Russell Tovey—Art, Documented
Elliot James-Kennedy/DMB Represents
Michael Miller/Stella Creative Artists
Watch enough British television and films, and you’ll definitely come to recognize Russell Tovey’s familiar face. His presence has always been the key nuts and bolts of those stories that would surely have a problem progressing if he were absent.
He was the Midshipman, who helped David Tennant’s reincarnation of The Doctor in Doctor Who steer the space-bound Titanic to safety, the Dartmoor-based character, who pushed Benedict Cumberbatch’s Sherlock to take his case in the TV adaptation of Doyle’s beloved The Hounds of Baskerville and not to mention, the grandson of Helen Mirren’s character in The Good Liar, who assisted in the plot twist at the climax of the 2019 film.
While Russell’s almost 30-year acting career has led him to more deserved leading roles in TV series, such as Being Human, Looking and more recently The Sister and Years and Years, we should also shed light on his other love: art, which has gained traction through his podcast with co-host and friend, Robert Diament, Talk Art; and the newly released complementary book Talk Art: Everything You Wanted to Know about Contemporary Art But Were Too Afraid to Ask.
Good morning, Russell. How are you doing over there?
Good! I’m jealous of your curtains billowing in the breeze there.
(Laughs) Don’t suppose the weather is as kindly for you?
It’s cold over here! We had a little bit of snow last weekend. I mean, it started off warm, but now, it’s colder than Christmas—it’s annoying!
The dogs keeping you guys company alright during the lockdown?
I think the lockdown for the dogs has been the best thing that’s ever happened to them (laughs). They’ve been here on tap the whole time, and they would never go out. They’re absolutely loving it, yeah.
“To begin with, [Robert and I] were scared of it, we had imposter syndrome, we felt like we were not part of this member’s club, we’ve been shut out—but that’s predominantly why we started this podcast. We wanted to make something that was accessible, non-elitist and non-academic.”
How about yourself? How have you been coping with everything over there?
I’ve been busier than ever. The podcast and writing the book, they’ve really just gone up a notch, and having the lockdown really gave us time to focus on that more. I mean, the fact that you can Zoom with your friends and family now, I’m thankful for that. We’re quite grateful that this didn’t happen ten years ago; it would have been a different landscape for social media, for being able to connect with people and to continue with work—I think it was a lot harder.
Has the pandemic affected any of your acting projects?
Yeah, I was doing a play on Broadway [Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf], and that got stopped; I don’t know if that’s ever coming back. We did eight previews, and then that was it. There was no work until about November; I did bits and bobs when there were slight openings. In November, I started filming a movie for Christmas, called Text For You with Priyanka Chopra and Celine Dion. That was pretty amazing, even though I never met Celine Dion, sadly. The way it affects us now is that, you’re just getting tested every two days, so you’re having swabs stuffed up your nose, or at the back of your throat… you know, it’s just staying on top of that. So, the logistics of filming have changed, but everybody wants to work, and everybody wants to still be creative, so you do what you have to do.
I have to say it’s quite a pleasure to have this chance to talk to you, after spending years and years seeing you in different shows and films out there. I’ve always considered you as one of the underdogs in British acting, and I’m quite glad to see that you’ve taken on more leading roles now, like in the recent shows, The Sister and Years and Years.
Well, you know the term: Comparison is the thief of joy. You’ve got to stay focused, and whatever you do, just be brilliant, try and be the best you can be. You know, put yourself into it every time; I’ve always done that, and I’m devoted to it, and I work hard. Nicole Kidman always says that, even though she’s been working for years, but for her, every job feels like it’s her first one. She’s still learning every time she works, and she’s always thinking, “Oh my God, I feel like I’ve just begun.”—and I feel like that. I’ve been doing this all my life basically, since I was like, 11, but I always feel like I’m only just beginning.
How was it like for you to work with Russell T Davies again in Years and Years, after more than ten years since your last stint in Doctor Who, when he was still showrunner?
