THE FACE presents, as a partner to new Sky original I Hate Suzie, a podcast series. My Public Me – A User’s Guide is a four-episode discussion of the issues raised in the Sky show.
In part four, host Chanté Joseph is joined by Russell Tovey. The actor broke through as part of the cast of Alan Bennett’s stage-to-screen phenom The History Boys – the ensemble that also gave us James Corden and Dominic Cooper. He then broadened his range and his appeal with starring roles in BBC Three’s cult sitcom Him and Her, HBO’s San Francisco-set Looking, FBI thriller series Quantico and, last year, Russell T. Davies’ groundbreaking, sign-of-the-future-times drama Years and Years.
This final episode of our audio series includes a wide-ranging exploration on the topic of masculinity, toxic and otherwise, with the jumping off point being the conflicted personality, conflicting roles and confused outlook of Suzie Pickles’ husband, Cob. A college lecturer, he’s a former actor – and by “former”, the inference is that that means “failed”, which is perhaps one reason why he presents as being resentful of Suzie’s success.
As Chanté observes, while Cob certainly isn’t a stay-at-home dad, he’s far from the main breadwinner. That contributes to all sorts of insecurities and inferiorities about his position in the household and in his marriage, which means he “projects all of his anxieties onto Suzie”.
Or, as Russell points out, Cob “feels emasculated the whole time”. For the Essex-born actor, who’s been out as a gay man his entire adult professional career, ideas of what “being a man” means were confusing to him almost as far back as he can remember.
“I think I didn’t want to be gay when I was a kid,” the 38-year-old admits to Chanté. “I think it scared me. I think it felt like we were of a generation where it wasn’t spoken about, and I think it felt wrong to me. I definitely had internal homophobia and I definitely felt like I couldn’t really talk about it or be open about it.”
In I Hate Suzie, the exploration of challenges to self-identity – and, with it, self-worth – are baked into the DNA of Billie Piper and Lucy Prebble’s co-creation. In her career, Billie’s Suzie has been many things: TV talent show star, teenage pop sensation, sci-fi soap-opera star, would-be credible actress. But which, if any, is really her? Equally, how do the public see her? Teenage reality show survivor or adult actress? Loving wife and mother, social media victim, unfaithful car-crash?
At the same time, too, how do such Venn diagrams of a life impact on Cob? He’s a man who likes routine, who craves normality – but, at the same time, enjoys the benefits his wife’s success brings, notably the very lovely cottage in the countryside, not to mention the removal of the pressure to be anything like the breadwinner.
How’s all that for a man in the shadow of a famous, successful woman?
For Russell, it was important to simplify his public vs private spheres early on.
“I made a decision when I was 18… My life is as important as my work, and my life feeds into my work. If I don’t live a real life in an authentic, genuine life, I’m not gonna be able to act the way I want to. And I don’t want to then have the performance in my real life of performing that I’m the straight person performing that I’m not gay.”
When there are, as he puts it, “too many performances”, only trouble can lie ahead.
Equally, having been, like Suzie, in showbiz since childhood – Russell first appeared in a TV show when he was 11 – he understands the history and connections early fame can bring, for good and for bad.
“Leila Farzad, who [plays Suzie’s] best friend from childhood and is her PA, they’re brilliant together. They have that conflict together that you [know]. You love their friendship, but I’m troubled by their friendship. I’m troubled because it’s a professional friendship as well, which has kind of contaminated their morals, which is really interesting. I love the fact that the show is female-run and –led,” he adds. “And the male roles in there are really problematic. They’re challenging.”
In his other passions, too, Russell has learned about new models of masculinity. A keen collector of modern art and champion of modern artists, he understands better than most that “the consensus of the art world has always been white men painting white people. And people are now bored of that. It has this place in history… but it’s changing.”
Ultimately, too, Russell can relate to the dynamics inherent in Suzie’s relationship with her working class past – a past that rears up in episode six, titled Guilt, when she returns home for her sister’s wedding.
“I’m very proud of my Essex roots. It’s something that I’ve never shied away from. I’ve never tried to change my accent. I’ve always been working class, and I feel like I’m a positive role model for that.
“I’m sure my friends back home might feel like I’m a loftier person because of the projections onto me,” Russell continues. “But the reality is I feel like I’ve still got friends from when I was a kid. I’ve still got mates who I hang around with who I’ve known for years and years and years. And I’ve nourished and cultivated and supported and fed those friendships because they are vital to me. They are a lifeline. They’re my family I’ve made for myself. That’s important.”
Suzie, for sure, can relate – or, rather, she wishes she could. With her marriage collapsing, she struggles to find a lifeline anywhere, whether with her family back home or with any friends she’s made in showbiz along the way. Can she, then, save herself, by her own wits and smarts? What can we infer from the title of the eighth and final episode, Acceptance?
And how, too, does the idea of acceptance relate to Cob? Early in the series we see him exploding with rage at the very public discovery of his wife’s unfaithfulness, promising to “make your life a living hell”. Can her husband ever accept what Suzie has done, what has happened to her – and what has happened to him over the course of his marriage to a famous woman with private life that is now anything but?
I Hate Suzie keeps us guessing all the way to the end. But there’s thought-provoking entertainment to be had along the way, not least in this podcast – the fourth and final episode in a series featuring Billie Piper, Lucy Prebble, Yrsa Daley-Ward and Miquita Oliver and, last but not least, Russell Tovey. And they’re all available here or over on our Spotify here.