The Sister: Interview With Russell Tovey

Earlier this year we spoke to Russell Tovey about his latest dark thriller series, The Sister…

Following the story of Nathan (Russell Tovey), The Sister (originally called Burial… then renamed Before The Night) is a tense four-part series that has a tinge of the supernatural.

Ten years into his married life with Holly, Nathan is unnerved when Bob (Bertie Carvel) – an unwelcome face from the past – turns up at his door with some shocking news. Harbouring a terrible secret and trying to escape his past, Nathan is rocked to the core at the visit, which triggers a series of catastrophic decisions…

Directed by Niall MacCormick and adapted by Luther’s Neil Cross, The Sister is a psychological thriller with a dark twist. We spoke to Russell Tovey who plays Nathan about his character, genre projects and choosing a role that his mum will like…

What can you tell us about The Sister and your character of Nathan?

The Sister is a four-part thriller written by Neil Cross of Luther fame. It’s the story of a guy called Nathan who makes a choice and a mistake ten years previous to when the show starts. He’s compartmentalised it and he’s survived it and he’s continuing to survive and keep it buried. Then something happens from his past and you are seeing the unravelling of a good man who’s made a bad decision…

What drew you to this show and this character?

This character, the writing, the fact that, as an actor, it’s going to be one of the most emotional, traumatic roles I’ve ever taken on, and that felt amazing. My first lead role in a drama, out-and-out lead, number one, and I felt completely ready to do that. To work on Neil Cross’ writing, in this genre, with this script, it felt perfect.

Neil Cross has a background that covers thriller, horror, sci-fi – how does his background come together to feed into this show?

[It’s a] psychological thriller – this is a guy who’s keeping a secret, so [it shows] what that does to people when they’re hiding stuff, when they’re having anxiety and panic attacks from trying to contain it all. Then you also have the paranormal effects of the fear. The fear is of the unknown, of being haunted, of something out there that you desperately don’t want to believe in but all you are doing is believing in it. He’s manifesting this energy around him, and all he’s trying to do is shake it off, but the further he’s in the more he’s manifesting. It’s terrifying.

So it uses these more supernatural elements to tie into themes of repressed secrets?

I think adds to his anxiety. It’s the anxiety of what he’s done, and then the punishment he’s going to get feels worse than just going to prison on a human level. It feels like there is something else out there that is desperate to fuck him up.

You’ve said before that you’re keen to play characters that have these traumatic backgrounds…

A bit of darkness in them, but yet they’re human, and they’re flawed as we all are, but there is love in them. There’s deep, deep love in Nathan, and a deep, deep desire to be loved, and to be forgiven, and for his secret to come out and for him to be punished, but to still be love.

Every time I play a character I want my mum to like them, and I want my mum to want to give them a cuddle. With Nathan, I think she would turn up at the prison and give him a cuddle and be like ‘you made a mistake, but let me give you a cuddle because I feel sorry for you’. I want to give him that sort of energy. People are going to be conflicted with this guy. I think they’re really going to like him and care about him, and I think their heart is going to break for the situation because he shouldn’t be in it. I think people are going to be really conflicted. That was my job with being offered this role – I had to give love to this character.

It seems like Nathan is intentionally contrasted against Bob – what can you say about the relationship between those characters?

First of all Bertie Carvel is a genius and I love him. We both work in different ways, and our energies really do work. He’s so quirky and so mercurial. You don’t really know what’s going on with him. Basically, he’s a ghost hunter. He’s someone who wants to believe in the afterlife, he wants to believe in the paranormal, and when it starts coming true he [is the person] who’s conjured it. He’s manifested it, and now he’s scared of it because he’s got it.

It’s about these two guys: one that’s never wanted it and has got it, and one that’s brought it on him and then doesn’t want it. It’s like they’re both conflicted, but they’re joined by this event that they can’t escape. Nathan hates [Bob] –  this guy has come into his life and he’s altered it forever.

Bob (Bertie Carvel) comes into Nathan’s life and changes it forever…

You follow that relationship at key points over ten years?

From the start. The first scene you’re like, bang, straight in. Who the hell is this person? What the hell has happened?!

What were the challenges in portraying a character over such a long period of time?

I guess the challenges were definitely for the make-up and costume department because you’re playing three different ages. But it’s about giving energy to it. We see him at a stage when life is good, nothing’s happened. He’s hopeful, he’s ambitious and he’s cheeky and kind of cool. The future looks really exciting. Then something happens and it’s suddenly taken away from him. The future that he was meant to get [is] never fulfilled. He takes a different course.

Did it help you engage with the character, being able to play him as he was before this trauma?

Yeah of course. I really wanted to – you’ll see when you watch it – I wanted him to be joyful at that stage, and I want people’s hearts to break because they’re like ‘look at how fun he was and look how much life he had, how upbeat he was, how kind and kooky’. That’s a cool guy. He would be someone you’d want to hang out with.

Then to see [this thing] happen, I want people to be like ‘fuck that guy’. And that can happen to anyone. I try to pitch it as someone having a really lovely life and then they have one too many drinks one night and they run someone over. Or even if they don’t have the drinks, they knock someone ever and they die. What effect that would have on your life even though you’re a really good person. An accident that happens, how that can then just shatter you. You hear it all the time, how one event can shatter you and it shouldn’t have happened but it has. I wanted to find the sadness in that.

