Actor Dan Stevens on life after Downton Abbey

Dan Stevens, who played Matthew Crawley in the English period drama Downton Abbey. Picture: NYT
Dan Stevens, who played Matthew Crawley in the English period drama Downton Abbey. Picture: NYT
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DAN Stevens has undergone a transformation since he left Downton Abbey. He’s changed his looks, getting buff - and where he lives - he relocated his family to Brooklyn. And now he’s getting the roles

If you do an internet search of images of Dan Stevens, two things strike you. First, that absurdly buff body he developed for his first outing as an action star in the recent film, The Guest. (It took him months of four-hour-a-day gym sessions apparently and, according to him, his wife was very happy indeed with the results.) And second, the only consistent aspect of his appearance are those striking pale blue eyes. Other than those, he’s been floppy-haired and foppish, bouffant and bearded. He has been dark and blond, swept back and cropped, messy and coiffed. He’s been chubby-faced and chiselled. It could be that Stevens hasn’t played around with his image any more than plenty of other jobbing actors who readily alter their appearance for different parts, but it seems more pronounced with him somehow.

Dan Stevens in Downton Abbey. Picture: Contributed

Dan Stevens in Downton Abbey. Picture: Contributed

Maybe it’s because the shift seemed dramatic and sudden. One minute he was Downton Abbey’s terribly decent Matthew Crawley and the next he was gun-toting, abs-flaunting potentially homicidally dangerous “David” (we’re never sure) in The Guest. As volte-faces go, this one was a headspinner.

“It’s been very busy and very varied,” is how Stevens describes the last couple of years. And it’s clear that’s exactly how he likes it. “It’s been everything I’d dreamed of in terms of starting a film career both in terms of the roles and the people I’ve been able to work with. I’ve already ticked off some dream names in terms of co-stars and directors. It’s been fantastic.”

The Line of Beauty

I’m pleased for Stevens. Partly because he has a place in my heart as Nick Guest, the lead in the magnificent BBC adaptation of Alan Hollinghurst’s novel, The Line of Beauty. Guest is a young Oxbridge wannabe who, among other adventures, ends up dancing with Margaret Thatcher after snorting a huge line of cocaine. And it’s also because the disproportionate outpouring of emotion that met his decision to quit Downton Abbey really got my goat. It appears there was genuine anger and upset provoked when Stevens’ character, was put paid to in a road traffic accident on Christmas Day.

Whether or not his decision to quit caused dismay and rancour and whether or not its creator Julian Fellowes wanted to leave the door open for a possible return for him, I suspect we shall never know because quite simply Stevens is far too polite to say anything even slightly rude about anyone.

“It is a beloved show and he was a beloved character in it so people were upset,” he says when I express my rather unsympathetic take on the fans’ devotion and dismay. “Also, I think it makes people uneasy when someone decides to leave something that seems like such a dead set success and is very secure and certain for something that is very insecure and uncertain.”

Stevens really just did decide enough was enough. He could have stayed in his starched collar and pocketed the money, but he wanted to try something new. He was, he says, “in the mood for some variety”. First there was a stint on Broadway opposite Jessica Chastain in The Heiress. (The play was well received, even if the New York Times rather sniffily described him as “shiny, well-spoken and lacking in discernible undercurrents”.) Then there was The Guest, a sort of action film that required that body. There was an Adam Sandler comedy, The Cobbler, tucked in there and a part as a drug dealer in the Liam Neeson vehicle A Walk Among the Tombstones. And now he’s armour-clad Sir Lancelot astride a white steed in Night at the Museum 3: Secret of the Tomb. Yip, I think that qualifies as varied.

Night at the Museum 3

Night at the Museum 3 is Stevens’ first movie for a major studio, placing him alongside a cast which includes Ben Stiller and Owen Wilson, Sir Ben Kingsley and Steve Coogan. It’s also, one of Robin Williams’ final film appearances and is the last by Mickey Rooney, since both have died since filming ended. Stevens says that working with Williams was “one of the highlights” of his career. “He was one of my favourite actors of all time. It’s just so very sad. It was a great honour to work with him.”

Given that Stevens plays Sir Lancelot, it might be seen as further testing the waters for his leading man potential. He does rather suit the armour. “My costume was heavy,” he says. “But it was great. It wasn’t quite as heavy as the original, I’m sure, but it was about 50lb. After a full day’s shooting and doing action sequences I definitely felt the weight of it.”

I tell him that I like the idea of everyone stomping around the set in their costumes – Ben Kingsley as an Egyptian pharaoh, Steve Coogan as a Roman emperor all sitting in their trailers or playing cards between takes. “It was amazing,” Stevens says. “The sets are incredible too. It really was like walking around a museum most of the time. People think it’s all green screen or whatever, but actually there’s very little of that. A lot of the time you’re on real sets – Egyptian tombs or long corridors of amazing exhibits. It’s a very luxurious space to work in and it really helps when you’re being asked to do the kinds of ridiculous things that we were being asked to do.”

As his first major studio movie, Stevens says he was nervous about what the atmosphere on set was going to be like. But he needn’t have worried. He says that the whole thing was fun and rather than coasting – the thing that worried him most – all of the cast were committed to making the film as funny as possible, knocking the scripts around as they went. It’s also clear that he got along with his cast mates. Stiller is apparently a massive Downton Abbey fan and consistently won when pitting his knowledge of the series in a quiz against Stevens.

