Jan/Feb 2018 Cover Story: Russell Tovey Is Playing Gay And Proud
The actor continues to take on gay roles—and to prove you can have a successful Hollywood career outside of the closet…
Hollywood has always been difficult to navigate for queer actors, regardless of whether they choose to come out or stay hidden in the closet. While some actors—such as Zachary Quinto, Colton Haynes and Neil Patrick Harris—have found (and maintained) mainstream success, others, such as Ellen DeGeneres and Rosie O’Donnell, have watched their careers go up and down and up again. And then there are those like Rupert Everett, who claim that being out completely killed their chance at long-lasting Hollywood fame.
You can’t deny the evolution of Hollywood’s embrace of openly gay actors and actresses in recent years, but it’s still safe to say that the Hollywood fame game for gay men and lesbians is tricky and undeniably finicky.
So, in a time when homophobia in the entertainment industry is still commonplace (even if it’s not so overt), it’s worth noting— and celebrating—those out actors who are playing the game, and winning. Russell Tovey is one of those rare working actors whose career is thriving. The Brit actor is everywhere these days, and he’s doing it as an out and proud gay man.
Fans will instantly recognize Tovey by his self-described “sticky- out ears.” Did he ever consider having his ears pinned back? It’s a question he’s regularly asked, and the answer is… “No. I’ve never felt anything apart from love for my ears. My eldest nephew’s got them now, and he’s so proud of them because he’s got his Uncle Russell’s ears. They’re my trademark.”
Of course, he’s more than toned abs and ears.
Tovey has taken on a long string of gay roles in recent years. He grabbed the attention of a lot of viewers with his portrayal of Kevin, Patrick’s (Jonathan Groff) adorable love interest in HBO’s gone-but-not-forgotten TV series Looking (2014-2015), and the critically acclaimed follow-up film, Looking: The Movie. But there were other gay roles…a lot of them. There was a brief but haunting cameo in Matthew Warchus’s LGBT-related historical comedy-drama Pride (2014), as well as a starring role in director Ben A. Williams’ debut, The Pass, a film about the relationship between two English football players and how their lives unfold over the course of a decade. Next he took on (and still plays) the role of Harry Doyle, the confident, openly gay character on ABC’s runway hit Quantico (2016–present). Most recently he grabbed headlines for playing the openly gay, Nazi-fighting superhero Ray Tyrrell on Crisis on Earth X, the CW’s four-hour superhero TV crossover event that brought together characters from the CW’s four other superhero shows: Supergirl, The Flash, The Green Arrow and Legends of Tomorrow.
There were theatre projects: earlier this year Tovey appeared alongside Andrew Garfield and Nathan Lane in Marianne Elliott’s grand revival of Angels in America at London’s National Theatre, and he appeared on Broadway in NYC as Rodolpho in Arthur Miller’s A View from the Bridge.
Despite recently scooping up all of the hunky gay roles on the small screen and the stage, for most of his career Tovey didn’t play gay. He grew up in Billericay, Essex, England, to parents who worked all hours running a coach company. He reportedly had one of the highest IQs in his year at school, but he was easily bored and self-admittedly barely applied himself. He got in trouble, although never anything really that bad.
He wanted to become an actor from an early age, and recalls spending one holiday binge watching movies and having the light go off. “Dead Poets Society was a big one, Home Alone, Stand By Me, Labyrinth, things like that. I thought the films were brilliant, but more than anything I wanted to be a part of them rather than just watching.”
And so, he began his journey.
At the age of 16, he enrolled in a performing arts program at Barking College in Romford, England…but then he was offered a part in a TV commercial. “They said, ‘If you take this we’re not going to invite you back [to the college], and also if you leave you’ll never work again.’ Anyway, I left.” The college, in East London, now cites him as one of its famous former students.
