Dan Stevens may have been an ‘unruly’ child, but he still played Macbeth at 14. Little wonder the doomed hero of Downton Abbey is now a fully fledged film star. Sally Williams meets Disney’s latest leading man
Having spent three years playing the ill-fated Matthew Crawley, the accidental heir to Downton Abbey, Dan Stevens seemed fixed in the public’s perception as a thoroughly well-bred chap: a purveyor of good manners, good looks and period dramas. He was so suave in his tailcoats and white bow ties that one critic likened his ‘floppy-haired, Oxbridge burnish’ to a young Hugh Grant.
But in recent years Stevens seems to have done all he can to obscure his fine features. He dyed his hair black and appeared ravaged as a heroin trafficker in the thriller A Walk Among the Tombstones. He wore heavy armour and a melting nose as Sir Lancelot in the comedy Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb.
And in High Maintenance, a cult series about a weed dealer in New York, he was a cross-dressing stay-at-home dad. Now he is the Beast in the live-action remake of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast, in which he spends the best part of two hours disguised as a 6ft 10in leonine monster.
The film, about a prince who is transformed into a brute as punishment for his arrogance, is much-anticipated (the trailer alone broke records, with 127.6 million views in its first 24 hours online). Stevens’ startling blue eyes are still apparent – particularly when he is face-to-face with Belle (Emma Watson), whose love he must win to become a prince again – but the rest of him is concealed under bad teeth, demonic horns and a Lycra muscle suit.
You don’t even hear his normal voice (which, as fans of audiobooks will know, is beautiful – he has narrated over 30 titles, from Agatha Christie to Roald Dahl), because he does something clever with his larynx to make it particularly growly. It’s all part of a post-Downton period of exploration, he explains: ‘I realised I hadn’t been challenging myself.’
We meet at a hotel in London, where he appears in a pork-pie hat and a hipster cardigan. Now 34, he is much leaner than in his Downton days, and his hair is back to its natural chestnut brown. Having moved from London to New York in 2013, he lives among artistic types in Brooklyn with his wife, Susie Harriet, a South African jazz singer, and their three children, Willow, seven, Aubrey, four, and Eden, 10 months.
Stevens is polite, extremely likeable and laughs easily, but what is most striking is his intellect. He won a scholarship to Tonbridge, an independent boarding school; speaks French and German; and studied English literature at the University of Cambridge.
In 2011 he was the quick-witted guest host of an episode of Have I Got News for You (crammed in while filming Downton; his co-star Hugh Bonneville, who played the Earl of Grantham, declined because ‘I am only an actor’ and ‘not sharp enough to compete with the regular panellists’). The following year he was a judge for the Man Booker Prize, for which he had to read 147 novels.
The move to New York, he says, marked ‘a different approach to a lot of things. My own personal health was one.’ He swims, does yoga and goes to the gym, and his diet is dairy-free (he orders black coffee). ‘I didn’t take very good care of myself when I lived in London,’ he admits. ‘Under three layers of tweed, you can hide a lot of ills.’
He works hard as an actor, researching roles, exploring the psychology of his characters. And during the five-month shoot for Beauty and the Beast at Shepperton Studios, Surrey, he went to the gym every day. Stevens says he needed to strengthen his legs to withstand the punishment of performing on 10in stilts – ‘metal, elevated platforms that were extremely painful and hard to walk in’, he explains. ‘I also developed really good core strength. It helped with the breathing, it helped with the singing.’
He did the film because the VHS was part of his childhood – he was eight when the animation came out and had ‘a much-watched copy’ – and because the role was exciting. ‘It was a brilliantly intriguing character to tackle. I thought, “Wow, I get to be the Beast!”’ Creating the Beast was exactly the kind of technical exercise Stevens now thrives on.
He talks of how he had to give two different performances – one neck-down and one neck-up. First, he acted out the movements of his character on-set with Watson, wearing the muscle suit and the stilts, which, he admits, could be alienating.