“That’s enough of that and let’s try something else”

“I had no idea that any of the things that have happened in the past two years were going to happen,” he says. “When I had decided to leave [Downton] I didn’t even have the play on Broadway lined up. I genuinely was just saying that’s enough of that and let’s try something else.”

One way of looking at what Stevens has done is to say that he’s avoided being typecast (Hugh Grant, take note.) Another might be to see it as a search for the niche into which he might best fit. People might have thought he was already in a niche – floppy-haired period dramas, since he played Edward Ferrars in the BBC adaptation of Sense and Sensibility as well as a role in The Turn of the Screw before Downton Abbey.

Even personally, he seemed to fit in with a certain group of actors – the posh, often Oxbridge-educated ones such as Benedict Cumberbatch, Eddie Redmayne or Tom Hiddleston. Stevens did study at Cambridge (English literature) where he, of course, was a member of Footlights.

He had been at boarding school before that, he got there on a scholarship (his adoptive parents were teachers and he was raised in Croydon with a brother) and was encouraged by one particularly supportive teacher to channel his disruptive tendencies into drama.

It was in 2004 that he got his first big break, being cast as Orlando in a touring production of As You Like It by Sir Peter Hall. Stevens was to act opposite Hall’s daughter, Rebecca, and in doing so he bagged himself a commendation for a prestigious Ian Charleson Award for his performance.

And so, with Stevens, like his appearance, it feels like a case of the same but different. Consider too his move stateside. Most actors, when they’re heading across the Atlantic, gravitate to Los Angeles. Not Stevens. He chose Brooklyn. At first, it was the place to be while he was performing on Broadway. Then he landed a movie that was being shot in the New York neighbourhood, so it made sense to stay. But really, literature geek that he is (in his increasingly sparse spare time, he is editor at large of online literary magazine, The Junket) Brooklyn was the place that he’d always wanted to live, so with his wife, singer Susie Hariet and the couple’s two young children, they made the move.

I find New York such a thrilling city to be in

“It seemed like a good moment and the kids were small enough so we made the leap,” he says. “We’ve been here for two and a half years. It’s important to base yourself and live somewhere where you feel happy and inspired and for me that’s Brooklyn. I find New York such a thrilling city to be in. As an artist and as a human being I find it a very nourishing city. It’s always inspired me and I always left feeling very invigorated after I’d come here from the UK. Also it’s got a very vibrant theatre scene and I’m always keen to go and do theatre every now and then.” He pauses, and it strikes me that being typecast or limited doesn’t suit him in life or his profession. “But it could change. I could end up somewhere else in a few years. But for the time being it’s working out.”

For Stevens, creative satisfaction isn’t as simple as having his name in biggest type above the title, or the biggest pay cheque, or the most swashbuckling role. It is, he says, about doing something new and interesting, trying not to repeat himself. “I think I’ve done a fairly good job of defying expectations. Any time that someone might have thought, ‘oh, right, he’s doing action films’, then it’s like ‘no, he’s not he’s doing comedy’, ‘no, he’s not he’s doing drama’. I’ve managed to slip the noose a few times and I quite like that sense of ducking and weaving a bit with my own choices.”

He is, he says, reading a lot of scripts at the moment and they’re in lots of different genres. Coming up next, there’s a film alongside John Travolta, Criminal Activities and a long awaited – and delayed – adaptation of Swallows and Amazons. As to what he might pick next, other than being clear he wants to be back on the stage at some point, it is mainly about “whatever the mood takes.”

“I’m interested in what feels different now,” he says. “I think that’s quite a fun way of doing it. It’s about looking for those differences and challenges.” The best example he can give, he says, is an episode of the web series High Maintenance. He came across it and “reached out” to the creators, casting director Katja Blichfeld and actor Ben Sinclair. The series focuses on a cannabis dealer known as “The Guy” who steps in and out of the lives of an eccentric array of clients. The pieces are short films that are by turn funny, tender and moving. Rachel, the film in which Stevens plays Colin, is rather wonderful. It’s only about 15 minutes long, but it’s beautifully drawn and Stevens is great. I’m not at all surprised that it’s the project of which he is, in a way, most proud. “I told them I thought they were doing brilliant work and asked if we could sit down and have a chat. I talked to them about wanting to do different things and wanting to be challenged. It took a few months and we knocked about a few ideas and then they came up with this cross-dressing, stay-at-home dad, Colin.”

It was, he says, like getting his wish

It was, he says, like getting his wish – he’d asked for something different and that’s exactly what they came up with. “It was like they were laying down a challenge and asking me whether I’d accept. And I absolutely wanted to. That’s what excites me as an actor. Amongst all the film work, it was a great thing to do and I really think we managed to do something really lovely with it. It’s funny how much that feeds into other work that I was doing, that very rewarding sense.”

Stevens has thrown everything up in the air once already and the gamble paid off. It’ll be interesting to see whether, as he gets more established, he’ll be able to keep changing things up, to keep “ducking and weaving” finding those cross-dressing, stay-at-home dads to play. I wouldn’t bet against him.

Night at the Museum 3: Secret of the Tomb (PG) is on general release on Friday