Dan Stevens Blows Up ‘Downton’: From Chubby-Cheeked Aristo to Lean, Mean American Psycho
From playing Matthew Crawley in “Downton Abbey’ to a buff lunatic in “The Guest,” Dan Stevens talks about Hollywood ambition, his sex-symbol rep, being adopted, and the “demon eyes” of Dame Maggie Smith.
Maybe it’s the moment he dismembers a pumpkin with a flick-knife, or when he appears, pecs humpy and biceps firm, in a towel. Or maybe when he shoots and blows up his enemies en masse… but in the “insane” (his words) film The Guest, the actor Dan Stevens definitively buries the ghost of his career-making role of sweet, chubby-cheeked Matthew Crawley of hit British period drama Downton Abbey.
In the Adam Wingard-directed movie, Stevens plays a mysterious soldier who insinuates his way into the family of a dead soldier, claiming to be his buddy. What ensues is totally loony, violent, funny, and gross.
Poor Matthew, killed in a car crash in the Christmas Special episode of Downton’s third season. Before that bloody end, his character was most famous for his will-they-won’t-they story line with icy Lady Mary, and the story line in which Matthew was paralyzed, then not paralyzed when he felt a much-laughed-at “tingling.” Phew, he could have sex too, so an heir for Downton was assured.
Here, Stevens talks to The Daily Beast about whether he fell out with Downton creator and writer Julian Fellowes, and his transformation from cherubic Brit-toff to the scary musclehead of The Guest. His next movies include A Walk Among the Tombstones, Night at the Museum 3, and The Ticket.
The Daily Beast met Stevens in a dreary New York hotel room. He looked very thin, was huskily bearded, and in a slim blue suit. He was friendly, a little nervous, getting over a cold, and wryly funny.
TT: You look so different. You’ve lost a huge amount of weight.
DS: I went right down, about 30 pounds for (the Liam Neeson movie) A Walk Among the Tombstones, then back up for The Guest. Now I’m somewhere in the middle. I suppose I’ve lost some of my puppy fat.
TT: Do your fans like it, or do they say they want to send you cake?
DS: They’re very welcome to send cake as long as it’s gluten-free.
TT: It’s a pretty knockout bod. What’s it like as a torso pin-up?
DS: It’s very funny, in particular because that scene in the film makes me laugh, with the music and steam, coming out of the bathroom, and Anna (the daughter, played by Maika Monroe) is David’s biggest challenge in the movie. David wants to win the family over, and everybody, except Anna, is putty in his hands. He doesn’t know how to crack this one: It turns out all you need to do is take your shirt off.
TT: How did you get the body?
DS: I did a lot of gym work, martial arts. The discipline required for martial arts fed into the psychology of the character, who approaches everything mission by mission. It was gratifying to meet with special-ops guys. I looked at their physique. They weren’t great hulks of men. Because of the things they’re required to do physically and athletically they’re quite lithe. They’re lean and ripped, but they don’t look Arnie.
TT: What did your wife say at the transformation?
DS (laughs): She was delighted.
TT: How does she feel about you being a sex symbol?
DS: She’s delighted. For her, it’s like getting a whole new husband.
TT: Does she mind fans making their interest known?
DS: No. It’s very funny to us. The online thing is weird. People behave in a way online that is perhaps out of line as they would in person. I get some quite odd advances online if you can call them advances: They’re sort of fake advances. It’s all good fun, really.
TT: The chubby cheeks of Downton have gone.
DS: Exactly. They were very fitting for the role. Matthew was a bit soft around the edges. That’s part of the job: different costumes, different accents, different physiques.
TT: Did the success of Downton surprise you?
DS: Yeah, we all were. I don’t think any of us, apart from Maggie Smith, had had a global phenomenon like that. We make quite a lot of costume dramas in Britain. I’d been in a few, and to see that one go “viral” was extraordinary. We weren’t on set going “This is going to be a global phenomenon.” Had we been it almost certainly would not have been.
TT: Did you read anything in the scripts and think “This is crazy”?
DS: The wheelchair storyline was a challenge, but it wouldn’t have been Downton without those crazy bits.
