From creator/writer/executive producer Russell T. Davies, the six-part limited drama series Years and Years (airing on HBO) follows the lives and experiences of the members of Lyons family, over the course of 15 years. Beginning on one night in 2019, society, technology and politics continue to change around them, as the love they have for each other helps them face all of the hopes and fears that come with an unknowable future. The series stars Rory Kinnear, T’Nia Miller, Russell Tovey, Jessica Hynes, Ruth Madeley, Anne Reid and Emma Thompson.
During this 1-on-1 phone interview with Collider, actor Russell Tovey, who plays Daniel Lyons, talked about what drew him to Years and Years, being a part of such a special project, what Emma Thompson added to the series, what he found most challenging about this role, learning about the heartbreak that takes place in Episode 4, what makes show creator Russell T. Davies the real deal, and how terrifying he found the technology in this world. He also talked about working with Helen Mirren and Ian McKellen on The Good Liar, out in theaters later this year, and his love of theater and return to Broadway.
*Be aware that MAJOR spoilers are discussed.*
Collider: I’m quite a big fan of Russell T. Davies, his shows and his work, and it sounds like you are, as well. What do you find yourself most drawn to in his work, and why did you want to work with him on this show, in particular?
RUSSELL TOVEY: His knack for dialogue, his knack for character, and his knack for emotion and humor. He said, when we were doing these scripts, “If you can find a funny, make it funny. I love a funny.” And the fact is, when you get the funny, it flips, and then suddenly, you’re in the tragedy within two lines. That’s the beauty of his writing. As soon as I read this character, I was like, “I know who this person is. I need to play this person. I know exactly what I want to do with him. Thank you, Russell.” It’s an easy yes. He’s the most gifted writer we’ve got, and the way he structures the story, and the way that everybody matters and everybody’s got something to say, you don’t ever feel like a character, even if they’ve got only one or two lines, as an insignificant filler. Everybody is important, and everybody’s story is right.
People have called this show, “one of the most amazing and important TV shows ever created.” Did you know that it would be received that way, when you read it and shot it? Was there a moment on set, where you felt like this would really connect that deeply with people?
TOVEY: You take work because you believe in it and because you think it’s something very special. I knew this was something very special. As well as feeling that, it was one of the most joyous jobs that I’ve ever worked on, in my career. I’ve had a few, and this was one of them, that’s just been just beautiful, from start to finish. All of the cast absolutely adored each other. We just thrived and soared with it. So then, the fact that it comes out and people are responding the way they have, there’s nothing better than that feeling, as an actor, of doing something that you absolutely love, and everyone else who’s watching it is going, “Yes, I love this too.” That’s the best feeling, ever. Did I know when I was making it, that it was going to be successful? You never know, and I didn’t know. I’ve done so many things where I was like, “Well, strap yourselves in, this is going to go big time,” and then, no one even watches it. You have no concept of how something is going to be translated, from page to acting to the final piece. It was exciting that HBO came in as a co-producer, within about three weeks of shooting, because they started seeing bits and they wanted to be involved. That makes you go, “Well, that’s a pretty good endorsement.” To have Emma Thompson want to come back and do TV, to play Vivienne Rook, is an incredible endorsement. A superstar like Emma Thompson was like, “I believe in this project, and I want to play this part.” What an incredible coup for us. Then the cast what kept coming in – Rory Kinnear, Anne Reid, Ruth Madeley, Jessica Hynes and T’Nia Miller – when you start hearing the names of the roll call of these people, you instantly up your game. And we all wanted it. Every single actor on the job wanted this to be the best that it could be. When they said, “Action!,” we were all there with each other. Because they cast a whole cast of instinctive actors – people who want to instinctively feel what everyone else is doing around them, and gel and blend – there’s a believability that we’re all related to each other, that we’ve all been in each other’s lives, all of our lives, and that we all were there because we love each other, and we genuinely love each other, in real life. All the way through, I was like, “This feels really good.” But, who knows? You get that feeling from many things. I’ll be like, “This is brilliant,” but then, no one gives a fuck.
It seems like the only disappointment with this project would be that you have to work adjacent to Emma Thompson, instead of acting directly with her.
TOVEY: I know, I know. But I’ve worked with Emma before and I adore her, so I didn’t feel like I was missing out on too much because I’ve had a connection with her in the past. But yeah, it felt like she was this spectre looming over us. The thing is, I think it was a testament to the show and to everyone involved that it didn’t feel like, “There’s Emma Thompson, and there’s the rest of the show. There’s Emma Thompson’s performance, and then everyone else’s performance.” It was so fluid and so connected, and since she was so real and the way she played Vivienne Rook was so accessible, it just felt like the same world. There’s always a fear that, if you put a superstar into a TV show, it can knock you out of it, but it didn’t. You forget it’s Emma Thompson. That’s how brilliant she is. She’s lost in that role, and you believe that’s Vivienne Rook. You forget that’s Emma Thompson doing it, and you believe that we’re all a part of the same world.
