As his new film, The Good Liar hits cinemas, Russell chats to Sophie Goddard about working with the greats and why he’s suddenly found himself advising James Corden on fine art…
Working alongside Ian McKellen and Helen Mirren might prove daunting for some, but if anyone has the acting chops to handle it, it’s Russell Tovey. The award-winning History Boys actor has played leading roles in everything from Being Human to Years and Years, as well as starring in some of our favourite shows, helllo Doctor Who and Gavin and Stacey (but he’s not in the Christmas special, he confirms, *sob*) and is soon set to make his big return to Broadway (Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?). His latest project, The Good Liar, sees con artist Roy Courtnay (McKellen) meet widow Betty McLeish (Mirren) online. The only issue? Russell’s character (he plays Betty’s grandson Stephen) is about to become a serious spanner in the works…
So, are you a good liar?
No, I’m a good fibber. I say I’m on my way when I haven’t got out the shower yet. I’ve left people waiting saying ‘I’m around the corner’ and I haven’t even left.
You’ve been working since 11, what kind of a kid were you?
Oh god, I was a geek. For my eighth birthday my parents took me to an annual rock and mineral society convention. I was obsessed with rocks and minerals. They said ‘What do you want to do for your birthday?’ expecting maybe Pizza Hut. And I said that. So I was in this room with my parents, as an eight-year-old, with men of about 65 all sat there in macs talking about alum crystals and agates.
That’s amazing. Are you still into rocks?
Art is my passion – I’m a geek through and through, definitely. Subscribe to my podcast, TalkArt!
That’s interesting, because you might assume you were quite a jovial, jokey kid because of your comedy roles…
I think I was both. My biggest inspiration was Robin Williams. He had that ability to make you laugh and cry. He had so much depth and nuance to his performances. Some say he was sentimental and if I had an essence of that sentimentality, I’d be winning. His performances touched and inspired me and I’m sad I never got to meet him because he’s someone I’d go to pieces around and it’s such a shame he’s gone.
You’ve worked on so many incredible projects, which are you most proud of?
Right now? The Good Liar [laughs] but I’m really proud of Years and Years. I think a lot of people remember me for the History Boys, which was a life-changing, career-changing moment.
Do you still talk to the other boys?
Yeah of course. I helped James [Corden] buy a painting the other day, I’m an art advisor to the stars!
What did you help him buy?
I’m not allowed to say, but it’s a nice thing to have that sort of vibe where other actors look to me for advice. A lot of actors get a bit of money and want to buy art, and say ‘What should I be buying?’ And they know I know what I’m talking about I guess. And they’re my mates, so I’m not going to fob them off.
So, tell us what appealed to you about The Good Liar?
I usually know within ten minutes of reading a script if I want to play that character, and I knew right away I wanted to play Stephen. He was a bit of an annoyance. He’s very forthright, opinionated and strong-willed, and I liked that about him. But as the movie continues, you discover who he is and what his agenda is. Obviously having Oscar-winner Bill Condon directing, and knowing Ian and Helen were doing it was the icing on the cake. Jim Carter who plays Vincent is also one of the funniest men I’ve met.
How was it playing Dame Helen’s grandson?
Joyful! To have that relationship on screen with someone like that was such an easy job. She’s the nicest person and one of our greatest assets in the acting world, we should all be incredibly proud of her. It was like going to work with your friends. It’s a very special movie, and we were all fully committed to it – hopefully that transfers to the audience.
Stephen and Betty are very sweet together…
That came easily – we all felt that for each other. It’s quite tough as I’m mean to Ian’s character though, and he said he started to take it quite personally at times which I guess is a compliment to my acting! So I had to give him a big cuddle.
What did you learn from working with Helen and Ian?
Just being around them and seeing how they are on set with the crew, and how they interact with each other… they’re two greats, two titans battling it out on screen. By osmosis I picked up various qualities, but it didn’t feel like ‘me’ and ‘them’, it felt like we were all on the same page.
There’s a real appetite for projects hooked on people not being who they say they are. Why do you think this is so?
I think you’ve got to look at the current President of the United States. The world we’re in where men of power are allowed to openly fabricate things and be busted for it, but not get any repercussions. We’re in a world where that is kind of fascinating, and culture is allowing someone in a very high position to openly lie – and he’s a terrible liar, not a good liar. The fascination from that has spun off into art. As always, art and culture is holding up a mirror to what the world is allowing – we’re facilitating a lie, basically.
Finally, who would you love to work with?
Loads. Emma Stone. I think she’s phenomenal. I worked with Olivia Coleman by proxy in the Night Manager – we weren’t together, but we were in the same show. I’d love to work with Julie Walters – I worked with her on Effie Gray years ago but we had one scene together so I’d love to do a proper meaty stuff. Brenda Blethyn. I love working with actresses. It’s all about the women.
The Good Liar is released in cinemas now