Russell Tovey: ‘Art is for everyone. It will change you, it will outlive you’

Contemporary art is the actor’s passion. As he curates a festival in Margate to celebrate the Turner prize, he discusses his collection, his podcast - and advising James Corden on what to buy

Cor, Russell Tovey’s apartment is gorgeous! A New York-style warehouse-style place, with wooden floors, big windows at front and back, two light-filled bedrooms and enough space in the living-dining-hanging-out area for an army of cool cats to swing. But it’s not the flat itself that dazzles, fabulous though it is. It’s the art.

As soon as you walk in, you notice it. On every wall there are canvases – huge, brightly coloured abstracts, delicate etchings, cartoon-like figures in spray paint and oils. Sculptures nestle in alcoves or stand proud on tables. One piece – a chair in the guest bedroom by Jessi Reaves – is only recognisable as art because it’s so tatty when compared to the rest of the furnishings. (“Most of my friends hate that one,” Tovey laughs. “They think it looks like it was found in a skip.”) How much art does he own? He counts up in his head: “About 250 pieces,” he says. A lot of it is in storage.

Well known as an actor – one of the original History Boys, Being Human and most recently, the amazing Years and Years – Tovey has another, less-documented life. He is an absolute, stone-cold art buff: a self-taught specialist, a taste-making collector, an art “geek”. Geek is the word he usually uses about himself when on Talk Art, the podcast he hosts with gallery director Robert Diament; though he could equally call himself an enthusiast. He adores contemporary art, and his passion, over the years, has led him to expertise. He hosts special in-house tours in his apartment for high-up people such as patrons of the Royal Academy and is a guest curator for Margate NOW, an art festival created to celebrate this year’s Turner prize being held in the town.

From 28 September until 13 October Margate is being taken over by art: as well as the Turner prize, there will be performances and screenings, pieces placed in unexpected places, work that only lasts a few days, and other works that have been months in the making. Five hundred artists and performers making more than 60 events in total, most involving Margate citizens. Yuri Suzuki, a local artist, has created 12 horns representing 12 sections of Kent that will broadcast songs and tales sung and told by locals. Open School East has been busy working with Margate kids, as has 1927, a theatre company. Tovey – who recently bought a flat in Margate – is excited. “Culture automatically raises the status of a place and raises its quality,” he says. “And culture is something that brings people together. That’s the whole point, because it’s about humans communicating with other humans about what it is to be alive.”

I am interested in all this of course but I am far more intrigued by Tovey’s flat. Can we look around? Tovey gives me an info-packed tour. It’s noticeable that he mostly chooses to highlight the female artists in his collection. The first piece he ever bought, with his cheque from the film version of The History Boys, was a Tracey Emin etching, and he has always made a point of buying women’s art: Phyllida Barlow, Rebecca Warren, Rose Wylie, who he worships. He has a lot by older artists, including the 90-year-old Venezuelan Magdalena Suarez Frimkess, who works in Venice, California; Carmen Herrera, who is 104; Etel Adnan, from Beirut, in her 90s. He likes supporting female artists because he feels they have a tougher time than their male counterparts.

Orlando by Toyin Ojih Odutola
Orlando by Toyin Ojih Odutola Photograph: Courtesy the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York

We spend some time admiring a gorgeous work by African American artist Toyin Ojih Odutola, who, says Tovey, “creates this fantasy of these fantastical Nigerian families in images that you would normally see in white depictions of royal families. And these families have been joined by their gay sons. So it’s really imagining something that probably is never possible in Nigeria, but every one of these characters has their own story and their own place within these families.”

He has a couple of Joyce Pensatos on display. A few months ago, he and Diament interviewed Pensato, maker of scary-drip versions of classic cartoon figures and comic book heroes. She died of pancreatic cancer in June, aged 77. Tovey had collected her art for a while, and they’d become friends: she requested that her last interview be for Tovey’s podcast.

