Russell Tovey wants you to know who David Robilliard was. He was a queer British poet and visual artist who died of AIDS in 1988 when he was just 36 years old.
“I first learned about David at the ICA in London,” the “American Horror Story” star tells Variety, speaking from his London-area home. “There was a small exhibition there. Then he sort of was on my mind a lot. Then at the start of the pandemic, I rediscovered his writing poetry. I was so moved because I connected to it straightaway. It was written all through the late ‘80s, but it resonated with me now. I was like, ‘Why do we not know more about him?’ His art was so proudly queer and about love and jealousy and pain and loneliness and what it is to be gay. It was so outwardly queer at the time when you just didn’t do that. He was so proudly queer.”
Tovey tells Robilliard’s story in “Life Is Excellent,” his new documentary from WePresent, the editorial and digital arts platform of WeTransfer. Tovey is WePresent’s 2023 guest curator. Earlier this year, he produced live readings in the U.K. of “Blue,” Derek Jarman’s last feature film before he passed from AIDS-related illness in 1994 at age 52.
As Tovey explains in the film, he was just about a decade away from being a young man during the height of the HIV/AIDS epidemic.
“If I’d been born 10 years earlier, I might have known David,” Tovey, 42, says. “I might have slept with him, I might have been him. I miss him and I don’t even know him. There are artists that come along that feel like their hands reached out and take ours. Even though it might have been written 100 years ago, Oscar Wilde would say something, and you’re just like, ‘That resonates with me now who I am.’ You miss these people. That’s the mark of a genius. They have the ability to connect to someone who they’ve never ever met, who they’d never even imagined they would ever know.”
A scripted feature about Robilliard isn’t in the works just yet. “I’m working on something else, another queer story,” Tovey says. “I would love to tell the story of Joe Brainard or Larry Stanton hanging out with David Hockney on Fire Island and making all these drawings of all these beautiful boys that he was hooking up with. But the thing about these stories is that they’re all tragic. They all end and you don’t want them to.”
Tovey hopes “Life Is Excellent” will be the start of a Robilliard renaissance. “I feel like this documentary is giving him life to continue,” Tovey says. “It’s giving him the ability for people to go, ‘Who is this guy? I want to read all of that poetry..’ You can only buy his books on eBay right now. They’re not readily available. My dream is this is a conduit to discovery.”
Tovey has also curated “We Move In Circles,” an exhibit at Shoreditch, London featuring pieces from his own 100-piece collection of Robilliard works along with 15 vintage AIDS activism T-shirts. “The T-shirts are historical documents,” says Tovey, who co-hosts the “Talk Art” podcast with gallerist Robert Diament. “You can actually chart the history of activism, during the AIDS pandemic through the clothes that people wore through the demonstrations, because they’re all dated. And they’re all located. Also the way that screen printing was developed at the same time as this activism was growing, there was sort of a really beautiful synergy that was able to be done.”
“Life Is Excellent” will be available on WePresent on Thursday, Nov. 23. The film was directed by Joe Ingham, created by Tovey, produced by Susie Hall, edited by Gemma Atkinson and Hugh Coles and commissioned by WePresent.