Russell Tovey attends FX's "Feud: Capote VS. The Swans" New York Premiere at Museum of Modern Art on January 23, 2024 in New York City. (Photo by Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images)

Even as Truman Capote's Abusive BF (on 'Feud'), Russell Tovey Loves Telling Queer Stories

Frank J. Avella READ TIME: 11 MIN.

Russell Tovey is one of those sly, ubiquitous actors who weaves his way from stage to screen to streamer to broadcast, portraying heroes, villains and everyday blokes of all sexual orientations. His amazing ability to immerse himself into a role can be taken for granted – take his latest project, "FEUD: Capote Vs. The Swans" currently airing on FX and streaming on Hulu.

The latest "Feud" installment in the Ryan Murphy anthology franchise focuses on the notorious author of "Breakfast at Tiffany's" and "In Cold Blood" and his topsy-turvy friendship with NYC high society socialites he termed, "The Swans," played by Naomi Watts, Diane Lane, Chloë Sevigny and Calista Flockhart. The entire series is written by Jon Robin Baitz, adapted from the Laurence Leamer book, "Capote's Women."

Tovey plays John O'Shea, a Long Island banker with a wife and four kids who became Truman Capote's real-life boyfriend of sorts. O'Shea was a disturbed, self-described "sexual sociopath," who Capote met in a sauna. Their turbulent relationship was often marked by Capote's mental abuse and O'Shea's physical abuse. O'Shea was an aspiring writer and alcoholic who left his family to manage Capote's career – when he wasn't beating him up.

Russell Tovey on "Feud: Capote vs. The Swans"
Source: FX

Yet, despite the character's hurtful and feral behavior, Tovey manages to find sparks of humanity so we understand the attraction, even if we want to run screaming from it.

Born in Britain, Tovey started his career as a child actor, mostly onstage. His breakout role was Rudge in the West End, Broadway and eventual film version of Alan Bennett's "The History Boys." Onstage he's appeared in productions of, "The Laramie Project" and "Angels in America (opposite Andrew Garfield) in London as well as "A View from the Bridge" and "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" on Broadway. The latter closed a few weeks into previews because of COVID-19.

His TV credits include, "Being Human," "Little Dorrit" and "Him and Her" on the BBC as well as Andrew Haigh's "Looking," "Quantico," "Years and Years," and "American Horror Story: NYC," on U.S. TV.

The out thesp's films include, "Pride," "The Lady in the Van," "The Pass" and "The Hippopotamus" – all queer themed – as well as "The Good Liar," "Allelujah" and "Love Again."

In addition to acting, Tovey is a writer and loves collecting contemporary art. He co-hosts a podcast called "Talk Art," with gallerist Robert Diament.

EDGE recently spoke with Tovey about "Feud," his career, and the importance of telling queer stories.

Russell Tovey attends a photocall at the Art of London's Summer Season 2023: "The Art of Entertainment" Launch on July 27, 2023 in London, England. (Photo by Kate Green/Getty Images)

EDGE: John O'Shea, not the most pleasant fellow. Can you tell me about slipping into his abusive skin?

Russell Tovey: Yeah. I think as actors we all want to play the darkness in people. I find him to be a narcissist... He admits that he's a sex addict, right when they first meet him at the bathhouse he says he's gone from room to room, fucked nine people, came every time then went home and fucked his wife. He's someone that's got a problem. But he's proud of it... He's latched on to Truman because he sees him as a conduit to the world that he thinks he deserves, the attention he thinks he deserves. Truman is talented, funny and social and presumably has money. And all these things are catnip to someone like John because his mundane life in Long Island, But it's not enough. Nothing's ever gonna be enough for him. I don't like John O'Shea... But as an actor, you want to find the reasons why he behaves in such a way. I love playing him, but I hate him as a person. He's fucking horrible. But that's what we do is inhabit these monsters, these dark people, but find the empathy, find the reasoning for their toxic behavior. And that's really fascinating as an actor.

EDGE: And not everybody's all one thing or another. In the sauna scene, he just puts it out saying, 'I'm not a fag. I'm not straight. I just love to come.' You almost like him a little. And the two of them are just so cruel to one another. Truman is hurtful with his words, and John with his fist. I wonder is there one that's worse than another?

