Most of us “Downton Abbey” fans have a pretty love-hate relationship with Dan Stevens, the English actor most known for playing Matthew Crawley in the U.K. hit period drama. After receiving much international success and acclaim for his role, Stevens — in a surprise move — decided to leave the world of “Downton” in favor of a career in Hollywood. While it remains an upsetting move for us fans, Stevens’ role in “The Guest,” a memorable action-thriller that will hit theaters tomorrow, is a pretty solid, albeit shocking move.
Fortunately for us, we got to sit down with the actor, who spoke candidly about the risks he took leaving the show, going from period piece-y heartthrob to coldblooded American sex fiend in “The Guest” and his unexpected stint on the beloved stoner web series “High Maintenance.” Tell me a bit about what drew you to the “The Guest.”
We made it with the express purpose of showing people a good time. And I think Adam Wingard and Simon Barrett (the director and writer, respectively) really know how to do that. I saw “You’re Next” and it was just fucking insane. They know how to be very playful with their audience and when I first sat down with Adam — well first of all we established that we shared a similar twisted sense of humor and that we found the same kind of things — in fact we found most things — funny. Adam and Simon are just such a curious individuals. They’re just incredibly bright, engaged, thoughtful guys and also just very funny. Adam was looking to celebrate a lot of those movies we loved growing up. And when I say loved, I mean sat in a big movie theater with our mates and like really laughed and screamed.
Yes, there’s definitely something nostalgic about it.
It’s not really referencing anything specifically. I mean there’s a couple bits and pieces here and there, but that’s just for fun. We’re not excluding anybody for not having seen “Halloween III.” But if you have seen “Halloween III,” you’ll dig this movie. If you haven’t, well, the script alone reminded me of a ton of action thrillers growing up.
And there’s that art house element as well.
Yeah. It’s interesting to see an action-thriller made by a horror filmmaker because it’s not really a horror film. And it’s not — you know — it’s not purely an action movie or thriller either. It’s kind of all of those things beautifully mashed up, but nor is it really a mashup either. You know, the lines are quite blurred. And I think that lines between whether it’s scary or funny or kind of creepy and curious—but I think there’s a thread of mischief kind of going through. Which is what we wanted to do.
On that note, can you tell me how you got onboard in the first place?
Well, I was sent the script and you know, had been looking for a challenge or two. And this really seemed like one because at the time I was not sort of in that physical shape. But, had been quite interested in the idea of a physical transformation and using that as a way of preparing for a character — the physical preparation because as much part as the psychology of the role. So I flew and met Adam and we really just hit it off. We were talking for hours about all sorts of nonsense and at the end we were just like, “Oh yeah, the script.” It was kind of obvious by the end of our meeting that we were on the same page with it. All I had to do was promise him that I would go and get in the required shape. So I did.
And your accent. How did you manage that?
I’ve always enjoyed accents and voices and I’ve always hoped that I would be able to sort of use that in some way in an onscreen role. I worked a bit with a dialect coach and some source material. I have a great friend who is from Kentucky and I wanted this sort of vague Kentucky vibe that was processed through a sort of military dialect. So I had my friend record the Gettysburg Address in his beautiful Kentucky dialect. So I have all of these sort of accents and consonants and vowels from that. And it’s quite a good thing actually. If you get people from different regions in America to read the Gettysburg Address and you hear these sort of nuances. It’s quite handy.
You spoke a little bit about the physical demands of the role, coming from a more consistent place physically with “Downton Abbey” and going to something where you are constantly gaining weight and losing weight. How has that been for you as an experience?
It’s been interesting to apply that same rigor to the physicality, as I had to with the psychological, sort of literary preparations that I usually go for. To sort of read around about special-op soldiers is very interesting, is very useful, but it doesn’t get you in the shape required to play this guy. It certainly feeds the imagination, but you also need to put some work in at the gym if you’re going to get there. And I think they’re both important. This is something that I have been delighted in learning in the last couple of years.
Going from “Downton” and being this period piece-y heartthrob to a, you know, getting-out-of-the-shower-in-a-towel American sex icon, how do you feel about these types of labels?
Well, I mean you sort of answered the question with your question. Labels are very weird things in themselves. I was always amused when Matthew was considered a heartthrob and it certainly makes me laugh that the notorious shower scene from “The Guest” is attracting so much attention because in the context of the film it’s kind of a funny beat. There’s something very humorous about its placement in the film. So it makes me laugh.
What do you miss most about the show?
I miss the guys, I guess. It was such a fantastic, kind of collective experience to have a cast of 20-25 principle actors from that first series. And more as the series has gone on who’ve been kind of catapulted by that show. It was quite an extraordinary experience as a group — just the feeling of our episodes playing around the globe. You know, getting people together on their living rooms on a Sunday night. It was a lovely feeling.