In just over a year, they’ve made 30-plus Talk Art programmes including lively interviews with artists – Ryan Gander and Rose Wylie – or art-friendly people (often actors) such as Zawe Ashton and Lena Dunham, and art world heavyweights – the Serpentine’s Hans Ulrich Obrist, gallery owner Sadie Coles and the director of Turner Contemporary, Victoria Pomery. The podcasts are gossipy and fun, engaging and well researched. The point, says Tovey, is to make a podcast about serious art that is approachable, that anyone can listen to.

Tour done, we settle down for a chat at Tovey’s big kitchen table. As we talk, I am struck by how different he is to most actors I’ve met. Not only because of his passion for art, but because of his steady self-confidence. Most actors are insecure (understandable, given their profession), and deliberately sparkle for interviewers. Tovey is charming, friendly company, but he’s also robust. Not desperate to make me like him (though I do). The main feeling I get from him is determination.

I tell him he seems like the kind of person that has an idea and then absolutely commits to following it through. “I am,” he says. “My mum says that I’m blinkered, and if I want something I get it. I think it comes from enthusiasm and I’ve never apologised for being enthusiastic. When I want to know about something – ie art – I want to know everything. I have to know everything about it.”

When he was a kid, growing up in Billericay and Romford, Essex, Tovey used to collect stuff. Rocks, minerals, fossils, coins, stamps, phone cards. One day he realised he had to streamline his life, so he got rid: sold his coins to one of the coin shops opposite the British Museum, put the phone cards on eBay. He was good at art himself – he still draws, mostly cute cartoons of himself for his boyfriend, Steve Brockman, or of their three dogs – and he was “visually stimulated” as a child, buying comics featuring Ren and Stimpy, Beavis and Butthead, Rocko’s Modern Life, and watching Rugrats. It wasn’t such a big leap from those to Roy Lichtenstein, Keith Haring, Andy Warhol, Mel Ramos, Patrick Caulfield. But the big “aha” moment was when he went to see the YBA Sensation show, in 1997, when he’d just turned 16 (he’s nearly 38 now). “It blew my mind,” he says. “It felt like something had shifted. People say, ooh, the swinging 60s, and I’m always like: ‘OK, cool’… Sensation was my Woodstock moment.”

He went back home in a daze, and, when required by his sixth form college, Barking College, to make a speech as part of an assignment, he did one about the importance of contemporary art. He got a pig’s ear from a pet shop and put it in a tank of water to explain Damien Hirst (he called it Sow Memory). He found a bit of glass and passed it round his class, asking everyone what it made them think of. “That was my Duchamp, my ready-made.” He got a distinction. “But that was the only award I got. They chucked me out after a year.”

They chucked him out because he didn’t take up a role in the college play; having been working as an actor since he was 11, he’d landed some paid work and did that instead. Soon after, he started at the National Theatre, and got a life-changing part in Alan Bennett’s The History Boys. He made friends with Emin when the play was up for a South Bank award. At the party afterwards, they got on so well that she subsequently asked him to be her plus one at various dos. “It was during her miaowing phase,” he recalls. Now Emin has moved into her imperial era, they remain excellent friends.

Tovey with T’Nia Miller in Years and Years.
Tovey with T’Nia Miller in Years and Years. Photograph: BBC/Red Productions/Guy Farrow

In fact, she gave him a discount on that first ever art purchase; he got together the money but was then shocked that he had to find 17.5% more (the VAT rate back then). Now, he’s savvy enough to buy much of his art in the US, so he only pays 5% import tax, as opposed to 20% VAT. He started buying work over there when he was cast in a big HBO series, Looking, in 2013, and in later US-based series such as Quantico.

How does he find the art he likes? Initially, he says, he used art advisers; but not for long. Advisers are usually there to find the work that will make the buyer the most money, and that’s not why Tovey is buying art. He wants to support emerging artists, to look after work he considers important. He has ideals. “Contemporary art, especially, is all about the moment. The artist is trying to tell their story. So I feel like if you buy art, you’re part of the dialogue about history, and you’re contributing a little bit, by looking after it, to all these stories that are going to live for ever. Art is for everyone and outlives you.”