‘I felt pretty monstrous on that gorgeous set. It was incredibly lavish – the ballroom was based on the Palace of Versailles but turned up to 11, excessive opulence, beautifully lit. Emma was looking gorgeous in this immaculately conceived creation – it took something like 10,000 hours of work to make that dress. And then I come lumbering in in this grey, Lycra muscle suit.’
He has only praise for his co-star. ‘It was fascinating doing the scenes with Emma. I don’t think there’s another actress on the planet who is more experienced at working with this level of new technology,’ – after the high-scale visual effects of Harry Potter films – ‘and she was totally unfazed.’
Every 10 days or so, he would sit in a booth with his face covered in ultraviolet make-up and give his second performance, re-enacting the scenes from the previous days in front of a bank of cameras. This footage was used to create the Beast’s face.
‘It’s never been done before,’ he says proudly. There was also another reason for taking the role, he adds. ‘Beast is for my children, for my wife, for my family.’
Dan Stevens was born in 1982 in Croydon, to a mother he never knew. At the age of seven days he was adopted by two schoolteachers. It’s a subject he has rarely discussed publicly. He was later joined by a brother (no blood relation), who was also adopted.
The family lived in Marlborough, Wiltshire, then Chelmsford, Essex, and when Stevens was eight moved to Brecon, in Wales. He says his parents – ‘warm, lovely, good people’ – were always open about him being adopted.
‘People like to pathologise adoption, but actually there is no conventional way to be brought up. People can have biological parents who are absent for whatever reason during their childhood, and their parenting can be replaced by any number of people. Adoption is just one of many ways that children get nurtured and loved and end up as human beings who are every bit as interesting and whatever as regular children.’
The circumstances of his birth, he admits, do raise a question mark over his acting ability.
‘It’s quite possibly a genetic thing; it’s quite possibly a nurture thing. The parents that raised me weren’t actors, but they loved going to the theatre and they watched television and movies, so I was raised on a cultural diet of books, of literature, and also of performance, of watching great movies and plays.’
‘Distracting’ is how Stevens describes himself at primary school; that’s what most of his reports said, ‘either because I was bored or because I was just being an idiot’. The solution was to put him on stage. ‘It was almost presented as a punishment that I was going to be in the school play,’ he says. Acting became ‘a vent for something’.
At the age of 13 he won that scholarship to Tonbridge School. ‘My parents, as teachers, knew about that kind of thing, and I wish more people did really, because I was given some incredible opportunities and am very grateful for that. There is a system out there that champions curiosity in kids, and it doesn’t matter if your grandfather went wherever.’
And yet the change was traumatic. ‘These schools are built like castles. They have imposing façades and are run on very old English principles, and they are all trying to be echoes of each other.’ Stevens became ‘unruly’ – smoking, getting suspended, going on demonstrations. But expulsion was averted by a teacher.
‘My English master, Jonathan Smith, was one of those magical teachers who could spot a kid in trouble and know the right thing to say to him,’ he has explained. ‘I owe him a tremendous amount.’
A novelist, writer and teacher, Smith was head of English at Tonbridge for 17 years. His former pupils include the poet Christopher Reid, who won the 2009 Costa Book Award, and Vikram Seth, author of A Suitable Boy. His son, Ed, is an author and former England cricketer.
Smith and the drama teacher Lawrence Thornbury ‘were this incredible duo, and it was just like an oasis of creativity and a real escape from the rest of it’, Stevens says. ‘They championed what I was good at and recognised where I needed to be directed towards, and offered guidance. Even if it was just, “You are having a moment, read this book.”
A turning point was being cast as Macbeth when he was 14. What did they see in him? ‘Precociousness, probably.’ He explains his urge to perform very simply: ‘The most nervous I ever get is when I have to go and be me somewhere. If I’ve got a nice costume and some lovely lines to say, I know I’ll be all right.’
Stevens would later use his Downton fame to help make a film adaptation of a book written by Smith. Summer in February is the tale of a real-life love triangle between British artist Alfred Munnings, his friend Gilbert Evans and the woman they both loved, artist Florence Carter-Wood.
