The Queerty Interview

Russell Tovey on his sexy role in ‘The Pass’: “It’s a privilege to keep telling gay stories.”

When we first see Russell Tovey in The Pass, he’s bleached blonde and stripped down to his tighty-whities in a hotel room with his equally scantily clad co-star Arinzé Kene. As Jason, a closeted football prodigy—that’s soccer to us Yanks—he spends much of the film in various states of undress.

Based on John Donnelly’s play, The Pass—now available digitally and on VOD—tracks Jason’s life and the impact his youthful interracial dalliance with teammate Ade (Kene) has on it via three incidents in three hotel rooms over the course of a decade.

“I didn’t want anyone else to play him,” Tovey says of the role he originated onstage.

On the day of the film’s US release, Queerty caught up with Tovey for a conversation about masculinity, homophobia and spending so much time in your underwear.

What first attracted you to the play and this character?
Well, the writing. It was a phenomenal play, and the character was everything that drew me to the production—the opportunity to play Jason at three different stages of his life: when he was kind of innocent, when he was getting corrupted and when he was completely f*&%. As an actor that was really exciting. And it’s a subject that’s very topical and political I guess.

Why is Jason so fixated on Ade?
I think it’s the only time in his life when he was truly himself and at peace. It was in his formative years, his first gay experience. Ade was Jason’s first love, and since that moment he was never able to ever truly be himself or have intimacy with someone that didn’t feel like it was wrong or dangerous or risky or something that would jeopardize his career. After that moment everything became about football—soccer. Before that, there was the opportunity for love. That was his one moment of peace with who he was.

What is it about that first night with Ade that allows Jason to be himself?
He felt something with Ade. He felt that this guy was feeling what he was feeling. You know, when your instincts are telling you that this person is edging towards what you’re edging towards? It’s terrifying but it’s exhilarating. There’s that sexual tension between them. At that age, it’s more visceral and it’s intoxicating to spend so much time with someone like that.

These boys have been groomed since the age of eight or nine to be superstar football players. They don’t have any other lives, they’re with these people 24/7, and it’s taken this long for them to get to a place where something’s gonna happen. They’ve probably never been alone in a hotel room together before. Being an adult suddenly and being away from home. Being in bed with someone and being in your underwear, no one there watching you. Being able to do what you want—that’s so exciting for them. And terrifying, because you still don’t know if the other person feels what you’re feeling.

The dynamic between them is further complicated by race. Jason is white, Ade is black. There’s a power imbalance even before Jason becomes a success…
They’re competitive with each other. But it’s all mixed up with obsession and attraction. It’s all trying to make the other one feel something. When you fancy someone you maybe try to make them jealous or pretend you don’t like them. There are all these games they’re playing with each other. They don’t really know what they’re doing. The power dynamic and the struggle to be the most successful one is there as well because they want to be superstar soccer players.

But how much do you think Jason is maybe subconsciously aware of his implicit power as a white dude in that situation? 
I don’t think that has anything to do with it. I don’t think that even enters his head. He’s part of a generation and a group of footballers that are all nationalities. When Jason puts the Nutella on his face, there’s nothing in that that’s rooted in racism or hatred. That’s just taking the piss.

Your body is on display a lot in this film. How important is your sex appeal to the story?
I think they find each other attractive. Jason’s a footballer. He goes on to become a superstar footballer, so whatever people find attractive about him, he leans into.

I’m always curious about actors’ relationships to how their bodies are used and how they’re portrayed on screen.
I’m playing an athlete, so he has to be athletic. That’ part and parcel of the role. When I did the playback in the day, I was on stage every night with my top off, so that was something that I had to think about. If you want to play the part you have to make people believe what you’re doing. He’s at three stages of his life, so we shot the later scenes first, and then when we fasted and went back and did the younger scenes. When you see the movie all the way through, that’s something that’s quite effective.

At one point Jason says that being gay just wasn’t even an option for him. Why does he think that and where do you think he learned that?
I think he’s learned that from the world of professional football, where anything that can ever be seen as a weakness by the opposition or by fellow players or by the fans, you just shut it away. That’s why it’s not an option. Because the moment he embraces who he is, it’s not about football anymore. It’s about him being the first footballer who’s gay. And then that’s all he’s gonna be. That’s why he gets to the age that he does and he’s so fucked up. He’s never been able to have inner peace and know who he is. It all becomes corrupt. And then Ade’s there and he’s out and his friends and family know, so he’s kinda winning. Even though Jason has the fame and the money, at the end of the day I’d rather be Ade.