Russell Tovey: I mean, violence is horrific. The thing is Truman believes he's more intelligent and he winds John up and drives him insane. The way Truman talks to him, belittles him or pop psychoanalyzes him. It drives John crazy, because he's not smart. He's not articulate. He's not cultured in the way that Truman is. These women mean nothing to him. He sees them as objects for him to elevate himself... But I think he's incredibly charming. He knows his sex appeal. He knows the hold he has over Truman. And he absolutely abuses that. He's an incredibly unhappy, charming bastard... And he's landed in the situation with Truman (where) he's struck gold. And he says, "I'm not a fag. I'm not straight. I just love to come," because he's got so much internalized homophobia. I play John as being someone that would never ever analyze (himself.) He goes to see this psychiatrist who says that he's a sexual sociopath. And he wears that with pride. The reality is he probably sits there with the psychiatrist and lies. He's a very damaged individual. Truman's damaged, but in a different way. He's highly sensitive and feels like he deserves to be treated like shit. John plays into that. And there's definitely an element of sadomasochism in that relationship because Truman keeps going back to him and pushing him, knowing it's going to make him violent. But he keeps goading him.

Russell Tovey and Maxim Baldry in "Years and Years"

EDGE: You're no stranger to playing character with internalized homophobia. Joe (on stage) in "Angels in America" comes to mind.

Russell Tovey: Yeah. But Joe wasn't a narcissist. Joe was someone that was damaged by organized religion, damaged by his mother, by his geography – someone who epitomized most gay people of a certain period in history who felt they had to perform and be something they weren't. They were told that it was shameful. He truly believed it was a sin, an abomination. Joe was incredibly sensitive – the biggest heart – just wanting to be loved. But again, someone who could never bear the thought of even looking truthfully at himself. Joe Pitt was such a fascinating character to play as someone who is so proud of who I am, and very vocal about who I am... It's such a weird privilege to be able to play these roles from the position where I now feel so lucky and happy to be gay.

EDGE: I love that. Were you familiar with Capote and the Swans at all? And did you do any research?

Russell Tovey: So, Truman Capote, yes. "Breakfast at Tiffany's." For me, he's always signified like our Quentin Crisp. He (Capote) represented this outsider, Zeitgeist-y, oddball within society. I've seen loads of interviews and obviously he's been epitomized in movies, Toby Jones, Philip Seymour Hoffman... But when it came to the Swans, being a Brit, they are from the outside, the American Royal Family, anything about the Kennedys, Jackie Onassis – I learned about Jackie Onassis through Andy Warhol – through the Blue Jackies and, obviously, "JFK" and the shooting. These were historical moments, but the Swans were not on my radar. So, reading the scripts, reading the books, watching documentaries, the obsession became real. They are so fascinating. That slogan, 'the original housewives,' that's what they were...We want to know everything about them.

"Capote" was such a happy production, such a happy gang... Tom Hollander is heaven. The lunch we had the other day in New York, the feeling in the room was full of love and respect. And all the Swans are out doing all the press junkets together like a girl band. They're like the Spice Girls out on tour and that is so rare...

I'm an art nerd. I've got a podcast. And when I go to New York I'm always in and out the Whitney, the Jewish Museum, MOMA, the Guggenheim... and there's a Picasso 'Boy and Horse' in MoMA collection. It was bequeathed by Bill Paley (played by the late Treat Williams in "Feud"). It was part of their collection...I've stood in front of that painting many times in MoMA, looking at it, taking pictures, considering it – what it means about art history.

Then I watch the show and I'm like, "Oh, my God, that was theirs!" These little nuances blow my mind. That's why Ryan Murphy is a genius because he understands all these nuances. He understands the power of history as entertainment. That through entertainment, we're being educated about these historical people. That's why I love working with him and his shows. Everything is always rooted in a reality, even when it's a fantasy like, "American Horror Story." They're all rooted in true stories.

by Frank J. Avella

Frank J. Avella is a proud EDGE and Awards Daily contributor. He serves as the GALECA Industry Liaison and is a Member of the New York Film Critics Online. His award-winning short film, FIG JAM, has shown in Festivals worldwide ( Frank's screenplays have won numerous awards in 17 countries. Recently produced plays include LURED & VATICAL FALLS, both O'Neill semifinalists. He is currently working on a highly personal project, FROCI, about the queer Italian/Italian-American experience. He is a proud member of the Dramatists Guild.

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