Russell Tovey remembers being told early in his acting career that he shouldn’t come out as gay.
“I remember thinking, ‘I’m hearing you. Thank you very much. I appreciate your advice, but I’m going to do this because this feels authentic to me,’” the actor tells me on this week’s episode of the “Just for Variety” podcast. “This feels important to me. It feels important to my life outside of my pretend life of playing all these characters. I have to have the stability to know who I am outside of this.”
Not that he doesn’t wonder what his career may have looked like if he remained in the closet. “I don’t know, but I don’t regret it on any level because my career has taken me somewhere really exciting,” Tovey says. “And I’ve played so many queer guys, queer characters that have brought me so much joy and I feel like have brought a lot of people joy and changed, set the dial somewhere else for people.”
At the same time he was being told not to live his truth, Tovey was also being pressured to do something about his ears. “Someone said to me, ‘If you want to make it in Hollywood, you’ve got to pin your ears back,’” he says. “And I remember being like, ‘They’re my trademark!’ I’ve never had an issue with my ears.”
Tovey’s profile took a big leap when he played Kevin, Jonathan Groff’s boss and love interest on HBO’s “Looking.” His prolific career also includes the FBI series “Quantico” opposite Priyanka Chopra Jonas, Russell T. Davies’ “Years and Years,” “Flesh and Blood” with Imelda Staunton as well as runs on Broadway and the West End.
And now he’s landed as the lead player on Ryan Murphy’s “American Horror Story: New York City.” Tovey plays a closeted cop in New York investigating the murders of several gay men during the onset of the AIDS epidemic. The cast also includes Joe Mantello, Zachary Quinto, Charlie Carver and Patti LuPone.
This latest installment of the “AHS” anthology is a sexy horror thriller that features Tovey in all sorts of bedroom scenes that include leather and bondage gear. “I always get jobs where I make out with a lot of people,” Tovey says. “I’m always having sex and stuff on screen. My mom, bless her, has seen me have sex in multiple ways and she’s seen me die hundreds of times. I feel sorry for her that she’s seen sex and death through my eyes a lot.”
While filming “AHS” in New York City, he realized it was time to for him to get the monkeypox vaccine. “I’m in a relationship in the U.K. and I don’t make a habit of going out and kissing other people, but suddenly because of my job, I’m kissing lots of guys and you are a bit like, ‘Oh, shit, I need to go and get vaccinated,’” Tovey said. “The only place they had it was Fire Island and I’d never been. So my first ever experience of Fire Island was going to get the monkeypox vaccine. I had the vaccine, I swam in the sea, had some lunch, got back on the ferry. I was like, ‘This is a lovely way to get a vaccine.’ Everyone should do it this way.”
Of course, there was an intimacy coordinator on set, but Tovey says he was never uncomfortable filming the show’s most explicit scenes, including one in which he makes out and whips a character played by straight actor Zach Meiser. “There is an anxiety that kicks in that you go, ‘This is a straight guy, I’m a gay guy, openly, and we’re going to be kissing now.’ And we did it and then his tongue slipped in and then they cut and he went to me, ‘I just slipped my tongue in there…Is that all right?’ I said, ‘If it’s all right with you.’”
They continued shooting the sequence. “The next time we did it, I was like, ‘This guy is up for it! This guy’s committed. I absolutely love this, let’s go for it!’ So then we are like eating each other’s face, tongue in each other’s face. At one point I thought, ‘I’m going to spit in his mouth. No, don’t do that. That’s too much.’ I had to hold back. That’s when you get in trouble.”
Tovey was having lunch in a London restaurant when Murphy first called him to discuss “AHS.” “He said, ‘I’ve got a great role for you. It’s going to be based on ‘Cruising’…It’s kind of like the Al Pacino role. How would you feel about doing that? Are you free?’ And I was like, ‘My god, yeah, I can make myself free. I can do that. Then we talked for about 15 minutes about art. So we talked about ‘American Horror Story’ for about a minute and a half. We talked about art, artists we love, queer artists of the ‘80s and ‘90s. A lot of artists that were lost that are now being rediscovered because there’s a lot of themes that me and Ryan share in our taste for artists and especially artists that died of AIDS and were overlooked in their lifetime. Reasserting them into the cannon is something that’s really important to me.”
Tovey and gallerist Robert Diament host the art podcast “Talk Art.” They published their first book, “Talk Art: Everything You Wanted to Know About Contemporary Art but Were Afraid to Ask,” in June. “We were a Sunday Times bestseller, which was incredibly exciting for an art book,” Tovey says. A second book will be released next year. “When we started, Rob was saying, ‘What are we doing? We’re not allowed to be doing this,’” Tovey says. “So many people would be like, ‘Why are you doing this? And you should only be talking to artists. You shouldn’t be talking to celebrities. You shouldn’t be talking to people who aren’t in the art world.’ I was like, ‘No, because that makes it really exclusive. We’re not exclusive, we’re inclusive.’”
You can listen to the full interview with Tovey below. You can also find “Just for Variety” wherever you download your favorite podcasts.