On the epic Netflix series Lost in Space, a modern re-imagining of the 1960s sci-fi classic and set 30 years in the future, John Robinson (Toby Stephens) is a dad and seasoned combat veteran who is a natural leader on the battlefield, but who is still trying to find his place alongside his wife, Maureen (Molly Parker), and their kids, Judy (Taylor Russell), Penny (Mina Sundwall) and Will (Maxwell Jenkins). When their spaceship crash-lands on an unknown planet, they must face one potential disaster after another, and they must quickly learn to adapt, work together and form new alliances, if they’re going to survive in an environment with dangers around every corner.
During this 1-on-1 phone interview with Collider, actor Toby Stephens talked about what sold him on this re-telling of Lost in Space, going from a show that lives in the past, with Black Sails, to one that lives in the future, whether John learns to relate to his kids any better, by the end of the season, finding common ground with the robot that’s taken a liking to his son, the challenge of acting on a spaceship, what he loves about the family dynamic, and getting to bring his family to the set.
Collider: When Lost in Space came your way, what were the biggest questions you had about doing it and what really sold you on it?
TOBY STEPHENS: They sent me the script and I was dubious, at first. I said, “Lost in Space? They’re reviving that?! They tried to do that with the film, and it didn’t work.” And then, I read the script and I actually liked it. The thing I liked most was that they were pitching it at such a great level. It was sophisticated enough for adults to watch and really get something out of it, and yet it had this fantastic adventure quality. What I really liked about it is that the kids are intelligent and it’s aspirational. If I were a kid watching this, I’d be like, “I want to be that bright and that capable.” And it doesn’t get ridiculous. They pitched it at the right level. And I felt that Maureen and John were real people. I like the way that they were written and I liked the fact that it was a relationship in trouble. They’re trying to figure out how to get along and how to deal with not only this extreme situation that they’re in, with extreme jeopardy and the terror of that, but also figuring out how to work things out between themselves. That’s what sold me on it. They seemed to be a family that people can relate to because it’s not some apple pie family that just doesn’t exist. They’re fallible human beings, who are trying to be better.
I love how the Robinson kids – Judy (Taylor Russell), Penny (Mina Sundwall) and Will (Max Jenkins) – are all so layered and interesting, and each have their own storylines.
STEPHENS: Like most kids, they’re all completely different from one another, and they have different strengths and weakness, just like normal kids in a family. It’s about how you cope with that. All of those different dynamics that happen seemed real to me, they’re just in these extraordinary circumstances.
You’ve gone from exploring the past at sea to exploring the future on another planet. What’s it like to go from a show that lives in the past to one that lives in the future?
STEPHENS: It’s brilliant! It’s one of the reasons that I love doing what I do. You can do something so entirely different, not only in its context, but also in its whole feel. I had done Black Sails for four years and it was a really tough journey for me. I know it sounds slightly pretentious, but I really was wrung out, by the end, by the whole experience. It was an amazing experience, but I’ve never worked that hard, in my life. There were long days with extreme conditions, filming in South Africa, and you had to go from massive physical set pieces to doing intense dialogue scenes. You’d go from one extreme, of being beaten up physically, to another extreme, of being beaten up mentally. So, when this came along and I started doing it, it was a relief to me. With Black Sails, Flint’s journey and options were narrowing down and it was inevitable, what was going to happen to him. With Lost in Space, it seems to be opening out. It’s about people trying to survive and trying to be better people and fighting to be alive. Flint had a death wish. After four years, that was really dark. It’s just a really nice juxtaposition to Black Sails, which I miss, enormously, but it felt like I was on holiday [with Lost in Space]. Although, like any job, Lost in Space had its own pressures, but they weren’t the same pressures that I experienced on Black Sails.
Does John learn to relate to his kids any better, by the end of the season, or is that an ongoing process for him?
STEPHENS: I think he does. That was a wonderful journey for me, as an actor. I really enjoyed playing that. As the season progresses, the robot becomes this surrogate father and protector for Will, who’s physically frightened. The irony is that Will has this father who is very brave, and who’s gone off on done all of this fighting in war, and he’s very capable, himself, but he’s nervous and frightened. So, the robot becomes very protective of him, but at the same time, threatens John. His son has to go to a robot to get what he should be giving him, and that’s painful for him. The realization that he’s missed out on an enormous amount of his kids’ childhood and not being there for them, and trying to make up for that and connect with them again, is a very moving thing to play.
Does John want to find some common ground with the robot, if Will is going to be so closely attached to him?
STEPHENS: Yeah. Initially, John is very distrustful of the robot. It’s a real problem because you need the robot in this extreme situation, since he seems to be able to help you, but at the same time, what is this thing goes berserk? You just don’t know what he’s going to do. And as the show goes on, you realize that there are more reasons for him to distrust this thing. The whole thing is a great journey. All of that is really fun to play.
What have you had to learn to do, specifically to play this character?
STEPHENS: The biggest learn for me, that I’ve never had to do before, was doing all of that spaceship acting, sitting in the pilot’s chair and knowing what all the buttons do. That was such fun. While you’re doing it, you’re going, “What am I doing?!,” and then you have to remember what you used the buttons for, the next time. Being on a spaceship, throwing yourself around, I had a blast. You have to pinch yourself, once in awhile, and go, “What am I doing?!”
And the spacesuit didn’t look particularly comfortable.
STEPHENS: Yeah, the spacesuit was pretty uncomfortable, I have to say. One of the things I most enjoyed about the shoot, because it was so refreshing to me, was working with the kids. One becomes a bit jaded. It’s easy to fall into saying, “Oh, this spacesuit is so uncomfortable!” But when Max Jenkins is jumping around going, “This spacesuit is so cool!,” it’s so refreshing. It’s so refreshing to be around that enthusiasm. It’s infectious. It was so great having the kids around because it just made you realize how lucky we were to be doing what we were doing.
When did you guys first meet? Did you have time to get to know each other, before you started shooting?
STEPHENS: We had a little bit of rehearsal time, but it was just a little bit. Max is such an easy kid to get to know. He’s just so open, and his parents are adorable. We couldn’t have lucked out more with the children that we got because they’re really great kids. They’re really open, really friendly, really open to having a great time, and up for learning. That just makes things so much easier. I’m assuming that things can go very differently. We were incredibly lucky. All of us just really got on well and working with them seemed very natural. There didn’t seem to be any process that we had to go through. It just happened very quickly.