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May 22, 2018

Personal Space

Toby Stephens has a pedigree, but had to start from the bottom.

John Griffiths
  • Steve Shaw

When Toby Stephens decided on acting back in his teens, his parents — Dame Maggie Smith (yes, Downton Abbey's Violet Crawley), Sir Robert Stephens (A Taste of Honey) and stepdad Beverley Cross (writer of 1981's Clash of the Titans) — offered a chorus of advice.

"They said, 'You have to constantly try to be better,'" Stephens recalls. "I'm very grateful. They gave me a real sense of a work ethic."

That ethic has paid off. The square-jawed Londoner has notched more than 150 film, TV, stage, radio and audiobook roles. In his latest turn, he plays commander John Robinson in Netflix's reboot of Lost in Space.

As in the '60s CBS original, Robinson and his wife (House of Cards's Molly Parker) and kids lose contact with Earth, sending them and a robot pal planet-hopping for help. Stephens says that in the new series, "The characters are all trying to be better people. That's something I enjoy playing."Well, maybe not all the characters. Parker Posey is on board too, as the creepy Dr. Smith.

Growing up, Stephens remembers, "I would meet my parents' friends and then I would see them on stage, where they would be totally different. It was like magic." Because his "sporty" boarding schools lacked drama courses, he scored wins in campus poetry-reciting contests.

Lacking actual stage experience, however, he spent a year trying to get into drama school. So he worked on stage crews, with his "mum" giving him tips before tryouts. Finally, he was accepted to the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Arts. In 1992, he made his stage, film and TV debuts, with roles in a West End production of Tartuffe, in Sally Potter's Orlando and in The Camomile Lawn, a World War II miniseries that costarred Rebecca Hall. Soon after, he joined the Royal Shakespeare Company.

Since then, he's balanced London legit roles with film and TV work. He played Captain Flint on Starz's Black Sails, which last year added his older brother, actor Chris Larkin. Later this year, Stephens plays a Navy SEAL in the Gary Oldman–Gerard Butler action film Hunter Killer. He's also slated for the BBC miniseries Summer of Rockets, a Cold War drama set to film this year.

With a wife (LAMDA chum Anna-Louise Plowman, also a Black Sails alum) and three potential scene-stealers at home (Eli, 11; Tallulah, nine; Kura, seven), Stephens has little time for hobbies. "I play the guitar — very badly," says the Lou Reed fan. "Mostly, I love hanging out with my family."


This article originally appeared in emmy magazine, Issue No. 5, 2018

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