The son of the late Sir Robert Stephens and Dame Maggie Smith, it's little surprise that actor Toby Stephens has a deeply embedded love of theatre. In his relatively brief career to date, he's more than demonstrated that he has a tremendous talent for it, too.

Stephens' stage breakthrough came in 1994 with the title role in the RSC production of Coriolanus, for which he received the Ian Charleson Award and the Sir John Gielgud Award for Best Actor. His other roles for the Royal Shakespeare Company have included Measure for Measure, A Midsummer Night's Dream, All's Well That Ends Well and Antony and Cleopatra.

In more recent years, Stephens has won West End plaudits for Jonathan Kent's Racine double bill of Britannicus and Phedre (for the Almeida at the Albery Theatre), A Streetcar Named Desire (Haymarket) and Japes (Haymarket).

Meanwhile, on television and film, Stephens has appeared in Camomile Lawn, A View from the Bridge, Tenant of Wildfell Hall, Perfect Strangers, Possession, The Great Gatsby, Eugene Onegin and Orlando.

Stephens is currently back on stage, joining an all-star ensemble - Judi Dench, Harriet Walter, Peter Bowles, Julia McKenzie and Philip Voss - in Peter Hall's production of The Royal Family. The 1920s Broadway comedy by Edna Ferber and George S Kaufman is loosely modelled on the legendary American acting clan, the Barrymores. This is the first London revival of the play since Noel Coward's 1930 production. Stephens plays dashing silver screen star Tony Cavendish, a part performed 71 years ago by Laurence Olivier.

Date & place of birth
Born 21 April 1969 in London.

Lives now in...
North London

Trained at...
London Academy of Music & Dramatic Arts (LAMDA)

First big break
I suppose that was my first job which was a TV version of Mary Wesley's Camomile Lawn (1992). That was directed by Peter Hall.

Career highlights to date
Playing Coriolanus and also the last play I did, Japes (2000), which was the one I was most proud of.

Favourite production you've ever worked on
Japes. I thought it was a wonderful play and it was a very demanding role for me. It pushed me into areas I hadn't gone before and that's always very stimulating for an actor. It was also great being able to work with a living playwright. Simon Gray was involved in rehearsals and he subsequently became a friend of mine. It's not often that you work with someone who's both alive and present. Simon was incredibly articulate in his writing, which helped me a great deal, and he gave very succinct notes.

Favourite co-stars
I would have to say Jasper Britton (Japes) and Philip Voss (who's also in The Royal Family). I've worked with Philip about five times now, and this is the first time he's not playing my father or a father figure.

Favourite directors
Jonathan Kent (currently Almeida joint artistic director) and Peter Hall because I've worked with him so much. Peter always comes back to using me again which is great.

Favourite playwrights
Shakespeare. And also Simon Gray.

What role would you most like to play still?
Macbeth. That's the one that I feel I could do the most with and I'd like to do it in my 30s. It's a role that's usually done by someone in their 40s or 50s, but Macbeth is about ambition and I think it would be good to have it played by someone at the peak of their ambition. Somewhere between 32 and 40 would be the ideal age. Unfortunately, the tragic thing about most actors, is that you have to wait until someone asks you to do a role.

In your opinion, what's the best thing currently on stage (not including this production)?
The last thing I saw that I really enjoyed was The Winter's Tale with Alex Jennings and Claire Skinner at the National. I thought it was a truly brilliant version and the modern setting really liberated it.

What advice would you give the government to secure the future of British theatre?
The only thing I can say is that the arts do need funding and protecting, especially theatre. We are very good at theatre in this country and we should take pride in that but, within reason, we need help. It's very difficult at this time to find an audience because of various crises, beginning with BSE and then foot and mouth and now the current economic climate. Tourism is in mortal danger. To sustain theatre, we need support over the next few years. I think a lowering of ticket prices is required. I don't understand the machinations of why tickets need to cost so much. If you want to develop a younger audience, you need to create special rates occasionally. And it is very important to nurture a younger audience. The bulk of the present audience simply isn't going to be around anymore in a few years' time - then who's going to come?

Why do you think theatre is important in times such as these - of war, recession and other global crises?
Firstly, there is an element of escapism. Like in the Great Depression, the movie and theatre industries became very popular because people wanted to escape from the everyday grimness of their situation. The Royal Family, for instance, is a very light piece. You can come, enjoy it and forget your problems for a few hours.

The other great thing about theatre is that it creates a humanist dialogue; theatre has a lot to say about that the emotions and politics of simply being a human being and there's a lot of power in what it has to say. In terms of the war and terrorism in America, I hope it'll be a while before we see plays about it. I don't think we should have a visceral reaction. In order to be balanced and powerful, these issues need to be thought about and worked out. People need to take their bearings. At the moment, I think everyone is still so shocked. So I hope it will be awhile but I'm sure there will be plays, especially in America.

Favourite holiday destination
New Zealand. My wife comes from there; I've been once and I love it.

Favourite book
Tom Jones by Henry Fielding

Favourite website
Amazon probably, but I tend to go to the American one. I generally use it for getting old, black and white films. It's difficult to find classic films in this country. They used to show them on television in the afternoons but not so much anymore. My favourite is It Happened One Night with Claudette Colbert and Clark Gable, and anything with WC Fields.

If you hadn't become an actor, what would you have done professionally?

I would probably have tried to become a novelist but failed miserably at it.

Why did you want to accept your part in The Royal Family? I hadn't done comedy for a long time and, in fact, I've done very little of it. With this play, I responded to the character at once. It's rare to immediately be able to visualise what you'd do with a part and I could quite clearly with Tony Cavendish. And I thought it was very funny.

Coming from a famous acting family yourself, how do your own personal experiences relate to those of the characters in the play?
This couldn't be further from my experience of growing up. Really the play is a behavioural satire. Although it's loosely based on the Barrymores, it's not really the Barrymores. The part of Tony is more a composite of different actors of the time and their different behaviours. The real John Barrymore apparently was a nightmare but he didn't behave like Tony - he was more of a drinker. This character is so extreme.

What's your favourite line from The Royal Family?
"Don't go into pictures."

Is that advice you'd heed in real life?
No my line is "How do you get into pictures?" Actually, Hollywood doesn't appeal to me; I've done that. I went and sat out there for three months and almost went mad. If that (a Hollywood film career) is seriously what you want, you have to devote your whole life to it. There are things I'd much rather do - namely, theatre. For me, film is a means to an end; it supplements me being able to do more theatre. Sadly, most people don't want to go into theatre nowadays. They think film is more glamorous and that that's where the money is. But theatre is the bedrock of what I'm about.

What are your plans for the future?
I don't know. I'm going to see how things go. I'd like to carry on doing theatre. I'd love to work at the National. I've never done anything there and I'd really like to. But this spring and summer, I'll probably have to find some boring film and TV work so I can fund my next theatre project.

- Toby Stephens was speaking to Terri Paddock

The Royal Family opened at the West End's Theatre Royal Haymarket on 1 November 2001 and continues until 2 February 2002.