Dan Stevens is very good at keeping busy. A decade into the most visible part of his career — kickstarted by his star turn on “Downton Abbey,” and only helped along by such varied film roles as “The Guest,” “Beauty and the Beast,” and “The Man Who Invented Christmas” and the daring series “Legion” — the British actor remains hard to categorize, though he is consistently prolific. While the summer of 2020 looks different than anyone could have possibly expected, it has offered a few delights, including two (appropriately, very different) roles for Stevens, who is riding high on the success of Netflix’s winning musical comedy “Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga” and ramping up for the release of the chilling “The Rental,” marking his return to his most beloved genres.
That those genres are “horror” and “musicals” speaks to Stevens’ range, the one connective thread between all his work. Well, that and the terror.
In 2017, Stevens told IndieWire that something like his role in the smash hit “Beauty and the Beast” spoke to his desire to always challenge himself. At the time, he said, “I think I was mildly terrified, but that’s really, generally what drives a lot of my decisions these days, is calibrating the right amount of terror. That sort of persuades me to do it.” Three years on, that sort of artistic thrill-seeking ethos hasn’t changed much.
“I think something has to pique my curiosity and, this doesn’t go necessarily for every single project, but I think if something seems like a challenge, it seems like something that might be slightly terrifying but also thrilling if I was able to pull it off, then it becomes that little bit more attractive,” he said in a recent interview with IndieWire.
That doesn’t mean that Stevens is only seeking out shiny new things, however, and while he confessed to wanting to mix things up, he’s always interested in returning to the kind of projects he really loves. Like musicals and horror films.
“Immediately after doing ‘Apostle,’ for example, the last thing I wanted to do was another gruesome folk horror movie covered in mud, but that’s not to say that I won’t do one again,” he said. “I think it’s the same with musicals probably. I wouldn’t necessarily want to do one back-to-back, but to do one every year or every couple of years would be great.”
That sort of thinking might actually be the key to Stevens’ overall strategy: he’s content to do everything. That doesn’t just mean glitzy musicals and muddy horror movies, whipsmart comic book series and beloved period pieces, it also means starring in one of the highest-grossing films of all time (albeit under some serious special effects), but not getting caught up in thinking that’s all there is.
“I’ve tried to always limit expectations, because you’re bound to be disappointed if you set them up too much. But I’ve had a really pretty varied career since then,” he said, when asked about the expectations he had after “Beauty and the Beast.” Instead of thinking about box office take, Stevens is more interested in the technical wizardry he got to play around with for the Bill Condon feature.
He said he’s eager to do more MOCAP, and was thrilled to get back into the suit (albeit, a less constricting version) for this year’s “The Call of the Wild,” in which he played a cruel trapper. He added, “I loved learning to perform in that way and it’s something I would definitely do again. And musicals, as well. It’s definitely opened the door to more musical stuff and I think there’s more to come.”
For now, Stevens’ musical itch has definitely been scratched by this summer’s Netflix hit, “Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga,” which sees Stevens playing a delightfully over-the-top (and oversexed) competitor in the fabulously cheesy singing contest. Starring alongside Will Ferrell and Rachel McAdams, Stevens’ comic stylings still manage to steal the show in the giddy musical comedy, a project Stevens said he very much did not need to be sold on.
“They didn’t really have to tell me what it was about for me to want to say yes, to be honest,” he said. “I was so excited to get to work with both of them. I’ve been a huge fan of Will’s for so long, and I just love his particular brand of silliness. To be invited to splash around in their paddling pools was just so great, but then the fact that it was set at the Eurovision Song Contest, which I have been intrigued by for a very, very long time, that was sort of an added bonus.”
Then, of course, there was the music, including the songs that Stevens’ character, beloved Russian star Alexander Lemtov, got to sing with relish. “David Dobkin played ‘The Lion of Love,’ and I was all in,” he added. While Stevens, who did sing in “Beauty and the Beast,” didn’t get to do his own crooning for the role, he still can’t help but geek out about the musical inspirations that drive Lemtov.
“I was all set to get into the studio and record after we shot the movie and then obviously coronavirus struck and we’ve all been in our homes,” he said. “So, we stuck with the original track, which was by a great Swedish baritone [Erik Mjönes], which I think is great. … Lemtov is loosely based on Philipp Kirkorov, who’s a Russian opera pop crossover artist with a very distinctive aesthetic style as well, which we borrowed a little bit from. But also there’s at least one country every year that submits a very sexualized song, incredibly sort of sexy lyrics, erotic costumes. So, Lemtov, he checks that box for our Eurovision bingo board.”
Don’t get Stevens started on said Eurovision bingo board, because the British actor is well-versed in every possible square. Yes, he really does love the actual Eurovision Song Contest, and is all too eager to impart its surprising charms on the rest of the world, including America.
