The actor, 39, on being pushed to the limit, admiring artists, coming out and texting God
THE GUARDIAN – I texted God when I was 18. It cost 30p to message him with your question. I asked if I’d make it as an actor. Yes, came the reply, but you’re more Littlewoods than Hollywood. I have to say that I wasn’t impressed.
I was an eccentric child, obsessed with history. For my eighth birthday I demanded to be taken to a rock and mineral convention. I’m lucky my parents always encouraged my geekiness, but at secondary school I made myself seem stupid to fit in. It took a long time for me to stop apologising for my enthusiasms. I’ve been much happier ever since I did.
Dead Poets Society made me want to be an actor – I was so moved by Robin Williams and the story. It seemed like an honour to create characters that viewers could connect with; to make people who’d never met you feel so many emotions. From that day, aged 10, I had no backup plan: this was what I was going to do.
I’d probably piss myself if I met David Hockney. I don’t know if I’d be able to cope. When I meet huge names in the art world I’m a mess. Of course, I still get excited to work with great actors, it’s just I understand how our success happens; the industry’s inner workings. To me, there’s still a mysterious magic to art.
Staring at the sky fills me with fear. What the fuck is up there? Space doesn’t end? I can’t get my head around it. This led to some existential crises as a kid: getting drunk, lying in a field, looking at the stars and totally panicking. Now I try not to think about it.
Being in The History Boys was like life in a boy band: touring, performing, greeted by screaming crowds wherever we went. I remember asking James Corden for career advice. “Russ,” he said, “it’s simple: you can be brilliant, so just do it.”
Breaking up with my boyfriend made us stronger when we got back together. In the whirlwind honeymoon phase, you can forget to work out who the other person is. Now we have more confidence. We both want this. It has all been worth it – even if he still whinges a lot.
Angels in America pushed me to the limit. In this play about the Aids crisis decimating New York’s gay community in the 1980s, I played the bad guy: a repressed homosexual Mormon Republican. I obsessed with making the audience empathise with his character, exposing his inner pain on stage. Doing so made me a better person and actor.
I’ve always been comfortable with my sexuality. Early on, as a young, ambitious actor I was told it would hinder my career and coming out to my family was at times a struggle. In my own mind, though, I’ve always known who I am.
Russell Tovey has co-curated an artist series for Bombay Bramble (selfridges.com)