Working with Mum would be so naff! Toby Stephens on why he'll NEVER star in Downton with Maggie Smith
22:02 GMT, 26 July 2012
09:56 GMT, 27 July 2012
Blame James Bond. He may have introduced the world to Toby Stephens as arch baddie Sir Gustav Graves, but the 007 film Die Another Day is also the reason he has been away from the small screen for some time.
‘When it comes to casting, there doesn’t always seem to be much imagination,’ he says. ‘It’s a quick grab thing — you want someone who fits the part and because of Bond they knew I could do it. For a while I was happy to play cads, bounders and posh aristocrats, but it wasn’t really me. And it was such a small fraction of what I am able to do that it felt like death.’
Having won an army of lusting fans as Jane Eyre’s caddish lover Rochester and the evil Prince John in Robin Hood, he preferred to stretch his acting muscles on stage and in movies, so it has taken something completely different to lure him back to the box.
It's a fair cop: Toby Stephens with co-star Miranda Raison in the new BBC2 show Vexed
Toby Stephen's mother Maggie Smith as Violet in the hit TV series Downton Abbey
As the hero of BBC2 comedy Vexed, his character, detective Jack Armstrong, is hard-bitten, misogynistic, and very, very silly — and Toby, 43, is delighted to finally play someone who isn’t posh or evil.
‘Jack is much more like me than any of the other characters I have played. I am very laid-back and I have a lot of his faults, which is why I identify with him. He’s lazy, he gets it wrong, he is a bit cack-handed; there is no malice to him. Doing this stuff is the most fun I have ever had.’
In fact, this is his second outing as Jack — Vexed, an ironic take on cop shows running from The Sweeney to Ashes To Ashes, was a three-part series in 2010 but the original production company ran into financial difficulties and the follow-up has only just come out.
Toby is thrilled that it takes the mickey out of what he believes is ‘such an over-egged genre’.
Not one to mince his words, he is straightforward and open about everything from his alcoholism to his illustrious background.
Dame Maggie Smith with her son Toby Stephens at the Barbican to toast his London debut as Coriolanus
The son of Downton Abbey’s indomitable Dame Maggie Smith and her first husband, actor Sir Robert Stephens, he virtually grew up on the stage. His parents divorced when he was four and his formative years were spent criss-crossing the Atlantic — to wherever his mother was working.
It could be this transient childhood which makes him as engaging as he is. ‘Growing up I went to many schools and I had to fit in to many different types of environments with totally different social groups,’ he recalls. ‘It helps me out as I move from job to job.’
An intense and admittedly obsessive young man, he left his drama school Lamda (the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art) knowing some jealous souls hoped he would fail. But he showed early promise, became a member of the RSC, and won the Sir John Gielgud and Ian Charleson Awards for his acting.
However, he admits he wasn’t always happy. And so he drank. He would go on 24-hour benders; he looked bloated and forgot his lines. But seeing the damage other alcoholics around him were doing to themselves, and feeling increasingly like ‘I was imploding’, one day he decided to give up. He hasn’t touched a drop in 12 years.
‘There is all this romantic nonsense about Burton and O’Toole and hell raisers like that,’ he says. ‘Nowadays the industry doesn’t have the money to employ people who are going to mess around and turn up not knowing their lines, all over the place.
‘People think they are amazing because they did all this work while they were drunk — but just imagine how good they could have been if they weren’t.
‘Giving up alcohol is the best choice I have ever made. If I had carried on drinking, I wouldn’t be here, I wouldn’t have my kids. I feel incredibly lucky.’ Toby has an understated lifestyle with his actress wife Anna-Louise Plowman and their three children, Eli, five, Tallulah, three, and two-year-old Kura.
Toby Stephens as Rochester with his co-star Ruth Wilson as Jane Eyre in a film adaptation of the classic novel by Charlotte Bronte
Die Another Day: Toby Stephens with his co-stars Madonna, portraying a fencing instructor, Pierce Brosnan as James Bond and Rosamund Pike as Miranda Frost
The James Bond cast: Toby Stephens with his fellow co-stars of Die Another Day, Rosamund Pike, Pierce Brosnan, Halle Berry and Rick Yune
They met at Lamda but got together when they both went up for the same voiceover part in New York. At more than 6ft, she is 3in taller than Toby, who says: ‘I look like her pet dwarf when she’s got heels on’.
They live in East London and share the childcare between them — taking it in turns to work. Having three children in such quick succession was a happy accident and Toby admits he finds it exhausting.
‘After a day looking after all three of them I’m in pieces,’ he says. ‘You go through the entire range of emotions — they drive you crazy, then you think they are the most gorgeous things in the world, then you are laughing, then you are on your knees crying.’
Dame Maggie, who is famously sharp-tongued, is the perfect granny, says Toby. ‘She loves, really loves, being around them. She was stern with me but around them she is a real softie. That’s the privilege of being a grandparent — they can indulge the children while parents have to be the bad guy. Grandparents can also be subversive and naughty with them. And she certainly is.’
The Queen's Sister: Toby Stephens as Andrew and Lucy Cohu as Princess Margaret
Robin Hood: Toby Stephens as Prince John and Lara Pulver as Isabella
The two are obviously close, but he says he has no intention of working on Downton. ‘I have a policy with my mum — we both kind of think that the family acting thing is a bit naff,’ he says. ‘I cringe when I see that someone obviously thought, “Hey, we’re both actors, why don’t we do something together” ’
Toby has a busy year ahead. He is promoting a new movie; All Things To All Men, a film with Gabriel Byrne and Rufus Sewell in which he plays a bank robber, then he will start filming The Machine, about a sentient android. In October, he returns to the stage where he started his working life, starring in Private Lives in Chichester.
Although he has worked in the U.S. he says: ‘I am a Londoner and I love my home. There are many things about this country which drive me crazy, but when I am in America I feel wrong there. Bright sunshine all day is fine for a week or two, but I’m a redhead and it’s not great for me.
‘What I’ve got here is all good stuff. I used to be so worried about not getting this job or not taking that job, but having the kids has put everything into perspective. I’ve got to keep the wagon going.’
Vexed is on BBC2 at 9pm on Wednesday.