Editor’s note: This interview was conducted in Britain last summer, before the fate of Stevens’ character was known.
Dan Stevens was a virtual unknown before “Downton Abbey” premiered on PBS two years ago. But between the launch of the series and the premiere of Season 3, a lot changed for Stevens; the Cambridge grad became a heartthrob across the globe in the role of Matthew Crawley, a middle-class lawyer sucked into the gilded cage that is Downton Abbey. He also found himself with a huge number of opportunities dangled before him, including his current role in the Broadway production of “The Heiress.” Just after Christmas, Stevens confirmed what British fans already knew: He won’t be returning to “Downton” for a fourth season.
But back in July, while the show was shooting Season 3, I visited Highclere Castle, the mansion that serves as the Crawley home, for this Calendar feature. Stevens admitted that he was tired -- his wife had just given birth to their second child, he was busy reading books as a judge for the Man Booker Prize and he was planning his family’s move to New York, where he’d have to find a nursery school for his older daughter as well as making his Broadway premiere.
On the set, he was in constant demand. As Season 3 opens, his character is preparing to wed Lady Mary. And as the fortunes of the aristocrats spiral downward, Matthew is bringing his earnest practicality to the rescue -- and of course, his once-again-able body.
Stevens was central to almost every scene that shooting day, switching from a tweedy daytime suit to chic dinner suit. But when he wasn’t changing his clothes or taking a nap, Stevens was trapped inside the castle, windows blackened. During a short break between takes, we sat outside on the lawn to chat.
You’re a judge for the Man Booker Prize -- how many books have you read so far?
I can’t remember which one I’m on but it’s into the hundreds. I think if I’d known then what I know now I might have said no. [chuckles] But it’s a huge honor. Doing that as well as doing this, I’ve been producing a movie, I’ve been producing a child... If I was on a desert island, 148 books would be great but I’m not on a desert island. I think the plan is never to read ever again.
You probably don’t need to ever read again, you’ve stocked up.
I can dine out on the books of 2012 for the rest of my life. Even in 2050 I’ll still be boring people with those books.
Is this your personality, are you someone who always takes on too much?
You know it’s not, it’s just a freaky year where it’s all come to a head. I said yes to a few too many things. Next year will be the year of saying no. Normally I like to do one thing well and right now I’m trying to do lots of things well.
Is it just tempting because “Downton” opened so many doors?
I’m sure I wouldn’t have been asked to judge the Man Booker if it weren’t for “Downton.”
Season 2 of “Downton” had a lot of over-the-top plot twists. Do you talk to Julian [Fellowes] about the show’s direction and the choices he makes for the characters?
I used to but it’s happening less and less, partly because he’s so hard to get hold of now, he’s always in [L.A.]... In the second series there were some twists and turns that took some explaining. One of the delights of the show is that you take what’s thrown at you really. Oh, he’s getting out of the wheelchair! Great!” [laughs]
People had a lot of fun with Matthew’s sudden recovery from paralysis.
Of course they did! It was amazing. It’s always exciting to get the next batch of scripts to see what’s going on. It would be boring if I knew it all. We get rewrites and the story is shaped as we go. There are elements that change around, it keeps us on our toes.
Was there anything you saw in a script that made you think, I can’t do this?
There were probably a couple of things in the war, particularly when Matthew was injured. There were certain references to aspects of his injury that we sort of removed. I’ll leave it with your imagination! [laughs] Because it was like, do we really need to talk about that?
Do you ever read recaps of “Downton”? I seem to recall some writers had a field day trying to figure out...
...what was going on there. In fact, there was this one thing, what was it called? The tingling. I think ‘The tingling’ at one point was trending on Twitter! There’s not so much tingling in this season. He’s absolutely fine now.
So he’s ready to father some children now? His manhood was an issue so now we want to know.
It’s definitely an ongoing concern, I suppose.
You and Mary got together at the end of Season 2. It’s a classic issue in TV, what happens after the love interests get together. Will there still be tension?
There are new problems, they enter into a new phase...I’m trying to think of what I can say. They’ve grown up a bit. New decade, new set of problems.
Your character is poised at an interesting juncture. There’s an increasing class mobility and Matthew is this middle-class guy who is going to be a different kind of lord of the manor.
