What would Lady Mary say?
First Dan Stevens deserts Downton, then he moves to New York City and grows a tough-guy ’tache on his stiff upper lip. He tells Stuart Jeffries why
As Dan Stevens walks into the Brooklyn Roasting Company café, he doesn’t so much look like the tweedy heir to Downton as a short-tempered associate of Tony Soprano. He looks set to whack someone and dump their remains in the nearby East River for shorting him on his protection money. He’s wearing shades, a leather jacket and — there’s no easy way to say this — a beanie. Even his misbegotten, evidently dyed facial hair — wispy moustache, that dab of beard beneath the lower lip known as a soul patch — somehow looks menacing. That said, Stevens peppers his speech with more ‘sorrys’ and ‘terriblys’ than most New Jersey hitmen.
‘Terribly sorry for being early,’ he says, shaking hands. When Stevens removes his sunglasses he reveals the extraordinary blue eyes that so captivated Lady Mary. But then he takes off his beanie. The golden locks of an Edwardian god have been trimmed and dyed black. Carson wouldn’t have countenanced his beloved Lady Mary marrying someone capable of such vulgar errors of taste.
We take our coffees outside at a pavement table. We’re in the Brooklyn neighbourhood of Dumbo (an acronym for Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass). Stevens now lives nearby with his wife, South African singer Susie Hariet. They have two children — Willow, three, and Aubrey, who has just turned one. This par t of Dumbo is a former warehouse district, being made over with counter- culture coffee shops and organic delis. For all the steely grandeur of the bridges stretching to Manhattan, this is hardly a green and pleasant corner. It’s urban, gritty and short on trees. Across the street, delivery drivers chew each other out in idiomatic Noo Yawk. You left Downton Abbey for this? ‘We’ve been here since last summer; we’ll see how it goes. The kids are small enough to move. You shove them in a box and off you go. We’re not at the school stage. These couple of years are a golden time for an adventure.’ Clearly he loves it. ‘I’ve dreamt of living in New York since I came here eight or nine years ago and played Adam in As You Like It. One thing that really excited me is that feeling you get when you drive over the bridge and you see that Midtown skyline.’ Are you a New Yorker now? ‘Well, we’ve taken a lease. Apparently, if you have a lease, that means you’re a New Yorker. And we’ve survived Hurricane Sandy.’ There wasn’t much to surviving it but sitting it out, he says. But it remains a badge of honour.
Stevens came to New York for his Broadway debut opposite Jessica Chastain in The Heiress. By the start of 2013, he was settled there with a Broadway hit behind him and the prospect of playing surely the least Downtonesque role — a Brooklyn drug trafficker seeking revenge on psychotic serial killers who have murdered his wife, in Frank Scott’s A Walk Among The Tombstones with Liam Neeson and Ruth Wilson.
I tell Stevens that at the airport I met a US Customs official who was a Downton aficionado. ‘Ask him why he left. I just don’t get it,’ said the official. ‘How could he do that to Lady Mary when she’s just given birth? He’s gonna inherit, for Chrissake!’
‘Yes, I spend a lot of time apologising to people’s wives here,’ he says. ‘Downton’s bigger here than there.’ The customs official felt you’ve made a huge career mistake. He’s not alone (Twitter and fan sites have been flooded by angry viewers). ‘I made my decision for myself, but I didn’t make it alone.
‘Everybody who knows and supports me was behind it and that made it feel the right thing to do. Also it excited me to follow my instinct, which said, “This is the right time.” It’s just a nice feeling to have when you can trust yourself.’
But why did he quit? ‘I had a great three years. I had a blast. I have some very fond memories. The cast were lovely. It was just time.’ But surely it wasn’t time? You were starring in a globally successful franchise heading into a lucrative series four. ‘Well, its success