British actor Toby Kebbell has mostly been doing film work for the past two decades, moving from British indies like Dead Man’s Shoes to bigger roles in films like Guy Ritchie‘s RocknRolla, Steven Spielberg‘s War Horse, and the 2015 Fantastic Four movie, in which he played Doctor Doom. Kebbel also portrayed the villainous Koba in Matt Reeves‘ Planet of the Apes movies, which also led to him playing the title role (via performance capture) in Kong: Skull Island.
Doing a series like M. Night Shyamalan‘s Servant was somewhat new territory for Kebbell, but over the course of four seasons, he has turned his character Sean Turner into a person who you might like one episode and then hate the next. The series’ general premise finds Sean and his wife, Dorothy (Lauren Ambrose), taking in a nanny for their baby Jericho, though the woman they hire, Leanne Grayson (Nell Tiger Free), ends up having a lot more baggage than they expect. Of course, the Turners have their own baggage as well.
Servant just began its final season on Apple TV+, and Above the Line had a chance to speak with Kebbell over Zoom about the show and how his character has evolved over the course of four seasons.
Above the Line: Why did you initially want to be a part of Servant?
Toby Kebbell: Back in the beginning, [in] 2018, I read what I thought to be a fantastic script. I was given the pilot to read through, and then I was given 10 pages to audition with. I actually auditioned four times for the show. It was just a very competitive role to try and get. It was just so well written, [and] it was going to be working with M. Night, [and] with Lauren Ambrose, Rupert Grint, and this young actress, Nell Tiger Free. Everything seemed enticing, interesting, and intriguing, [plus], he was a guy who cooked.
I’d grown up cooking — my mother’s a professional, so I’d grown up doing that. I knew I had that element. There [were] a bunch of questions [like], “What about your knife skills?” [Those were] good. I was covered. I felt very confident about the role. I felt that way when I read the Black Mirror episode I auditioned for, which was also very early on in that whole process. I just really, thoroughly thought I could offer something unique to Sean. And that was it.
ATL: Was the audition like one of those cooking shows where they give you six items, and you have to make something out of it?
Kebbell: No, that would have been great! [laughs] I wish it had been, that would have been so good. “Here’s the recipe. You gotta make [this] with these two items.” No, it was just that thing of self-tapes. I was traveling, I was working. Night was traveling and working. He’s in Philly, [and] I was living on the West Coast, or I was in Bulgaria, or I was in Jordan. So, [I] was all over the place, trying to chase this role.
Thankfully, with modern technology, I was able to put myself on tape. I was literally at the point where I was recording myself on my phone. In fact, Dorothy’s lines, I recorded on the phone with [a] gap for my lines and then turned on the computer to press record, and the person reading with me was myself. So, it got to that point, but thankfully, somehow, it worked. I got very lucky.
ATL: Did you end up moving to Philly for the last four years?
Kebbell: Yeah, yeah, that’s right. It was just easier to do. That East Coast existence was just way easier [living] there. I’d made a bunch of really good friends off Season 1. Drew Ditomo, the guy who helped us all become really professional-looking chefs, is just an awesome dude. I spent so much time with him, and I was just there, but also, the seasons were back-to-back. Especially Season 2. We had a hiatus, obviously, for COVID, and then we went back [at the] end of September into October, finished out the season just by Halloween, and then we were already back again shooting in January. So there wasn’t much downtime between the seasons in the last stint of it. It just worked out that way, and wherever I live, I’m off working in between, so [I’m] very rarely home.
ATL: Where are you based out of these days now that Servant has wrapped?
Kebbell: My main home is New York. I live on the East Coast anyway, so yeah, my main home is the East Coast. It’s just easier for going back to England and seeing family and things like that.
ATL: Were you commuting to Philly, going there for the week, and then coming back to New York for the weekend?
Kebbell: No, not really, because it’s a three-hour train ride. Even if you’re going into Penn Station, you’re still then an hour and a half again. It’s a lot of work to commute. It would have been great if I could, but it [was] just easier to be in Philly. It’s a great place.
ATL: And of course, there’s the COVID thing, so no one really was traveling…
Kebbell: Yeah, then we were in a bubble [and] we had nowhere we could go. We were lucky because it was such a small cast. A bunch of other shows started at the same time and got shut down again because outbreaks happened. We were lucky. It was just us four in a house. The crew [was] very dedicated to keeping us safe, and everyone was masked and shielded. It was hard, hard work.
