Feud: Capote vs. the Swans is the latest must-see show from prolific producer Ryan Murphy. It transports us into the real-life feud between acclaimed writer Truman Capote and a group of powerful socialites in 1970s New York City. 6 out of 8 episodes were directed by legendary director Gus Van Sant, the independent force behind Drugstore Cowboy, My Own Private Idaho, Good Will Hunting and Elephant.

The cast is to die for with Tom Hollander as the literary icon Truman Capote, and as The Swans, some of the best actresses around: Naomi Watts, Diane Lane, Chloë Sevigny, Calista Flockhart, Demi Moore, and Molly Ringwald. In the middle of the feud, the real-life John O’Shea, who hatches the insane idea to Capote to use the Swans dirty laundry to advance his career, played by celebrated British actor Russell Tovey.

Tovey has led a fascinating career guided by his love of the arts, an actor since his childhood. He has starred in several acclaimed plays, including the original run of The History Boys, A Miracle, and Angels in America. Tovey’s film and TV credits includes The Good Liar, Being Human, Looking, and another Ryan Murphy project, American Horror Story: NYC.

The performer also does a lot of voice work, including a notable version of Oscar Wilde’s A Picture of Dorian Gray and Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity. His insatiable passion for art is possibly best distilled in his long-running podcast Talk Art with gallerist, Robert Diament, where they chat with artists, curators, and enthusiasts. On top of all that work, he also produced a documentary about the life of artist David Robilliard called Life Is Excellent.

Tovey recently spoke to Immersive over Zoom.

[Note: The conversation has been edited for clarity and length]

How did you get involved with Feud?

I was working on American Horror Story: NYC and I went out to dinner with Ryan Murphy and he said, “You should be playing John O’Shea in Feud,” and I was like,”Should I?” It’s the sort of thing where Ryan Murphy offers you something and you just say yes, and I wanted to work with Joe Mantello again. This is the third time I worked with Joe because he directed me in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf, which we did on Broadway, and then got shut down because of COVID. Then we played lovers in American Horror Story: NYC, and then we played enemies in Feud.

FX’s FEUD: Capote Vs. The Swans — “Hats, Gloves and Effete Homosexuals” — Episode 6 (Airs Wednesday, February 28 at 10 p.m. ET/PT) Pictured: (l-r) Tom Hollander as Truman Capote, Joe Mantello as Jack Dunphy. CR: FX

Tell me a little bit about your approach to John O’Shea. Did you research the real person?

All I found is what’s written about him and what’s in the script, what’s been in the diaries there. I didn’t find any moving images of him, but I found still images. And from those images, I sort of just stared at them trying to get an idea of who he was.

The dialogue is always so good. Sometimes the scripts are good enough for you not to even do research, but because these are all real people, you do feel a responsibility. You have a responsibility as an actor to do your work and do your background checks, as it were.

What sort of mental preparation did you do for this part?

I channeled some people I’ve met over the years who are narcissists or sex addicts or just charming bastards, which I think John O’Shea is, so a pleasure to play a horrible person, but very intoxicating and exactly appealing to all Truman’s fantasies of really of wanting to be treated like shit.

There’s this quality to Truman, which I think you can see in a lot of characters where they want the bad guy, and they allow and enable toxic behavior and ignore red flags. I enjoyed playing him, and I enjoyed finding his voice, the way he spoke, the way he carried himself. And we started off wanting to make him affable and charming and then as it went on, you just discover that he’s just a horrific human being that you’d never want to get involved with.

FX’s FEUD: Capote Vs. The Swans “Pilot” Premieres Wednesday, January 31 at 10 p.m. ET/PT — Pictured: (center) Tom Hollander as Truman Capote. CR: FX

Let’s talk for a moment about Truman Capote. How did you feel about helping to tell his story?

Just excitement and a privilege to be a part of this story. He’s fascinating. I’ve always been fascinated by him, what a unique, mad little individual he was, but a genius, and there’s so much of that period in history from the seventies to the eighties that I’m obsessed with. These characters that are so American have affected me as this Brit. And when these stories come along, you just jump at the chance because as well as being an incredible script and opportunity to play a role, they’re fascinating in the way that I approach art, the way that I approach culture, the way that I sort of ingest information.

