A villain with a past; Toby Stephens is a new kind of Bond baddie - handsome, flashy, unhinged. The actor tells James Inverne how he discovered that spying is squalid and alcohol a deadly trap.
(Review) James Inverne.
Full Text: COPYRIGHT 2002 Sunday Telegraph
The actor Toby Stephens is hot. Very hot indeed. Orange flames are creeping up his shirt, which he has just set alight while brewing up a pot of tea on his kitchen stove. Cue panicked slapping of the fire (by him, I'm afraid - I just stare open-mouthed) and a volley of choice swearwords. Finally putting the blaze out, he removes the blackened garment altogether and mournfully observes: "Well, that's the end of that shirt." This, charred but not burnt, is the new Bond hard man.
James Bond owes his enemies more than he'd probably care to admit. In his 40 years of film stardom, 007 himself - as played by Roger Moore, George Lazenby, Timothy Dalton - has sometimes looked distinctly ropey. But it's mattered less than it should, for all that really counts is the Bond world and its key elements: the girls, the gadgets and the baddies. So for Stephens, 33, whose film CV is decent but underwhelming (including Onegin with Ralph Fiennes and a brief turn as a young astronaut in Space Cowboys), the role of villainous entrepreneur Gustav Graves in Die Another Day is at last a chance to put his film career on the map.
As his chaotic tea-making might suggest, there's nothing creepy or villainous about Stephens himself, who couldn't be further from the bad-boy image if he tried. The son of Dame Maggie Smith and the late, legendary Robert Stephens, he has an impeccable pedigree; when he played Shakespeare's Coriolanus for the RSC aged only 25, the adulatory reviews confirmed him as a blazing talent in his own right. He's warm, funny and quick to laughter - a full-bodied thespianic chortle that, along with his fruity voice, puts you in mind of his father's luxurious way with language. He's also thrilled as a schoolboy to be in Bond.
"As a kid I used to wish I was 007," he remembers, "because I wanted to be that cool and debonair. And that kind of lone-wolf figure who's completely self-sufficient. That appeals to the male psyche, especially when you're young and reliant on other people's affection." (Toby was brought up by his mother and stepfather, Beverley Cross: he only got to know his father in his teens.)
Although he insists that he never wanted to play the part of Bond, Stephens picks out all the parallels between the hero and the villain, suggesting he has given the matter careful thought. "In the earlier films there tends to be some evil overlord who is much older than Bond. But the fashion now is for someone who is a nemesis or mirror image of him. Gustav Graves is a young, Bondesque figure, but slightly twisted and without Bond's taste. He's also got the fine suits, but they're all a bit too flashy. Bond gets a car, I get a whole fleet of Ferraris."
Are there certain prerequisites for a Bond villain? "I was determined to bring something new to the game," he says, "I wanted to be a force to contend with. The audience must believe I could kill Bond. And there are various ways of doing that. Either you can be scary because you've got a patch over one eye or a metal arm or something, or you can be slightly but unnervingly unhinged, which is what I went for. There's a latent malice there, just brimming under the surface."
His only regret is that he never utters the immortal "Goodbye, Mr Bond." "They took it out," he shrugs. "I think it became obvious how much I enjoyed saying it."
The role's challenges were physical, too. Stephens has a long fencing sequence with Pierce Brosnan which took a week and a half to film. He put in hours of preparation, far more than Brosnan. But when it came to it, Brosnan was disconcertingly good. "And even though I'd rehearsed it more, the truth is that people look at your face, not technique. If you look like you want to rip the other guy's head off, they'll buy it."
He is relaxed about the effect the role will have on his film career: "We'll see when it comes out." He's courted Hollywood before, moving there between 1998 and 2000, and found the whole experience soul-destroying.
"I hit a brick wall out there. I got close to various projects where I was the director's choice, but in the end studio executives get nervous of someone they don't know. They don't care about my theatre background, they're investing millions and want a rock-solid name. Besides, I'd go along to these auditions and see all these actors who were better looking and spent all their time in the gym. Actors are very much products in Los Angeles, and I was uncomfortable feeling like that."
So he returned home empty-handed to the life of a busy West End player - he acted opposite Judi Dench earlier this year - and took consolation from watching jobbing actors such as Tom Wilkinson and Ian McKellen reaping film rewards later in life.
It must have been hard, after hearing himself tipped as the next big star during Coriolanus, to see other actors come along and become vastly more famous?
He grimaces: this unlocks unpleasant memories. "I did buy in to the sense of being on an elevator going up. I believed people around me saying I'd be the next Ralph Fiennes. So I allowed myself to coast. I didn't feel I had to work at getting the big film parts. I felt that was vulgar and if I sat back they'd come to me. It can be seen as arrogance, but I think it was naive. Of course it didn't happen and I saw other actors like Ewan McGregor and Rufus Sewell shooting past me to get all these film roles I wouldn't have minded playing."
He smiles sadly, "I got so tired of cab drivers asking what I do, and when I told them, asking if I was famous. I'd say, `Of course not, otherwise you wouldn't be asking what I do!' In the end I started pretending to them that I was a lawyer to avoid the conversation."
That frustration was one of the reasons Stephens started drinking heavily. He recalls, "I'd think, `F--- it, my career's out of control so I might as well get pissed and dream of what I should be.' A lot of drunks do that. It was an incredibly nihilistic and wasteful attitude."
It got so bad that he once overslept and almost missed a matinee of Racine's Britannicus at the Almeida: the director Jonathan Kent had to drag him out of bed while Diana Rigg started the play without him.
He doesn't drink at all these days, out of fear that family history might be repeating itself. Robert Stephens was destroyed by alcoholism, prompted, his son says, by frustration at Laurence Olivier's barring him from the great Shakespearean roles at the Old Vic.
Stephens the younger has no intention of falling into the same trap. "No one has complete control, and I'm lucky to be where I am." He even dared to play an alcoholic in Simon Gray's 2001 play Japes. "Too often we just laugh rather than face the grim reality of what being an alcoholic is. Simon addressed the reality of drunks. They're boring, not funny, distressing and worrying. I tried to be as honest about it as I could and it was good for me to confront that."
Life is more stable for Stephens these days. Last year he married the New Zealand actress Anna-Louise Plowman, they live in a smart West London house and they are both in a big BBC drama about the Cambridge spy ring in which he stars as Kim Philby. "If we did a play together it would drive us both mad, because we'd never stop talking about work. But here she plays MacLean's wife who left him for Philby, so we've got a couple of scenes together and that's lovely."
He has found the project an intriguing complement to Bond. "This is about the realities of spying. And the truth is that for Philby it was squalid and boring. He lived with the neuroses of being a double agent for so long. Because he thought that Communism was the only antidote to the fascism sweeping Europe. By the time he realised Stalin wasn't so great, he couldn't get out."
So after all the spying, what's next? "I'd love to get my teeth into some more classical theatre at some point." he says. "If the RSC can freshen itself up under their new leader Michael Boyd and stop being so arrogant and treat actors as one of the team again, then I'd love to go back there."
As much as he criticises the company that gave him his big break, he clearly cares. About the RSC, about theatre, about acting. And if Bond makes Toby Stephens a bona fide film star, you can be sure the West End won't be without him for long.