From Downton Abbey to Beauty and the Beast, Dan Stevens brings a new vitality to the role of leading man.
A Hero for All Stories
Written by Peter Bowen
In becoming Charles Dickens in Bharat Nalluri’s The Man Who Invented Christmas, Dan Stevens found a role that brought together many of his own qualities—charm, intelligence, humor and a great love of literature. The story, which recounts the emotional journey that Dickens took in writing A Christmas Carol––as well as the profound effect the novel had on the rest of the world––connected with Stevens. “This isn’t a reverential biopic,” explains Stevens. “It’s the story of a gifted artist’s creative drive and the pressure he puts on himself to produce.” Through extensive research into the life and times of the author, Stevens crafted a Dickens few have seen before, one that was, as Nalluri describes him, “jubilant, exciting and dynamic.” In many ways his Dickens, a man that co-star Miriam Margolyes defines as “profoundly human, with all the faults and all the delights that go with that,” speaks to the unique qualities that Stevens brings to his characters as well.
For Stevens, acting initially provided a way to channel his restless curiosity and energy. “It was almost presented as a punishment,” Stevens jokes to The Telegraph. When he was cast in Macbeth at age 14, he found that being another character provided a meaningful escape from his own self-consciousness. “The most nervous I ever get is when I have to go and be me somewhere,” he recalls. “If I’ve got a nice costume and some lovely lines to say, I know I’ll be all right.” After winning a scholarship to the prestigious Tonbridge School, Stevens went on to Cambridge, keeping up his passion for theater by joining the sketch group Footlights and the more serious The Marlow Society. After graduating, Stevens immediately started working as a professional actor, being cast by Sir Peter Hall to play Orlando in As You Like It. The play, which received rave reviews both in England and New York City, garnered him an Ian Charleson Award commendation.
A big name on the small screen
Moving from stage to television, Stevens was cast as the lead in the BBC’s adaptation of Alan Hollinghurst’s Man Booker Prize-winning The Line of Beauty. Hollinghurst went out of his way to praise the “consummate subtlety and wit” that Stevens brought to playing his literary creation. In the 3-part series, Stevens plays Nick, a gay Oxford graduate navigating his way through the complexities of Thatcher’s England. But the critical attention Stevens received could barely prepare him for the attention he’d receive for his next television role.
A leading man for a new time
Casting his new series about a landed aristocratic family just before World War I, Julian Fellowes needed someone very special for the male lead: “We were looking for a young man who was handsome, of course, but who conveyed a real sense of uprightness.” As the unexpected heir in Downton Abbey, Matthew Crawley insists on bringing the modern world, with all its talk of social justice and new-fangled freedoms, into the venerable halls of the great estate. Crawley’s first bumpy, then true romance with Lady Mary Crawley (Michelle Dockery) serves as one of the prime engines driving the story through the first decades of the twentieth century, as well as enchanting viewers on both sides of the pond. “Helped along by the elegant performance of Dan Stevens,” Matthew’s fate, according to The New Yorker, “has the sweep of the best melodrama.” The force of that fate could be measured by how loudly millions gasped on twitter when Matthew came to an untimely end in 2013.
A man of letters
With Matthew gone, Stevens moved on to new projects. In 2012, he returned to his theater roots by playing opposite Jessica Chastain in the Broadway revival of The Heiress, a role in which The Telegraph wrote he “impresses as a credibly likeable Townsend, all floppy hair and smiles.” But he also revived his other intellectual pursuits, including his love for writing and writers. In addition to editing the online literary supplement The Junket, Stevens was asked to serve on the judging panel for the prestigious Man Booker Prize, an honor that came with the heavy responsibility of reading 146 books. As Stevens told The Daily Beast, literature is “something I’ve always loved and something I’ve always been keen to keep going.”
A Different type of leading man
Playing off the charming character that made him famous, Stevens starred in a number of roles that seemed to cleverly subvert audience’s expectations. In Adam Wingard’s 2014 thriller The Guest, Stevens explores the double-edged sword of his charming demeanor. After wheedling his way into the good graces and spare bedroom of a New Mexican family by claiming to be the best friend of their son who had been killed in action, Stevens’ charm keeps anyone from looking in his direction, even after the bodies start to pile up. As a smiling sociopath, Stevens “serves up a mesmerizing star turn of psycho charm,” notes the Los Angeles Times. He proved equally captivating as the cultivated Brooklyn drug kingpin in A Walk Among the Tombstones.
His charm took a burlier form when he was cast opposite Emma Watson in Disney’s live-action remake of Beauty and the Beast. Not only was he tasked in demonstrating the brute’s humanity, but he had to do so in a bulky motion-capture suit moving about on stilts. Director Bill Condon, who previously worked with Stevens on The Fifth Estate, knew the actor had the capacity to project his identity, praising “his achievement of breaking through all of that stuff and really being himself” in the role. Indeed even though Stevens is barely identifiable through most of the film, critics and audiences quickly recognized his vitality and humanity. For Rolling Stones’ Peter Travers, Stevens “goes beyond the call of family-musical duty to give us a flawed human being instead of a special effect; his is a Beast worth saving.”
Finding one’s true self
On the FX show Legion, Stevens wrestled with a character whose personality was buried beneath endless layers of neurosis and trauma. Adapted by Noah Hawley from the Marvel Comics character, Legion traces the unstable mental life of David Haller, a mutant suffering from schizophrenia. Stevens demonstrates seemingly supernatural skill in bringing together the multiple—and sometimes delusional—personalities as a single character. “Stevens simply does the best work of his career,” exclaims the San Francisco Chronicle. “Every glance, every movement, everything he embodies or does adds to the complex portrait of a deeply haunted young man who has all but reached the point of exhaustion trying to cope with his profound otherness.”