Tovey (left), Mark Strong & Phoebe Fox in 'A View From the Bridge' | Photo by Jan Versweyveld
Now known to most American fans for his starring role on HBO’s Looking — in which he played Kevin, the boss and secret lover of Jonathan Groff’s Patrick — British actor Russell Tovey had his big break as Rudge in the original 2004 stage production of The History Boys, which eventually toured to Broadway (it opened in New York on April 23, 2006), and then around the world.
Currently starring as a straight, Italian bloke in BBC drama Banished, Tovey is back on Broadway this fall in the much-anticipated revival of Arthur Miller’s A View From the Bridge, directed by Ivo van Hove (it opened November 12 and continues through February 2016). The play, set in 1950s America, is about an Italian-American family who lives in the Red Hook area of Brooklyn. But the way in which van Hove has staged it — a bare box on stage (with additional seating at its sides) that is blindingly white and includes minimal props— it feels like a piece of Greek tragedy or a Shakespearean classic.
Tovey plays Rodolpho, an illegal immigrant from Sicily, who comes to America and “completely turns everything upside down” for Eddie Carbone (Mark Strong), who has agreed to house him and his brother, Marco. But don't expect to hear Tovey delivering lines with an Italian accent (or British), like the rest of the cast, he speaks with an American accent that will surprise most of his fans.
The show has a rabid intensity and van Hove highlights the homoerotic subtext between Eddie and Rodolpho — something that feels especially real by having a gay actor playing the part — that culminates during the "double kiss" scene. After Eddie embraces his niece Catherine, he forces Rodolpho into a violent kiss to prove his point that the young Italian is not enough of a man for her, as well as to exert his dominance. The raw energy on stage is one of those theatrical moments that will not be forgotten.
With the electric chemistry between the entire cast, it may seem that it was a rough ride. However, in a new cover story for Backstage, Tovey says that joining the cast of a show that was already a hit when it was staged in London was surprisingly easy.
“There’s a trust there because everyone believes we’re in a groove—[let’s] stay in the groove and let’s keep going with that,” Tovey says. “And if I felt like, ‘Shit, I need to do this scene and work this out,’ they’d be supportive. So I’m not going, ‘I’m under-rehearsed and I don’t know what this bit is.’ This show is what having that energy is like. If you can channel that into the character, that can add something. Because this show has that crackling energy of what’s going to happen next.”
Photo by Ryan Pfluger
The American accent audiences hear on the stage in Bridge may be surprising at first, but Tovey has used it in auditions before. In fact, as he tells Backstage, he originally auditioned for the role of Patrick (the part that went to Jonathan Groff) on Looking.
“[Creator] Andrew Haigh came to see a play I did called Miracle about four years ago and he messaged me afterward to say, ‘Let’s do something some day,’ ” Tovey tells Backstage. “Then Looking came up, and I said, ‘Great, he knows me,’ and did an iPhone tape, which was a big mistake. They said, ‘Really nice but terrible quality. Can you do it again?’ So I did it again.”
HBO was impressed enough that it flew Tovey out to L.A. and provided him with a hotel in West Hollywood and a car to drive him to the screen test, “which was the most nerve-racking thing ever. I was being put in different groups with different Doms, different Augies. And then eventually it was just me and Jonathan [Groff] going in. He was just so kind and sweet to me when I turned up. He was, like, ‘I loved The History Boys!’ And I flew back and I was convinced that he’d gotten it. So I got home and in the middle of the night, checking Twitter, I found out that Jonathan Groff got Looking. I was totally gutted. They said, ‘We love you and we’ll write you a part.’ You hear that a lot—and then you never hear anything.”
This time, however, Tovey did hear. He was sent the role of Kevin, who comes into the series as Patrick’s partnered boss who embarks on an affair with him. Not that he was their only choice; Tovey still had to put himself on tape. “I did 10 versions, all American accents, and then as I was leaving, I said, ‘Let’s do one British quickly because I’m going to leave and they’re going to want me to do one with a British accent.’ So I did it and they said, ‘We love the Brit! The Brit is what we want! You got it!’ ”
Tovey is currently filming the movie finale of Looking for HBO, which means he's shuttling back and forth between New York and San Francisco (Groff has had to take a month off from his Broadway role in Hamilton). He says that, after his Sunday matinee, he flies out, films all day Monday, and then he takes the redeye back for his next performance. So if he looks little wearier on those Tuesday night performances, you'll know why.