TT: And your tingle in the legs?
DS: Yes, the famous tingle.
TT: What was working with Dame Maggie Smith like?
DS: It was great to have someone like that as the queen of the cast. Off-camera, we played a game called Wink Murder, where someone is made the murderer, and winks at others to kill them, without being discovered by everyone else. It’s the perfect game to play if you’re sat around a dining table for 17 hours filming a scene about some soup, and maybe the death of a pig on the estate or something. Maggie Smith was the best demon eyes.
TT: What was your favorite Matthew story line?
DS: The war stuff was fun. To actually get out into a muddy field for a change and have some bombs go off certainly beat sitting around a dining room table.
TT: Were you happy to leave? Get out before the show went off the boil, as some feel it has?
DS: I would never think in those terms. I just had the option to leave after three years.
TT: Did they want you to stay?
DS: Of course they did. But I couldn’t let my decision be governed by people directly involved with Downton Abbey. I had to take counsel from other sources, like my wife and my friends, and examine my own conscience: How did I feel, what did I want to do? It was a challenging time. You’re faced with quite fundamental questions: I had an instinct I wanted to do something else, I wasn’t sure what. Three years felt like a long time to me. I had to think about what to do for myself and my family. My wife (Susie Hariet) was pregnant with our second child (they have two children, daughter Willow, 4, and son Aubrey, 2).
TT: Wouldn’t that mean you wanted more security, i.e. stay in the show?
DS: Security is also terrifying. There’s something thrilling in not going the coziest route, and fortunately my wife was very up for it.
DS: Did Downton offer you more money to stay?
TT: It wasn’t about that. It was much more instinctive. If you asked me the day I left Downton what I wanted to do, I wouldn’t have been able to put into words “a twisted action thriller with a very black comedy element that’s made by horror guys.” But that opportunity came up. I thought, “Hell, yeah.”
TT: Did you want to die in Downton?
DS: That was out of my hands, though the manner of my departure [in a car crash], as much as the departure itself, stuck in many people’s craw.
TT: I read the manner of that violent departure as a symbol of Fellowes being pissed off with you.
DS: Right. No one wants to see that I think, if that is the case, err…
TT: Was Julian Fellowes [show creator, writer, executive producer] angry with you?
DS: I’m sure at a certain level they were upset. Julian is an actor and he understood my decision from an actor’s perspective, but as executive producer of his baby he was obviously upset. But at the end of the day it’s a role in a TV show, and Downton goes on.
TT: Do you still watch it?
DS: Of course. I’m really very, very fond of those guys.
TT: The Guest is so different.
DS: I don’t know. Season One of Downton features a young man who arrives and ingratiates himself with a family, just like The Guest.
TT: And in The Line of Beauty [the BBC adaptation of Alan Hollinghurst’s novel and 2004 Booker Prize winner], you played a similar role, and the character was called Nick Guest.
DS: The polite home invasion—that’s my specialty. Then I kill everyone or cause a political scandal. That was a great adaptation of a brilliant book.
TT: How was playing gay? It was at that moment when it was still a bit of a big deal for a straight actor.
DS: I was too young and too optimistic at the time to realize it was a bit of an issue for people. I remember when Episode 2 aired, the same night as a Champions League [soccer] match—I think it was Arsenal vs. Barcelona, and Arsenal got hammered. So, at around the time of the full-time whistle when everyone was switching over in disgust from the football game, they saw me buggering a guy on Hampstead Heath. And it was kind of cool. (He laughs.) I liked that.
TT: Did you enjoy shooting and blowing stuff up in The Guest?
DS: Wonderful, yeah, so much fun. These kinds of films remind me of those films of the ’80s and ’90s, which I grew up with. Kurt Russell was a god! Big Trouble in Little China was our Citizen Kane. The Terminator films. Halloween films—anything by John Carpenter, frankly. The soundtrack of The Guest owes a lot to his films.
TT: I wasn’t sure if I was supposed to be laughing or terrified watching it.
DS: Both. That’s the line we’re dancing.
TT: How did you get the American accent?
DS: I like accents, mimicking voices. I worked with a dialect coach, and a friend from Kentucky recorded the Gettysburg Address, which I listened to. David has a Southern drawl and charm that informs his character.