The book was first published in 1995, and the film was released in 2013, starring Stevens as Evans and Dominic Cooper as Munnings. Was that a thank you? ‘There are easier ways of saying thank you than trying to make an independent film of somebody’s book, but yes, subconsciously it was. It was a real labour of love.’
It was Smith who encouraged Stevens to go to Cambridge, which he loved, meeting like-minded people for the first time and starring in student productions. Many of his friends were alternative comedians – Mark Watson, Tim Key, Stefan Golaszewski – and he started doing stand-up, even seeing a future on the comedy circuit.
The theatre director Sir Peter Hall spotted him acting alongside his daughter Rebecca in an undergraduate production of Macbeth. Six months after graduation, Hall cast them both in a touring production of As You Like It. ‘I wasn’t buying a house off the back of that job, but it felt like a success in that I had always wanted to do professional Shakespeare and learn about verse speaking,’ Stevens says.
He toured England and America and won critical acclaim, being nominated for an Ian Charleson Award in 2004. Success followed success.
In 2006 he starred as Nick Guest in the BBC adaptation of Alan Hollinghurst’s novel The Line of Beauty (‘I have not seen Dan Stevens before but from now on I will be on the lookout for anything else he appears in,’ wrote one reviewer); and in 2008 he played Edward Ferrars in an adaptation of Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility. But it was an audition later that year that changed everything.
Julian Fellowes, the creator of Downton Abbey, has explained, ‘We were looking for a young man who was handsome, of course, but who conveyed a real sense of uprightness. Not an anti-hero but a real hero – someone who, at the same time, seemed strong and rigorous and interesting.’
When did Stevens realise Downton was a phenomenon? ‘I happened to have been in the States and I flew back to Heathrow, and someone came up to me at the airport who was obsessed with the show, and that was only four episodes in. I thought, “That hasn’t happened before.”’
Americans were especially fascinated – the series won a Golden Globe in 2012. ‘And it wasn’t just there,’ Stevens says. ‘Downton seemed to be in every country in the world [at its peak it played in 250 territories]. Like in Spain, it become one of the biggest foreign shows there for 20 years. There was seemingly no rhyme or reason as to why it caught fire as widely as it did. We were all surprised. Even Julian.’
It has been five years since he left Downton – or rather didn’t renew his three-year contract. ‘It’s called an option for a reason and I chose not to continue,’ he explains. He remembers his days on-set with nostalgia.
‘The dining room scenes were a torture to shoot, but as a result there was a kind of gallows humour that we all developed. You are eating all day, increasingly cold peas and congealed gravy, and there are 20 of you sat around a table. We used to play wink murder. Maggie Smith [who played the Dowager Countess] is unbelievably good at wink murder.’
Stevens says the decision not to continue was made with his wife. ‘We’d just had our daughter Willow when I started the show and we thought, “OK, a three-year engagement.”
Then by the end of three years I was ready to try something else.’ Family is at the centre of his life. He was 23 when he met Harriet – they were working at different theatres in Sheffield – and was in the thick of marriage and babies ahead of his contemporaries. He was 26 when Willow was born.
‘If it feels right, it feels right. We fell in love and that was it. Three children on and it’s still magical.’ He is a doting father, changing nappies, though he admits he’s ‘not the best’ at getting up in the middle of the night. Harriet has put her career is on hold, he says. ‘But there is still a lot of singing in our house.’
His biggest indulgence is travel. ‘We enjoy taking our kids to see beautiful natural spots. Wherever we are in the world, we always try to find something like that.’
As an actor, Stevens’ ambition is to keep trying new things. Future projects include a portrayal of Charles Dickens in The Man Who Invented Christmas, a film that charts the creation of A Christmas Carol; and he is about to start shooting Apostle, a dark thriller about a religious cult.
‘When I left Downton, a lot of people would levy questions like, “What are you doing? What are you going to do?” And I guess the last few years have been about answering those questions in a number of different ways.’
Beauty and the Beast is released on 17 March