“The last time you did a Christmas thing I saw you in, your character died, so it’s obviously very traumatic,” I told Dan Stevens when we chatted about his latest film, The Man Who Invented Christmas.
“Yeah,” Stevens said, laughing. “The man who really ruined Christmas.”
The man in question is Matthew Crawley, the heartthrob at the center of Downton Abbey who died in the series’ Christmas special once Stevens had left the show. It was the first time he’d captured the hearts of American audiences, though I’m not sure how fondly they thought of him once he left Lady Mary heartbroken.
He’s since starred as The Beast in Beauty and the Beast, which is technically a Christmas film but I’ve no time for Disney live-action adaptations that don’t star Beyoncé so am mostly familiar with him from his turn as David Haller in Legion, the trippy X-Men spinoff show on FX.
Now the dash Brit is starring as Charles Dickens in Bharat Nalluri’s aforementioned film dramatizing the celebrated author’s creation of A Christmas Carol, the book that changed the Christmas holiday as we know it. The inimitable Christopher Plummer joins him as Ebenezer Scrooge.
“We love Christmas,” Stevens told me of his own traditions. “Muppet Christmas Carol is a fun fixture in our house every Christmas Eve.” He also quite enjoyed Dublin, where the film was shot, because of its Christmassy vibe.
I spoke to him about why he’s so into biopics and his career at large.
What attracted you to a Charles Dickens biopic?
I think first, it was the character and the script really. It was such a magical and playful take on a literary biopic. It didn’t have the feel of a literary biopic to it at all. Taking this slice of a pretty epic life and just exploding that moment where it could’ve gone really south had he not met his deadline—he was putting himself under a huge amount of pressure at the time and really wanted to deliver something that had a very sort of overreaching human, universal element to it. And that’s not an easy thing to just tick off. He ended up with this extraordinary, abstract concept; this supernatural tale that has some fairy tale element to it. It was very unusual, the idea of a Christmas story at the time was such a weird one. It just really piqued my interest…very playful, very funny. It was about remembering the humor in Dickens as well as the pathos and tragedy.
You do a lot of period films.
It’s something that we make a lot of back in the UK. I hadn’t done a period film for a while, but it really felt very fresh, it didn’t feel like a period film. Especially with Bharat Nalluri attached. I thought the lightness of touch he brought to Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day with Frances McDormand and Amy Adams—and that sort of fun tone in a historical setting—helps to remember the humor of the past instead of dragging things into a slightly kind of paler box. He was a great fit and he was into being more irreverent.
How has being in America changed your approach to acting?
It’s always changing. I’ve certainly learned a huge amount by working in the states, working with American actors whose training and background is different. I think there are great things to be learned from experienced actors in both fields. Being able to work with British actors again, having been and worked in studio comedies with Ben Stiller and Robin Williams, picking up things along the way, you can infuse things into period pieces…like this one about Charles Dickens. It’s really delightful to me to sort of implement some of those lessons that I’ve learned.
Did you always want to do another TV show [Legion] so soon after leaving Downton Abbey?
It was a bit of a surprise. I wasn’t actively looking at TV. I’d been focusing a lot on features for the past few years, but I sat with Noah [Hawley] and had a very good meeting of the minds, really. He laid out, in abstract terms, a very beautiful concept that was too good to ignore.
Has the variation in roles given you whiplash?
It depends who you speak to. Some people are very excited by the variety and exploration. Some are a little confused, but that’s fine. I hope it’s a bit of both. I don’t know of any expectation there is, but I’m not really involved with the expectations much as I am the desire to explore and challenge myself and work with fun people and interesting, creative people.