Tovey first caught the eye of television audiences across the pond in his early 20s, when he appeared in Alan Bennett’s The History Boys (2006), alongside Dominic Cooper and James Corden. Tovey was already out (he came out at age 18), and Bennett could easily have cast him as Posner, the token gay character who was infatuated with one of his fellow students.
But instead, Tovey was cast as straight boy Rudge, who spits out the memorable line: “How do I define history? It’s just one fuckin’ thing after another.”
The clueless character led to more work and Tovey went on to appear in a handful of cult television shows, including the British version of Being Human, as well as The Increasingly Poor Decisions of Todd Margaret, Doctor Who and Sherlock.
Playing straight followed him until sometime around his 30th birthday.
“It wasn’t a conscious decision,” he says. “For so long, as a young actor, I had this anxiety about making sure I could get straight roles, and now I know that’s not necessary. The gay roles are the best for me. Being gay has made my career.”
“There’s not just one way to play a straight person, or one story to tell—there are a billion fascinating wonderful stories to tell with gay characters. A billion adventures to have.”
Flexing around femmephobia
Of course, Tovey’s relationship with the gay community hasn’t always been a smooth one. In 2015, he enraged the internet after making controversial remarks about masculinity in an interview with The Observer while he was promoting Banished, a series about 18th century British convicts who had been deported to an Australian penal colony.
During the interview, Tovey talked about how he bulked out at the gym after a homophobic attack (triggered, Tovey reasons, by his wearing a cardigan), and recalled his father’s reluctance to send him to a “theatre school” when he was in his formative years.
“I feel like I could have been really effeminate, if I hadn’t gone to the school I went to,” he said at the time. “Where I felt like I had to toughen up. If I’d been able to relax, prance around, sing in the street, I might be a different person now. I thank my dad for that, for not allowing me to go down that path.”
The tone-deaf remark was one of several quips made in the interview that prompted a serious backlash on social media.
Within days, Tovey expressed regret in a series of apologetic tweets. He said: “I surrender. You got me. I’m sat baffled and saddened that a mis- fired inarticulate quote of mine has branded me worst gay ever.”
“If you feel I have personally let you down, I’m sorry, that was never my intention,” he insisted, saying he was proud of his sexuality and of what the gay rights movement had achieved. “I’m proud to be who I am and proud for others. We’re in this together. I want you to know that whatever you think I meant, I didn’t.”
Back to our regularly scheduled programming
And so, the internet moved onto its next victim. Sure, you’ll still find an anti-Tovey crowd calling out his narcissism in the comments section, but to be fair, he’s far from the first gay man to make a gaffe against the community. (Trust me… I could write you up a list of gay guys and their problematic statments that’s a mile long.) And, more importantly, his brush with controversy didn’t make him shy away from tackling gay characters and being open about his sexuality with mainstream audiences.
In fact, he’s taking on more LGBT roles than ever. Looking ahead to 2018, Tovey has a lot on the horizon. He may not have ascended to the Hollywood A-list yet, but his career continues to get brighter, with more episodes of Quantico on the way. Tovey will also be revisiting his rst foray into the world of superheroes when he reprises his role of Ray on the animated web series Freedom Fighters: The Ray debut on CW Seed.
Despite the controversy, Tovey maintains he always knew it was important for him to be open about his sexuality. He once told The Guardian, “I love my personal life and having a social life. And I didn’t ever want to have to compromise. I could imagine being at this stage now and having skeletons in the closet, and you sitting here going, ‘So have you got a girlfriend?’ and me saying, ‘I’ve not got a girlfriend at the moment, I’ve not met the right girl, there’s a few people around.’ And in my head going, ‘I’m going back home to my boyfriend in five minutes.’” He pauses. “D’you know what I mean? I just can’t be arsed with that.”
How can you argue with a statement like that?
CHRISTOPHER TURNER acted as guest editor for this issue of IN magazine. He is a Toronto-based writer, editor and lifelong fashionisto with a passion for pop culture and sneakers. Follow him on social media at @Turnstylin.