I mean, not only is he just like, the most talented man, he’s just the best squad leader. He would check in with you, just to say, “I’ve watched the rushes, this is a great day, I’m loving what you’re doing.” Every night, he’d send every member of his cast a message to say well done, brilliant, keep going. So, he’s encouraging like that. He creates this family cell that you feel like you’re all together, committed in creating this product. He is the loveliest man, and he is amazing—amazing in casting his shows, amazing in creating these storylines and these characters, but also bringing certain actors together—it just works.
It must have been quite a treat to have worked with Dame Helen Mirren and Sir Ian McKellan in The Good Liar, another of your more recent acting projects. Were there any pearls of wisdom they’ve imparted to you, whether it’s about your acting career or life in general?
I think what it is, is encouragement. These people you look up to, and love and adore, and think are just fantastic; if they just say to you: “I like what you do,” that encouragement, that kind of endorsement propels you forward. So, when you do meet people that have been in the game for so long, and are so respected, and they take time out of their days just to acknowledge the work you’ve done, and appreciate it—there’s nothing better than that, that’s the best feeling ever.
Any memorable moments while on set with them?
Loads! Helen, Ian and I were in Berlin, and that was really cool, hanging out in Berlin together and filming there. Just being in scenes with them was just fantastic, so nuts. It was a bit of a dream, really. You just become friends with people that are—Gods, you know what I mean? When you sit in the green room after chatting, telling anecdotes, telling stories about yourself and funny things—they’re the best. That’s what actors love; actors love a green room to just chat to other actors about other actors.
Like you mentioned earlier, you’ve been busier than ever with your podcast, Talk Art that you co-host with Robert Diament for about three years now.
It’s interesting to see that you’ve gathered all these celebrities/art enthusiasts, who are into different kinds of art—like, Josh O’Connor with ceramics because of his grandparents, and Mark Gatiss with portraits; In fact, I was quite surprised that Pierce Brosnan paints on the side while he’s shooting.
Every guest always reveals something amazing about themselves, and a lot of celebrities don’t have an opportunity to talk about that side of their lives. They talk about what they predominantly do, whether they’re a singer or an actor. So, people tend to overlook the fact that they had this other lane that they drive in, and it’s really nice to explore that, and reveal that through the podcast.
While we do interview a lot of celebrities—because people love a celebrity, and people love to know their stories—we are also passionate about supporting emerging artists and young voices, and people that have been undiscovered. You know, artists that have been overlooked, self-taught artists, disabled artists… We’re trying to be as diverse and representative as possible, because that’s important, that’s what art is about; its main responsibility is to be representative of the whole world.
How do you think Talk Art has changed the landscape of art, especially when it comes to making it more accessible to the mass public?
We are constantly surprised, and moved, and entertained by all of our guests, because everybody has an affinity or a connection to art in their lives. They might not think they do, but they might have seen a painting somewhere, they might have been on a school trip to the museum, and they might have seen something, and it would have changed them, and it would have stayed with them; it’s just about teasing that out of them. A lot of people think they don’t know about art, and they’re scared of it. To begin with, [Robert and I] were scared of it, we had imposter syndrome, we felt like we were not part of this member’s club, we’ve been shut out—but that’s predominantly why we started this podcast. We wanted to make something that was accessible, non-elitist and non-academic.
And then, there’s the complementing book, Talk Art: Everything You Wanted to Know about Contemporary Art But Were Too Afraid to Ask, why that title? Why do you think people are “too afraid to ask” these questions?
Well, I think a lot of people feel paralyzed with how to behave in art galleries, or what’s to be expected of them. They feel like they’re going to be laughed at, or ridiculed or made to feel stupid, if they don’t know certain references, if they don’t know certain artists, or if they haven’t really learned about this section of our history. So, this book is there to allow you to get passionate and excited about art, and enthusiastic as much as we are, without feeling like you don’t know enough, without feeling like you’re going to ask the wrong questions, without being like someone’s going to tap you on the shoulder and say, “you don’t belong here.”—You do belong, because art is for everyone. What this book is, is a little handbook of enthusiasm, you know what I mean? It’s everything that we love, and we’re just saying, “come on this adventure with us, and learn more, love this more, and maybe even find your own stuff that you love.”
