Dan Stevens has been very busy since his shock departure from BBCs DOWNTON ABBEY almost two years ago; this week, he stars in THE GUEST, a genre blending thriller about a soldier who befriends the family of his friend who didn’t make it home from war. We caught up with Stevens to find out more about how it felt to walk away from a hugely popular TV show, THE GUEST and what’s next for him…
First of all, the elephant in the room… How did it feel to walk away from DOWNTON ABBEY, the TV show that made you a household name? Dan Stevens: Well it was a big decision, and it scared me a lot, the prospect of leaving, but sometimes I think there are ways of being scared that are very positive. It was kind of thrilling; I had genuinely no idea what I was going to do afterwards. It was only after the event of making that decision that the opportunity to go and do a play on Broadway came up, and then I had the great fortune… Scott Frank, who directed A WALK AMONG THE TOMBSTONES – a thriller with Liam Neeson – he came and saw the play, offered me a part in that. It’s a very different genre than what I had tried before, and that then led to THE GUEST. It was literally like walking the plank and taking a step off into the unknown, but landing in some very very interesting places, and places that I had never ever dreamed of landing.
What drew you to THE GUEST? DS: THE GUEST was one of the funniest scripts I had ever read; it reminded me of so many brilliant films I loved growing up, and a lot of those 80s action movies like UNIVERSAL SOLDIER. I never dreamed that somebody like me would get to try that, but as an actor that is what I have always dreamed of, and it is really exciting when you see an actor who you know and love from a particular genre in something totally different; I have always loved Ben Kingsley in SEXY BEAST and Ralph Fiennes in IN BRUGES, these mad characters, and you have never seen them do anything like that before. For an actor to watch that, it’s quite exhilarating.
Were you apprehensive about taking on such a different role? DS: I sat down with Adam [Wingard] the director, and I knew I was not his immediate choice, especially because of the shape I was in; I was very wiry and thin, but we very clearly shared a similar sense of humour. Also, I very often ask to give me a list of movies to go away and do a bit of homework with for tone or certain scenes… and I had basically seen them all. We very quickly established that we love a lot of the same kind of movies. THE GUEST is a celebration of a lot of those, and playing with the audiences’ expectations and memories of those kids of films.
You mentioned the physical shape you were in… David’s physical appearance is part of the ‘joke’ of THE GUEST – especially in the scene where you carry kegs of beer into a party – did you have a lot of physical training to do for the role? DS: Yeah, a lot of keg lifting! [laughs] I have been lifting beer all my life, so it was a role I was born to play! [laughs] There was a very intense physical regime that went into the transformation; I had to change my whole metabolism for this role, but that physically punishing regime really informed the psychology of the character. There was also the sense of incorporating the physicality and physical transformation into the preparation of a role is always something I was interested in and interested in trying. It was a big leap for me, but I like the way the physicality of David plays into some of the comedy; the keg scene is very funny, and the now very much talked about shower scene, in the context of the film, makes me laugh a lot.
THE GUEST feels, to me, like BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER Season 4 meets DRIVE… Did you take inspiration from other movies for this role? DS: I have heard a few of those [comparisons] but that’s the first time that BUFFY has been mentioned! [laughs] I had someone describe it as NIGHT OF THE HUNTER meets UNIVERSAL SOLDIER, and CAPTAIN AMERICA gone very very wrong! [laughs] Yeah I very much took inspiration from the John Carpenter movies, the TERMINATOR FILMS, the HALLOWEEN films… As well as films like UNIVERSAL SOLDIER and RAMBO and COMMANDO. A lot of films that I digested growing up came out in this. It’s a very stylised film, and it plays with that style.
The music plays a big part in the film, was this something you used for the character and the film as a whole? DS: Adam, as well as being a very talented composer himself, had a very cool electronic composer called Steve Moore, who worked on the score. Steve had composed a few tracks to explore the tone of the film. Adam also has very obscure musical taste, so some of those tracks that you hear – particularly on the mixtape that Anna makes – he had those in mind from the beginning, and because they’re so obscure I think the producers were pretty sure we could use them. So we had the musical tone… I sometimes had it in my ears seconds before shooting a scene, and I find that is a really good way of finding your way into the world sometimes.
The film plays with several different genres, as well as comedy and drama, was this a difficult balance to strike? DS: It was quite tricky at times, but because Adam, [writer] Simon [Barrett] and I were on the same page in terms of our sense of humour, then I think we stood a good chance. It has been interesting watching audience reactions; sometimes I think that people aren’t quite sure what they are going into, and that can be quite fun too; by about 20 minutes in, they’re away. Knowing that you have permission to laugh at a film like this is key, that’s not to say that it’s a laugh a minute, broad comedy, but there is something strange, funny and quite playful at work in the film.
Was it challenging to get David’s accent right? DS: I didn’t have that accent in DOWNTON! [laughs] It’s all part of the challenge of the role. I have always loved doing different voices as an actor, so it’s been really fun to incorporate that into some of my ‘in vision’ work – I have done a lot of audiobooks and radio things. Getting my head around this Kentucky accent with a Southern drawl and the Southern charm informed the psychology of the character. It’s a slightly different pace, and it helped with the different modes of the character as well.
The film was shown at Sundance and Fright Fest. How did that feel? DS: I saw it first with an audience at Sundance, back in January, and I hadn’t seen it since then. I sadly wasn’t able to make Fright Fest, but I hear it was a hoot. The reaction from that has been amazing. We also had a lovely friends and family screening in London [recently] and it went down very very well. Your countryman Allen Leech – from DOWNTON ABBEY – came out and said it was ‘just so much craic!’ I think I understand what he meant! [laughs] What a lovely Irish review! [laughs]
You’ve written for various publications and you were a judge for the Booker Prize; do we see a screenplay or a novel in your future? DS: Maybe, but it’s going to be a while. It takes time for that, but I am actively developing a couple of screenplay ideas, and very much enjoyed producing SUMMER IN FEBRUARY a couple of years ago, and I am looking to do that again, but you have to be very impassioned about a project to push it that far. I am always on the lookout for something like that. A novel is way off, I am sure, but you may see a short story or two before then.
You mentioned that you have A WALK AMONG THE TOMBSTONES coming out this month also, what else do you have in the works? DS: Next, I suppose, is NIGHT AT THE MUSEUM: SECRET OF THE TOMB, which is coming out at Christmas. I play Sir Lancelot; the characters from the MUSEUM movies end up at the British Museum, and that’s where they stumble across Sir Lancelot. It’s a lot of fun, that one.
THE GUEST is released in Irish cinemas on September 5th 2014