Actor Russell Tovey on playing his first gay role

“I’M CALLING it the sporty Hamlet,” actor Russell Tovey tells me with a wink when I meet him in Pimlico, where he is rehearsing a new play, The Pass, about a gay celebrity footballer.

Russell Tovey in Him and Her. Picture: Mark Johnson

Essex-born Tovey, 32, one of Britain’s few openly gay actors, has made a career playing loveable heterosexual blokes (Steve in slacker sitcom Him & Her, Budgie in Gavin and Stacey), as well as the original Rudge in The History Boys. He’s never played gay before. Because his sexuality still comes up when being cast in straight roles, he’s been waiting for something substantial “that really moves things forward”.

That time has come, and this year he will be seen in two gay-themed roles. As well as The Pass, he is in an HBO drama, The Looking, about a group of gay men living in San Francisco, with Glee actor Jonathan Groff, on Sky Atlantic this month. Arguably Tovey should be in LA, but he’s been waiting a year to play Jason in The Pass, directed by John Tiffany, formerly of the National Theatre of Scotland.

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“Jason may be gay but he doesn’t identify himself as such,” says Tovey of his closeted character. “So it’s a play about how he’s betrayed friendship and signed a pact with the devil for his career.” For Tovey the theme is very current, “because now Tom Daley has come out, a sportsman at the top of his game. And yet there are no footballers who have come out, and the ones who do end up as tragedy stories.” Sexuality threatens the camaraderie between sportsmen, he assumes. “It’s easier for Tom Daley because he’s a solo diver.”

During adolescence, Tovey’s homosexuality caused friction within his family. It was a generational thing, he says. But the birth of his two nephews helped to mend their relationship.

Now he’s living proof that you can be honest about your personal life. Him & Her is BBC Three’s most successful sitcom to date. Critics raved about the final series, which went out last month. “One called it The Royle Family written by Harold Pinter directed by Mike Leigh,” Tovey marvels. Next he’s filming the second series of ITV sitcom The Job Lot. But first he’s got to find a babysitter for his French bulldog, Rocky, when he’s on stage every night. “When I’m out with him, no one notices me,” he laughs. “They take a photo of Rocky, have a conversation with him, and walk off.”

l Looking starts on 27 January on Sky Atlantic. The Pass is at the Royal Court Upstairs, London, 13 January to 4 March