Russell Tovey on Joining 'Quantico,' Acting in His Underwear, and the Legacy of 'Looking'
By John Boone
Photo: Getty Images
Russell Tovey is surprisingly chipper when he answers the phone, considering he didn't leave the set of Quantico until after midnight the evening prior. And why shouldn't he be? The 34-year-old actor has a lot to be happy about these days: the British import was the newest recruit enlisted to ABC's thriller, playing lovable cad Harry Doyle, a secret agent type that's been described as just as likely to seduce your husband as he is to pick his pocket when it's over. "He's a kind of Artful Dodger street thief, but also a gentleman with a Thomas Crown Affair vibe," Tovey says of his character. "A little Talented Mr. Ripley, a bit James Bond."
He's also winning over critics with his performance in The Pass, which was chosen to open NewFest, New York's LGBT film festival. ET got on the phone with Tovey to discuss both projects, as well as being an out actor playing gay, a Brit playing American and why he's still heartbroken over the end of HBO’s Looking.
ET: Congratulations on Quantico. Obviously you had Looking here, but that was HBO. This is big, primetime TV. How has the experience been different for you?
Russell Tovey: Well, we're filming longer. This is, like, 22 episodes, and Looking's second season was 10. But otherwise no. There's still craft service. [Laughs] You're still working long hours. I think the difference with this is, everything I've ever made before you film the whole season and then you go away and they start work on editing and sound and dubbing. And then it's released months later, when it's all ready to go. But with this, now we're into it being transmitted as we're filming. It's definitely an added pressure, where if you haven't got the scene, you’ve just got to keep shooting. It's not like you can pick a scene up a few weeks down the line, because a few weeks down the line, it's going to be on the TV! It's exhausting, because you don't know, some days you could finish early and other days you work until like, 3:00 a.m. But there's definitely that excitement to being a part of a show that is on TV as you're still working on it.
I've never been in that situation before. As the episodes are going out, I'm on social media, Twitter and Instagram, so I'll be interested to see what people think of Harry Doyle and, if anyway, I hopefully won't, I might be influenced by what people think about it. Possibly. That's a new, fresh thing for me, where, much like when you do a play, the audience tells you what the show is as you're going along.
You're playing a Brit again. Do you have a desire to play an American character?
Yeah, totally! I just did a play on Broadway, A View From the Bridge, where I was American, and the next play I'm doing in London is Angels in America and I'm playing Joe Pitt and he's definitely American. He's a Mormon. Totally -- I haven't played American onscreen yet, but that is absolutely something I would be comfortable doing. But this time, his Britishness is absolutely intrinsic to the character.
How's the accent?
The British accent? I think I've kind of mastered it. Still working on it a bit. [Laughs]
Ha! How's the American accent?
Good! Very good! Exceptional. You wouldn't know. Sometimes, when I was doing a play last year, to the annoyance of friends, I would talk in an American accent when I was out and about, shopping and stuff, until someone busted me and they knew who I was and then it's just embarrassing. But I think I passed, the majority of the time. I think they assumed I was a native. They didn't ask me what town I was from, because then I would've been stumped, because I hardly know anywhere. I would have said I was from Ohio, and if they'd gone, "Whereabouts?" I would have been like, "I...don't...know! Ohio the town?!" I've got to work out this geography for my make-believe American alter ego.
Are there any words or phrases that you get stuck up on when you're practicing the accent?
I used to a few years back. I think, in my British accent, I've become more neutralized. But I'm from a place called Essex and we don't pronounce our "th"-s. If we're saying, "threw," we'd say "frew," as if it were spelled with an "F." So, when I'd talk in an American accent and any word had "th" at the beginning of it, I would pronounce with an "f." That was a bust. The word "been." B-E-E-N – "where I've been" -- I would pronounce it "beeean." I would stress that word, and actually it's said like "bin," B-I-N, or "Ben," B-E-N, where you're from. That was something that people always picked out. I'm very conscious never to have a sentence in an American accent with the word "been" in it. The other day on set, I had a word, tinnitus [tin-i-tes], which is the ringing of the ears, and everyone was like, "What's tinnitus? It's tinnitus [ti-nahy-tus]." They had never heard of tinnitus. Definitely, there's a few kind of clangers that I've come out with that people are like, "Where are you from?!"
Does your American alter ego have an American name?
He's Russ. I think Russ is more American than Russell. Or I'd say Ross, because that's what normally gets written on my coffee cup whenever I ask for it with an American accent.
I also wanted to talk about The Pass. What a great role.
Oh, thanks! Well, it's amazing because it was originally a play that we did at The Royal Court Theatre and John Tiffany directed it, who's a superstar. He did The Glass Menagerie and Once on Broadway, but now he's just directed the Harry Potter play, which is the big phenomenon in London. But he did this little four-hander Upstairs at The Royal Court, and Duncan Kenworthy, who's the producer of Love Actually, Four Weddings and a Funeral and Notting Hill, saw the show and was like, "I want to make this for the screen." The amazing thing about doing the play and then the movie is, character-wise, I probably knew that guy, Jason, more than I have any other character I've ever played. Because when you do rehearsal for a play, you rehearse so intensely in development and character study and background, so when you actually say the lines, you just know where they're all from. To be able to film it was awesome. I relished playing that guy.
