Russell Tovey is considering what kind of ghost he might like to come back as. He looks around the empty London hotel bar where we’ve met – prior to Tier 2 restrictions – for some inspiration.
“I definitely wouldn’t want to haunt anyone,” he says. “I want to be a nice energy in the universe, for people having a bad time. An angel, I guess.” He’s settled. “Yeah, I’ll come back as an angel.”
It’s difficult to imagine Tovey, 38, as anything other than a benevolent spirit. In person he’s generous and funny, and on screen, whatever the project – from History Boys to Him & Her, Gavin and Stacey to Years and Years – he tends to play the most likeable, straightforwardly decent bloke in it. Even his werewolf in supernatural drama Being Human was somebody you’d have gone for a pint with.
It’s part of the reason why ITV’s new thriller, The Sister, is quite so unsettling. Written by Luther’s Neil Cross, Tovey plays Nathan, a friendly married man who works for a greetings card company (so far, so Tovey). His life is upended when a creepy old acquaintance, a paranormal investigator named Bob (Bertie Carvel) turns up in the rain to inform him that the local woods are being dug up by developers and so, um, they might want to move the… you know.
I won’t spoil anything else, but will just add that Nathan’s sister-in-law disappeared seven years earlier and no body was ever found.
It’s a good premise, and the reason Tovey and I are talking about ghosts. He believes in them, and “definitely, definitely” once saw the spectre of a big white dog in a haunted rectory in Essex, “which will make everyone think I’m a nutter, but I don’t care.”
Part of the reason he did The Sister was to “show another side” to his acting abilities, and it doesn’t sound pleasant. “Every page of the script was like, ‘Oh, a panic attack’, ‘Ah, another day crying’, it was relentless,” he says. Until production ended, he pictured the character’s emotions as “a fatberg” stuck inside him. “I don’t take many roles home, but this one I took home.”
Home, incidentally, is a beautiful, art-filled warehouse conversion in East London, where he lives with his boyfriend, personal trainer and trainee architect Steve Brockman. When Tovey got back tired and miserable, Brockman “just took the p***” out of him.
“He won’t let me be precious, but we are very articulate with each other about how we’re feeling. If I tell him I’m stressed, he looks after me and takes the pressure off. And I do for him. It’s what a relationship should be.”
The pair were engaged for six months in 2018, before splitting up – after which Tovey had a successful bout of therapy – and then reconciling a year later. So are they engaged again now?
“Well, I don’t know how it works. Because we were, then we broke up, now we’re back together. Is it like Snakes and Ladders? Do you go back to the beginning of the game and have to work your way back up again?”
I don’t see why they can’t just resume the first engagement. “Well the rings are gone. I sold it, got the money, then gave it to my brother, who was taking his family to Disney World. I gave him the cheque and said, ‘Spend this on sweets.’ I didn’t want the money, I just wanted a big exorcism.”
The first time, Brockman did the proposing. Seems only fair Tovey takes round 2. “Mmm. Maybe it is my turn. But I am not in a hurry.”
Tovey sometimes thinks of his life in stages. The formative years in Essex, coming out to his parents at 18, and the vicious, unprovoked attack (he was slashed in the head and beaten up) by some strangers on a train that left him wary of groups of men for years.
Then there was the high of starring in History Boys, which launched not only his career but those of James Corden and Dominic Cooper, followed by anxiety, afterwards, when he would “compare and despair” against his peers.
“There’s that voice in your head [after failed auditions], where you’re like, ‘Right, cool, they’ve gone for Dom [Cooper], they don’t want a little pokey-eared ratty thing from Essex, they want a leading lothario, OK…’”
Tovey laughs – they’re all still friends – because he conquered those demons long ago, thanks in part to finding the gym in his early 30s.
“I always felt like a manchild, but I wanted to be a man, and see what that felt like in the world, and for casting opportunities. I used to have really bad skin too, and just wanted to run away from the lights on stage. I didn’t want anyone to look at me. So building up my body, literally taking up more space, and standing up straight and feeling present in the room, that gave me confidence.
Tovey is gloriously content now, and eager to pass that on: he once said he’d like children (10 was a number he mentioned) before he’s 40, which gives him 13 months, but that deadline has been given a flexible extension now that he’s back with Brockman. They have houses to do up, paintings to hang, exams to study for, lines to learn, weights to lift.
Instead, he’s doing what he can to help other young artists. The art podcast he co-hosts with the gallerist Robert Diament, Talk Art, introduces him to a diverse group of creatives often struggling with representation.
As an actor, it has made him consider the thorny issue of “lived experience” – whether somebody who isn’t from a certain minority should be allowed to play a character who is. He takes a deep breath.
“Basically, there needs to be space made so that marginalised people can tell their own stories, and they can get to a point where they are successful in mass media,” he says. “But then I look at it from an actor’s point of view. I love acting, and I would not want to be stopped from the challenge of … certain roles.”
Really, he says, “it’s an issue of balance. We’re all trying to get it right, and we will make mistakes.”
Would it give Tovey pause for thought, if he was offered the role of a minority character he had little shared experience with? “100 per cent. You’d have to, in the current climate. But it wouldn’t come out of frustration … You have a responsibility to give someone that opportunity.”
Yeah, Russell Tovey would definitely be one of the good ghosts.
The Sister begins on ITV on Monday at 9pm