He never fully goes into their world. He adopts a lot of their way of life and has difficulty getting used to it. But one of my story lines this season is trying to bring it up to scratch. The estate and how it’s run -- are the ways it’s always been done the best way to do it? It’s the time-old human argument, we’ve always done it this way. But we’re losing money and this whole thing will die. Which does historically rear its head. So Matthew gently suggests a few ways things could be improved, which doesn’t always go down well.
He’s quite a gentle character, isn’t he?
He’s a bit too gentle sometimes, I’d like a bit more vim and vigor. In a way it’s more dramatically interesting that he doesn’t charge in there and bully them all, he expects people to see sense.
One of the things people critique about “Downton” is also one of the things people like about it, which is that it shows more emotional vulnerability than you probably would have seen in that moment historically, right?
There is a modern emotional sensibility to some of the characters, but if you watch historical drama of any period -- if you watch a historical drama made in the 1970s, people are behaving a little bit 1970s! But yes it’s struck a chord. I think it’s nice when history is dressed up not so stuffily -- and actually these people, they did behave differently to how we behave now but they were still human. It’s fun to imagine that a character like Lady Violet was not always this thunderous dragon, that often her heart did melt and in such a long-running series you get to see that. Over nine or 10 hours we go all over this estate.
Do you find different reactions to the show in the U.S. and Britain? Class is so much more of an issue here on a daily basis. Even talking about [Prime Minister David] Cameron, Brits are constantly referencing his [upper] class.
Definitely! The number of times our show has been mentioned in Parliament -- it’s just weird. Whether it’s the Labor Party teasing one of the Tories or Cameron referencing [“Downton”] himself. He was at a white tie dinner the other day and made a reference to Mr. Bates. It’s just mad that it’s entered the vernacular.
But the American reaction is just as mad.... And the stuff online, the time and effort people take on things like Tumblr and silly videos. Friends send them to me all the time.
Do you watch them?
Yes! There’s an amazing one called “Watching Downton” -- three girls watching “Downton” and it’s absolutely hilarious. And what’s hilarious is we on the show love watching them watching the show.... That people love it in such a way they want to tease us about it, people don’t do that with every show. It is ridiculous but on such a grand scale that it’s fine. There’s fake Twitter accounts and there’s even one for Matthew Crawley’s hair.
You do have a real Twitter account, though?
I do, I started it just before “Downton” so I’ve been riding that wave....I’ve had to learn when not to tweet. Like, you learn how to keep your mouth shut? Learn to keep your tweet shut....
You’re probably a bit too busy to tweet now. Did you say you’re also producing a movie?
I’m executive producing a film that I’ve been developing with friends for six or seven years. A tragic love triangle set in an artist colony in Cornwall in 1913. It’s based on a novel based on a true story written by a dear old friend. We’re putting it all together now.
So you’re producing, acting, judging a book prize, running a journal and writing a column for the Sunday Telegraph. I assume you’re working on writing a novel, too?
Once I’m done reading 148 novels -- I’m sure I’d be able to write a bad novel now. Whether I can write a good one I don’t know, but I’d like to try. That may happen in the next few years when things calm down but [winces] there’s not a single chance of me writing it just now. It’s something I would like to do. I don’t know why. It’s always been my ambition to publish something.
It’s a gap in your resume.
Yes, it’s the one thing I haven’t done! But even writing the column for the Telegraph, that idea of working to deadlines, which as an actor that’s not something you have to do in the same way. It’s excited me into wanting to do a bit more.
Perhaps when you finishing shooting this season?
We finish in mid-August and then I actually move to New York. That’s the other thing that’s happening -- moving my family to New York to do “The Heiress.” I’ve always dreamed of doing a play on Broadway and I’ve yet to get my brain around it...
Your brain has a lot to deal with.
Yes, my brain is...subdivided.
Will it be strange for you to be in America? Americans see “Downton” as the epitome of Britishness.
What’s funny is right-wing traditionalists here love it for its Britishness, jolly good and all that. But then there’s the left-wing anti-establishment types who also kind of like it because they can take the piss and tear it down. So there’s something for everybody! I met Alastair Campbell [former communications director for Tony Blair] at a party --he’s a Labor spin doctor, and he’s convinced “Downton” is part of a huge Tory conspiracy. As far as I know it’s not, but if he wants to think that it’s fine by me. I hope I’m not part of a Tory conspiracy, but...
[At this moment, a staffer taps Stevens on the shoulder and leads him back to the mansion for another take. Conspiracy?]