Toby Stephens on being pigenholed as posh and playing a pirate in Black Sails

The actor was taught to talk proper by his mother Maggie Smith - but he doesn't like to be called a toff

Toby Stephens walks in awkwardly, raising a right hand swathed in bandages. “I banged my head on a shelf at home and got cross,” he says, as I look at the injured limb. “So I took my anger out on a wardrobe.” Best not annoy him then. Apart from me, the only other things in this fashionably bare Covent Garden meeting room are a glass table and a set of steel chairs. 

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Stephens is sheepish. I’d expected him to be pugnacious, cocky even. After a career dip saw him “turning up in episodes of Lewis”, the success of American-funded pirate extravaganza Black Sails, a prequel to Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island in which Stephens stars as Captain James Flint, means he is box-office material again. As he says, “millions of people watch the show – suddenly I’m commercially interesting”.

Injury aside, he looks fantastic; startlingly pale blue eyes, a complexion blessed by 14 alcohol-free years and a T-shirt that struggles to cover his muscles. But it will emerge that Stephens has been a troubled man and that Black Sails, in some ways, saved him. “For me,” he admits, “this came like manna from heaven.”

The biceps and pecs are necessary equipment for the captain of a ship battling anything armed and afloat in the 18th-century Caribbean, under constant threat of mutiny and rebellion. “At 46, I’m beginning not to enjoy the physical side of it,” he says. “At the start of the series they beat the s**t out of me until I got into shape. So my appearance isn’t vanity. I want to look like I’m useful, I don’t want to look like a model.”

Perhaps, but he must enjoy walking past the pool. “No, I still feel self-conscious. Being a redhead with freckles you always do,” he says cheerfully – though he then adds a little sadly, “That’s my life really, being self-conscious.”

An intense and thoughtful actor, Stephens has used that self-consciousness to his advantage, most notably as Bond villain Gustav Graves in the essentially bonkers Die Another Day, in 2002, and an acclaimed Rochester in the BBC’s 2006 version of Jane Eyre. His Captain Flint is intelligent, though willing to employ great violence when required.

“The fighting doesn’t come naturally to me,” says Stephens. “I hate physical violence. In my 20s I was attacked by a gang in Stratford-upon-Avon.” I laugh. No one is attacked by a gang in Stratford-upon-Avon.

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“Well I was! My brother and I had just seen Kenneth Branagh in Hamlet, then six youths beat me up outside. I’d never experienced anything like it, I didn’t even think about retaliating.”