Fans who come across a beloved TV star are usually more in the market for an autograph than a fight.
But when Downton Abbey enthusiasts encountered Dan Stevens after watching the PBS drama’s season finale last year, they were as perturbed as Maggie Smith’s Dowager Countess in a Parisian whorehouse. ”There were a lot of very upset people demanding apologies,” he says.
After three years as the show’s romantic lead, the dashing English country-estate heir Matthew Crawley, the British actor had decided to bite the silver spoon that fed him and leave the series for good with vague, undefined plans to pursue film roles. So in February 2013, 12.9 million American viewers watched in horror as Matthew died in an unexpected, unforeshadowed, and frankly WTF car crash, just after holding his and Lady Mary’s newborn child for the first time. ”Doing a long-running TV thing was amazing on all sorts of levels,” says Stevens, 31, seated at a restaurant near his newish home in Brooklyn. ”But at the moment, it’s about seeing how I can keep myself challenged and entertained.”
The actor appears in three films this fall, playing characters far removed from Downton’s buttoned-up lawyer-turned-aristocrat. In the twisty action film The Guest (out Sept. 17), he’s a ripped war veteran from Kentucky who inveigles his way into the bosom of a grief-stricken family. In the thriller A Walk Among the Tombstones (out Sept. 19), he’s a whippet-thin New York drug trafficker who recruits Liam Neeson’s private eye to track down the men who abducted and murdered his wife. And in the comedy threequel Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb (out Dec. 19), he sports 50 pounds of armor, long hair, and a beard as the mythical knight Sir Lancelot.
This evening, Stevens claims to be exhausted. The actor drove down from upstate New York after wrapping, at dawn, an indie drama called The Ticket, in which he stars as a blind man who regains his sight. ”If I start rambling off, slap me awake again,” he says. Luckily, a physical assault on what Night at the Museum director Shawn Levy calls the actor’s ”stupidly good-looking” features never becomes necessary.
The career paths of actors who ditch the shows that made them famous vary, as the briefest inspection of George Clooney’s and David Caruso’s IMDb pages will testify. And at first glance, Stevens seemed an orchid unlikely to thrive outside the period-drama greenhouse. He grew up in Wales and southeastern England, the son of two teachers who adopted him at birth, and studied English literature at Cambridge University. In college, he and Rebecca Hall (who would go on to star in The Town and Iron Man 3) trod the boards in Macbeth. He wowed his costar’s father, famed director Peter Hall, who soon cast him in a touring production of As You Like It—typecasting Stevens as a thespian of the Bard-and-Brideshead ilk.
In person, he doesn’t do much to undercut that impression. He’s the model of a polite, restrained Englishman who describes his guest spot on Test Match Special, the BBC’s cricket commentary radio show, as one of the highlights of his life. But beneath that reserve lies a different sort of dude. He’s a huge fan of John Carpenter’s cult classic Big Trouble in Little China and the hard-edged satirist Chris Morris. At Cambridge, he spent less time on serious plays than on ”weird student comedy” with the Footlights, a legendary troupe whose alumni include Hugh Laurie, exactly half of Monty Python, and Downton creator Julian Fellowes. And then there’s his fondness for violence. ”I saw Kill Bill three times the day it opened,” he says. ”I literally ran out of the cinema, grabbed some mates, and went back in.”
For a guy like that, Downton proved to be a gilded cage, so he split when his three-year contract expired, even though he didn’t have any job offers at the time. ”It wasn’t a ‘slam the door’ thing,” he says. ”It was ‘Three years is up. Would you like to continue?”’ He sought advice from pals and, most decisively, his wife, Susie, a singer who’s now full-time mother to their two children, Willow, 4, and Aubrey, 2. ”I couldn’t have done it without her,” he says. ”I couldn’t have said, ‘I know you’re pregnant with our second child, but I’d like to leave this steady job and do something else.’ She was really up for the adventure.” In fact, he says, ”anybody who wasn’t involved with Downton was very supportive of the decision.”
One person less supportive? Julian Fellowes. Last winter, he told EW that Stevens’ exit and his refusal to return for one more episode at the start of season 4 led to Matthew’s sudden demise. ”We had no option,” said the Downton chief. ”What else do people suggest? That we put [him] on a rocket to the moon?” Stevens says that Fellowes, as a former actor himself, understood—but only to a point. ”There was a part of him that championed the decision,” he says. ”But the Downton part couldn’t.”
While Stevens was eager to shake his Downton persona, Hollywood took longer to come around. Scott Frank, writer-director of A Walk Among the Tombstones, admits he was reluctant to audition him for the drug-dealer role. ”I said, ‘I don’t think he looks right. I don’t think we’ll believe him,”’ he says. But Stevens proved him wrong, impressing even Neeson. ”I have seen maybe three episodes of Downton Abbey, but I did remember Dan,” says the Taken star. ”I was very surprised by his physical look. He lost something like 23, 24 pounds.”
Stevens doubled down on that transformation for The Guest, engaging in an ab-building regimen of ”circuit training, weights, martial arts—a lot of blood, sweat, and a few tears.” He has since pared back his fitness routine, but is still much less ”doughy”—to use his word—than he sometimes looked on Downton. He credits the more disciplined lifestyle he’s adopted since moving to the States, one in which British ale has no place: ”Much as I love it, English beer is like drinking a pint of bread.”
Though he doesn’t rule out a move to L.A. at some point, Stevens adores living in Brooklyn. The borough has resonance for the literature-loving star, who somehow found the time to judge for the prestigious Man Booker Prize in 2012 and still serves as editor at large of The Junket, an online magazine showcasing essays and short stories. ”This neighborhood always fascinated me,” he says. ”Whitman and Hart Crane. Truman Capote. Norman Mailer lived down the street, Arthur Miller too. A lot of interesting cats flocked to this place.”
Stevens has two more films in the can: the kidnapping thriller Criminal Activities with John Travolta, and Thomas McCarthy’s comedy The Cobbler, starring Adam Sandler as a man who can inhabit the lives of the people whose shoes he mends. ”I’m essentially required to play Adam Sandler,” says Stevens. ”Like, if Adam Sandler were in my body, how would he behave? It struck me as a very interesting exercise, apart from anything else.”
And he sees signs that even die-hard Downton fans may at last be softening toward him. ”What’s refreshing is that people who have seen The Guest have gone, ‘Okay, we’re beginning to understand,”’ he says. ”People say, ‘I hated you when you left, I wanted to kill you. Now I love you all over again.”’