Former Bond villain Toby Stephens is the youngest son of Dame Maggie Smith and actor Sir Robert Stephens. The East London resident is starring in a new British sci-fi movie, The Machine, about the development of a conscious fighting machine. He talks about making the movie, being a pirate with a difference in new US show Black Sails and growing up in an acting dynasty.
What can you tell us about The Machine?
The ideas that this film is dealing with are very clever, and also very true. We are headed into this future where we’re going to create consciousness in machines – what does that mean for us? How do we treat these machines when they have consciences and how will they treat us? What does this mean for us as a species? This film was dealing with all of this in a very clever way.
Are you a big sci-fi fan?
I really enjoy it as a form, but that wasn’t my main reason for doing this. Generally when I read British scripts, I’m sad to say my heart sinks after the first few pages, because they are not that great. You immediately start going, ’Oh God, how am I going to make this work?’ The Machine was something that just kept me reading.
What was it like working with your co-star Caity Lotz, whn she was playing a machine?
It was very odd, because I’d be doing scenes with Caity where she’d be naked but she was playing a machine and somehow it totally altered how the scene would be if she’d been playing a human being, because her nakedness was totally immaterial and I was dealing with a machine. It was desexualised.
Do you think people are developing a dangerous relationship with technology?
Technology is amazing. Earlier on this year, when I was away in South Africa filming my new TV show Black Sails, I spent a lot of time using Skype and Facetime with my family – mostly watching my children pull faces at themselves! It’s amazing though, and one can very quickly lose sight of how amazing technology is.
What can you tell us about Black Sails?
Black Sails is a prequel to Treasure Island, but for grown-ups. I play Captain Flint, who never appears in Treasure Island, but he looms large because it’s his treasure they’re searching for.
Is it every boy’s dream to play a pirate?
It was fantastic. What I particularly enjoyed is trying to recreate a form that’s become pretty tired and hackneyed.
Whenever I talk to anybody about doing a pirate thing they go, ‘So you’ve got parrots and peg legs’. And there’s none of that in there, it’s very stripped down, it’s like a Western really.
What was it like working with your wife Anna-Louise Plowman on stage in Private Lives last year?
We both had mixed feelings about doing it, because it’s always a bit of a risk, but I’d been away doing Black Sails for six months, so it was really lovely to spend some time together. I don’t think we’re going to make a habit of working together, it just worked out really well for that show.
With both your parents being actors, is it something you always wanted to do?
It wasn’t a forgone conclusion that I’d be an actor and my parents certainly didn’t assume that. When I did express an interest in being an actor they were pretty tough on me, because they knew it was a really risky profession to get into. There’s no guarantee that just because your parents are very successful that you will be, or that you’ll be any good. I could have been a total dud.
The Machine is out now