In Trevor Nunn’s 1996 “Twelfth Night,” possibly the best, or at least among the top, film adaptations of this comedy, Toby Stephens plays Orsino as a languid, distant melancholic.
So it took me a number of double-takes to recognize the same actor — now fiery red-headed, apparently his natural coloring — 20 years later, as bloody, devious Capt. Flint from the lush pirate epic “Black Sails,” a “Games of Thrones”-ish (heavily peopled, disturbingly graphic, reliant much like “Vikings” on period detail, lavishing bucks building actual working ships for ramming and wrecking) production, set in the Bahamas but filmed in South Africa.
It ran four years on Starz, 2014-2017, and you can get it on disc. I found the Blu rays worth the extra dollars; it’s a vivid, beautiful mess.
Stephens works heavily in theater, especially for the Royal Shakespeare Company, as did his parents — more on them in a bit — but he’s been in movies such as Sally Potter’s 1992 “Orlando,” from the Virginia Woolf novel, and Tilda Swinton’s breakthrough role; as the villain in the 2002 Bond movie “Die Another Day,” Gustav Graves; in a 2000 adaptation of “The Great Gatsby,” as Jay Gatz: and on TV series and miniseries such as the 2006 “Jane Eyre,” playing Rochester. He’s currently John Robinson on the new “Lost in Space” series.
Stephens burned through “Black Sails” as Flint, a former naval officer leaving more than one twisted tale in his wake, a sort-of prequel to “Treasure Island” that mixes Robert Louis Stevenson’s characters (such as Flint, Long John Silver, and Billy Bones) with real-world pirates such as Anne Bonny, Edward “Blackbeard” Teach, “Calico Jack” Rackham (who created the skull-and-crossbones Jolly Roger flag) and Israel Hands, one of the few who was both historical figure and “Treasure Island” character.
It’s a bloody fine time, if you can abide graphic realism in your sax and violins.
Wonderfully atmospheric music by Bear McCreary, who also composed/composes for “Battlestar Galactica,” “The Walking Dead,” “Outlander” (if you listen, you can hear the “Outlander” theme, “Skye Boat Song,” playing in a bar in “Black Sails”) and others.
McCreary’s one of the rare proteges taken on by film and theater legend Elmer Bernstein, composer for “The Magnificent Seven,” “To Kill a Mockingbird,” “The Great Escape,” “The Ten Commandments,” “Hud,” “Ghostbusters,” “Animal House”… on and on. Though he was NOT related to Leonard Bernstein; just pals, distinguished from one another in their field as Bernstein West and Bernstein East, because while both composed for theater and film, Elmer leaned more LA while Leonard worked more in NYC. Also pronounced differently: Elmer BERN-steen, and Leonard BERN-stine.
Now back to our regularly scheduled Brit-theatrical deep-dive.
Because he carries his father’s name, I didn’t know until imdbing, the day after the Improbable Fictions’ latest staged reading of “Twelfth Night,” that Toby Stephens is the son of Dame Maggie Smith.
The Dame Maggie Smith.
That Dame Maggie Smith. Violet Crawley, Minerva McGonagall, Miss Jean Brodie, and various goddesses, matriarchs and acid-tongued ladies of stage and screen for the past 60 years.
Stephens’ older brother, Smith’s other son, Chris Larkin, has one of those character-actor faces you’ll likely recognize, having been in “Master and Commander,” “Valkyrie,” “Jane Eyre,” and numerous others. Larkin also co-starred on “Black Sails” (as Captain Berringer), as did Stephens’ wife, Anna-Louise Plowman (as Mrs. Hudson), who you might remember from “Stargate SG-1,” or an Eccleston “Doctor Who” episode, or….The “Black Sails” actor who played Anne Bonny was born Lady Clara Elizabeth Iris Paget, daughter of the Marquess of Anglesey.
Aside from being born near-royalty himself as Maggie Smith’s son, Toby Stephens is also step-son to Patricia Quinn, who was the fourth wife of another RSC giant, Sir Robert Stephens, once thought to be the next Laurence Olivier, though heavy drinking dropped him into the gutter.
But after remarrying and sobering up (at least somewhat), then came a somewhat on-the-nose comeback: Robert Stephens won the ’93 Olivier Award for his Falstaff. The RSC also invited him back to play Lear and Julius Caesar. Stephens was knighted early in ’95; deceased in late ’95.
While still married, Stephens and Smith starred in the 1967 film of “Much Ado About Nothing,” as Benedick and Beatrice, built around a stage adaptation directed by Franco Zeffirelli, who you might know from every other Shakespeare film ever, but especially the beloved 1968 “Romeo and Juliet,” for which Stephens played The Prince, and Olivier (uncredited) narrated and played Lord Montague. Zeffirelli directed Larkin in a 1996 “Jane Eyre,” though not brother Stephens in the 2006 “Jane Eyre.”
The elder Stephens worked with Kenneth Branagh (who directed and starred in the 1993 “Much Ado” movie opposite HIS then-wife, Emma Thompson) on the 1989 film “Henry V,” as “Auncient” Pistol, while Smith of course worked with Branagh in the Harry Potter movies.
But then everyone’s worked with Branagh, the English Kevin Bacon.
Both Stephens and Smith worked with Olivier in productions of “Othello,” as Iago and Desdemona … though separately.
Oh yeah, and Stephens’ aforementioned fourth wife, Patricia Quinn? You’ll recognize her as Magenta from “The Rocky Horror Picture Show.” Those are her lips at the beginning, mouthing “Science Fiction, Double Feature,” though the voice belongs to her old friend Richard O’Brien, aka Riff Raff, who wrote the musical “RHPS”‘s based on. Quinn’s nephew is the drummer for Snow Patrol.
My new favorite Toby Stephens quote: “Actors don’t listen to each other. You’re so obsessed with what you’re saying or doing that the other person could be talking in Swahili and you wouldn’t know.”
There’s really no point to all this meandering, except that theatrical life can be far more incestuous, twisted and intriguing than just about anyone’s, with the possible exception of perhaps actual royalty.
~Mark Hughes Cobb