On Starz’s “Arrr!”-rated drama Black Sails (returning for its second season on Jan. 24), Toby Stephens swashes buckles with the best of ‘em as Captain John Flint. It’s only the latest in a series of wicked-cool roles for the 45-year-old Brit, the youngest actor to ever play a Bond villain (Gustav Graves in 2002’s Tomorrow Never Dies) and the only one who’s also portrayed 007 (in a series of BBC radio plays). Plus, he’s the real-life son of Downton Abbey’s Dame Maggie Smith. Who knew? Stephens battened down the hatches and submitted himself to our questionnaire.
Where do things stand for Capt. Flint as Season 2 of Black Sails opens?
He’s in a bad situation. He’s finally gotten to the Urca gold, but his ship is destroyed, and he’s got to find a way to get the gold off the beach. The crew’s in tatters and pissed off at him. They want to lynch him.
So he has to forge an alliance with his onetime nemesis, John Silver (Luke Arnold)?
He has no other option. It’s fun — they’re thrown together in this way, and neither of them really trust or like each other, but they have to work together.
It’s hard to tell if Flint is a good guy or a bad guy. Is there such a thing as a good pirate?
What’s cool about the way stories can be told now on TV in these long-form series is they can be much more sophisticated than a film, which only has two hours. You have to put people in boxes like good guy, bad guy, love interest, ingenue, whatever. These series are more like a hybrid of a film and a novel. It’s not as simple as good and bad. They’re human beings in circumstances that force them to behave in certain ways. Flint has an arrogance and pride that makes him act in a certain way. The second season reveals more about what’s driving him.
How have you managed to tell a pirate story without it getting campy like Pirates of the Caribbean?
The writers were very keen that nobody do any kind of faux piratical accents. As soon as you start doing all that stuff with the parrots and the wooden legs — the baggage that comes with our preconceived notion of pirates — it immediately distances the audience from the characters. And the whole reason series like this work is because audiences identify with the characters and want to follow them.
Has your mum, Dame Maggie Smith, seen Black Sails?
She hasn’t yet. In the U.K., you can only get it on Amazon Prime. My mom’s 80, so expecting her to do digital downloads is like asking her to fucking fly to the moon.
Which is more fun, playing James Bond — as you did on the BBC4 radio shows — or a Bond villain in Die Another Day?
I have to say doing it on the radio was the most fun I’ve ever had. Obviously, doing the movie was great, but we went back to the original Ian Fleming novels for the radio productions. The films are very heavily adapted. I’m about to do Diamonds Are Forever for the radio, and it’ll be a bunch of people having a laugh in the studio. There isn’t all the paraphernalia that goes along with filming. It’s a very simple storytelling exercise, and a great character.
What was your first exposure to Playboy?
I was about seven, and I was at my friend Todd Hannigan’s house in Stratford, Ontario. His dad had a collection up in the attic. It was brave new world for me! This was around 1977. It was the vaseline-lens era. And there was a lot more pubic hair!
What movie scared you the most when you were a kid?
This sounds really ridiculous, but my nanny had worked for Monty Python as a secretary, and she was quite good friends with Marty Feldman, so she took me to see Young Frankenstein at a drive-in when I was about six. Of course, it’s hilarious, but at the time it scared the shit out of me! I’d never seen anything like it.
If you ended up on death row, what would your last meal be?
My last meal would be spaghetti a la bolognese. What were you expecting, a burger and fries?
What was your first car?
A VW Golf. We’re talking about England here. I wasn’t in the U.S. It’s a European car — what can I say?
What was the first song you knew all the words to?
“Moonlight Drive” by the Doors.
Do you have a pop-culture blind spot?
Social media. I know it’s there, but I can’t really be bothered with it.
What was your favorite mistake?
Oh my God, I’ve made so many! [Laughs.] I remember once when I was coming back from New York to London, I got so drunk on the flight that I abandoned my bags at the airport. I just got in the cab with my hand luggage. I came conscious halfway back to my house and realized what I had done and had to go back!
Currently Senior Articles Editor for Closer Weekly, Bruce Fretts wrote TV Guide Magazine‘s wildly popular “Cheers & Jeers” column for 10 years. His work has also been published in the New York Times, Vulture.com, Fast Company, New York Daily News, Digital Spy, DuJour Magazine, the Sundance Channel’s website and RogerEbert.com. You can follow him on Twitter @brucefretts.