It's incredible that we launched the London BFI Flare Gay and Lesbian Film Festival and now we are opening NewFest and then closing Twist in Seattle. It's really doing the rounds, and people are really responding incredibly. I'm really excited to see what people think of it over here. And then it gets general release end of the year, so hopefully it will be a breakout show. Obviously, it's niche. It's wonderful that it's found its home with these festivals, but it doesn't have to live there. I think that it can have the same affect as Andrew Haigh's Weekend and other gay, lesbian, queer films -- like Carol had a breakout. Or Brokeback Mountain. What I'd really like is if there was some audience that saw it that wasn't expecting it. There are many soccer movies made, especially in the U.K., I'd love it if, like, someone stumbled across it thinking it was going to be a soccer movie, like a hooligan thing, and then coming away from seeing this film and being like, "Whoa" and being taken aback with the concept and moved by it.
I have to rewind one second: You didn't try to phone in any favors to get a spot in that Harry Potter play?!
I'm too busy! [Laughs] Actually, I was. I was doing View From the Bridge and then straight onto Quantico, but I think if I would have been around, I would have definitely been sending a few texts.
There's a lot going on in The Pass -- race, religion, masculinity, sexuality. When you first read the play, what spoke to you about it?
It's someone who never allowed themself to be who they were meant to be, who chose career over personal -- over what it means to be human. Then you get to a place where you think, everything should be rosy and you've got all the money and you've got all the acclaim and you can chill out, and you're at your most lost. I thought it would be a challenge to act. And I think the last taboo in sports, especially British sports: Are there any gay players? None of them have come out. Like, premiership players who are still actively playing, there's none. It's a really interesting and really exciting area to tackle in art. It's untapped.
Having performed this character on the stage and in the movie, you're awfully naked in both. Do you feel more pressure being half-naked on stage in front of a room of people or on film forever?
Oh, god! I don't know! If you're playing a character that is going to be athletic, you have to show that. So, I had to sort of get myself in that place. I'm bigger at the end than I am in the beginning and that's how I am naturally, so we shot it backward. We filmed the end scene before Christmas and then I had this whole diet where I really cut my food down and I was doing loads of cardio and cut all the carbs and I had a trainer so I could have the physique of a younger man, which is the beginning scenes. I dyed my hair blonde, which is like what people did, trying to emulate David Beckham back in the day. They were asking me this the other day on Quantico. It is what it is. But why not try to be the best version of yourself? If they're going to ask you to take your top off, then you should make it a presentable thing, I suppose. [Laughs] That's what these characters are asking and then the next thing, I might play someone who sits around and just eats potato chips all day, and that would be great. I'd rise to that challenge, and I'd put loads of weight on.
I don't really feel the pressure of that, because the gym, for me, is a big part of my life now. That's something that I definitely use to let off steam, but also, especially being away from home, as soon as I've found a gym, I've found a hobby, something socially to do, something to focus on, something that clears my mind. I use it at times to learn my lines for the next day between sets and stuff. The gym has definitely become a big focal point in my life, so I think I'd feel the pressure more if I haven't tried to maintain some sort of fitness in my life.
This is probably just me being vain, then, but when you have a role like this where you have to be in various stages of undress, is it easy to get past that and focus on acting in the scene? Or are you always conscious about having your body on display?
There's cheats, isn't there? You do vanity pumps while they're turning over. I call them vanity pumps. You do a quick 20 press-ups and they go "action" and you stand up into it, and you've got that pump. The pull-up bar is a very good one to kick in the blood and make everything a bit bigger. Also, using that kind of focuses your brain so when they say "action" you're kind of more in the zone. There's ways around it.
Jason gives an emotional speech in the movie about how he can't come out because he's a professional soccer player. How has coming out affected your own career?
Coming out has really been one of the best things for me. It's blossomed my career, I would say. The Pass is a gay actor playing gay. In Quantico, Harry's persuasion is definitely men. I'm doing Angels in America, that's a Mormon who's homosexual but incredibly repressed. It's actually been a wonderful gift to my career, coming out.
Do you ever worry when you're taking on a gay character that you'll be pigeonholed?
No, because as when you're playing a straight character, every person is individual. And if you're straight, you don't get pigeonholed playing one like, generic straight person. Every gay character has been interesting in a completely unique way. None of these guys are the same. And none of them felt like they were a stereotype. Every gay character I've played and continue to play feels refreshing and challenging and against the norm and exposing and vulnerable. So, no. There's millions more characters to play and whether they be gay or straight, if they speak to me, then I'm gonna want to play them.
It's nice to hear that, because the narrative for so long has been about actors being scared to come out because they think they'll only be cast as gay characters.
