patrick Marber, how did the Essex boy turned History Boy become so well connected? ‘Because,’ he laughs as he leaves the cab, ‘I’m a nice person.’

Him & Her starts on BBC3 on 6 September, 10.30pm.

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