The ‘seriously handsome’ Toby Stephens talks to Mary Wakefield about the magic of acting
With some people, their prep school selves seem barely submerged beneath the adult surface. They talk away like grown-ups but one shrug, a grin, and you can see their inner schoolchild. Toby Stephens, sitting opposite me in a boxy room high up on the top deck of the National Theatre, is a good example. He’s 41, seriously handsome with dark red hair and a fine-boned 1940s face; he’s a dab hand at playing cads and attempted world domination as the evil Gustav Graves in Die Another Day (quite outshining that drip Pierce Brosnan). But there’s something about him that still seems to be 12. It makes me want to hug him, though I’m quite sure that wouldn’t help.
Were you precocious, a child actor? I ask. Toby is the son of Dame Maggie Smith, and the late Robert Stephens. And though R. Stephens abandoned the family when his sons were still small, Toby’s stepfather, Beverley Cross, was in the business, too — a playwright. I imagine family life to have been one long game of charades. ‘No, not really, I wasn’t an extrovert,’ says Toby. ‘My brother [the actor, Chris Larkin] did try to put on plays, but I didn’t like the limelight. He’d be the director, and he’d try to get me to perform, but I’d be paralysed with stage fright and refuse to come on.’
So why and how on earth did you ever decide to be an actor? Was there one particular moment? ‘Yes, there was.’ Toby’s face brightens at the memory. ‘The first time I thought I might have something; might be able to express myself this way was in a school poetry competition. All the other kids were just reading out the longest and most complicated poems they knew. I chose “Dulce et Decorum Est” and, rather than recite it, I just instinctively performed it. I didn’t understand exactly what it was about, but I felt it. The teachers seemed almost shocked and I won the competition. They made me do it again the next day.’
After ‘Dulce et Decorum Est’, Toby decided that his desire to be on stage was stronger than his desire to be off it, so: Lamda then the RSC, where he met with amazing, almost instant success. It was the mid-Nineties, he was in his mid-twenties and despite the pressure of living up to his famous parents (all three of them) he pulled off a blinding Coriolanus, winning the Ian Charleson award for best actor under 30.
Perhaps it was inevitable, then, that having conquered the stage Toby would make an assault on the big screen. But his attempt to conquer LA didn’t quite come off. ‘Trying to crack Hollywood nearly killed me,’ he says. ‘It’s such a strange world full of phony people. You have to pretend to be really hot shit all the time. You’re constantly in this weird state where the end of the rainbow keeps receding. There’s success all around you — fancy cars, posters of big-budget movies — but you can’t get at it. And you learn the language of false hope.’ What does that mean? ‘It means that when people say, “You’re in the mix for this one,” that actually translates as: “You’ve got no chance.”’
Toby’s failure in Tinseltown led to a fair few years of angry alcoholism, but he doesn’t seem bitter now, just incredulous: ‘The strangest thing about Hollywood is that you actually have to lie! When someone asks what you’ve been doing, you can’t just say, “Well, I’ve been dossing around for six months.” You have to say, “I’ve been making this really interesting little movie.” The whole town is run by producers who are just in it for the money. And they make bad movies because they don’t want to risk anything. They won’t risk losing money so they end up making boring films. The whole thing is a fiction, I mean the whole town! It shouldn’t even be there, it’s built on a desert!’ says Toby, quoting Chinatown.
But Toby…What about Bond? You bought into one of the biggest Hollywood franchises there is, you were the baddie.
‘Yes, but that’s different, that’s every schoolboy’s secret longing!’ Toby spreads his hands. ‘You can’t turn down the chance to be in a Bond movie, can you? And I do love playing baddies, they’re more…interesting.’ Just for a second, he looks a little dangerous.
But it’d be a shame in a way if Toby Stephens wasted his time on the big screen because he’s genuinely in love with theatre, and genuinely good at it. Earlier this year he starred as Henry in Tom Stoppard’s The Real Thing, and, by all accounts, got that difficult mix of studied detachment and real heartbreak just right. We talk about his radio and television work (Rochester in Jane Eyre, Kim Philby in Spies), but when Toby Stephens talks about acting on stage, about the magic of a perfect performance, that slight underlying shyness vanishes and he talks with urgency.
‘The reason I do it, the heart of it all, is that every so often, during some rare performances on stage, there’s a moment when you lose yourself completely,’ he says. ‘It’s amazing. The audience feel it too — well, it’s their focus that takes you there. And those moments are sublime. I can’t explain it very well, but it’s as if everything suddenly comes together and you’re able to pour yourself completely into the part as if it’s a vessel. It’s a very strange thing to do, but it’s…well, it’s my function, it’s what I love, it’s what I do.’
We’re both silent for a bit, knee to knee at the NT, considering this strange phenomenon, then Toby tries to explain again: ‘We all want to stop the voices in our heads, don’t we, the ones that criticise and question us?’ Absolutely. ‘Well, when you get a perfect moment on stage, the voices in your head are silenced, which is what we all want really, isn’t it?’
Toby is willing me to agree, and I nod, but the voices in my head are not silent. One, a sycophant, is conducting an admiring monologue about how articulate Stephens is, and how attractive. Another mutters in disgust. A third is making what it considers an interesting observation: in previous interviews, Stephens has been a little casual about acting, dismissed it as just a job like any other. This is the laidback line taken by Toby’s mother, Dame Maggie, and I imagine Toby has been reluctant to be more effusive than his brilliant parent. But I wonder whether, now that the great Dame has sold her soul to Harry Potter, her son feels freer to speak his mind, to articulate some of the passion he clearly feels for the family business.
I don’t ask. But the truth is that, while Maggie Smith waves a wand at dragons in the sky above Hogwarts, her son is preparing to take on the murderous hordes in revolutionary France. He’s playing Danton, Robespierre’s friend and co-conspirator, in Danton’s Death, a play set during the lull between the first and second terrors, and he relishes the opportunity. ‘Danton’s a great man,’ says Toby. ‘He had ideals. And then, when Robespierre began to execute his former friends, Danton rebelled. He’s a very interesting character.’ But he had lots of people killed! ‘Yes,’ says Toby, with a villainous smile, ‘but ends do sometimes justify means.’ Before we can get into the rights and wrongs of regicide and revolution, an NT lady appears at the door to say rehearsals are beginning again. Toby Stephens says goodbye, then goes back to battle.
Danton’s Death, part of the Travelex £10 Tickets season, is in rep at the Olivier until 22 August.