Byline: Liz Hoggard
I'M CALLING it the sporty Hamlet," actor Russell Tovey tells me with a wink when I meet him in a draughty scout hut in Pimlico where he is rehearsing the Royal Court's new play, The Pass, about a gay celebrity footballer.
Dressed in football shorts and wolfing down cold chicken, he looks every bit the sportsman, though Tovey, who's been acting since he was 11, has only just been to his first football match. "My friend took me to see Arsenal v Cardiff. Wonderful," he enthuses. "The theatricality of the stadium, the songs, the chanting You're a gladiator performing before a baying mob."
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, werewolf George in Being Human), as well as the original Rudge in the National Theatre's production of 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 the lives of a group of gay men living in San Francisco, with Glee actor Jonathan Groff. His character is an English video game whiz-kid. "I wanted to play American but they wanted the whole One Direction, Downton Abbey vibe because Brits are cool."
The eight-part series goes out on Sky Atlantic this month. Arguably Tovey should be in LA, capitalising on his newly raised profile, but he's been waiting a year to play footballer Jason in The Pass, directed by John Tiffany (Once, Let the Right One In).
"I did an early reading and thought the script was brilliant. The writer, John Donnelly, is straight but fascinated by homophobia in football."
Via three hotel rooms, the play charts Jason's journey to becoming a Beckhamstyle superstar. In the first act we see 17-year-old Jason and Ade (played by Downton's Gary Carr) the night before they make their first team debut. As they banter about girls and sex, a chemistry develops. But is it just Jason's tactic to outmanoeuvre his rival? "You don't want to say it's a play about a gay footballer because 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. He's not sad because he's gay. He's fucked up, and it's his choice."
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. Robbie Rogers left the game, Justin Fashanu killed himself. There's a rumour that a major sporting brand has had a six-figure sponsorship deal on the table for the past five years for the first Premiership footballer to come out and no one's taken it."
Sexuality threatens the camaraderie between sportsman, he assumes. "It's easier for Tom Daley because he's a solo diver. What if you're part of the rugby club on tour -- touching each other's dicks, they do very homoerotic acts, all fine because they're straight -- then they suddenly find out someone is gay? It becomes 'Hang on a bit, we shouldn't be doing this, you might be enjoying it'."
He knows Daley -- they were fellow guests at the wedding of his History Boys co-star James Corden, back in 2012 -- and was very impressed by the way he took control and made a coming-out video just before Christmas. "That was what was so brilliant about what he did -- the video was very casual, not even beautifully lit, just him lying on his bed going, 'Oh fuck it, now's the time. Yes, guys, here it is. Done. Gone. Sending it out there; see what happens' "I messaged him and said, 'I'm proud of you, it's brilliant what you've done, mate'. …