TT: Which scenes did you particularly like doing?
DS: The action stuff was bit of a dream come true.
TT: Were you injured?
DS: I got a splinter of wood through my ear as some doors were exploding. Other than that I was mercifully OK. I did as many stunts as it was safe and sane to do. I used to take the Glock home every night and practice stripping it and putting it back together.
TT: Growing up, was it always going to be acting for you?
DS: Yeah, I didn’t know how to make it work, but there was little else I wanted to do. My parents were teachers, very wise, and anybody with an ounce of wisdom when their child says they want to be actor gets a little bit concerned because it’s a pretty crazy thing to want to do. But I conveyed I was going to make it work.
TT: You did school productions?
DS: Yes, and at Cambridge [University] I performed standup with the [well-known Cambridge amateur theatrical group] Footlights. It was great training.
TT: You were adopted. Was it ever an issue?
DS: It was only an issue when doing family history projects. I was adopted at birth and always knew about it. So I was always very open about it, and open about it with my parents. How it has affected me is not a question I can answer. “What would my life been like if I had been with my birth parents since birth?” is a stupid question. I could ask of you, “How has not being adopted affected your life?” I get why you’re asking it, but from my perspective it seems like a very nonsense question. My parents were very natural parents, That’s was all that mattered. I was very lucky. Adoption is an extraordinary process. Most of the time it’s a very wonderful thing. I’m a very fortunate product of that process.
TT: Have you felt curiosity or a desire to find your natural parents?
DS: I know as much as I need to know to satisfy my curiosity.
TT: You’re a dad yourself. Has parenthood changed you?
DS: Yeah, it’s been amazing: life-changing, life-enhancing. The multiplication of love in the household is just pure delight.
TT: Do you see yourself in them?
DS: What’s more delightful is that you begin to see themselves in themselves. In the first few months, people say “He’s got your nose, she’s got your eyes.” And none of that really matters in the end because they grow up to be their own little people.
TT: You’re 31. How was turning 30?
DS: I was on stage doing The Heiress on Broadway, and that was a great way to turn 30. I’d like to do more theater here and in London. To get to watch (his Heiress co-star) Jessica Chastain was a big inspiration. She had trained at Juilliard. She’s a serious actress, done bits and pieces for 10 years, slowly got more interesting roles. Then, suddenly, two of her films were nominated for Academy Awards. It changed her life. I watched her run the Oscars and Golden Globes campaigns with such grace. You hear stories of people behaving in not such a graceful way, but she was very present about what was happening and not getting too overawed by it all.
TT: Do you keep an eye out for Oscar roles?
DS: I don’t know about that. I don’t know how that happens. I don’t know what means.
TT: Well, roles that seem minted for awards season—doesn’t every actor want that?
DS: I don’t know, err, I’m just beginning to understand how that works.
TT: Are you driven, ambitious?
DS: I’m ambitious to try different things, and challenge myself to see where I’m at home and what clicks with me and with audiences. In theater there’s instant feedback. In film, it’s taken a couple of years where people see different things from me. That’s an interesting phase.
TT: Are you concerned about not being able to throw the image of Matthew Crawley off?
DS: Not personally. I knew that was a role I had to leave behind. I had the ability to play different roles. I don’t want to throw Matthew off. I’m very proud of that show and role, I’d just like to add to him in audiences’ mind. I don’t want to kill him. He’s already dead once.
TT: You live in New York?
DS: Yes, Brooklyn. I really do like being here. I feel very inspired, it’s a place of great focus and energy. I used to get very upset when I had to leave here. That’s not to say I don’t miss my family and friends back home, but this is a very welcoming city. It’s been very generous to me in terms of doors being opened: theater, film, and web series. I love Brooklyn. I’ve always loved it. As a place, it existed in my imagination long before I ever went there thanks to [Walt] Whitman and [Hart] Crane.
TT: The hipsters aren’t annoying, all those beards? Realizes, oops, Stevens has a beard.
DS: There are not too many beards where I live. I think mine is the only one on the block, so I hope I’m not annoying too many people with my beard.