Toby Stephens is no stranger to iconic characters — but he knows that playing patriarch John Robinson in the Netflix reboot of “Lost in Space” holds a lot of weight.
“I suppose it’s sort of chutzpah on my part to actually feel that I can fill these shoes [of characters with large cultural footprints],” says Stephens, 48, who’s also played an infamous pirate (“Black Sails”), a Bond villain (“Die Another Day”) and Mr. Rochester (“Jane Eyre”). “It’s the same with ‘Lost in Space,’ ” he says. “Loads of people hold this [show] very dear because they grew up watching it.”
The 10-episode series, premiering Friday, is set in a near future when humanity is colonizing space. It follows the Robinsons — John, wife Maureen (Molly Parker) and children Judy (Taylor Russell), Penny (Mina Sundwall) and Will (Maxwell Jenkins) — as their galaxy-spanning journey gets thrown off course.
The original series aired on CBS from 1965-68, with Guy Williams and June Lockhart as John and Maureen Robinson. That, in turn, spawned a 1998 movie starring William Hurt and Mimi Rogers as John and Maureen.
Stephens, who’s English, says he was among those who grew up watching it. “I was in Los Angeles and Canada for a few years when my parents [actors Maggie Smith and Robert Stephens] were over here working,” he says. “My mom was working [in Stratford, Ontario, from 1976-80] in the theater there when Robin Phillips was artistic director. So there was a formative period of my childhood when I was consuming American TV: reruns of ‘Star Trek,’ ‘Lost in Space,’ ‘Gilligan’s Island,’ ‘M*A*S*H.’ ” Nonetheless, Stephens says he didn’t refer to the original during the Netflix “Lost in Space” production, which shot in Vancouver. “I didn’t go back, but there was a method to that — I felt it wasn’t going to help,” he says.
“The first series was very much of the ’60s: this pristine, apple pie American family. The characters and relationships [in this version] are more nuanced and muddled.”
“Lost in Space” has modernized the original series, updating the visuals from campy to slick and changing the gender of the scheming Dr. Smith (Jonathan Harris in the original, Parker Posey in the reboot); oldest daughter Judy is now biracial (she’s Maureen’s child from her first marriage).
But the biggest change resounds with John and Maureen’s relationship, which was harmonious in the original series but is extremely rocky here. “I really like the dynamic between Maureen and John. I felt that it was very real,” says Stephens. “John is trying to find his way back into the family while still being separated from Maureen.
“I don’t think he has some idea that, ‘Oh, I’m going to hook up with Maureen again’ when he goes off on this journey. It just so happens that … they find one another again.
“I really like the idea of the romance of this piece being between the parents — which will probably gross out all the kids, but I think it’s lovely and unusual.”