Russell Tovey Talks 'Looking' Special, Singing in His Broadway Return 'A View From the Bridge'

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Russell Tovey

"I read the 'Looking' script the other day and I cried my eyes out," he said. "It's beautiful."

After nearly a decade, actor Russell Tovey is returning to Broadway. And this time, he’s singing. A “tiny bit,” he warns.

Certainly, audiences of A View From the Bridge  which began previews Wednesday — will not confuse the Arthur Miller play for a musical by any stretch of the imagination.

Tovey’s character, Rodolpho, breaks out in song early in the show and sings “like five lines” of “Paper Doll.” The single was made famous by the Mills Brothers in 1943, and it spent 12 weeks at No. 1 on Billboard’s Best Selling Retail Records chart. In A View From the Bridge, Rodolpho, an illegal immigrant, comes to America and “completely turns everything upside down” for Eddie Carbone, who has agreed to house him and his brother, Marco.

Tovey is likely best known in the U.S. as a co-star of HBO’s drama series Looking, which will film its series-finale movie in November. A View From the Bridge is his first role on Broadway since The History Boys in 2006, where he co-starred as Rudge (a role he originated in London). He has also appeared in the film adaptation of The History Boys, co-starred in BBC’s Being Human and Him & Her and ITV’s The Job Lot, and had memorable guest roles on Sherlock and Doctor Who.

The new production of A View From the Bridge, directed by Ivo van Hove, launched at the Young Vic in London in 2014. (The play premiered on Broadway in 1955.) Following a sold-out run, it moved to London’s West End in early 2015, where it earned rave reviews. It subsequently won three Olivier Awards (the British equivalent of the Tony Awards) for best revival, best director (Ivo van Hove) and best actor (Mark Strong). The show’s transfer to Broadway retains its director, as well as much of its cast (including Strong). Tovey is a new addition to the ensemble.

A View From the Bridge will have a 17-week limited engagement through Feb. 21, 2016, at the Lyceum Theatre in New York. (Its preview launch comes just four days after the 100th anniversary of Miller’s birth.) Opening night for the show is Nov. 12.

Billboard caught up with Tovey in New York, via phone, on Tuesday  the day before A View From the Bridge began previews. Tovey discusses the “very, very intense” show, his moment of singing onstage, and how he’ll juggle the filming of Looking with his Broadway commitment. “I read the Looking script the other day, and I cried my eyes out,” he says, “It’s beautiful.”

So how are you doing?

I'm okay! I've been wandering around the city today with my dog, Rocky, who's here with me. We've been to the dog run in Washington Square Park, and we've been to do the dog run in Tompkins Square Park, and I'm just exploring them all, seeing what he takes to best.

I thought for sure you would be in the middle of rehearsal, considering the previews start soon.

I know, that's what I thought. We're all so into it, and so advanced, that we're having half of the days off to kind of work at home by ourselves. And then we go in. We had a dress rehearsal yesterday [Oct. 19] with an invited audience, and we've got a dress tonight with an invited audience. Everyone's feeling quite confident, so they don't want to overwork us, so that we lose our lacquer. … I think once official previews have happened, and once we have the full audiences in, and then I think we're going to go back to reworking stuff, because you can then determine what the play is from an audience's perspective. So I think the schedule might change again, then. But as it is at the moment, everyone's feeling quite confident.

Did you see the show when it was in London?

Yeah, I saw it when it was in the West End, luckily, because I've only had about nine days' rehearsal. So, thankfully, I already had it in my mind's eye what it was before coming to it. And I managed to see a recording of the production that they did for National Theatre Live. And, weirdly, I presented the Olivier Award for best [revival] to A View From the Bridge, to Ivo [van Hove, the show's director] and David Lan [the artistic producer] at the Young Vic. And it wasn't until I went and met David Lan that he reminded me, and I thought, "Oh yeah, that's really serendipitous."

It was meant to be, clearly. Was there something specific that made you want to come and do the show here in America? Or was there something that drew you to the production? Obviously it's an amazing show, and everyone would probably love to be in it…

That's it. I wanted to get back to New York. I kind of felt like a slight astral projection had happened, because at the beginning of this year, I was like, "I want to be in New York by the end of the year." I just thought to myself, "I wanna get out there and do a play." And then this come up, and it just felt like, so… perfect. Because I've seen a production  it was brilliant. The part's brilliant. And to go in and do the Broadway run and be offered that was just… just so easy to say yes. And just to be back in New York is wonderful. It's a great city. And to be over here for Halloween and Christmas and Thanksgiving and New Year. It's gonna be an amazing experience. Because the last time I was here working, doing The History Boys, was through the summer.

I've read that  and I haven't seen the new production, I've read the play  but it seems like this is a very intense show…

Mmmhmm.

The reviews I have been reading have said that it is "menacing" and a "white-knuckle theatrical experience." Are those reviews pretty accurate in describing it to an audience who is coming into it cold and has never seen it before?