You could tell you were close. I recently saw a couple of your ice bucket challenges.
Yes. So far I’ve avoided those. I think it’s gone away, hasn’t it? I think it’d be weird to do an ice bucket challenge this week. Wouldn’t it?
Probably. Would you say that “The Guest” is the epitome of what you wanted to do by leaving “Downton?”
No. Not by any means. Is it part of an answer of what do I want to do? Yes. For damn sure. I grew up loving these kind of movies. I didn’t know that a film like this even existed. I couldn’t have sat down two years ago and said, “Okay Julian Fellowes, what I actually want to do is a twisted action thriller black comedy with horror elements. Preferably with an American accent.” That would have been insane and also highly implausible. But as soon as that opportunity came along, it seemed like a reality. If you believe that you yourself could do something — and I read things and I’m like I don’t know if I actually can pull it off — and sometimes that’s a terrifying feeling and you sort of think “But I’m prepared to have a go.” Sometimes you just do and say, “Actually, I’m just not gonna bite myself doing this.” And I think it’s yourself that you have to convince as much as anyone, really.
On that note, you have a series of films coming up. Was there a fear in leaving such a safe place? It was such a successful show and going into something, you know, Hollywood could be so fleeting.
Yeah. It was very safe and that was part of the thing really. I wanted to do at least one reckless thing before my kids grew up. And my wife was very much behind it and we felt up for the adventure, really. So, yeah. And it has been an extraordinary couple of years, just getting to explore a range and trying a bunch of different things. And I genuinely don’t know what will be next in terms of — again — I’m not going to sit you down and say, “This is the kind of movie I want to do,” because I genuinely don’t know what will be landing on my desk tomorrow. But we certainly got a few things coming out. Some of which I can talk about, some of which I can’t. But there are a few twists and turns.
You just said that you have no idea what’s coming. But are there are any projects, directors or any genres you would like to work with/in?
I would really like to work with Chris Morris. I don’t know if you know him, but he’s a British writer/comedian/genius guy. He directed the movie “Four Lions” a couple of years ago, which, if you could believe, is a suicide bomber comedy. I don’t know if it played very well over here, but it is an extraordinary film. But he is better known for the series “Brass Eye” and “The Day Today” in Britain back in the 90s. He was sort of the godfather of a generation of dark comedy coming out of Britain. And I suppose Werner Herzog. I adore him and I’d like to sit in a room with his accent.
It seems like you like to take risks as well. I’m just getting onboard with “High Maintenance” — I feel like I’m a little late to the game.
There’s no such thing with web series. It’s a YouTube web series. You’re not late to the game at all. You are arriving right on time.
I have yet to see your episode, but I hear incredible things. What brought you on to such a project?
I was sent a link to one of them when they made about four or five of them. And one of the actresses in “The Heiress,” Molly Camp, she just sent me a link one day saying “I think you’ll like these guys.”Just as friends do. And it’s the kind of interesting thing about web series, it’s how they are currently discovered. I’m sure the person that sent you or showed you “High Maintenance” is someone whose taste you trust or they know your taste or something. So yeah, I got sent this link. Watched it. Loved it. Really loved it. And had just moved to Brooklyn and — since coming here I felt the Broadway community is so welcoming and also the film community here has been very very welcoming. I was like, well, I’m pretty sure the web series community might be as welcoming. I’ll just drop them a line. And I think they were a bit surprised to get this email from Matthew Crawley, but we met up and got on. And they could see the email wasn’t actually from Matthew Crawley, it was from me and I was just really enthusiastic about their work. So our friendship came out of that really. I was in pure admiration for what they were doing. Because I think they are doing something really interesting with that series in a lot of different ways. And out of that friendship came this idea for Rachel, our episode, which was just too delicious to ignore. And they knew I was going to say yes to it.
So you are sort of going with the flow, adopting this “whatever comes my way” attitude.
Yeah. It’s a bit of both. There has to be some discipline involved in some stage of the process in terms of how rigorous I am in reading or preparing or that kind of thing. But leaving yourself open to possibilities is a wonderful thing. Because I didn’t know that I would be doing a web series — and there it was. And it was a great thing to get involved with.
And do you have any interest in getting back into TV at all?
Of course. Yeah. It’s become a quite awesome medium now in a way that didn’t — it’s definitely evolved in the last 10 years. “Downton” was the first time I had done a long running thing like that. And it was an interesting lesson in itself. I’m really enjoying this sort of intense burst of focus that each feature affords me. But if the right thing came along, definitely. I’m really into “BoJack Horesman” at the moment. Have you seen that? It’s really good.