You used the word “weakness”—that being gay is a weakness in the world of professional football. Do you see a connection between a culture that privileges very specific, rigid version of masculinity and the degradation of this character?
I just think when it comes to soccer, fans want to be able to project onto these player their hopes and dreams. I think they want these players to be their instruments for success, and anything that goes beyond just playing the best football that they can is something that is not of interest. It isn’t personal and they’re quite happy for you to keep stuff private. But if they find out that you may be gay or there’s other shit going on in your life, people get angry.

You’ve talked about how the environment that you grew up in “toughened you up” and made you into the man you are today, but you’ve also said you never struggled with your sexuality the way Jason does. Why do you think that is?
I think because I have always been surrounded by people that love me and support me. I was acting from a young age, so I was experiencing an environment where it was completely normal to be gay. So I didn’t have any shame or fear of that. I just had the uncertainty of the world I was going into. I didn’t know gay bars. I remember being younger and terrified but exhilarated about going to my first gay bar. Coming out, you know, stuff goes on, but you get through it. And I’m at a stage now where I’m completely out, I’ve got a fiancé, got best mates, got a great family, I’m able to do amazing work and it hasn’t done anything but benefit me.

You are a famous person, you’ve dealt with public scrutiny and controversy. Do you relate to Jason on that level?
Yeah, of course. Being in the public eye, behaving a certain way, what you say and what you do is under scrutiny more than a person who isn’t in the public eye. Yeah, that world that he’s in, I can completely understand those feelings. I’m sure there are lots of actors out there that are gay and are not out yet, and they’ve got to such a stage where if they did come out it’d be such a huge thing that it just becomes the most terrifying thing in the world. I’m thankful that isn’t me.

Did you never have an agent or anyone try to convince you to stay closeted for the sake of your career?
No, I’ve been really fortunate. I’ve had really amazing people around me the whole time. I was doing theater. If my career had started off doing movies then maybe it would have been different. Maybe it would have been harder for me.

Would you say you’ve been more open to taking on gay roles in recent years?
Yes. I got to a stage where the gay roles that were coming in were so fantastic, so varied and nuanced that it felt like, this is absolutely what I’m going to do. I think when I started Looking, I was like, I’m getting to play this guy, work with these people, tell these stories. And after that I was like, I’m not shutting any doors at all. I’ve said this before, but when they say you’re gonna be typecast if you play a gay role—no, there’s not one or two types of gay men and that’s it, and their stories are cut and dried. There are billions of stories about gay people like there are billions of stories about straight people. There are so many to be told, and if I get the opportunity to keep telling those stories then I’m gonna keep telling them. And that’s such a privilege.

As an actor who gets cast as both gay and straight characters, how do you feel about straight actors taking on gay roles—particularly when out gay actors often struggle to find any roles at all?
I love it. The best actor should be playing the part. Gay, straight or whatever, they should have the opportunity. I don’t feel any annoyance at a gay role going to a straight person as I hope a straight person wouldn’t be annoyed at a gay person playing a straight role. As long as it goes to the best actor, I don’t see the problem.

But isn’t there an imbalance? Don’t you feel like it’s harder for out actors to get straight roles than it is for straight actors to get gay roles?
Maybe back in the day. I don’t think that’s the case now. A lot of projects that have gay roles have been taken by superb out gay actors. I think it is balanced. I feel like we’re in an age now where if Hollywood’s doing a gay movie they’ll find a gay person for a gay role. I hope that whatever I’ve done has helped the movement towards that.

It’s hard to watch the scenes with the bellboy in the third act and not think about some of the stories that have been reported about men like Harvey Weinstein and Kevin Spacey.
Oh, yeah. Predatory behavior, abuse of power. Yeah, being famous and making people do stuff for you that they wouldn’t normally do. Totally. Jason is abusing his power, and that’s why Ade is so disgusted that he’s become this person. And he can’t see who he is. He’s become intoxicated with this heightened version of himself that isn’t really him. Jason is a caricature of himself.

Obviously, those were intended to be dark, troubling scenes, but I wonder if you think about them differently now than when you filmed them.
No, you’ve just made me consider it. But at the time I knew it was an abuse of power. It didn’t feel like something we hadn’t seen before or heard about. That stuff has been going on forever. It isn’t like we’ve foretold the future.