How about the Swans? What did you learn about them?

It was a whole learning experience because I didn’t know about The Swans, and then there are scenes where there Picasso’s Boy Leading A Horse appears, which was owned by the Paley’s and it’s in their hallway. I stood in front of that painting at MoMA, not thinking about where it’s bequeathed from, who owned it, just standing in front of that painting going, what a fucking amazing Picasso. And then suddenly doing this TV show and going, “Oh, it came from there.”

It’s an amazing historical sort of understanding of the legacy of this painting and this show just is like a Christmas present that doesn’t keep unwrapping. I think that’s the genius of what Ryan did and Robbie Bates’s script. Ryan especially approach every project as such a nuanced, layered forensic operation into working out what this all is.

FX’s FEUD: Capote Vs. The Swans “Ice Water in Their Veins” Premieres Wednesday, January 31 at 10 p.m. ET/PT — Pictured: (front, l-r) Naomi Watts as Babe Paley, Chloe Sevigny as C.Z. Guest, Diane Lane as Slim Keith. CR: FX

What was it like working with legendary director Gus Van Sant? How’d you describe his directing style?

It was heaven because he’s so approachable and kind. I know his art outside of filmmaking, obviously because I’m an art nerd. I connected to him through being a complete fan of his work and thinking he’s amazing. But then finding these other similarities and these other passions and connecting in that way and then being on set with him was just so calm.

He’s obviously got this whole body of incredible work behind him, but yet his approach to filmmaking is very sensitive and quiet and kind and concise and sometimes you don’t even realize he’s filming and he’s like, “Okay, I think we got that,” and I’m like, “I didn’t even know we were filming.” It felt very exciting and contained and safe and rewarding. If Gus Van Sant gives you the thumbs up and smiles, that was great.

FEUD: Capote Vs. The Swans – BTS — Pictured: (front) Gus Van Sant. CR: FX

It’s probably really good that you had a calm environment so that you felt comfortable, since there is a certain degree of violence and anger to your character. How’d you approach those most volatile scenes?

Tom Hollander is one of the nicest, most brilliant actors ever and to do those scenes, you need someone to go there with you and want to push it as far as it can go, and we trusted each other, then you have to do that. It is important to have this space to plot out and work out what that is but yeah, it was quite harrowing.

But again, I wanted to make it horrific. I wanted to make these attacks to be very cold and the rage to be… I wanted John O’Shea to feel that when he was violent, he was still the victim, that the other person drove him to it. It’s their fault. They wound him up. They should have known this is where he’d go. He’s not apologetic. That’s just the way that he communicates, which is fucking scary.

This cast is pretty phenomenal. I can’t imagine days acting opposite of Naomi Watts, Diane Lane, Demi Moore…

They’re all just wonderful. I mean, they’ve seen in the first episode where, I met Capote in the bathhouse and then he brings me on a date to meet Naomi Watts, Diane Lane, and Demi Moore is also there. And I remember that was probably day three or something, and we’re just doing this scene. And I remember sitting down thinking, well, this is one to talk to my mom about. This is fucking great. This feels very nice. And sharing the scene with these people and being able to improv a little bit and gossip with them between setups and it was a very special job. I felt very, very happy to be acting alongside these people.

What do you hope audiences take away from this series?

It was just my sweet spot of things that I’m personally fascinated by and every single department on it wanted it to be the best. It could be the costumes, the hair, the makeup down to the props and the sets and everything was so considered and so respectful and just joyful and that’s down to the creatives and that’s down to the script and that’s down to the memory of Truman and the memory of the Swans and being respectful to that. I think this show just has introduced a whole new generation, including myself, because I didn’t know who they were to these people’s lives, which are fascinating and enthralling.

Feud: Capote vs. The Swans is now available to stream on Hulu.

Eric Green

Eric Green has over 25 years of professional experience producing creative, marketing, and journalistic content. Born in Flushing, Queens and based in Los Angeles, Green has a catalog of hundreds of articles, stories, photographs, drawings, and more. He is the director of the celebrated 2014 Documentary, Beautiful Noise and the author of the novella Redyn, the graphic novel Bonk and Woof, and the novel, The Lost Year. Currently, he is hard at work on a book chronicling the lives of the greatest Character Actors.