Few stage productions attract the level of expectation which surrounds the National Theatre’s new revival in London of Tony Kushner’s 1990s play Angels in America. Its star cast ensured it sold out within days. But Russell Tovey says the gay drama was part of his life long before he signed up to act in it.
In 2006 Tovey, at 24, was in New York to appear in The History Boys on Broadway. But he already knew and admired Kushner’s play, mainly from the HBO version.
“Most days I ran around Central Park and the Bethesda fountain there became a pilgrimage point for me,” he says.
“In the play the statue of the angel Bethesda is a symbol of strength and hope and each day I would salute it. So in my old photograph albums I’ve got selfies with past lovers, friends, my family and my dog – all with the Bethesda fountain there behind us.
“So when I was asked to be in the play it was the easiest ‘yes’ ever. I feel I’ve astral projected this show to come my way.
“My character Joe is complex and interesting because he doesn’t even know himself properly. He’s a repressed homosexual and a Mormon and he’s moved with his wife from Utah to New York. Eventually he starts a relationship with Louis [played by James McCardle]. It’s more of a love story than people will probably expect.”
Louis has been in a relationship with Prior Walter, played in London by Andrew Garfield. But describing the play’s storyline is tricky: when the two halves were first seen at the National Theatre a quarter of a century ago critics and audiences loved the energy and the unclassifiable audacity.
Kushner subtitled the play A Gay Fantasia on National Themes; Tovey sees a play “about needing love and knowing yourself in a time of political upheaval”.
Angels in America is two plays with a total running time of seven hours. The first half was first seen in San Francisco in 1990 when the Aids crisis was scaring a lot of people.
“The story starts mid-80s in the Reaganite period when there was very little recognition of what Aids was and far too little funding for research. Thirty years ago there was an almost total lack of understanding and empathy outside the gay community for what gay men were going through.”
In 1992 presenting an ambitious Aids epic was a bold decision for the National Theatre – though the gamble paid off. Tovey is passionate that in 2017 Angels in America shouldn’t be seen as a period retread.
“In lots of places attitudes to homosexuality have changed and as a gay man I see that as fantastic. But there’s still homophobia big time in this country and around the world. You read now about camps in Chechnya where they’re torturing people for being gay. Yes there’s marriage equality and more gay rights but there’s still a huge way to go to normalise homosexuality around the world.
‘This show couldn’t be more relevant because it’s about a political time when apparently you can forget about whole sections of society. In the US now it’s like time has gone backwards and there are states where they’re voting to take away gay marriage or Aids research funding. People’s rights are being removed. So it doesn’t feel like a time when we can all sit back in our chairs and say everything’s sorted now. Because it’s not.”
Angels in America has had 11 weeks of rehearsals. “The process hollowed us all. The greatest thing was getting the first audiences in and suddenly we were reinvigorated because they’ve loved it. Tickets are pretty hard to get hold of – but NT Live means people around the world can get to see the show in cinemas which is great.”
One of the main characters is taken from real life – the New York lawyer Roy Cohn who died of Aids in 1986 and who’s played by Nathan Lane. Tovey says Cohn reminds him of contemporary political figures in the US.
“Roy Cohn is a big, flawed character and any actor loves to play flawed characters. He’s fascinating in the way that Donald Trump is. Or maybe Kellyanne Conway – in the future that’s going to be a dream part for an actress. There are such contradictions and complications and it makes great drama.”
Tovey’s constructed a TV career based almost equally in Britain and in the US. For HBO he played the gay English boss of a San Francisco tech company in Looking. Since then he’s been in ABC’s Quantico, again as a gay Englishman. So does he worry that his out gay status might typecast him?
“When I was younger I was sometimes worried about playing gay. Would I get stereotyped? In fact every gay character that’s been offered to me has had a unique story. To continue playing gay characters, as an openly gay actor, has been the most exciting thing ever to happen to me. Coming out gave me such a broad and magical landscape to explore as an actor. And it gave me so many personal experiences too: it’s been a huge benefit to me.”
Quantico is a mainstream drama series, though one that depicts gay relationships more openly than would have been possible even a few years ago. So is it very different from making a BBC series or something for HBO?
“I’d always wanted to do a big network series in America. What terrified me was that there’s no time to spare, no plan B if it’s raining or something goes wrong. You just keep shooting until you finish the schedule for the day. Sometimes you finish a scene and it can be on screen in an episode only two weeks later. And you can work to 4am. I would get days off but the crew would be there all the time. It’s like a different world and it’s marvellous but it’s mental. But once you face the challenge it’s excellent.
‘I adore London and I’ve no intention of leaving: I’m London through and through. I love my home too much – and my squad and my family and my life and my stuff. But working in San Francisco and New York is brilliant. I love having my visa renewed.”
Angels in America is playing at the National Theatre in London until 19th August. The two parts will be broadcast around the world as part of NT Live on 20 July and 27 July.