There are so many amazing gay roles. There's so many characters to play who just happen to be gay that are incredibly fascinating and unique, so to me, I'm always like, how can you be pigeonholed if you're playing these challenging characters, whatever their sexuality or persuasion is?
As a gay actor, does playing a gay character mean anything different to you?
Yes, it does, I suppose! It's more relatable. It's who I am and I supposed I relate more to the instincts of a gay man than a straight man. And I want it to feel that it means something and it's important to me to get it right.
Is any of that external? Do you feel any pressure to get it right for the community or because you are going to hear about it from gay Twitter?
I do it for me. There's obviously an audience for things that I do, but I do it because I'm a perfectionist and I love acting. I love being an actor and I want to be the best that I can be, whatever the role is, gay or straight or whatever -- alien, giant... [Laughs] Sci-fi audiences are the most loyal, incredible, brilliant-minded, socially networked group of people I've ever come across. So, if you're playing anything sci-fi, I find more of a pressure doing that than I do playing someone gay. If you're doing anything sci-fi, wow! That gets picked apart.
I can't let you go without talking about Looking. That scene in the movie after Kevin and Patrick (Jonathan Groff) leave the coffee shop is just...heartbreaking. Were you disappointed they didn't end up together?
From what I understand, I think from the beginning, the writers and creators always felt like Patrick would end up with Richie. Because we finished so early, I mean, it could have been Big and Aiden over many more seasons. Is he going to be with Mr. Big, which would be me? Is he going to be with Aiden, which would be Richie? I think because it got cut short and we had the movie, they had to get there quickly. I was prepared for that. Also, I was so fortunate that I got to do that, because I was doing A View From the Bridge on Broadway while that was happening, and I literally flew there after my Sunday matinee, flew to San Francisco, got there at like 4 in the morning, shot all day and then flew back because we didn't have a show Monday night, and then did the play Tuesday. I feel like if they'd wanted my character to be more present in Patrick's life, it was very doubtful that I'd have been able to do it. So, for me, it all kind of felt serendipitous that that was where it went.
But also when I first heard they needed me for one scene, I was really upset, like, "Oh god, they don't care about Kevin!" I imagined it would just be a scene where Patrick would get up and leave and I'd be like, "Don't go!" And he'd be like, "Bye, Kevin." And that'd be it. But the buildup to him seeing Kevin and the scenes with us, as actors, were so incredible to film, due to our history as characters and also because I adore Jonathan Groff. I adore that man with all my heart. And reading those scenes, I was like, "This really feels like the heart of the movie." You've got the wedding and that's all lovely and everything, but this feels like a big lump of raw fleshy meat that's just slammed down on the sidewalk. That, for me, was really amazing to be in there for that.
We know that Kevin was heading off to London with Jon. If there was a spinoff that followed Kevin, what do you think he'd be up to now?
I think he's probably broke up with Jon and he's probably sleeping with some porn star. He's probably got loads of money, but doesn't know what to do with it. He’s got a nice car. I think he's probably going to have a good few years of being a bit hollowed out by his experiences in San Francisco and then... [Laughs] I don't know what's going to happen! And then he'll be fine. And then I think he'll just go somewhere else. I think he'll end up going to some, like, mountain region and be a ski instructor somewhere. Offseason, he, like, runs a chalet and on season he's there teaching skiing to people. Then on gay ski week, he probably hooks up with a few people.
That's a plot twist! But I would watch that show.
[Laughs] That's off the top of my head! I have no idea where that came from. I doubt that would be a spinoff show. But we can try to pitch it!
Do you think it's possible to make a show like Looking centered on gay life that will appeal to a larger, predominately straight audience? Enough to stay on the air longterm?
I thought this did. I thought this should have done that. I just feel like this show will be discovered for many, many, many years to come. I think I'm going to be like, 50, 60 and kids are going to reference this show as something that was a part of their coming out experience. I remember watching the movie Beautiful Thing when I was 16. I was in bed at home in my parents’ house and it was on TV, and I remember watching it, going, "Oh my god, what is this?" And then my mum come up to say goodnight and I turned it off. And then when she and dad went to bed, I turned it back on, closed the door, put it on really quietly and watched it and I remember feeling like someone's hand reached out and took mine, and going, "Oh! OK. There we go! That's what it is. That's what my feelings are." And I feel like with Looking, it has touched people who've seen it. I met people in San Francisco, like, young men who were like 17 or 18, who said, "That show made me realize who I was." We make stuff for entertainment, but what we don't realize is that sometimes you're actually changing peoples' lives. And that's probably the biggest thing in my career so far that I really think is going to have an amazing effect on thousands of people for years to come that we completely didn't even consider.
Hearing you talk about Looking is lovely, but it's making me sad all over again that it's gone.
I know. I was gutted. We were all very, very, very mournful for it. I cried when I saw the movie. I cried because I think it's a beautiful film and I love these guys, these characters, and I cried for it personally. Its potential was not fulfilled, for me. For all of us. And that little chapter is done. But I think it's going to outlive us all and have a legacy that's bigger than any of us could really comprehend.