“It’s really, really funny to me that there’s a whole continent of adults who’ve never heard of this thing,” Stevens said. “It’d be almost like if you’ve never heard of rodeo or something and just trying to explain to people exactly what that is, and why. It’s sort of morphed over the years into just a glorious pageant of bizarre, very, very camp eccentricity and there’s always something surprising. There’s always something terrible. It’s also just an amazing way of taking a night to look around Europe and being like, ‘Huh. Yeah. Okay. Yeah. We’re all here! We’re all doing our thing, and they’re doing that, and that’s interesting.’ … It’s just utterly bizarre things every year.”
Next up for Stevens’ busy summer: something entirely different (but of course). Stevens will next be seen in Dave Franco’s feature directorial debut, “The Rental,” which stars Stevens alongside Franco’s real-life wife Alison Brie, plus Sheila Vand and Jeremy Allen White. The foursome play a pair of couples who rent a stunning house for a weekend away, only to discover horror (emotional and physical) at every turn.
Stevens, who caught the attention of plenty of genre-loving horror hounds with his role in Adam Wingard’s 2014 chiller “The Guest,” seems delighted by the kind of reactions the film will stir up. (When I mentioned that I had watched the film the morning of our interview, Stevens reacted with a big laugh, “Oh, boy. A real breakfast movie!”)
Asked if the directing bug has caught him yet, especially after working with Franco on the actor-turned-director’s first foray behind the camera, and Stevens lit up. “Definitely. It’s something I’ve been getting more and more interested in the more I’ve been working, and the more I’ve become friends with directors, the more I’ve seen actors turned director,” he said. “It’s not something I’m rushing to do, but I think [it will happen] when the right story comes along, that I feel most passionate about, that I feel that I’m the one that needs to be behind the lens telling this story.”
Stevens confessed to be something of a tech wonk on sets, eager to learn from all the departments, prone to pestering with questions about camera gear and just how things work. The dynamics of group-based creation also intrigue him, and he likens making a movie to temporarily signing up for a “weird little cult or something.”
“I’ve always thought of it as an exercise in collective madness, that somebody has an idea, like, ‘Hey, I’m going to make something that’s, I don’t know, set at the Eurovision Song Contest,’ and then you have to go and tell another person that and then they adopt that madness,” Steven said. “Then they tell another 12 people, and then those 12 people go and tell 100 people. Now you’ve got a thing happening and everybody’s believing in it for the amount of time it takes to make this thing. It’s like joining a weird cult or something, so much of film is about willpower and belief.”
Over the course of his career, Stevens has spent plenty of time in such happy little groups, and it’s difficult to imagine that the same guy who played both the Beast and Matthew Crawley is consistently recognized for the same role. He’s got range, and he’s surely got fans who don’t even realize that the same actor has both starred in his very own FX series and consistently voices audiobooks (he’s done over 30 so far).
Still, the role that Stevens said he’s most recognized for is a surprising one. “Funnily enough, one of the things I get stopped for, in terms of people just wanting to say how much it meant to them, is ‘High Maintenance,'” he said, referencing to his 2014 appearance on the HBO series, in which he played a stay-at-home dad who spends much of his time smoking weed and dressing in his wife’s luscious wardrobe.
“I think that character really resonated with a lot of people, whether they’re a cross dresser or not,” he said. “It’s actually more about just being true to who you are in the world. It’s one thing being able to be something at home, but actually to live out your truth in the world. I think that, weirdly, it resonated with a lot of people.”
The current state of the world has required that many people, including workaholics like Stevens, slow down a bit. Before the pandemic pushed many people into various states of lockdown, Stevens was preparing his return to Broadway and was set to star in Martin McDonagh’s “Hangmen” at the John Golden Theatre. With all Broadway productions on hold until next year, Stevens has had to put his Broadway dreams on the backburner.
“It was pretty gutting, I won’t lie,” he said. “Obviously, in the grand scheme of things, it’s fine. But it was particularly gutting for the whole cast and crew, everybody involved in that project and in all the Broadway shows who’ve worked so incredibly hard to get this thing up. A Broadway show is much like a film set, it’s more about willpower and people coming together and believing in this thing and putting in the work. We had a number of people for whom it was their Broadway debut and that’s just so gutting. I’ve only been on Broadway once before, but I know how exciting and thrilling that is. And to have that kind of swept away, it’s heartbreaking to see that.”
For a performer not always willing to slow down — he’s somehow still got one more movie in the can this year, the comedy “Blithe Spirit” — the forced breather might actually be a good thing, all the better for him to appreciate a career that somehow seems like it’s just getting going. “I have had a very, very busy few years,” Stevens said with a laugh. “I’m not the best person at putting the brakes on myself.”
“Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga” is now streaming on Netflix; “The Rental” will be available on VOD and in select drive-ins on Friday, July 24.