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

When filming first began on the warship set outside Cape Town, Stephens had worried about his own character. “It was quite neurotic, scary at times,” he admits. “When you’re filming you become this pathetic person who’s constantly wanting approbation; I hate that person. It took all my self-discipline not to beg for compliments from people.” 

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In the past, Stephens buried any insecurities in boozy socialising, but no longer. “I don’t drink any more,” he says. “There was a period when I partied too much.” 

Does he regret that? “I could have made more of my time, my decisions weren’t always great. One of the burdens of this career is that you’re always either looking backwards and going, ‘Oh why didn’t I do that?’, or you’re looking forwards going, ‘I have to be here’, rather than just enjoying now.”

Stephens in Black Sails

This questioning came to a head when he found himself “taking parts in detective series” as he turned 40. “Rochester was the best thing I’d had in the last ten years. I was asking myself, ‘What am I doing?’ Then suddenly I had this moment of clarity where I went: ‘You’ve got kids, a wife, a beautiful home – why the f**k are you spending all this time in this angst?’”

Since that moment, Stephens has stopped worrying about what other people might think. “You have to make your own time, just to be yourself,” he says. “To have your own head space.” Which doesn’t sound altogether like an 18th-century pirate.

“Well, I went pirate on that wardrobe,” he says, considering the injured arm again. “And there wasn’t a mark on it afterwards.” 

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Black Sails begins tonight (Tuesday 14th July) at 10pm