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Russell Tovey interview: 'If I came out now I'd be shitting myself'

As he prepares for a role in timely Royal Court production 'The Pass', Russell Tovey talks gay footballers and closets

© Johan Persson
Beloved for his roles in ‘The History Boys’, ‘Being Human’, ‘Him & Her’ and more, Russell Tovey stars as a sexually ambiguous Premier League footballer who refuses to come out of the closet in John Donnelly’s new play ‘The Pass’.

Retired footballer Thomas Hitzlsperger came out in early January: good timing?

‘Great timing! We asked him to come out at this point because it’d be really good for ticket sales. No, it’s great, Tom Daley got the ball rolling, it feels like an exciting time, it makes our play more relevant.’

You went to your first football match as research – how was it?
‘Yeah, New Year’s Day, the Emirates Stadium! Amazing. There was such a buzz, even the noise you could hear outside the ground is so theatrical. I was never brought up with football, but doing this show I realised they’re like dancers, the choreography is like magic.’

Who is Jason, your footballer character in ‘The Pass’?
‘He’s a guy who doesn’t want to define himself by his sexuality: he has his homosexual acts but isn’t defined by the title “gay”, his attitude is, “Nobody’s going to tell me who I am, if I want to fuck a woman I’ll fuck a woman.” He’s a murky personality and he chooses his career and that overrides anything else, which means betraying friendship, and a personal life bereft of affection.' He sounds a bit more complicated than most footballers…
‘I don’t think that’s fair. I’m sure plenty of footballers are pretty terrified of their emotions – crowds are ruthless, they’ll shout anything to put you off and personal stuff is like gold dust to them – any gay player is terrified of that.’

As a gay man, can you see the appeal of the closet?

‘Someone outed me when I was 20 and I thought: Well, that’s out there now… Nobody made a massive fuss because I wasn’t very well known. If it happened now it would be like a coming-out “story”: I’d be shitting myself, I don’t know what I’d do.’

You just wrapped up ‘Him & Her’ – was it a wrench to end it?
‘When I left “Being Human” that was painful because the show was going on without me. But with “Him & Her” we finished on such a high together that if it is the end it couldn’t have stopped at a better time. But I hope with “Him & Her" that we’ll get another crack of the whip, that the writer might change his mind and write some more.’

What’s the story with your new US sitcom?
‘The show’s called “Looking”, created by Andrew Haigh, the director of [hit indie flick] “Weekend”. It’s a show in that style: beautiful, observational, real, about a group of gay friends in San Francisco – it comes to Sky Atlantic on January 27. It’s on after “Girls” – for me even coming after Lena Dunham is a compliment.’

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