British Actors You Should Know: Russell Tovey

Rusell Tovey stars as Daniel Lyons in the drama series Years and Years (Photo image credit: BBC and HBO)

This month I’ve chosen to profile one of those British actors that I've been following so long he sort of feels like family. At just 37, he's tackled stage, film and television and tried his hand at sci-fi, comedy, thrillers, animation and period pieces always with his trademark vulnerablity. And though Russell Tovey might not be a name that you recognize immediately, you’re sure to have seen him (and his signature “sticky-out” ears) in action.

Inspired by movies such as Dead Poet’s Society, The Goonies and Stand by Me, the Essex-born Tovey started out as a child actor appearing in television commercials like this one at age 11. 

Upon leaving school at 16, Tovey supplemented his performing arts degree coursework with small screen guest appearances on shows such as Poirot, The Bill and Silent Witness.

His big break came in 2004 when he was cast in Alan Bennett’s West End production of The History Boys as Rudge, a lad more interested in sports than academic pursuits. The play later moved across the pond with its original cast to Broadway where it won a Tony and was subsequently adapted into a feature film in 2006.

(Note- Friendships formed during The History Boys transferred into small roles for Tovey and most of the cast in the James Corden-penned comedy Gavin & Stacey and the film version of Alan Bennett’s autobiographical tale, The Lady in the Van.)

A milestone for any modern British actor is to snag a part on Doctor Who. Tovey made a splash in the 2007 Christmas special, “Voyage of the Damned,” as Midshipman Alonso Frame, a role which just so happened to spawn my favorite Time Lord line, "Allons-y, Alonso”! He also reprised this role in a cameo appearance for David Tennant’s final episode, “The End of Time: Part Two" in 2010.

Masterpiece viewers may recall Tovey’s touching performance in the 2009 adaptation of Dickens’ Little Dorrit. He played John Chivery, a debtor’s prison watchmen whose unrequited love for Amy (Claire Foy) was so heartbreakingly raw you may have shed a tear or two.

BBC’s 2009 dramedy Being Human gave Tovey his first leading role as kind-hearted werewolf George Sands. Joined by Mitchell the vampire (Aidan Turner) and Annie the ghost (Lenora Crichlow), this trio of supernatural roommates struggle together to live normal human lives despite their compromised natures.

Russell’s next major television stint began in 2010 on the BAFTA-award winning BBC sitcom, Him & Her. Teaming up with co-star Sarah Solemani, they played Steve and Becky, a twenty-something couple whose blissfully layabout lives are regularly interrupted by their annoying friends, family and neighbors.

In 2012, Tovey was the featured guest star in "The Hounds of Baskerville", an episode of the phenomenally popular Sherlock TV series.

He played Henry Knight, a client who offers Holmes a case involving a monstrous hound who killed his father decades ago. (At the time, I wondered if Russell’s experience as a traumatized victim of a werewolf attack on Being Human got him considered for the part.)

Russell was an integral part of the ensemble cast of the BBC period drama Banished in 2015.

In it he played James Freeman, a British petty thief brought to an Australian penal colony in 1778. Bullied mercilessly by fellow prisoner Marston (Rory McCann), James is desperate to end a situation that his captors won’t address.

Banished was cancelled after only one series despite the vigorous social media outcry of its fans, many of whom are still talking about it on Twitter @BanishedTVFans. If you’re curious, you can stream Banished on Britbox, Hulu and Amazon Prime.

Russell Tovey has been openly gay since the age of 18. In the past few years, he's taken on more projects that reflect his sexual orientation with movies like The Pass and television shows such as HBO’s Looking and ABC’s crime drama Quantico

Recently Tovey has been portraying gay superhero, The Ray, on-screen and in a CW animated series called Freedom Fighters: The Ray. In a 2019 interview, he explained the importance of such role models.

‘If I look back and think about when I was a kid, that would have been a huge thing for me so I felt how incredibly exciting it was to play The Ray,’ says Russell. ‘He was out and comfortable – and that’s when gay roles are most exciting, when it’s not the be all and end all of that character’s persona.

Finally you can currently see Mr. Tovey in the HBO limited series Years and Years (think Black Mirror, but with more heart). Created by former Doctor Who and Torchwood showrunner Russell T. Davies and starring Rory Kinnear, Anne Reid and Emma Thompson, Russell is part of a family surviving disturbing and chaotic times that hit uncomfortably close to home. More on this anxiety-inducing dystopian drama in a future post – once I’ve been able to calm my nerves a bit.

And in November of this year, Russell will share the big screen with the legendary Sir Ian McKellen and Dame Helen Mirren in the thriller The Good Liar.

If you’re already a Russell Tovey fan, please share your favorite roles in the comments section.  Many of the selections I mentioned here are available to stream on Amazon Prime if you'd like to check them out. Also attention dog lovers! Russell's French Bulldog Rocky shows up on his Twitter feed quite often.