Every actor dreams of that breakout moment when a particular role allows the big world to see what you can do. Brit actor Dan Stevens
, 31, is taking full advantage of that window of opportunity. After ten years of British stage and television, he landed the dishy romantic leading man role of Matthew Crowley in TV series “Downton Abbey
.” And after seeing through his initial three-season commitment, Stevens cut and run. He had a career to catch.
Now he not only has two films on display at the Toronto International Film Festival, Adam Wingard’s “The Guest” (September 17) and Tom McCarthy’s acquisition title “The Cobbler,” but another opening in theaters September 19, Scott Frank’s “A Walk Among Tombstones.”
“It was a big decision,” he admits in a phone interview. “I didn’t know what was going to happen after January 2012. We hadn’t finished shooting the first episode, and the end seemed a long way off. When ‘Downton’ came along it changed things quite dramatically. I had always had an eye to get into film. I always relished the opportunity to have a burst of focus on a project.”
Stevens signed up with an American agent at WME, who found him meetings and sent him scripts. “It’s more looking at what I’m interested in,” he says, “what’s lighting me up at that moment, to see how to go about achieving that. I don’t have an ultimate goal, in terms of what keeps me going. I find the most interesting challenges can be odd things in odd genres and scripts.”
He has rounded up a motley set of characters to play in both small-scale indies and bigger-budget studio pictures. He landed a plummy Broadway revival, starring in “The Heiress” as Jessica Chastain’s not-so-nice intended. Writer-director Scott Frank saw the show. He was looking for someone unexpected for Lawrence Block action noir “A Walk Among the Tombstones,” about a private dick (Liam Neeson) and a New York drug trafficker (Stevens). “That really opened the gateway,” says Stevens. “It lit up the suggestion that other things might be possible.”
Clearly, he’s proving that he has range: he can be a romantic leading man (“Downton Abbey,” “The Heiress”), a brainy newspaper editor (“The Fifth Estate
,” co-starring Benedict Cumberbatch), a hardboiled heroin dealer (“A Walk Among the Tombstones”) and medieval knight Lancelot opposite Ben Stiller in the latest “Night at the Museum” comedy. In the very strange “The Cobbler,” he channels Adam Sandler. And now in “The Guest” he proves that he can carry an indie comedy thriller, playing a trigger-happy soldier on the run.
Right after finishing “The Heiress,” Stevens shot “Tombstones” in Brooklyn. It was his first professional big-screen American accent, although he’s played with them before on television: “I’ve always enjoyed doing voices and dialects and audio voice work.”
When Stevens read director Adam Wingard and writer Simon Barrett’s script for “The Guest” he laughed out loud. “It was so hilarious and funny, playful and witty, that I leapt at it,” he says. “I wasn’t the obvious choice for that role either. I sat down with Adam and established that we have the same twisted sense of humor. We grew up loving the same movies, even though he’s from Alabama and I’m from Britain. We grew up loving Cannon films, Carpenter’s ‘Halloween,’ the ‘Terminator’ movies. That atmosphere blended with and infused into ‘The Guest,’ it was very liberating for Adam and Simon and it was brilliant and new for me to walk onto set and have them put a gun in my hand.”
He had to refine another American accent. This one was a bit more Kentucky. “It was interesting to get my head around the accent, but that’s what brings the character’s southern charm and gets David in the door to help the family in his own inimitable way.”
In the case of McCarthy’s experimental “The Cobbler” (which many critics trashed at TIFF) Stevens was part of an ensemble, playing a UK DJ living in the East Village who takes his shoes to a cobbler (Adam Sandler), who has the ability to become his customers. “The challenge was to play myself as if Adam was wearing me like a suit, to channel a bit of Adam’s character through my own, retaining my own accent. It was not an impression of him, it was switching into a slightly different mode. Tom is an actor as well as a director and he was excited to see different people take on this role, all of these different actors taking on Adam, as well as the character.”
Stevens donned heavy armor for Lancelot du Lac in the latest installment of “Night at the Museum.” “It might not be the Lancelot you’re expecting,” he says. “It was fun to do a comedy like that, to put on a big suit and be very silly for a few months. I embraced the action comedy side of it. I had lots of sword training to keep quite fit.”
He certainly displays an impressive set of washboard abs in “The Guest.” “Obviously that kind of physique is not required for ‘Downton,” he says. “I was relishing accompanying a lot of roles with physical transformation.” For “Tombstones” he dropped 30 pounds, dyed his hair and added questionable facial hair. “That led to some disorientation,” he says.
In ‘The Guest,” Stevens is leading man handsome again as David, a mysterious soldier on the run from a shady government experiment. David moves in with a family in the guise of being a friend of their deceased soldier son. Is he telling the truth? Who is he? He starts to helpfully kill off various people who are impeding the family’s progress. Stevens carries the dark comedy as a man who is both charming and dangerous: we get a kick from watching him go way too far to help this family, as the daughter of the house (rising star Maika Monroe) catches on to his nasty doings.
“There’s a suggestion of conditioning,” he says. “He seems to be in control of what he’s doing, but what’s terrifying, and one of the intriguing challenges, is to see a character who has a certain standard moral element removed, his human quality. Then you see how he operates in a familiar setting, and let the character run riot in that world. Part of the fun of the movie is to throw things into a different moral sphere.”
Going forward, he’s developing a few ideas with collaborators and friends. While he learned some “interesting lessons” when he produced his first film a few years ago– Brit indie “Summer in February,”
in which he starred with Dominic Cooper and Emily Browning–more producing is also in his future. Meanwhile audiences will start to find out just how far he can get from Matthew Rawley.