In times of crisis, the simple pleasures in life can provide the most comfort. For British actor, Russell Tovey a newfound passion for cooking alongside a deep-rooted love of art have proved invaluable during COVID-19 lockdown. Best known for his standout performances in Years and Years, The History Boys and Being Human, 38-year-old Tovey is learning to appreciate a slower type of living. While theatre curtains have remained down and film sets have fallen silent, Tovey has been using his time in lockdown to immerse himself in all things creative.
The world around us reels from the sheer magnitude of the pandemic, but one positive to emerge is a deeper sense of reflection. Tovey is optimistic that we’ll be able to take some of the lessons learnt in lockdown forward. “I feel this has been Mother Nature’s way of getting us to stop and take a break,” he tells Schön!. “I hope that once we return to normal, whatever that may be, we all learn to appreciate each other and not let the little stresses in life bring us down so much.”
Aside from reflection, lockdown has also been an opportunity for Tovey to uncover some hidden talents. “I have always been a ‘can’t cook, won’t cook’ person, but I’ve really discovered the magic of what knowing your way around an oven can bring,” he jokes. “I no longer have to fear that should we ever have to go through something like this again, that I will have to survive on bananas and eggs.”
Even if cooking has proved to be a refuge, no industry has been left unscathed by the devastation of the pandemic — perhaps no more so than the creative industry. With film sets and theatres shut for the foreseeable future, many have been left in limbo. Just days into previews for Joe Mantello’s Broadway production of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, Tovey and the rest of the cast and crew were forced to press pause and ultimately abandon the show for good. “You mourn what could have been and, in this instance, look at the bigger picture,” Tovey admits.”We knew it worked, and for those eight lucky preview audiences, they got to see something that is now relegated to the legends of Broadway.”
But from hardship comes innovation and Tovey is adamant that the industry will adapt and thrive. “Artists adapt! New ways of working will arise,” he insists. “Much like this photoshoot for Schön! – I have never done one like this before and it was amazing. Culture doesn’t stop and wait, it sidesteps and leaps ahead into a different lane.”
Tovey has already been quick to demonstrate his adaptability. This year, he performed alongside Stephen Fry in the radio play adaptation of David Nicholls’ sharp comedy The Understudy. “It’s always exciting to work in different mediums, so I do think we will see a shift via certain platforms. The Understudy also had the added bonus of supporting British Theatre from the proceeds of ticket sales.” And he isn’t giving up on theatre any time soon. “Theatre is the heart and soul of our society. It’s the most important area of culture that we need to protect at all costs. Nothing can change and influence society like a great play can. As soon as it’s safe to do so, we need to get back into theatres to breathe life into that part of culture we so desperately need.”
As with any good West End show, art also provides a much-needed respite from reality. What started out as a childhood fascination, has become quite a passion project. But Tovey hasn’t been afraid to share how he often felt out of place when he first started collecting prints and has been keen to break down the elitist stigma that often shrouds the world of art. “I overcame my own sense of imposter syndrome by educating myself and understanding art history as well as obtaining as much knowledge as possible on art institutions, museums and artists so that I feel confident in my taste and criticism,” he says. “My knowledge is ever-growing which is exciting rather than intimidating.”
His podcast venture, Talk Art, which he hosts with fellow art enthusiast and gallerist, Robert Diament, has also been a vehicle to help bring art to the masses. Tovey and Diament have created a safe space in which revered figures from the art world such as Tate director, Maria Balshaw, and Grayson Perry, as well as creatives with a penchant for Picasso such as Elton John and Edward Enninful, are able to talk candidly about art in a way that feels accessible.
“Between myself and Rob, we have two different takes on the art world, two different backgrounds, and two different voices. I think that makes for a happy chat. Whatever the subject is, as long as you can hear and feel their enthusiasm, you’ll want to listen along. We are trying to make art accessible to everyone in a relaxed way,” Tovey says. For those dipping their toe into art, Tovey implores, “Don’t be put off by the academic side of the art world. Take it as an experience of and for the soul, ignore the chatter and pressure to understand it all. Get in front of a piece of art and give yourself time to take in how it makes you feel. Art is for everyone.”And Tovey continues to find parallels in how he approaches art and acting. “You create a world and life for them through research and etching out what their possible back story could be. Finding empathy in everything you do is key,” he says.
Empathy will prove crucial in his next role in ITV’s upcoming drama, The Sister. In one of his most challenging roles to date, Tovey plays Nathan, a character who at his core is a good person but who has made some bad decisions in his past. “Good people have the ability to do bad things and this is an exploration of someone who is so desperate to re-write the past and make good the wrongdoings of his youth.”
As we begin to grapple with what the new normality looks like, Tovey isn’t letting his creativity dwindle. Whether it’s the prospect of visiting a new exhibition, tweaking an upcoming script, or delving into a new character, he is making the most of life’s simple pleasures.
New episodes of ‘QuarARTine’ release weekly on the ‘Talk Art’ podcast, available to listen on all major podcast platforms — from Apple and Spotify to Acast. Neil Cross’ ‘The Sister’ will release on ITV and Hulu later this year.
This Schön! online exclusive has been produced by