And then you add these creepier elements that turn that up to 11…!

But you can’t play that as an actor. You have to play the truth of every scene. You can’t play ‘I’m in a thriller!’. What’s beautiful about [The Sister] is they allowed silence to be very loud. They allowed silence to have its moment. As an actor, it’s instinctive, I love a pause. I love a beat. I love that in a script when there’s an ellipsis. Give me that. Give me time to fill the next instinctive moment. This was full of those so I was like ‘sign me up!’. As long as it’s contractually obliged that you play all ellipses, pauses and beats, I’m in!

You can say a lot more with silence…

With nothing! Yeah. It’s all about that. That’s what TV’s about, it’s all about what you’re not saying, and your reactions to what the other person is saying. Whereas theatre is about what you’re saying. I love that, the fact that you’ve got both of those things with theatre and TV and film, the reaction shot is more than what’s being said.

There is a sadness to Nathan’s story…

Are there any elements that you’d describe as horror in the show?

Well I guess if you’re talking about ghosts and the afterlife and paranormal activity, that is horrific, to some people that’s terrifying. More terrifying than reality. So horror plays into it. I think it’s going to appeal to science fiction fans. I think it’s going to appeal to horror fans, thriller fans, crime fiction fans and people who just like a drama about emotional connections and love and family and honesty.

Would you say that shows like Game Of Thrones has moved ‘genre’ more towards the mainstream?

I’d put that all the way back to David Tennant’s Doctor Who. That made being a geek acceptable. People could come out and be like ‘I watch Doctor Who’ and people would be like ‘cool, so do I’. Whereas before it would be like ‘I watch Doctor Who’, people would be like [snorts] ‘what? Don’t admit that! Don’t talk about that!’ Now you’re allowed to be a geek. You can come out and show’s like that have then made that genre, sci-fi, the mainstream. We can talk about that show in those channels, but the reality is this is a mainstream show about a guy’s unravelling.

In the present day elements of the show, Nathan is married to Holly – what can you say about that relationship?

They completely love each other. She is everything to him. She is the most important person in his life. They’re desperate to have kids [but] they can’t have kids. In his mind, it’s because he’s a bad person because of what he’s done. He feels like that energy is going through him into his sperm and it’s not working. They go to the doctors and they say there’s nothing wrong here, and for him that plays into his psychological anxiety.

Amrita Acharia [who plays Holly] is heaven, we had such a nice time doing this. She’s an actor that has the same energy as me and we both would lock into this mood, which is important, and this rhythm. There’s a definite rhythm between us that really feels like we’re both existing in the same world. For her, she doesn’t know what’s happened or anything. For her she’s playing her own anxieties like ‘does this guy still love me? Or does he want kids?’ Her anxiety is ‘maybe it is me that can’t have children…’ We’re both playing our inner monologue. Fundamentally [this is] a total love story. You want them to be together forever.

Holly (Amrita Acharia) is the most important person in Nathan’s life but she has anxieties too.

How do you pick a project?

I can normally tell within ten pages of reading something if I want to do it or not. It’s normally the dialogue of the character. I’m like ‘okay, I want to say that, I want to say those words. Okay, I know who this person is, I know what I’m going to do with this’.

I did another show called Flesh And Blood  [and] Stephen Rea said he can usually tell within one page of reading something. I was furious about that! It takes me about ten pages! But I know when something’s right for me, and that’s an instinct from doing it for so long. Sometimes you get pushed into things and people want you to do something and you sometimes – I did in the past – go ‘alright, I’ll do it’, or something else persuades you to do it. But the reality is now I just want to do the ones that I know I can do justice, and I know I can give everything to that.

And whether you think your mum would want to hug them…?

I think ‘my mum would like this guy’. Or ‘my mum won’t like this guy’. Or ‘am I going to die in this one?’ Every time I die in something I have to warn my mum. In Years And Years I was like: ‘Mum, I’m going to die in this one’ she was like: ‘Not again!’ When it finished she rang me up and was like (between sobs): ‘You’ve… got… to stop… dying… in everything… I hate it… I don’t like it… it was brilliant you were brilliant but please stop dying!’ I was like: ‘Alright mum, it’s fine, I’m here’. She’s like: ‘I can’t keep seeing you like hanging or overdosing or getting run over or drowning’, She’s seen her son die in every worst possible anxiety of a mother! She’s seen it all played out.

What do you hope that viewers will get out of The Sister?

They’re going to be thoroughly entertained and want to know what the hell happened and why someone would have got involved in something like that. I think they’re going to want to work out psychologically why this has happened. I think people are going to be really frustrated, like ‘just tell us what happened and why. How am I going to get out of this?!’

Is it one of those things where every episode ends on a cliffhanger?

Yeah of course. I think people are going to really be annoyingly compelled to stick with this and I think they’re going to fall in love with Nathan. I hope, touch wood, maybe that’s being big-headed, but I hope that they really fall in love with him and just want to stick with him.

The Sister currently available on-demand on ITV Hub.