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Sixty Seconds with Toby Stephens

■ The actor, 50, on new series Summer Of Rockets, the end of his action-man days and what it would take to get him to Mars

You’ve gone from Lost In Space to Summer Of Rockets. Is there a theme developing?

Yes, that’s funny, but they are very different projects. I’m not in space in Summer Of Rockets.

No plans to join Elon Musk’s Mars mission, then?

No way. Lost In Space showed me how harsh that would be. It’s not the kind of place you could live easily — and it takes so long to get there. When they’ve got a spa up there, then I’ll go. When you can get a massage on Mars, sign me up!

Summer Of Rockets is set in England in the 1950s. What’s the central theme?

For me, it’s identity — the characters are all searching for who they are. For my character Samuel, it’s about him coming to terms with who he is. He’s a Jewish émigré but he totally worships England — he’s in love with the whole idea of being English. It’s all about fitting in.

A unique voice: Stephen Poliakoff PICTURE: REX

Mention identity or immigrants and the mind inevitably turns to a certain B-word…

Yes, I know that’s there, but I know that Stephen [Poliakoff, writer and director] wanted to stay away from making too much of an analogy. But it’s there and it’s right that it should be there. The attitude to how we view immigrants and what makes us belong is central to the story.

The new series shows that the 1950s were hardly halcyon days.

Exactly. There seems to be a hankering after a past that didn’t really exist. It was a time that was riddled with paranoia about the Cold War, the Suez Crisis — and spies were all working for Russia and lurking everywhere. Happy days!

You spend a lot of time working in America. Do you still feel British?

Yes, definitely British. But you can’t help but be troubled by what’s going on and where it will all end. I thought I was part of some sort of open, forward-thinking society and then it turns out that I’m living among a lot of people who don’t think like that. You have to accept that, though. I’m not about to become American — it’s not much different there, in any case!

Still recovering: Stephens in Black Sails PICTURES: REX

Your character, Samuel, is something of a tech pioneer, an inventor of hearing aids. Did that element appeal to you?

I thought that was part of what makes him such a wonderful character. He’s based on Stephen’s grandfather and it is in part biographical. He ran a factory that was full of deaf workers and I loved his pragmatic approach. He just saw them as good workers, he wasn’t bogged down in some kind of social project.

It’s a curious thing but would you agree the deaf characters are the happiest characters in Summer Of Rockets?

Yes. They’re a kind of society unto themselves, they are a very tight unit. I feel that comes across. And they are happy because they are a community, they don’t get caught up in that other stuff, all the social palaver that goes on. They are classless, they live a kind of parallel existence. It was evident that they had a very strong sense of themselves — and I don’t think the story in any way patronises them.

Stephen Poliakoff’s dramas have a particular mood and style. How did you find that?

He has a very clear idea of what he wants to achieve and he’s going to get what he wants — and, by hook or by crook, he’ll get you there. It’s what makes him a unique voice but at times it makes it hard as an actor. You may not agree on how to handle a scene but you can’t argue with him — after all, it’s his vision. Even though I was playing the lead, there was no licence, there was no negotiation. But I have enormous respect for him and the way he works.

You’ve turned 50. Does this spell an end for your action-man days in the likes of Black Sails?

Christ, I can’t keep doing all that stuff, the body won’t take it. I’m still recovering from Black Sails and we finished filming ages ago. I don’t think I’ll ever go back to that kind of thing. It’s funny, it’s not really what I’m most comfortable with — I somehow got sidetracked into playing pirates and astronauts and Bond villains.

Does Summer Of Rockets mark a sea change in your career?

I think I imagined that by 50 I’d get to do a load of different jobs. But, to be honest, the last ten or 11 years it’s been all about paying the bills — that’s what happens when you have kids, that’s a massive motivation. But then you start to think, ‘Hey, there’s only a certain amount of time left to do what I want to do.’ So it’s great when you get the chance to be doing something that’s more grown up.

Summer Of Rockets is available as a box set on iPlayer and continues on BBC2 on Wednesdays at 9pm. The Stephen Poliakoff Collection is also on iPlayer