So now he finds the art himself. If he sees something he likes in a gallery, he will email: “I always say, I’m a London-based actor and collector, because some artists like being collected by an actor.” He occasionally buys in auctions: “I love it. But if you don’t win, you do feel like you’re being told off by the gavel.” And he uses social media.

“The magic of Instagram,” he says. “With emerging artists, if you post a picture of their work or you comment on it, if you ‘at’ them, they normally contact you. Or you can direct message them and be like: ‘Hey!’ I’ve done this so many times where I’ve been in the States. I say: ‘Where are you?’ And they’re like: ‘In Brooklyn’, and I say: ‘Can I come do a studio visit?’”

A visitor poses with artist Joyce Pensato’s Mickey for Micky at the 2014 Frieze Fair in London.
A visitor poses with artist Joyce Pensato’s Mickey for Micky at the 2014 Frieze Fair in London. Photograph: Luke Macgregor/Reuters

He understands and cultivates his own taste: “I oscillate between figurative, cartoony abstraction and geometric abstractions.” (Is there anything he doesn’t like? He thinks: “Gerhard Richter’s squidgy paintings. I just fucking hate them. They make me really angry. I think they’re shit.”)

These days, friends ask him to be their art advisers. James Corden, another of the first History Boys, has been in touch, asking for advice: “James messaged me the other day, and I’ve got him buying work. He’s got loads of money now, so he’s like: ‘What should I do?’ I’m like, ‘Buy art!’ So he’s running stuff by me and I’m like: ‘No, don’t do that, how about this?’”

When he’s not working, Tovey’s researching art, disappearing into internet wormholes. It’s how he relaxes. He re-educates himself constantly. He used to have a problem with video and sound-based work, partly because he looked at art as a collector. But now he’s into it. “My medium of choice has always been painting, works on paper and sculpture. I saw video and sound art as not so important. But now I’m like, “No.” Because it’s all about connecting and experience. And being immersive. And what’s more immersive than that?”

Can he understand that some people find art difficult? “Yes,” he says. “But you just have not to be intimidated by it. Go to a museum, you’re going to see a thousand works of art. And if you find one you like and spend time in front of it, on some low level, molecularly, it will change you. That moment of culture.”

He gets cross about bad art, as he does about all bad culture. He has a little rant about rubbish plays: “Imagine someone going to see a play for the first time, and they’ve saved up their money, and they get dressed up, and they get a train to London. And they have lunch before, all excited… and it’s crap. And afterwards, they don’t want to badmouth the play, they just assume that because they saw it on stage, it’s got to be good. But fundamentally, inside them, they know it’s not. That makes me sad.”

Tovey with Jamie Parker in The History Boys at the National Theatre in 2004.
Tovey with Jamie Parker in The History Boys at the National Theatre in 2004. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

This leads us, naturally, to his acting career. Tovey has a film to promote. The Good Liar, out on 8 November, stars Ian McKellen and Helen Mirren and is “a con-rom romcom”. Tovey plays Mirren’s son and he loved doing the film, adored Mirren (he calls her Dame Heaven Mirren) and the director Bill Condon. He’s quite proud because it’s a big film, “my first proper one”. I think of him as thoroughly established, but he still feels he’s known more for his TV and theatre work than the “culty” films he’s been in, such as The History Boys and The Pass. This seems, to him, to be a move into a bigger film world.

He works hard, and he moves easily between all his worlds: podcast host, theatre/TV/film actor, presenter, art collector and curator. He’s even written a TV comedy drama. “It’s easy to diversify now, you don’t have to stay in your lane. Like [singer] Jessie Ware, her podcast [Table Manners] has completely changed her life.” In all areas, he’s acquired devoted fans, some sweet (he tells me that he cried this morning over some fan art of his character in Years and Years, Daniel, and his boyfriend Victor), some rude (he gets sent dick pics via social media).