“So, when you do meet people that have been in the game for so long, and are so respected, and they take time out of their days just to acknowledge the work you’ve done, and appreciate it—there’s nothing better than that, that’s the best feeling ever.”
How do you think the art scene has become this kind of high-brow members’ only clique that the public has grown scared of?
I mean, you look back at the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, or you look back at the Royal Academy, the art schools and colleges… it was very elitist, and it wasn’t for the “common man”; it was for learned academic scholarly times. To begin with, the Royal Academy had no females; you’d have a female model, you could paint the female model, but otherwise, they couldn’t study there. There’s this whole thing throughout the years that this patriarchy has set up: men that have been at the top of it, and men that have governed the art market, the auction houses, and the museum shows. The art world was set up for rich collectors by smart people that went to university. But, that isn’t the world now; that sort of patriarchy has been broken down over the years. History is now readdressing the imbalances of that. At the end of it, art is just people telling stories—all art is, is storytelling. We’ve all had an opportunity to tell stories, and we should all be allowed to hear everybody’s stories.
When you first started getting into art in your early 20’s, was there anything that you were too afraid to ask?
I think I was always afraid to ask too much about anything, because I didn’t know enough; I felt like if they’re gonna know I don’t know enough, they’re gonna not want to talk to me, or assume that I’m someone not worthy of having this conversation. It’s taken a long time to educate myself on art history, to feel confident enough to talk about art. I’m always someone that if I don’t understand it, or I assume that other people don’t understand it, I always ask people to explain what they mean. For so long, you hear so many art interviews, and people are referencing certain kinds of movements, or artists, or terminology, and you’re expected to keep up. If you don’t keep up, then it feels like you’re shut out. I don’t feel like there is this assumption that you should know everything, and that if you don’t, you should stay away.
What are some of the more common things people wanted to know about contemporary art, but were too afraid to ask?
For a lot of people, if they wanted to start collecting, they’d want to know the process of going into a gallery: how to acquire a painting, or a drawing, or a photograph, what questions to ask… I guess, financially, it’s an intimidating world; if you do want to buy something, the monetary value on things is very confusing, very alienating, but at the same time, people are always fascinated with that. At the end of it, people are afraid to ask questions, because they don’t want to look stupid. But, the way that this podcast and book work is, it’s just saying no question’s too stupid. Ask what you want to ask, and you’ll be rewarded, really.
I read that you started collecting art when your parents bought you the Tracey Emin print, Dog Brains. What was it about it that drew you into the art world when you were younger?
I think, fundamentally, Tracey Emin’s lines, the way she draws, it’s something I’ve always been obsessed with. It’s very unique to her, her line. I love the idea of the monoprint; the fact that she would draw on the reverse, turn it over, and what you’re seeing is the mirror image of what she’s drawn. I love seeing her hand marks, a bit of scuffed from the edge of her hand, and the way that she’s got her fingers caught on the thing. I love the scale of the piece; the fact you’ve got this small image in the middle, and this big vast white space. She looks like she’s having trauma in the middle, or something’s going on psychologically, but she’s got all this space around her, all this kind of battle. I love the fact that it’s got text in, because I love Tracey’s handwriting. The red color… I could go on! There’s something really special about the art of Tracey Emin, the choices that she makes, every moment of every piece she produces is always fascinating and thrilling to me.
What was (or were) the last artwork you purchased?