Totally. The way it was kind of described to me… it's like lifting a stone in a forest, and you see all these organisms writhing around underneath in their own little world. All clamoring over each other, all messy. And then you slam the stone back down. And this play, it feels like you're just lifting a lid on something, and it's not a… relaxing show to sit through. I think it completely takes your… you hear people gasping in the audience. It takes your breath away at various points. And it doesn't stop  it's straight through. It's very, very intense. And the way that it is staged, and the way that Ivo works… There's no props, there's no set. It is just this white box that the actors are kind of spat into, and you're there. As an actor, it's incredibly exposing. Incredibly open. There's nowhere to hide. There's nothing to hide behind. You are there. And all that matters is the shapes your body's making and the words you're saying. And that becomes so important. It's definitely  as a theatrical experience  it's incredibly immersive for an audience. And the fact that there's seats onstage for this is something I think is really going to be exciting.

I was going to ask: How does that work? Do you interact with the people that are on the stage with you?

No. It's tiered off. We're in, like, a boxing ring. This kind of black box that's brightly lit. So you step on, and you're in there. Like you're observing a tank at SeaWorld or something and you're just watching these people. And the seats are tiered up from the sides. You're not sitting on people's laps and touching them as you go past. If you were watching it from the stalls [seats at ground level, in front of the stage]  they are just [on] either side of the stage. Like, they are part of the staging if you're watching the show.

In the show, you get to sing a little bit.

Tiny bit, yeah.

In the show, you're singing a song that was a huge No. 1 hit…

"Paper Doll," yeah.

"Paper Doll." I should know this, but have you sang onstage before?

I've never been paid to sing. I've sung on a karaoke stage. A lot. But have I sung where someone's been giving me a wage? No. Well, actually, we sang a tiny bit in The History Boys, didn't we? We had kind of like, "Wish me luck as you wave me goodbye" songs, with a little bit of a routine. But this is… I mean, ["Paper Doll"] is only like five lines, and then my character gets cut off. But, it's a nice five lines, and it kind of comes out of nowhere. So, yeah, it's been fun.

I was hoping that we could say that this was your Broadway singing debut. But now that you've said that you sang a little bit in History Boys

Let's just say it. Put it in, put it in! His solo singing debut!

There you go! Are you trained vocally? I'm assuming you were at some point. I'm unfamiliar if you've had to sing in any sort of other circumstance aside from karaoke.

[Laughs] I [took] singing lessons from like… a kid up to 18, 19 [years old]. So, I've had… I think I can… I have a level of singing required. But, I mean, you'll have to come and see it and see what it is. I'm not going to build it up too much, because it literally is about four lines. But…

A very important four lines, though.

It's essential. The whole piece. [Laughs]

We joke about it, but in a way, the lines that [Rodolpho] happens to sing at that point makes Eddie turn. He's hearing something in those lyrics…

Yeah, and how excited Catherine [Eddie’s niece, who lives with  and is cared for by  Eddie and his wife Beatrice] is getting by this kind of energy that's come in to the house. And for Eddie, it's like, he can't… how's he going to compete with…

With this blond dude waltzing in and singing…

…Yeah. With this kind of youthful, vibrant… They say that Rodolpho  Ivo was saying  is actually the most American guy in all the play. Because he's the one that's set on the American dream, he wants to be American, he's got all of these plans. He wants to sing and dance. He wants to go to Broadway. He's completely embracing what it is to live the American dream. And for Eddie, that's kind of very disconcerting, because he's a solid, very, very proud working man. He's a laborer. That's all he knows. They might see someone [doing] a bit of singing, a bit of vaudeville every now and then. But it's not something that's part of his world at all. And suddenly, he's got this guy in the house that's wooing everybody, and being this kind of firework that is uncontrollable.

The Rodolpho character changes everything that has been calm for him…

Oh yeah, yeah…

…and what he's been used to…

…He completely turns everything upside down. Totally turns everything upside down. For Rodolpho, this is just him, that's just his energy. But for Eddie, it's a terrifying experience.

So this clearly means that a musical is in your future, right?

I'm sure.

You're gonna come back to Broadway and do a musical.

Yes, yes. [Laughs] You can quote me on that.

The last thing I want to ask you… your friend Jonathan Groff, who of course co-stars with you in Looking, is also on Broadway right now in Hamilton. And you saw him recently.

I did. [Tovey said Groff was “genius” in Hamilton, by the way, in an Instagram post.]

He's going to be taking a month off [in November] to [film] Looking. How will the filming impact your schedule with the play?

I have to go on my days off. So they've scheduled it to work around me. I have a Sunday matinee, I fly to San Francisco, I film all day Monday, and I've got the red eye back.

That's crazy.

Which is going to be crazy, but, I mean, how could I not? It's so wonderful that I've been able to do both. I read the Looking script the other day, and I cried my eyes out. It's beautiful, and it's written by Andrew Haigh and Michael Lannan. It's just wonderful but incredibly painful to be in that show and know that… that's it. Because we loved it so much.

Hopefully it won't be… I mean, I'm a fan of the show, and I'm sad to see it go… but at least there's a movie and perhaps there could be something more in the future. Who knows what could happen.

Who knows. Well, let's say never say never. But this feels  the way this is written  this feels quite finite.

 

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