And what of the future? Long term, he has two art-style ambitions. He wants to get to a financial point where he can buy a little flat and support an emerging artist to come to London for three months and live rent-free. And he wants to have a foundation, a Tovey Foundation, which shows his collection in rotation. This would be in Margate or London, “anywhere, really. It could be in Essex, maybe Billericay, make it a destination.” “This art,” he says, “I own it but it isn’t mine. I feel like it’s everybody’s. I love sharing it. I do walks and talks around my flat like it’s a museum, and I love showing off to my friends… but that’s not enough. It’s for everyone, isn’t it?”

More short term, in previous interviews, he’s talked about wanting to have a baby before he’s 40. Next year, he’s going to be in New York for the whole year, rehearsing and performing in Joe Mantello’s production of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, alongside Eddie Izzard, and he plans to use that time to set some baby wheels in motion. “I’ll really be putting the feelers out on how we’re going to make this work,” he says. I’m so sure that he will make it happen that I offer congratulations. “Thanks,” he laughs. “It’s not happened yet!”

Where does his confidence come from? His parents, he says, always told him he could do anything, and he’s worked hard to take advantage of his opportunities. He’s had therapy when he has felt he needed to and he has followed his passions. He tells his young relatives to work out what they want to do, and pursue that with energy. He told his nephew the other day that if he wanted to go to art school, he would pay for it, “and I shook his hand”.

I feel like cheering. What a positive force Russell Tovey is.

“The thing is though, I’m getting the opportunity,” he says. “It’s like when people say to me: ‘God, you work hard.’ If you’re getting the opportunity to do or have something you love, then you’re going to work hard, aren’t you, because work is more fun than fun. Because there’s people who don’t know what they want to do, or they build walls to stop themselves doing what they want to do. And that’s awful. Isn’t it the best gift to know what you want to do with your life?”

Margate NOW runs from 28 Sep–13 Oct. The Turner prize is at Turner Contemporary, Margate, 28 Sep–12 Jan 2020

Five of Russell Tovey’s favourite artists

The Lands Part (yellow, blue and green), 2017.
The Lands Part (yellow, blue and green), 2017. Photograph: Kerry Ryan McFate/Loie Holowell, courtesy Pace Gallery

Loie Hollowell
Minnesota-born Hollowell’s brightly coloured, almost abstract female bodies glow on the wall. Because she produces relatively few paintings, taking around three months on each, there are few for sale and they are in huge demand.

Black and White Mickey, 2018.
Black and White Mickey, 2018. Photograph: Joyce Pensato; Courtesy Lisson Gallery

Joyce Pensato
Pensato, who died earlier this year aged 77, came to success late, beginning her wild, funny, scary punk cartoons in the 90s. “I like being messy and I love throwing paint around and fucking it all up,” she once said.

Donald Duck, 2015.
Donald Duck, 2015. Photograph: Courtesy the artist and South Willard, Los Angeles

Magdalena Suarez Frimkess
Born in Venezuela, 90-year-old Suarez has worked with sculptor Michael Frimkess, her husband, in California since 1963. He throws pots and she glazes them with an intricate mix of cartoons, slogans, snapshots, flowers and more.

Nite Lite, 2013.
Nite Lite, 2013. Photograph: David Shelton Gallery, Houston, Texas

Jamian Juliano-Villani
Juliano-Villani, from New Jersey, describes her hyper-real, dreamlike paintings as “car accidents”: there’s something uncomfortable about them, but you can’t stop looking.

Newlyweds on Holiday (2016).
Newlyweds on Holiday (2016). Photograph: Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York/Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York.

Toyin Ojih Odutola
Nigerian-born, US-based Ojih Odutola imagines a world where black people hold the power. Her virtuoso technique and bright palette make for beautiful drawings. MS


Miranda Sawyer

The GuardianTramp

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