The last artwork I purchased would be—I’ve got a sculpture by a Russian artist called Evgeny Antufiev. He’s a crazy Russian sculptor, who acquires historical artifacts for his own collection, and then he creates through the inspiration of them. He’s just been announced to be part of the Triennial Museum in New York, which is a really big deal. I bought a painting by a young, emerging Parisian based artist called Jean Claracq. He makes these tiny, miniature paintings that are so detailed, and they reference post-Internet art. He’s really, really skilled, and I love what he’s doing; he’s got a really interesting way about him. What else have I bought? I’m really into an artist called Oscar yi Hou, who is Liverpudlian Chinese, but he’s now in the States. He’s a phenomenal figurative painter. He’s a brilliant, brilliant artist, and I’ve got something by him recently.
Salmon Toor is an artist from Lahore in Pakistan, he’s based in Brooklyn now. He just did a show at the Whitney Biennial. I’ve been talking to him for a couple of years now, but he is right now, one of the most talked-about artists on the planet for what he’s doing. He’s fantastic. His painting is fantastic. He paints these figures that represent a community of very affluent, happy, camp, brilliant characters. He creates these inhabitants in this world that have a certain freedom about him, even though they’re existing in this really dark time zone politically. So, there’s a lot! I forget, I am always buying (laughs).
Do you think your love for art is in any way associated with your acting career?
With my acting, that then gives me money to buy art. So, sometimes, I can look at my collection, and say, “oh, that’s when I did that film, that’s when I was in that play, that’s when I did that TV show.” There is a very autobiographical energy that goes through my collection, and you know, the best art collections are a self-portrait, because if they’re honest and authentically collected, they represent who you are, and what you’re drawn to. So, yeah, looking at things, I can definitely distinguish what point in my life I was at, and where I was in the world.
“I’m always someone that if I don’t understand [art], or I assume that other people don’t understand it, I always ask people to explain what they mean. For so long, you hear so many art interviews, and people are referencing certain kinds of movements, or artists, or terminology, and you’re expected to keep up. If you don’t keep up, then it feels like you’re shut out.”
Chris Donnelly/Donnelly’s Barber Shop
Justine Jenkins using Nude by Nature
Lauren Jenkins, Pinnacle PR
Do you ever worry about the security in your home, when you have so many expensive art pieces lying around?
What’s really important is to have your insurance in place. Over the years, there have been things that have happened: a flood from upstairs, or something falls over, or something gets dropped… and you want the insurance there in place. But also, you want to protect these things, because these artworks are yours for the moment, but they also belong to history; you want them to outlive you. So, I have full responsibility to protect them.
To emulate one of the questions you asked your guests at the end of your podcasts: What’s your personal art heist?
My personal art heist would be—there’s two things. The first one is a Picasso painting called Night Fishing at Antibes, which is part of the MoMA collection, but it’s not on display right now, from my understanding. It’s the same scale as Guernica, but it was painted before the war broke out in 1939. I only ever saw it reproduced in imagery, in books and stuff, but when you see it in the flesh, I was floored; it is so stunning. So, that’s one I would love to have. I would love it just to be up constantly at my mercy; whenever I went there it was up, and the last time I went, they had moved it around, because obviously, they’ve got so much art, they have to shovel some things. That broke my heart a bit though; I don’t know when it’s going to come out of storage, and I’ll be able to see it again.
And then, the other one is a bit of a fantasy art. There’s an artist called On Kawara, who did a painting a day, and he would date paintings wherever he was in the world—very simple. He would do the painting, and complete it on the day; if he didn’t, he would destroy it. I would love one of my date of birth, which I don’t think exists. But, you know, if you was to buy one of those, and it did exist, you’re looking at about $3 million plus. So, that’s a bit of a ways off, but they’re my art heist.
Right, that’s pretty much it. Thank you so much for your time.
So, what do you have planned for the rest of the day?
I’ve got a little bit of filming for friends. Maybe do a couple of hours walking with the dogs.
I can hear Rocky snoring in the background.
(Turns camera to dogs) Yes, he is.
Russell Tovey is photographed by Elliot James-Kennedy for the digital cover and print magazine of The Laterals Issue 06 in London on March 19th 2021.