AS Russell Tovey comes to grips with being one of the most visible LGBTI actors in the industry, he is also finding his place in the gay world.
Is he an otter, a bear or something else?
“I really don’t know where I fit in, I’m over being a twink. Could I be an otter? Maybe I’m too old to be an otter. I’m not hairy enough to be a bear.
“There’s all different animals, there’s polar bears, there’s otters, seal. I’ll be the billy goat. It’s quite fun isn’t it?
“I don’t know if I particularly identify with a particular subculture… I like to just go down to the pub with my friends and my family and have my dog on my lap and I’m happy.
Describing himself as vanilla in his social life, Tovey also doesn’t want to come across as boring.
“You can say Russell Tovey, king of the ‘billy goat gays’,” he says.
“That would be great if we can start a trend with that, just put a hashtag next to it.”
Tovey, 34, shot to prominence in his role as werewolf in the British series Being Human, and HBO’s Looking about a group of gay men living in San Francisco.
When Tovey came out about 10 years ago his career took off. After Looking he landed a role in ABC’s FBI drama Quantico where he plays a gay spy, and next year will play the lead role in the iconic play Angels in America on London’s West End.
“The best thing I ever did was come out and it seems my career has blossomed off the back of it, everything I do is a lot of characters that are testing the water, they aren’t gay for gay’s sake,” he said.
“They are dynamic incredibly inspiring roles that are very LGBTI and this definitely all comes from me identifying as gay myself, and I think it has not in any way held me back.
“The thoughts did go through my head when I was growing up of course when everything was starting to happen. ‘Do I keep this quiet, do I be really careful with this, do I keep it private?’
“But I love my life outside of work, I’m incredibly lucky I’ve got amazing friends, great family, everything’s brilliant, I love my dog.”
That is not to say Tovey’s life as a high profile gay actor has not come without its controversies. Last year he came under fire for comments he made in an interview with the The Guardian’s The Observer column that he was glad he did not go to a theatre high school because it would have made him “too effeminate”, resulting in social media branding him “the worst gay ever”.
But he says he has learnt from his mistakes and feels privileged to be part of the “special club” of openly LGBTI actors – including his Looking co-star Jonathan Groff – who are revolutionising the way rainbow characters are displayed in film and television.
“It’s a total honour, I feel like I’m part of a special club, it’s great. I’m embracing that. I love it, I’m having a brilliant time,” he explains.
“Is there pressure? Not anymore. I think I’ve learnt from my mistakes or trying to be some grown up and work out how to do this.”
With his new film The Pass, Tovey wants to play a trick on unsuspecting cinemagoers.
The English actor wants soccer obsessed fans to go into it thinking it’s a testosterone fuelled sports romp, a masculine tale about the world sport.
When in fact, it is a deeply moving film told in three parts about a soccer player who as a superstar of the game has to navigate through the turmoil of suppressing his obvious homosexuality while fostering his burgeoning sports career.
“I would love it if someone goes in thinking it’s the next hooligan movie and they’re like, ‘woah, what are we watching’,” he tells Star Observer.
“That for me would be brilliant and yet they stay to the end.
“Or they come across it, flicking through Netflix in a few years from now and they’re like, ‘ooh this looks like a football movie’, without reading the synopsis and unbeknownst to them, they’re like ‘woah, hang on. Where’s the violence?”
The Pass will be making its Australian premiere as the headline film of next year’s Mardi Gras Film Festival after garnering rave reviews at festivals around the world.
Three of the actors in The Pass, including Tovey, reprise their roles from the stage production. By the time it came to shooting, the actors had an intimate knowledge of their characters which allowed them to add detailed nuances to their characters.
“Russell in particular had developed a labyrinthine understanding of Jason and his complexities,” director Ben Williams says.
“This allowed us to experiment while shooting with hundreds of improvised flourishes, many of which ended up in the final cut.
“His technique is among the finest I’ve ever seen. He’s a smart, hilarious and incredibly gifted actor.”
Shot in three hotel rooms with no more than three actors gives the movie an almost claustrophobic intensity to it, leaving viewers on a precipice of emotions not knowing when and if, Jason will eventually snap under the pressure of continually suppressing his sexuality.
For Williams shooting in such confined spaces was the only way to convey Jason’s internal conflict.
“To me, a film about a man trapped inside himself could only be shot in this way,” he explains.
“We begin each scene with a sense of space and air, and then gradually ratchet up the tension, leaning in to each conversation. Soon, all you experience is faces and their emotions, and then the story sweeps you away. It’s intense and relentless, and you can’t look away.
“I’ve always been fascinated by the idea that a life can be determined by just one or two key conversations and that everything else is just the build-up or the fallout.
“We’re present for these moments in Jason’s life. On the surface, it’s just people talking.
“But below, deep within John’s (Donnelly) writing and our cast’s incredible performances, lives are being irreparably changed before your eyes.”
The subject of homophobia in sport has not been explored in great detail by the art world, according to Tovey, who says the topic is one of the “last taboos” and he can understand why his character does not want to come out.
“When you go to the matches, you’re getting gladiatorial. It goes back to the Dark Ages; it’s all about who’s the strongest and the fittest that you are supporting, you want to get on the side that’s going to bring you the most meat back,” he explains.
“What is important is the game, that’s the only thing that is important. You are trained and you are blinkered for that.
“That is your destination and that is the track you stay on and any deviation, especially if it means you’re gay, I’m sure it has to remains hidden.
“And that’s why it’s doing to take a very incredible brave, wonderful man to stand forward while playing premiership football, to come forward and be like ‘hey by the way guys, I’m gay’.
“It’s going to be a ground breaking historical wonderful day. It’s also going to be equally terrifying if they’re still playing football.”
Tovey hopes to get time off from rehearsing Angels in America to come to Sydney for MGFF, to return to the city he has become familiar over the years when he worked here on History Boys and the BBC drama Banished, but a place he can’t believe still does not have marriage equality.
“I love it there. I love the Stonewall bar,” he says.
“I think it’s crazy (that marriage equality is not legal), I’ve spent a lot of time in Sydney… it is baffling to me that literally somewhere that is the gay destination, that is the king and queen of Mardi Gras the world over, would still be in the situation it is.
“It feels like you guys would be the bastions and you would be ahead of it before anyone else.
“But you are going to get it there.”
The Mardi Gras Film Festival is on February 15 – March 2, 2017.