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.
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.