TV

Dan Stevens: 'Books, Brooklyn and beating up Benedict'

Dan Stevens on living in New York, the new Downton Abbey series – and fighting Benedict Cumberbatch

How do you ruin Christmas Day for millions across Britain? Just ask Dan Stevens. His cherished Downton Abbey character Matthew Crawley, heir to the Downton estate, was killed off in abrupt, ruthless fashion in a car crash on December 25, 2012, just after he and wife Lady Mary had welcomed their first child.

Christmas puddings spluttered out as jaws remained dropped, prompting an apology from the English actor. “What emerged is that it’s an unwritten rule that you’re not supposed to die on British television on Christmas Day,” he later said.

Move forward two years and Stevens is now settled in Brooklyn, New York, with his wife, South African singer Susie Hariet, and their two young children after leaving Downton behind. He immediately scored a Broadway hit with The Heiress (alongside Oscar-nominated actress Jessica Chastain) and is now basking under the Hollywood spotlight with three films released this month.

That’s the most hilarious, Marxist reading of that episode I have ever heard

First up is blood-and-thunder suspense thriller The Guest, before The Cobbler, with Adam Sandler and Dustin Hoffman, and A Walk Among the Tombstones, opposite Liam Neeson. And that’s before the 31-year-old appears as Sir Lancelot, with the late Robin Williams, in Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb, out later this year.

In 2012 he co-judged the Man Booker Prize, an epic task that required him to read all 147 novels while filming season three of Downton. He’s also editor-at-large of The Junket, an online literary quarterly launched with his university buddies, a keen cricketer and violinist. Is there anything this chisel-chinned, golden-locked Cambridge graduate can’t do?

So Dan, did Downton writer Julian Fellowes write you out of the show like that because you’re a vocal lefty?

Ha! That’s the most hilarious, Marxist reading of that episode I have ever heard. It’s an interesting theory…

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You have three big films out this month. Are you about to do what Oasis never could and break America?

 I don’t really know what that would feel like. It’s an interesting time, absolutely. We’ll see what comes. With The Guest, I’m just really pleased to see it being received in the spirit in which it was made. It’s very exciting. The reaction has been note-for-note exactly what we dreamed of.

Your character in The Guest is a sinister, violent liar – quite a leap from Matthew Crawley.

I found it very, very funny. I laughed a lot when I read the script. It reminded me, somehow, of every film I’d enjoyed watching with my mates as a teenager – the Halloweens and other John Carpenter films, the Cannon films, the Terminators. The Guest had elements of all of these blissfully churned up in it. I met with Adam [Wingard, director] and it very quickly became apparent that we shared a similar twisted sense of humour and both had enjoyed those same films growing up, even though he grew up in Alabama and I grew up in Britain.

I tune into Test Match Special as and when I can, which is a great touchstone with back home

Towards the end of Downtown you looked rather well proportioned. Now you’re the picture of fitness. Are you on a crazy 5:2 diet?

 For A Walk Among the Tombstones they wanted my character to be a little wiry, a little bit off and weird. I dropped about 30 pounds for that role, dyed my hair dark and grew some questionable facial hair. That paved the way for The Guest. The physical transformation wasn’t too crazy. I’d get in a couple of hours of weights and circuits in the morning and then martial arts in the afternoon, usually with a session at the gun range in between.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0JjRoh13vzY

I can’t imagine cricket is too popular in New York. What else do you miss about home?

Oh, I miss the Indian food mostly. And the friends with whom I eat the Indian food. I miss my friends and my family back home but I’m enjoying the adventure. I tune into Test Match Special as and when I can, which is a great touchstone with back home, but I still haven’t played cricket since I came to the States. I still follow ‘soccer’ and enjoyed watching the World Cup with Americans. The USA did fairly well and considerably better than England. I’ve been trying to get my head around their sports. I’ve sat down with American friends and they’ve allowed my stupid-question sessions. The hockey play-offs this year were particularly exciting and I followed the New York Rangers.

How has fatherhood changed you?

It’s wonderful, such a delight. Every minute that I spend away from work I get to spend with my kids and it’s thrilling. For anyone in this profession it’s tricky and inevitably I have to be away a little bit. New York, and Brooklyn in particular, is great for kids.

Did you feel like giving up reading forever after the Booker panel?

 There’s a bit of you that still cowers when you see anything bound with a spine after that. But no, I’ve slowly rehabilitated my reading habits. It’s given me an interesting appreciation of novels. At the moment I’m reading a few things: a really fascinating history book called How to Ruin a Queen by Jonathan Beckman; David Nicholls’ new book Us, which is absolutely fucking brilliant.

Do you find that you and your mate Benedict Cumberbatch are competing for the same film roles?

 I don’t know about that. Benedict is flying high at the moment. I really admire his trajectory. He’s a very, very talented actor and a good friend. We’ve known one another since the start. I remember us both knocking about in the same world. His work on stage and screen is just awesome.

Who would win in a fist fight between you two?

 Wow. There’s only one way to find out, if we can arrange it. I don’t know if I could fight Khan [played by Cumberbatch in Star Trek Into Darkness] – but David [Dan’s character] in The Guest? Maybe…

Downton series five starts soon. Do you still tune in? When will Lady Mary move on?

I do, yes. I’m still very fond of it and seeing old friends. It’s all to play for with Lady Mary, isn’t it?

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