'Lost in Space' Star Toby Stephens Explains His Own Space-Time Continuum

The 48-year-old British actor talks with THR about acting opposite a robot, beating out Sean Penn for a role in a Bond movie and why playing a pirate on 'Black Sails' left him “knackered.”
Courtesy of Netflix
Toby Stephens (left) and Max Jenkins in Netflix's 'Lost in Space'

Toby Stephens' dad, Sir Richard Stephens, was considered one of the greatest British actors of his generation, heir apparent to Laurence Olivier. His mom, Maggie Smith, is an even more revered fixture of stage and screen. So, naturally, their son would grow up to star in Lost in Space.

To be fair, Stephens served plenty of time in period dramas and highbrow BBC productions (everything from Twelfth Night to Onegin to Cousin Bette). But in 2002, he landed the plumb role of Bond villain Gustav Graves in Die Another Day and the next thing he knew he was being cast in Clint Eastwood films (Space Cowboys) and playing commandos in Michael Bay movies (13 Hours). This time last year, the actor wrapped a four-season run as the swashbuckling Captain Flint on Starz's pirate drama Black Sails. And as of Friday, Stephens will be portraying that most classical of American TV characters, Professor John Robinson, on Netflix’s reboot of Lost in Space, the 1960s sci-fi show famous for its cardboard sets and aliens with visible zipper lines.

This new version of Lost in Space is considerably more ambitious — and expensive — and the role of John Robinson has been beefed up with more complex nuances since the days when Guy Williams played the part (or even since William Hurt portrayed him in the 1998 big-screen adaptation). This time, the father who gets lost in space (and, like dads in every part of the galaxy, refuses to ask for directions) must contend with a much more difficult marriage, rebellious kids and a robot that may or may not be a ruthless killing machine. “It’s still a bit reverential of the idea of the original series,” Stephens says. “But it’s a very different tone.”

Below, Stephens talks with The Hollywood Reporter about his new role, as well as some of the other challenges of a career that's turning out to be every bit as interesting as those of his parents.

You’ve taken on a role — Professor John Robinson on Lost in Space — that’s part of the classic canon of American TV. Did you study your predecessors? Guy Williams in the original series or William Hurt in the 1998 film?

I gleaned quite early from reading the script that this was a very different thing than the original series. I had memories of the series when I was a child — I’d seen the original in reruns, although I didn’t see the movie. But I just didn’t think there was any point in going back and watching the 1960s show again to try to help me with my choices.

You watched Lost in Space as a kid? You mom is Maggie Smith. Your father was Robert Stephens. You grew up in one of the most revered acting families in Britain. And you were watching Lost in Space at home?

I grew up in the States and Canada for a while because my mum came over in the 1970s. We lived in Los Angeles for a couple of years and then moved to Canada for a few more. So I did have a chunk of my childhood very much based on American pop culture. I watched a lot of American TV, all those repeats of Star Trek, Fantasy Island, M*A*S*H, Lost in Space. All that stuff was the fodder of my childhood. And then Star Wars came out and totally blew my head off because I hadn’t seen anything like it. Later on, I became much more interested in stuff like Alien and Blade Runner. That’s why I like what we’re doing with Lost in Space. It’s fantasy and adventure but it’s real as well. The science aspect has similar qualities to Interstellar or The Martian. It’s couched on some kind of reality. And also the family at the heart of it is real, it’s familiar to people.

Lost in Space isn’t your first go-around with bluescreen acting. You must have done a lot of it on Black Sails, too.

There’s a lot of CGI on both of them but they were very different experiences. I loved doing Black Sails, but toward the end of it, it was really hard work. You had these huge, physical set pieces but also these long, intense dialogue scenes. There was a huge amount of work for me and after some weeks of doing that I was kind of burned out. And the character I was playing had such a dark journey. But Lost in Space was a much lighter tone for me. I was working with kids who were so wonderful and full of enthusiasm that it was kind of infections, as opposed to a bunch of grownups in pirate outfits on Black Sails who were all knackered on the set.

Was there a guy inside the Lost in Space robot or was that all CGI?

Yes, there was an actor in the robot suit. He had a really tough job. He would operate it and he also had a whole crew around him who were dealing with the lights and other technical aspects. It wasn’t CGI, although later it was augmented with CGI. But there was a physical entity which was incredibly helpful in terms of acting with it.

You played Gustav Graves in Die Another Day, one of the better Bond villains in one of the worst Bond movies.  

That was a surreal experience for me. Prior to doing a Bond film, I was a young actor doing classical theater and some BBC dramas. Then suddenly I was thrown into this franchise. I had never experienced anything like it. Everybody on the set knew each other — they’d done the previous movies together — so it was quite stressful. I was like the new boy, like the guest star on a series. But [Bond film producer] Barbara Broccoli was adamant that my part was played by somebody who was not a star. MGM wanted a star. So the casting went on for a long time while they argued about it — I was in limbo for two or three months…

Who did MGM want to play Graves?

They were talking about people like Sean Penn, people who would never do it.

Die Another Day was pretty over the top. Even Pierce Brosnan thought the invisible car was a bit too much…

They had reached the extreme peak where they could push in that direction. Nowadays they’ve got great actors and great writers. But at the time, the scripts were mutable and malleable and things didn’t tie up, so they had to change it while filming. Nowadays it looks like a more rigorous process.

Back to Lost in Space — we’re talking about a show that’s more than 50 years old at this point. What makes it relevant for today?

The original idea of Swiss Family Robinson in space — of a family stuck in extreme jeopardy and having to survive — that’s a story that everyone can relate to. It’s kids and parents reacting to each other in familiar ways, even though they’re a million light years away from Earth. But you can’t repeat what was done in the original, you can’t imitate what was so perfect about it. There’s no point of doing that. If you’re going to reboot something, reboot it in a totally original way that speaks to a new generation.

Season one of Lost in Space drops Friday on Netflix.