Dan Stevens: "A lot of my school reports as a child said I should stop distracting others"

You know him as the ever-so-nice Matthew on Downton Abbey, but he’s toned up and turned into an all-American bad boy for The Guest. ‘It has been nice to take the stiff collar off for a bit’

In person, Dan Stevens is a mild mannered and awfully civilised chap. Why wouldn't he be? He read English literature at Emmanuel College, Cambridge. He's been married to South African jazz singer Susie Hariet since 2009. He behaves like a gentleman and insists on fetching you a bottle of water, "just in case you need it".

And yet, if certain corners of the internet are to be believed, Dan Stevens, in common with Robert Oppenheimer and time, is the Destroyer of Worlds.

Almost two years after Stevens's beloved Cousin Matthew was killed off during a Downton Abbey Christmas special, resentment still lingers among hardcore fans, who simply refuse to get on with the rest of their lives.

"He ruined Downton Abbey!" cries a terrifyingly recent IMDb post; "He ruined Christmas," says another.


Oh dear.

“I guess they’re right to be angry,” says the actor in an understanding voice. “People can feel however they want to feel. When people asked me ‘Why?’ it was very hard to answer that question two years ago, because I was still answering it in my own head. It was a big decision. It felt like the time to go. But I went off not quite knowing what I was going to do. And now you can see that I have been doing something with myself. So I expect those people to ebb away.”

They should, one hopes, take some consolation from their hero landing the title role in the most buzzed-about American film of the season. The Guest is a unique thriller about a mysterious soldier who stops off with the family of a fallen comrade. His hosts soon succumb to his charms. But their college-age daughter Anna (the remarkable Maika Monroe) remains suspicious, despite her guest's "aw shucks" politeness and frequent flashes of his rippling torso.

That spectacle has generated millions of hits for The Guest's promotional material. The body matters. The abs that required four hours of gym work every day provide the wining comic thriller with one of its best gags.

All that work for a joke? That must be humbling?

“I know,” he smiles. “It is a joke and its one that really makes me laugh. Obviously I love that the trailer and various images from the trailer have got people talking. But as you say, when you see it in the context of the film it is very funny. And that feels like a great achievement. It makes me smile.”

The Guest is the latest film from mumblecore graduate Adam Wingard, whose last film, You're Next, became a proper chart-topping smash. The new picture is a delightfully slippery affair; every time we think we're watching a thriller or a horror-comedy, it transforms into something else.

"I like working with cinephiles whether they're actors or directors," says Stevens. "It's nice that you have that shared vocabulary in terms of the movies that you like. I always try to expand those references as well. I'm always looking for a homework list. When I sat down with Adam for The Guest what was great was that I had seen all of the films he mentioned."

That must has been quite a list. The Guest may not be like any movie we've seen before but it is not short on sneaky allusions. Stephen Moore's synth score is very John Carpenter. Dan Stevens's central turn is equally redolent of Arnold Schwarzenegger in Commando and Ryan Gosling in Drive.

"There's some Escape from New York. There are bits of every John Carpenter film, especially Halloween," he says. "There's some Terminator. There's a lot of things borrowed from the horror phrase book but there's a lot of other genres and action movies in particular. When I'm watching it, it feels like we achieved what we wanted to achieve, which is a kind of celebration of the movies we grew up with. We're not taking the piss. It's not pastiche."

That’s true. But there’s a great deal of fun in the film’s straight-faced approach. The tone, indeed, frequently recalls Leslie Nielsen’s deadpan.

"There's definitely a little glint in the eye. We're not actually looking to make a spoof. But we did grow up watching movies like Commando where Arnold Schwarzenegger kills more people than would happen in most wars, just blithely mowing people down, with no irony. At the time he felt glorious to watch. Now you think 'Wow, he's killing a lot of people.' So we wanted a certain kind of straightness that you see in hardboiled '50s movies and that turns up in again in the '80s."

Stop distracting others Dan Jonathan Stevens was born in Croydon and was adopted at birth by his parents, two teachers, now retired. He was something of a rebellious youth and was packed off to board at Tonbridge School in Kent at the age of 10.

“I know a lot of my school reports as a child said I should stop distracting others, which then led to people nudging me toward school plays and things: just do that on the stage and not in the classroom. I had this urge or instinct to perform. And it’s wonderful when those urges and are channelled and nurtured rather than crushed.

“Once I got on stage I never looked back. And that led to all kinds of wonderful things.”

So was his boarding school experience more like Hogwarts than Lindsay Anderson's If . . .?

"Well, If . . . is based on my school so that answers that question," laughs Stevens. "I'm really glad you mentioned it. It's one of my very favourite films and it's another thing I see when I watch The Guest that makes me smile."

Stevens's career follows a familiar British trajectory: English at Cambridge and a stint at Footlights, where notable colleagues included Him & Her creator Stefan Golaszewski and comedians Tim Key and Mark Watson. Things took off for the actor in 2004 when Sir Peter Hall cast him as Orlando in As You Like It, a performance that got the young actor shortlisted for an Ian Charleson Award. He quickly became a respected theatrical name who enjoyed occasional forays into period drama (including BBC's 2008 version of Sense and Sensibility and their 2009 production of The Turn of the Screw) when Downton Abbey bestowed proper stardom upon him.

The American takeover Post Downton, in common with his friend and fellow Cantabrian Benedict Cumberbatch, Stevens appears to have taken over American cinema. In addition to The Guest fans can soon catch him playing opposite Liam Neeson in the modern detective yarn, A Walk Among the Tombstones. He'll also feature alongside John Travolta and Michael Pitt in Jackie Earle Haley's directorial debut, Criminal Activities.

And not a frock coat in sight. Not that he has anything against frock coats.

“It has been nice to take the stiff collar off for a bit,” admits the 31-year-old. “I would love to go and do a period drama again if the right sort of thing came up. But at the moment how I operate is very script based. I say yes if I am interested in working with the director or if the script makes me laugh or if it’s something I want to explore. I wouldn’t throw something off my desk in a huff just because it’s set in 1874. But I am looking for something with a twist.”

It has been a busy a couple of years for the actor. In 2012 he was on the judging panel for the Booker Prize, an "amazing honour" he says, but one that required reading more than 100 books in a very short space of time.

“I’ve since had to rehabilitate myself as a reader,” he says. “In two years I have definitely not read as many as I did during those months. Not even close. And it’s been nice to take my time with a novel and not race through wondering ‘is this a great work of literary fiction?’ and ‘What am I going to say about this at the next judges’ meeting?’”

Stevens has lately relocated to Brooklyn with Hariet and their two children, Willow (born 2009) and Aubrey (who arrived in 2012).

He looks leaner and sleeker than he did during his Downton years. New York has, he says, changed his eating habits, but otherwise hasn't necessitated too much of a cultural shift.

“I’ve always loved Brooklyn,” says Stevens. “And I’ve always wanted to live there because various poets I love lived there and I love that feeling of walking on the same streets. But New York and London are both great cities and are really quite similar. If anything, moving away has given me a new appreciation of London.”

He has just finished shooting Night at the Museum 3 and The Cobbler opposite Adam Sandler. For now, however, he's taking a "beat" so that he can spend some time at home.

“Having children is wonderful for an actor, I think,” he says “Partly because they remind you about so many great things in life that have nothing to do with work and also because an actor is interested in people and character and personality. So watching two little humans grow up is so very exciting.”