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6 May 2023

Russell Tovey’s Q&A: “In another life, I’d run the Tate Modern”

The actor on Derek Jarman, the diaries of Keith Haring and why you should never apologise for enthusiasm.

By New Statesman

Russell Tovey was born in Essex in 1981. A film, TV and stage actor, he is known for his roles in The History Boys, Him & Her, Being Human and Years and Years.

What’s your earliest memory?

I was sat on a beach, which my mum tells me was Cala d’Or, Majorca, holding an orange stuffed toy with blue hair. I was three.

Who are your heroes?

Robin Williams made me an actor and Robbie Williams made me gay. Today my hero is the artist Tracey Emin. We are close friends and she inspires me daily with her incredible generosity, mind and art. 

What book last changed your thinking?

The diaries of Keith Haring. He said: “Each and every interview I do, helps me understand more about what I think myself.” We all hold ideas that are unique to us, we just need time to hear them.

Which political figure do you look up to?

Derek Jarman. His activism and work changed things. He was out and proud, and he took a highly visible, public stance on gay rights and Aids, when so many in his position chose not to do so.

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What would be your “Mastermind” specialist subject?

The work of the poet and artist David Robilliard and the Young British Artists (YBAs) movement in the 1990s.

In which time and place, other than your own, would you like to live?

The good side of the 1980s, but as an adult. I’d fly between New York City and London on Concorde and hang out with the artists at Mr Chow and Studio 54.

What TV show could you not live without?

We can’t really live without the news, sadly.

Who would paint your portrait?

Doron Langberg. 

What’s your theme tune?

“A Little Respect” by Erasure. I sang this song when I was 11 at Lakeside Shopping Centre in Essex with the school choir. I had the solo.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?

Never apologise for enthusiasm. I follow it, wholeheartedly, every day. It’s something I told myself so that I could be nicer to myself as a young person. I definitely felt shame for being interested in things that weren’t what “normal” boys were told they should be interested in. School then was a paralysing place for anyone that wanted to be a nerd.

What’s currently bugging you?

Where that orange stuffed toy with the blue hair is now.

What single thing would make your life better?

If my dogs could live as long as I do. Why haven’t we managed that yet?

When were you happiest?

I’m nearly always happy, but I’m miserable when I’m tired.

In another life, what job might you have chosen?

I’d be running the Tate Modern. It’s one of the best museums in the world and it’s ours. The Tate’s carefully considered acquisitions will outlive us all and teach every future generation who we were.

Are we all doomed?

Yes and no. Derek Jarman said, “if you wait long enough the world moves in circles”. We are all on this big wheel going around and if you look back at all of history it goes from good to shit, to really shit, then not as shit and then kind of good again for a period. However, it’s another story when it comes to the climate crisis. In tens of thousands of years, when they dig down to the sediment for our 20th and 21st century, it’ll be a colourful seam of plastic.

“Talk Art: The Interviews” by Russell Tovey and Robert Diament is published by Ilex Press

[See also: Russell T Davies’s Years and Years is bold and brilliant]

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This article appears in the 10 May 2023 issue of the New Statesman, What could go wrong?