Toby Stephens on starring in Broadway hit Oslo: 'It will mean something different to UK audiences'

So, I say to Toby Stephens, what made you choose the multi-award-winning Broadway play Oslo — a dazzling political thriller about the 1993 Israeli-PLO peace accord, which opens at the National before a guaranteed transfer to the West End — for your return to the British stage after four years away? “I know,” says the handsome 48-year-old father of three, with a wry grin, “it was a really difficult decision. I was getting a bit panicked, thinking, Christ, I really need to do something back in the UK otherwise I am just going to disappear. And this came along and it was the perfect project.”

Stephens made his name on stage soon after graduating from Lamda in 1992, playing Coriolanus and Hamlet among many others for the RSC, doing Racine at the Almeida and Tennessee Williams in the West End, and became known to the wider public as the villain Gustav Graves in the Bond film Die Another Day. But he last graced the capital’s theatres in an airy Private Lives in 2012, the last in a string of great stage roles that included the leads in Danton’s Death and Tom Stoppard’s The Real Thing. Since then he’s played a swashbuckling Captain Flint in four seasons of the Starz network’s pirate yarn Black Sails, appeared as a Navy Seal “action hero” for Michael Bay in 13 Hours and starred in the yet-to-air Netflix reboot of cult family sci-fi favourite Lost in Space.

His second onslaught on America, after a failed bid in his late twenties, “has really changed things for me” — it’s freed him from the posh cads that almost became his stock-in trade. The unspoken corollary to this is that outside the UK he’s seen more as his own man rather than the son of Dame Maggie Smith and the late classical actor and hellraiser Sir Robert Stephens.

This is my third interview in two decades with Stephens and he is unwilling to rehash again his parents’ early divorce, his mother’s remarriage to the playwright Beverley Cross, and the complex affection he feels for all three (He is “extremely close” to his mother, refers to Cross, who died in 1998, as “Dad”, and his father, who died in 1995, as “Robert”).

Nor does he want to discuss the shadow cast over him by their talent and by the alcoholism that killed his father and might have claimed him too, had he not sworn off booze almost 20 years ago, after falling asleep in his dressing room when he was due onstage with Diana Rigg’s Phedre. So we talk about his new play.

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Oslo is the story of a married Norwegian diplomat couple, Terje Rød-Larsen (Stephens) and Mona Juul (Lydia Leonard), who broke decades of angry stalemate in the Middle East by a process Larsen called “gradualism”. Bringing together progressively senior representatives of the PLO and the Israeli government, without formality and with a great deal of whisky and Norwegian home cooking in a chateau outside Oslo, they created a dialogue that eventually led to the historic handshake between Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat on the White House lawn.

The involvement of the Scandinavians was a revelation to Stephens. “I was totally ignorant,” he says. “I thought it was Clinton [who brought them together] because you saw the photos of him with Rabin and Arafat. But it was because the Americans had no part in it, really, that made it effective.”

The play paints Larsen as ebullient, grandstanding, “manipulating people and situations” but able to conjure personal friendships despite cultural and political animosities, and often chancing his arm (Stephens adds that Larsen, like Henrik Ibsen, comes from Bergen, where people are more “irreverent and revolutionary” than in “pretty straight” Oslo). Juul is the woman who uses her diplomatic skill and authority (and the fact that everyone seems to fall a bit in love with her) to actually make things happen. Both avoided the spotlight when the accord was signed.

Indeed, the story might have gone untold: the couple moved on (and Larsen apparently has lost his faith in Gradualism, given subsequent developments in the Middle East). Juul is now Norway’s first female ambassador to the UK and has a transatlantic marriage with Larsen, president of the International Peace Institute adjacent to the United Nations. But their 14-year-old twins go to the same school as the daughter of Bartlett Sher, the American theatre director who got chatting to Larsen while watching their offspring play basketball, and put him and Juul in touch with playwright JT Rogers.

Sher directed both New York productions of the resultant play, and also helms the London production, which Stephens says will feel very different. “What the play very carefully and brilliantly does is not become bogged down in the present, or in the [current] politics of the Israel-Palestinian conflict,” he says. “It is dealing with a very specific period of time.

“But that allows us to read all kinds of different things into this because it becomes about negotiation. Was it the right thing to do? Was it effective? Does it mean there is potential hope for situations around the world now? Bart said that in New York it became about Democrats and Republicans. Here maybe it will be about Brexit...”

It represents a welcome return for Stephens, not just to the National but to the capital. He and his wife, New Zealand-born actress Anna-Louise Plowman, have lived in east London since shortly after they married in 2001 but he has spent six months shooting Black Sails in South Africa for the past four years, then another six this year in Toronto on Lost in Space. They uprooted the entire family to both locations, hiring tutors or finding local schools for their three children: Eli, 10, Tallulah, eight, and Kura, seven.

Becoming a father, Stephens says, is “the most challenging thing that I have ever done, and also extraordinary and wonderful. It is rather clichéd but it really stopped me being such a selfish person. Before children it’s kind of easy to be solipsistic — you and your wife are in this hermetic little thing, and your own desires, wants, needs, tastes dictate your choices. Then suddenly all of that’s gone.” He adds: “Since I’ve had kids I thank God that I don’t drink as I really wouldn’t have been able to cope.”

He’s glad his children will be able to watch him in Lost in Space — Black Sails was too violent, Oslo is too complex and troubling. “It’s not that I think I am doing something distasteful,” he says. “But I do remember going to see my mum in a production of Night and Day in New York when I was nine or 10, the age my son is now, and there was a scene where a body double was naked in a shower. I thought it was my mum and I was mortified, distraught.

“I saw her in The Seagull, playing Arkadina, when I was 11 or 12 and was disturbed by it, because it had parallels to my life. Not that I think those things did me any great harm; they made me what I am. But it’s very hard to get your head around why daddy is on stage with someone strange, kissing and cuddling.”

His kids are used to seeing their grandmother on screen, as Professor McGonagall in the Harry Potter series, and he has introduced them to Robert through a Radio 4 adaptation of The Lord of the Rings in which he played Aragorn. “If they want to become actors I wouldn’t stop them,” he says, somewhat glumly. He knows they would be subject to the same comparisons he has lived with, though he seems more at ease with both his family heritage and his career than in our previous meetings.

We return to the subject of fatherhood. “It was a great thing for me,” he says. “It made me more pragmatic about things. Quite honestly, as long as I am working, can enjoy what I do, get on with it and put bread on the table, I am really happy.” It’s good to hear.

Oslo is at the National Theatre, Sept 5-23 (; then at the Harold Pinter Theatre, SW1, from Oct 2-Dec 30