Watching the HBO drama Years and Years can feel like watching the worst-case scenarios about the world coming to pass, one after the other. The series, which aired on the BBC earlier this year, follows Daniel Lyons (Russell Tovey) and his politically heterogeneous family through the results of Brexit and the current state of politics, including climate change, missile scares, and the rise of a controversial Trumpish demagogue who’s played by Emma Thompson.
“People have told me, ‘Could you have told me not to watch this just before sleeping?’” Tovey says, laughing, “I’m like, ‘Sorry, not sorry!’”
If Tovey is enjoying making people more than a little uncomfortable with Years and Years’ vision of the future, he’s also very proud of the stories it tells about what it takes for a family to stick together, and the surprising love that grows between Daniel and Viktor, a Ukrainian refugee played by Maxim Baldry. Over the phone, Tovey discussed working with Baldry, why he was so excited to be in a show written by Russell T. Davies, and how he deals with his own anxieties about the future.
Years and Years is very anxiety-inducing to watch, because the events in it feel so probable in many ways. Was it anxiety-inducing to film?
It’s terrifying. The fact that what Russell was writing was semi coming true while we were in production, it was weird. He’s a bit of a prophet Nostradamus, rather than a writer. As anxiety-inducing as it is, it’s incredibly compelling. People have to watch it, even though it’s really causing people a lot of stress before they go to bed.
Within all the conflict, you have believable relationships between all the people in the central family. How did you build that as a cast?
It’s been the most joyous job, and it’s been the most joyous cast. To explore all of what it is to be a family in the current climate … in my country, parents are voting to leave, the kids are voting to remain when it comes to Brexit. There’s absolute polar opposite political views within families, within the nucleus of your nearest and dearest, which is fascinating as a drama.
It’s also interesting seeing a character like Daniel, who is gay, at the center of this. It’s not, at least from what I’ve seen, a story about him being gay, or about him being persecuted for being gay, or in a complicated relationship with his family, as a lot of these stories are.
Yeah, the main focal point is the love story. The fact that Daniel is gay is just not a thing within the family context. It is what it is. The love story between him and Victor is the focal, central heart and soul, the beating muscle, that keeps this show going. One of the main things that people are connecting with is this love story.
Tell me about working with Maxim Baldry, who plays Viktor. You have to convince the audience there’s really a spark between them to go along with Daniel’s decision to ditch his husband for him.
As a person, as an actor, I absolutely adore him. He is so cool. We started shooting it, and he’s 22, and I was like, “Are you fucking serious?” He is so sorted. His head’s so clear, and I was terrified about who they were going to cast, because I thought, This is big stuff I’ve got to share with someone. Besides the sex scenes, I was thinking, Please be instinctive, please don’t mind intimacy. We can touch and kiss and everything without feeling like I’m like doing a #MeToo–movement moment. It has to feel like we can naturally just go there together. He can. He’s become a dear, dear friend of mine. And he’s a superstar! Like, my mum fancies him.
It’s also rare for a sexual gay relationship to be so loving. In movies like Call Me by Your Name or even Rocketman, there’s a little bit of thrusting, and then they cut to the window to be all romantic. But here, the sex is a key part of their connection.
It’s intimacy! That’s what it shows. You’re not just seeing, like, a hookup, and then they’re together. You’re seeing an intimate couple just existing. I think that’s so beautiful.
Russell T. Davies has written everything from Queer As Folk to Doctor Who. How familiar were you with him going into this?
I did a documentary with him years ago. I’ve been the biggest fan of his writing since Bob & Rose, a show I used to watch with my mum. When you get the call saying Russell T. Davies has got a new script and he wants you to read it, you’re like, “Fuck yes! There’s no way I’m not gonna want to read this.” This is the easiest yes I’ve ever said.
How do you yourself deal with the sort of anxieties the show depicts about politics and the future?
Surrounding myself with love, texting family, telling my dog I love him and that he’s the best thing that’s ever happened to me. That’s love, isn’t it? That’s the only way. When you think, “Fucking hell, the world,” you still get up, you still get out, you still go to work, you still watch TV, you still have a laugh, you still get drunk, you still make love. You have to. Terrible things happen, but as humans, we power forward.