'I'm much happier playing messed-up guys rather than the heroic lead. It's dull playing those parts'
(Western Mail Via Thomson Dialog NewsEdge)With his striking good looks and an acting dynasty to die for - no less than Dame Maggie Smith and the late Robert Stephens for his parents - you'd think that Toby Stephens would be cornering the market in dashing, romantic leading roles.
Instead, his forte seems to be quite the opposite; crazed Bond villains (Die Another Day), tormented Cold War intellectuals (Kim Philby in Cambridge Spies) and, about to start filming, the enigmatic and mysterious Mr Rochester in a new BBC adaptation of Jane Eyre.
'I'm much happier playing messed-up guys rather than the heroic lead,' says 36-year-old Stephens. 'It's dull playing those parts. I'd rather play someone conflicted. They're always more challenging, and you've got more to work with.'
Neither has the Bond experience made him hungry for world-wide fame. 'I don't want to end up playing baddies in big-budget movies for the rest of my career,' says Stephens, whose megalomaniacal Gustav Graves was arguably the most memorable character in the last 007 outing to date, 2002's Die Another Day.
'In any case, I think the Bond franchise is so much bigger than the actors. It's a double-edged sword. Yes, the movie got me out there and recognised in the States. It opened certain doors, and it's definitely a choice, but it's not really a direction I want to take.'
Indeed, soon after the film was released, Stephens was nowhere near any Beverly Hills swimming pools waiting for the phone to ring; instead, he'd thrown himself into the ultimate tortured-hero role, Hamlet, on the West End stage for a full year.
This week he's back on the small screen, in the title role of ITV1's latest two-part pyschological thriller, The Best Man - and, if you'll excuse the political incorrectness, it's yet another nutter role. Stephens plays former public schoolboy Peter who protected his fellow pupil Michael from bullying, thus cementing their lifelong friendship.
Now, Michael (Richard Coyle), following a suicide attempt, is in therapy at a residential clinic where he meets a similarly fragile patient Kate (Keeley Hawes). The two develop a strong relationship - but there's a dark cloud looming with the re-arrival of Peter, who is clearly jealous of Michael's new love, and agrees to be the best man at their impending nuptials. Let's just say there's major trouble ahead...
The role of Peter is a full-on, psychologically-damaged soul, one that Stephens grabbed with undisguised glee. 'I remember when I read the script, I was immediately drawn to the character,' he says. 'I actually found him funny. Obviously on screen it all comes across as quite disturbing - but when I read it, I found it very amusing, and knew I'd be able to have some fun with him.'
About his character Peter's obsessive feelings towards his best friend Michael, Stephens is quite clear. 'It doesn't mean he's gay - I just saw him as somebody who was good at relationships with guys, but with women there's no chance of an emotional relationship.
'I think that applies to a lot of public school guys, who've been in an all-male system, and they're very good at controlling their emotions, they've learnt how to. I think they find it difficult adapting to other relationships in life, and he's a prime candidate for one of those emotional cripples.'
Away from the cameras, Stephens lives with his wife of four years, actress Anna-Louise Plowman; they appeared together in BBC2's acclaimed, fact-based drama serial Cambridge Spies.
At the end of last year, Stephens played the real-life Anthony Armstrong-Jones (who became Lord Snowdon) in the highly-controversial Channel 4 drama The Queen's Sister, opposite Lucy Cohu as the royal wild child Princess Margaret. He missed the expected media backlash, as he was away in India at the time, filming for ITV1's new Sharpe drama.
'I managed to avoid all the fuss - it was kind of deliberate!' he laughs. 'I didn't want to get sucked into an argument about what's truth and fiction, who's going to like it, who's not going to like it - so I was glad to be away when all that happened.
'But I'm very proud of it, as I consider it a great piece of work. I don't want to be scared as an actor, and I don't want to be scared about what people are going to think, because that's censorship in a way. I never want to be in a situation where I turn something down because I'm worried about what someone's going to think about me.'
Does he consider his famous family acting background a help or a hindrance?
'Maybe I was just ridiculously naive, but when I first got into this business, I didn't think of it that way,' says Stephens, who began his acting career while a stagehand at the Chichester Festival Theatre.
'I thought I'd be seen completely on my own merits. I think for a spell there was a time when I was constantly referred to as the son of famous parents - you couldn't get away from it, and neither did I want to, I'm very proud of my parents. But I did wonder, when will I be allowed to be me?
'But then, gradually, you begin to have enough weight of work behind you when you get separated from that tag, and I'm comfortable about that. But I certainly never want to deny it, because I'm extremely proud of both of them. I certainly never made it help me. I never used my parents as a calling card, because I'm proud enough to want to do it on my own.'
Stephens' next role, in ITV1's upcoming period swashbuckler Sharpe's Challenge, is another not-so-upright individual. He plays an embittered captain, William Dodd, alongside Sean Bean returning to the title role.
Stephens relished his time out on location in India, and even invited his wife and mother, Dame Maggie, out there for a spell. 'I love India, and I had about twelve days off filming, so we went around Rahjistan. I try and do as much travelling as I can when I'm abroad filming.'
Right now Stephens' physical profile is extremely striking; he's darkened his hair and he's growing some pretty impressive sideburns in preparation to play one of English Lit's most troubled and misunderstood anti-heroes, Rochester, in Jane Eyre.
'The perfect messed-up guy - what more could I ask for?' he laughs.
The Best Man is on ITV1 Wales on Monday at 9pm.
MSP EXPO II
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