It sounds like this is a story and character that you connected with pretty instantly, but a lot of actors talk about wanting to play roles that challenge or scare them. Were there things that you saw in this character that you felt would be challenging, or that scared you about playing him?
TOVEY: I felt connected to him, but there were things about the script that I had no idea how it was going to work, what he was referencing, or how it was going to be shot. Normally, you might be like, “Okay, I don’t know who we’re working with here and what this is going to turn out like,” but because of the team that they built, with Simon Cellan Jones directing, Karen Lewis and Nicola Shindler producing, and Russell writing, you were like, “Well, you can’t have them and not have this come out in an incredible way.” There was just trust that it was going to be brilliant. My challenge for Daniel was the fact that he’s the moral compass. He’s the heart and soul. He’s the guy who is witnessing the human plight of these refugees and asylum seekers. He’s seeing these people, and he’s out there in the world, but yet, at the moment of absolute crisis, at the end of Episode 1, he just leaves his husband and goes off to sleep with a person that he’s only known for a few weeks. It’s very unprofessional, and against everything he’s ever stood for in his life, and my challenge was making sure that I wanted to care about Daniel enough to forgive him for doing that. Some people were very angry at me and said, “How could you have left your husband?” It’s like, “Yes, this Victor is very cute, but fuck you, for cheating on your husband at the end of the world and leaving your family behind.” I knew that, but I wanted them to care. Weirdly, you want him to leave his husband to be with Victor. That’s good writing, when you’re like, “I want these people to break up because he’s meant to be with that person.” So, I had to make sure that people cared enough about Daniel and Victor, as a couple.
Episode 4 was heartbreaking. Were you given all of the scripts to read, at once? Did you know, prior to shooting, what the journey would be?
TOVEY: When we were doing the deal, they said, “Russell T. Davies wants to speak to you before we do the deal.” And I was like, “Shit, okay.” And then, Russell gets on the phone and he’s like, “Hello, darling! So, in Episode 4, you go to get Victor back, you’re really arrogant and you’re going to bring him back home. You end up on one of these refugee boats, there’s a big storm, the boats turned over, and Victor’s dead on the beach.” And I was like “Oh, shit, that’s sad. Okay, wow.” In my head, I was thinking, “Well, I’ll do a eulogy at the funeral, and I’ll probably get into an argument with my family members about my love for him, and I’ll probably have a breakdown. This is all really good for me, as an actor. Great!” Then, he goes, “I’m fed up with seeing refugees dead on the beach, so you go to get Victor back, you get back in the boat, there’s a storm, the boat flips over, and Daniel’s dead on the beach. What do you think?” I went, “To be honest, if I wasn’t in it, I’d think it was the most amazing choice you’ve ever made. The fact that I’m in it, I think it’s a terrible decision, and you need to rewrite it.” He said, “I’m not re-writing it. It’s the best thing I’ve ever written. It is what it is. How do you feel about that?” And I was like, “Is this series going again, Russell?” He said, “Nope, it’s a mini series.” I went, “Fine, fucking kill me.” And he was like, “Done.” And then, we did a four-episode deal.
Looking back on it, it sounds like a funny circumstance, but at the same time, you’re negotiating yourself out of the series that you really want to be on.
TOVEY: Yeah, I know. And when I left, they sent me Episode 5, and I said, “Can I come in and read the stage directions?” And they went, “No, Russell always reads the stage directions, but you can come in read all of the other little parts around it.” And I was like, “Nah, I’m okay.” It was really weird being there, and all of the other actors, who I love and adore, were going off to do a read through of a show that I’m in, but I’m not in any longer. And then, I said, “Can I read Episode 6?” And they were like “Yeah, we’ll send you Episode 6,” but they never sent it to me. It was very, very strange. I think it was an admin mistake, or that’s what I say to myself. It was very, very strange to do that, and then know that all of my friends were still there, having a really lovely time.
Now that you’ve worked with Russell T. Davies, why do think it is that actors are so willing to put their trust in him and go on the journey with him, wherever it is that he ends up taking them?
TOVEY: Because he’s the real deal. Since what you read on the page is so magical and special and unique, and these characters are so nuanced and genuine, and as an actor who cares about acting and telling a story and portraying a character, when you get that offered to you, there’s just no way on earth that you just can’t do that. There’s no way, when that’s in front of you, that you’d say, “Yeah, I’m not sure.” You’re just like, “Yes!” It’s because there’s just so much beating heart, through every project he does, and love because he cares. He loves life aggressively, and that just feeds through all of the scripts that he ever writes. It would be so hard to turn him down.