ATL: I’m really impressed with what Night and Tony have been doing with the other writers and directors of Servant. When I saw the New York Comic-Con panel, it sounded like an interesting premise, but I couldn’t imagine how far it ended up going. Even just the first three episodes of Season 4 that I’ve seen have blown me away.
Kebbell: Yeah, totally. It was one of those jobs where I think they thought there were going to be 60 episodes, but then they realized this has to be compacted, it has to be more contained. So, it just [got] whittled down to the 40, because that left no fat on the meat. It just made everything absolutely tight as a drum. It was good. I had a lot of switches. [In] Season 3, I was much more of the believer and trying to be more involved with our temporary daughter in the role that Nell was playing, Leanne.
When all that terrible stuff happens at the end of [Season] 3, that leads Sean to the place where he’s like, “Okay, so that’s absolute nonsense. It’s nothing, and if it is, then it’s not something I want to be involved in.” That was nice for me, to get back, just to round out the season, and basically, a recovering Dorothy means a listening Dorothy. She’s not rushing off to do news articles or worrying about her thing. She tries to escape, she tries to give herself problems, but ultimately, that helps my case of telling her the truth.
ATL: I love that cooking show that Sean’s doing now that’s a bit like Gordon Ramsey. Did you end up shooting a lot of stuff for that, or just bits and pieces, as needed?
Kebbell: No, we did shoot a full episode that they’ll then break up into the different… in the script, it says placeholder, like a clip from Season 1 of Sean’s cookery show, so it was just open for us to shoot a whole episode with four contestants who get whittled down — 16 contestants whittled down to 12 and eight and then four. It was great fun. We spent a full day shooting the whole episode. It was an intense, exhausting day, but it got to the point where these fantastic actors come in to do work for the day. There was real competition. They didn’t know who was going to win. It was kind of being improv’d. We didn’t really know, and it was great fun, man. For me and Drew, it was a blast. We got to cook a bunch of really great food and have these guys learn a bunch of knife stuff, so yeah, it was great fun.
ATL: Were there any big-name Philly chefs who came in as ringers?
Kebbell: We tried to have celebrity judges. We tried to get Mark Vetri [to] come in and a couple of the other guys who were big in Philly, but ultimately, we did that already. We did that Season 1 with the cookery show I was on — a panel. This is Sean’s show. This is as if Gordon Ramsay got his own show, so that was kind of the premise behind it. My wife actually played one of the contestants, very briefly, which was great fun. It was awesome. She looks super cute in her chef’s outfit and her little bandana, so yeah, it was good fun.
ATL: Has she appeared on the show yet?
Kebbell: No, that’s the season finale [in which] she will appear. But yeah, it was nice, because there was one scene where I had to berate her and throw her green slop or whatever into a sink, and it was going everywhere. And she was like, ‘You’re enjoying it, aren’t you?’ I said, ‘No, no, no, not at all.’ So then I talked to the directors, and I was like, ‘Maybe she could win a round,’ and they were like, ‘That’s our plan.’ So it was very sweet. It was all very fun, but it was nice. I’ve never worked with Arielle [Wyatt] before, so it was a true joy.
ATL: I’m really intrigued by your cooking background. In the first season, Sean was cooking a lot more, and cooking some really interesting stuff, too, but lately, he’s been so busy dealing with other craziness going on. Given your own background, was it a tough learning curve to pull off what was required of Sean?
Kebbell: Funnily enough, my mother’s a professional chef, and also, I’d done another show. I’d done ShakespeaRe-told years ago for the BBC with me and James McAvoy. He played Macbeth, I played the son. It basically was set in a restaurant, so that was the idea. It was about him being the head chef, that was the new premise, and we worked in a couple of really fantastic restaurants, Locanda Locatelli in London and Le Gavroche. They trained us for weeks on end. They let us come in and basically just be extra people in the kitchen, learning and helping. It was a real pleasure to have done that.
And then, this time around, I went in to work with Mark Vetri at Vetri Cucina in Philly, which is a phenomenal restaurant. He was like, ‘Dude, you’re good. I don’t know why you’re here.’ I was really very lucky that I’d already had a lot of training. And then he brought Drew in for us because we had someone who was basically a food stylist, which we get varying degrees of. You get very, very professional food stylists who are just phenomenal cooks, and then you get people who are just asked to make stuff look shiny. We kind of had one of those people, and that was not working, because we had to make the food edible. All the actors have to eat it, so Drew was a huge addition to the show. He’s like a secret invisible character that made all that work so well.
