Russell Tovey on his fear of death growing up during AIDS crisis: ‘F**king terrifying’

Russell Tovey thinks about 'death daily' since growing up during the AIDS crisis.

Russell Tovey has opened up about how the stigma surrounding HIV shaped his “really painful” relationship with death at an early age.

Whether you recognise him from his heartbreaking role in Russell T Davies’ political drama Years and Years or his stint as a serial-killer-catching cop in Ryan Murphy’s anthology series American Horror Story: NYC, Tovey is no stranger to bringing raw and nuanced depictions of gay men to life. 

The actor’s next project looks set to be no exception.

Thirty years after gay filmmaker Derek Jarman’s seminal AIDS-themed film Blue hit the big screen, Tovey has collaborated with the director of the stage version of Orlando, Neil Bartlett, for a new production, Blue Now.

Known for its hard-hitting themes and poignant personal reflections on his deathbed, Jarman’s final feature film made waves in the LGBTQ+ community.

And it seems that the project has prompted Tovey to reflect on his own experiences growing up queer during an era defined by the shadow of the Aids crisis and Margaret Thatcher’s notorious anti-gay legislation, Section 28

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In an interview with The Independent, Tovey revealed how growing up as a young adult at the peak of the crisis had a profound impact upon his identity as a gay man.

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“As a gay person, you’re so closely linked to death,” he said. “When I came out [at the age of 18 in 1999], the first thing people thought was: ‘You’ve gotta protect yourself… you could get HIV.’ This wasn’t that long ago.”

By 1994, AIDS-related illnesses had become the leading cause of death for Americans aged between 25 and 44, and by 1999 the World Health Organization had announced HIV/AIDS was the fourth biggest killer worldwide across all ages

The stark data coincided with the fearful “Don’t Die of Ignorance” UK ad campaign, which highlighted the dangers of HIV and caused a huge rise of stigma towards the gay community.

“Watching them adverts with the tombstone and John Hurt’s voiceover… it was f**king terrifying,” Tovey continued. 

Given the ominous warnings of death ringing in his ears from the constant cycle of fear-mongering adverts on TV, it’s no surprise that it fundamentally shaped his fears around dying, casting a shadow throughout his life.

“I’ve been thinking about dying in a really painful way from the age of f**king 12. If you’re a queer person of a certain generation, you think about death daily. Every time you go to bed with someone, there’s the potential that they could be the person [who] makes you sick. That’s what was in my mind.”

Now 41, Tovey knew he was different from an early age. However, because of Thatcher’s homophobic legislation, which banned the promotion of homosexuality in classrooms, he felt huge shame around his sexuality throughout his childhood.

“I remember being a kid of about four or five and having these feelings and assuming that they were wrong, so I kept it quiet,” he said. “I had shame that stayed with me and damaged me. That is down to government rhetoric. 

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“That is down to a gutter press systematically ‘uneducating’ their readership and keeping them uneducated because it serves them better.”

Russell Tovey in American Horror Story. (FX)
Russell Tovey in American Horror Story. (FX)

And he can see history repeating itself with the current wave of anti-LGBTQ+ rhetoric and divisive policies being posed by the government that would see teachers forced to out trans, non-binary and gender non-conforming pupils to their parents.

“Here we are: the rhetoric going back, the rights being stripped away, the social contracts being dismantled. So what I’m gonna do is make sure that I f**king say who I am, and say what is going on,” he went on. 

It’s why having meaningful LGBTQ+ representation in the arts is so important to Tovey, who has praised the recent wave of queer shows storming television.

“Look at Heartstopper or Glee,” he said. “If we had them shows when I was growing up, I would have felt a bit better about myself. I’m so proud of the way the world is now. For young kids to be able to say, ‘Cool, I’ll watch Glee tonight and then go to a gay bar’.

“That is an incredible gift that’s been handed down. But we must pay respect and remember where that gift came from.”

The first-of-its-kind adaptation of Blue, which begins touring on 7 May in Brighton, also stars trans activist Travis Alabanza, creative Jay Bernard and Polari-Prize-winning poet Joelle Taylor

Russell Tovey in HBO drama Looking with Jonathan Groff.
Russell Tovey (l) in HBO drama Looking ,with Jonathan Groff. (John P. Johnson)

The show tenderly portrays Jarman’s harrowing experience of AIDS, which caused him to go partially blind and have his vision dominated by the colour blue. He died of an AIDS-related illness in 1994, aged 52.

Tovey hopes his depiction of queer identity across his roles will help “move the dial forwards” when it comes to bringing nuanced characters to screen. He remains selective of the gay roles he takes on for this reason, explaining: “It feels important to make sure that if I’m playing gay, that it’s doing something.”

Any fan of Tovey knows that the actor has range, though – he has been in a Doctor Who Christmas special, opposite David Tennant and Kylie (“Allons-y, Alonso”), played a werewolf in Being Human, spending rather a long time naked, and was one of the students in The History Boys, which also gave the world James Corden.

As we wait for what is sure to be another legendary queer role, fans can also find Tovey in the upcoming rom-com Love Again, which stars Priyanka Chopra Jonas, It’s a Sin’s Lydia West and Céline Dion.

Blue Now opens at Tate Modern on 27 May. 

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