Toby Stephens' interview
British actor Toby Stephens, 44, is one of the most versatile performers of his generation. He is respected for his ability to command the mediums of theatre, film, television and radio drama and is as at ease playing romantic comedy, Shakespearean drama and swashbuckling action men for major US network television. His choice of roles seems to be conditional on pushing himself creatively and pursuing the unexpected. He followed a revival of Noël Coward’s brittle Jazz Age comedy Private Lives on London’s West End stage with six-months filming the dark, violent television drama Black Sails on location in South Africa in which Stephens plays pirate king Captain Flint. He relishes the change of pace between theatre and film.
‘Filming can be a very lonely exercise. You are on your own and often what happens is that people don't tell you what they think about your performance until weeks into filming. Up until that point you are on your own. That can be quite lonely. On stage you know whether it is working or not’.
Trained at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art, Stephens made brave choices from the beginning of his career. He proved himself one of our finest Shakespearean actors playing the title role in Coriolanus for the Royal Shakespeare Company and made his screen debut in Sally Potter’s 1992 film adaptation of Virginia Woolf’s novel Orlando. Toby Stephens has never traded on being the son of English acting royalty the late Sir Robert Stephens and Dame Maggie Smith and his early success on stage was if anything a declaration of independence as an actor.
‘With a theatre audience you have a visceral reaction to whatever you are doing and it happens in real time. You know whether they are enjoying what you are doing. If it’s a big speech and there is absolute silence you know you've got them. The energy you get from the audience is real as well’.
In 2002 Stephens was the youngest actor in James Bond film history to be cast as a lead villain (Gustav Graves) in Die Another Day co-starring Pierce Brosnan, Judi Dench and Madonna. Rather than allowing Hollywood producers to typecast him as yet another English cad with a cut glass accent, Stephens rose to the challenge of giving his interpretation of Hamlet for the RSC in 2004, took a detour to Bollywood for a 2005 film project and played Princess Margaret’s husband Anthony Armstrong Jones for British television drama The Queen’s Sister in the same year.
‘I think making any character that's incredibly well known to audiences sound fresh is difficult. What makes characters like Hamlet perennial – despite being done every year by numerous actors – is that everyone brings their own individuality to that role. There are infinite ways of playing that character and infinite nuances you can find within those roles’.
Whenever Toby Stephens takes on a period drama, he seems to attack it with a modern interpretation that respects the story but makes it relevant for a contemporary audience. There was nothing polite or mannered about his Mr Rochester in the BBCs 2006 adaptation of Jane Eyre. The actor identified the dark side of Charlotte Bronte’s romance and brought out the frustrated passion in one of English literature’s most nobly savage heroes. He brings something new to a classic novel and never looks anything other than entirely convincing in costume.
‘What you wear expresses who you are. Laurence Olivier always worked from the shoes upwards. The shoes were the key to his character. As soon as you get into that costume it makes you walk in a certain way, sit in a certain way, behave in a certain way and flavors the character you are playing’.
It is Stephens’ ability to find a new interpretation for classic texts that makes him such a powerful stage actor. He is one of a very chosen few English actors who has performed with the RSC (Hamlet) and at the National Theatre (Danton’s Death), the Old Vic (The Real Thing) and the Donmar Warehouse in Ibsen’s A Doll’s House co-starring Gillian Anderson. His performance as Elyot Chase in Coward’s Private Lives – a role created by the playwright and a play that gave his mother Maggie Smith one of her greatest stage successes – was career-defining because it played Noël Coward’s script straight rather than as a mannered 1930 comedy.
‘You have to bring modernity to everything you play. I live in a different era from Noël Coward so inevitably I'm gong to bring something from my era to that role. When you're not pushing it - doing it naturally – you bring a play alive for an audience’.
Toby Stephens’ work in radio drama is perhaps the most unsung of his talents but they are the mark of a great actor who can hold an audience and tell a story with no visual stimulation whatsoever. In recent years he has played James Bond in BBC Radio dramatizations of Ian Fleming’s novels and in 2010-11 played Raymond Chandler’s hardboiled detective Philip Marlowe in the Classic Chandler adaptations of the complete novels. 2014 will see Stephens back in a mainstream action part playing Captain Flint in the US TV drama Black Sails. Though he is not looking forward to the glare of worldwide media attention, Toby Stephens clearly relishes the change of pace working on a big budget film production.
‘I think on a film set you have to understand you are the last thing on the list of importance as an actor. So many other factors are more important than you are. What you have to do is maintain focus in between set ups. When things start moving towards a take you have to really focus and be in the moment and be ready for that’.