ATL: Have you seen The Menu yet?
Kebbell: I haven’t seen it yet, but I have been intrigued to watch it. That’s the funny thing. We do all this chef stuff, and then all of these high-end cookery [projects come out]. And The Bear is [also] a great show that I’ve been watching.
ATL: I’m not sure if Night said it or if I heard it somewhere else, but is it true that he didn’t give you the script for an episode until after you shot the previous episode?
Kebbell: Right, totally. Our rehearsal day would be the final day of shooting on an episode, so we’d do rehearsal on a Thursday or Friday of the final week of shooting, especially because it was the finale. They were really trying to hold it as tightly as possible, so there weren’t any kind of digital leaks or anything like that. And no one knew where it was going. The crew and the cast were in the dark for all the reveals.
ATL: Is that exciting for you as an actor?
Kebbell: It’s good. I knew that there was part of it that was Night enjoying the reveal and watching us get excited or disappointed about what was going on. I think he was using it as a kind of test audience, us reading it through, and then seeing how well it played out. It was good. I actually thoroughly enjoyed it. It doesn’t matter to me. That’s the other benefit of doing a show for this long. I know who Sean is. I know where his boundaries are, so that’s always useful.
ATL: I don’t want to put you on the spot here, but Night’s daughter is one of the show’s writers, directors, and producers. I actually met his daughters maybe 16 years ago, and I had no idea back then that Ishana was going to follow in her father’s footsteps and direct herself.
Kebbell: I don’t think she even knew. She was still at NYU, I think, and Night called her in as a guest director, and she just did a great job. She did really, really well, and it’s hard because her dad is Night, so she has a lot to live up to, but she’ll step into a stride at the right point, [and] it was very good — it was a very safe environment for her to cut her teeth.
ATL: Have you finished shooting all of Season 4 already?
Kebbell: Yeah, totally finished. We finished in August. We had a small reshoot last week, that was just to clarify one point that didn’t really come across in the shooting of Episode 10. Ishana actually shot that reshoot, so it was nice to get everyone back together. It was very sweet.
ATL: Where’s your head at in terms of, are you looking to do another series? The nice thing about working on a series is you do get to just stay in one place for a while…
Kebbell: Yeah, it is a blessing. I got very lucky. I got asked back to shoot a show called For All Mankind on Apple TV+. It’s a phenomenal show, very, very intellectually written, beautifully written. Just [a] very clever, very smart show, [with a] fantastic cast. I was very honored to be asked to come and be part of that show. I’m shooting that now at Sony.
ATL: I was speaking to Night earlier, and he’s done TV before, but that was for a network, so he was always dealing with a rating system or the MPA. As an actor, can you tell the difference when you’re doing a show with someone like Night who owns it and can do whatever he wants creatively, as opposed to other projects you’ve worked on?
Kebbell: I didn’t, because I’d only done an episode of Black Mirror or a three-part mini[series]. I’d never really done a series, but [Servant] was a good entry to it. Now I’m on another show, [and] the new show is really so fantastically run with such a great cast and crew. You can see that it was still a learning experience for Night and that team over there at Blinding Edge. They did fantastically well, and we got to finish out a show, which was also such a luxury — to not be canceled before our time came. It was a unique experience, but I’m glad, in many ways. I had a great deal of relief that it was done, because it was a very stressful role, playing Sean. It was very intense.
ATL: The third episode of Season 4 introduces Bobby and Beverly, who are a lot of fun. Without spoiling anything, can you say whether they play a large part in the rest of the season?
Kebbell: Yeah, they’re with us for a fair portion of the show. [Denny Dillon and Barbara Kingsley] were just two tremendous actresses; they were great fun to be around. I will miss them, too. They were great. I mean, them and Uncle George. We get a sneak peek at Uncle George again, so that was really nice.
ATL: It must be nice to have this main cast of four, but then having all these other people and actors coming in and out of episodes.
Kebbell: Yeah, it totally is, especially when they’re good, like Boris [McGiver], who plays Uncle George. He’s just a spectacular human as well as a brilliant actor. [He] got a great role and played Uncle George very, very well. It’s always good to see him.
Servant is now streaming on Apple TV+.