Having become a star through Downtown Abbey, dashing lead Dan Stevens plays to his strengths in Summer In February, a film which he also produces.
PAUL BYRNE: Did you feel the need here to go research these true-life characters – noted British artist AJ Munnings, his buddy Gareth Evans, and the woman they both loved, Florence Carter-Wood – or was it all there in Jonathan Smith’s 1995 book and script?
DAN STEVENS: Luckily, we had Jonathan Smith himself there, as the key to all these characters and the world they lived in, back in Cornwall 100 years ago. He did all the research for his book, and then, yeah, he wrote the screenplay. So, he knew these people inside out, really, and that was wonderful to have around us. There were stories that gave us so much to work with.
BEING A CO-PRODUCER HERE, AS WELL AS A LEADING MAN, THAT PUTS QUITE A LOT OF WEIGHT ON YOUR SHOULDERS WHEN IT COMES TO SUMMER IN FEBRUARY DOING WELL…
It’s certainly a very exciting weekend, I think. It’s been such a long time in the making, this film. I first read the book about 15 years ago, and I’d be lying if I said I thought I’d be making the film 15 years later. But, about eight years ago, Jonathan Smith introduced me to this guy, Jeremy Crowdrey, who had bought the rights to the script, and who really wanted to make it into a movie. So, we’ve been developing the script together for seven or eight years, and so much happened along the way, it’s amazing to finally see it on the big screen.
Shot in Cornwall, of course, beginning in January of last year. That’s quite a while ago – how come it’s only hitting the screens now?
It took a while to shoot, and it always felt like a summer movie. I know it’s set in February, but we wanted a summer release. And I think we were right. With such a grey weekend due over the coming days, it is the right time to get some summer in the cinema.
The role of Gareth Evans here isn’t a million miles away from your roles as Matthew Crawley in Downtown Abbey – was that ever a concern? Or were you happy to play to your commercial strengths?
Well, the funny thing was, this project has been on the cards long before Downtown was even conceived, I think. When Downtown came along, the question in my mind was, should I do this, given the overlap. It was just such a strange coincidence that two scripts I had were both set in England, 1913, but the world of Summer In February is a world away from that of Downtown Abbey. This a progressive, bohemian slice of life, and it’s really not that big country house drama. It’s about that love triangle, and the world of the artist.
Everyone in Summer In February sounds and looks like they might be related to Emma Thompson. Did you have a say in the casting process?
Yeah, I suppose I did. All the producers played a part in that, and I felt incredibly lucky – as we all did – to get this cast together. It’s one of the nicest casts that I’ve ever worked with, and we had a fantastic debut from Mia Austen – who plays Dolly – and rising names such as Max Deacon and Shaun Dingwall give beautiful performances. And Hattie Morahan is one of my favourite actors – we had worked together on Sense & Sensibility, as had Dominic and I. I was delighted when she wanted to do it, and Dominic had the requisite rogueishness for the part.
Ophelia Lovibond was due to play Florence, but was replaced by Emily Browning at the 11th hour. Scheduling conflict? Artistic differences?
It was an illness issue at the end of the day, and something that I believe Ophelia wouldn’t want discussed.
Looking over your CV – the likes of Downtown, Sense & Sensibility, Agatha Christie, Dracula, Frankenstein, and beyond – you obviously wear the period costume well. Comfortable with that, or are you hoping that Ken Loach phones you up soon, to play a striking miner who turns to bare-knuckle boxing to make ends meet?
I have enjoyed these roles, and I’ve certainly grown up always wanting to do these kinds of roles, but now, there is a definite desire to mix it up. I’ve just been shooting this crime thriller with Liam Neeson, which is set in 1999, in Brooklyn, and I’m just about to go and do a contemporary film called The Guest, with a really exciting new director called Adam Wingard, which we’re shooting in New Mexico. But then, at the end of the summer, I’ll be shooting Swallows & Amazons, which is set in the 1930s, so, I think the key is to mix it up. I never reject a job based on what year it’s set.
So, you’re determined to follow Helena Bonham Carter to the dark side. It may mean having to sleep with Tim Burton at some point, but the roles will certainly get quirkier…
It’d be worth it.
You’ve got Wikileaks drama The Fifth Estate for Bill Condon coming up, where you play BBC journalist Ian Katz – were you able to hook up?
Well, that’s very much an ongoing story, and Ian was with The Guardian at the time of the leaks, and it’s been exhilarating, talking to him about the hows, wheres and whens as those leaks broke around the world. It’s a story that is echoed today, of course, with the Snowden whistleblowing…
You’ve also just shot A Walk Among The Tombstones with Liam Neeson – how did the big fella treat you?
He’s one of the kindest people I’ve ever worked with, and for someone like myself, new to this genre, he was like a sage, guiding me through. We had a really, really nice time on it, and he was a pleasure to work with, creating a wonderful sense of fun off-camera, which helped us deal with the darkness on-camera.
You also shot a short last year, William Bridges’ Shallow – a favour for a friend, or just a need to keep trying new things?
It’s a case of wanting to try new things. I had seen William’s earlier short, Dead Hungry, a fantastic zombie short, and I was very, very interested to work with him. Quite a dark little film, but it was quite a pleasure to work with him.
You studied English Literature at Cambridge – what went wrong?
I think I knew that Cambridge was quite a good route into the business. Certainly from the angle that I wanted to come at it from. I have quite a literary interest when it comes to film, especially when it comes to producing and directing my own stuff at some stage, so that really set me up. As an actor, I think it’s very healthy to surround yourself with real people at that age – people who are going to be doctors, and pilots, and nurses, and all the rest of it. I was interested in the variety of life.
This is your first producing gig – keen to use that power again, or was it too much work?
It was definitely a lot of work, but there are one or two other projects that I’m hoping to develop. If it takes as long as it took Summer In February to get made, that would be tough, but the whole process fascinated me. So, yeah, I would like to try it again…
Interview by Paul Byrne Summer In February is out now