Life ended tragically for Downton Abbey’s Matthew Crawley, but for the actor who played him it has gone from strength to strength. Jenny Cooney Carrillo looks at how Dan Stevens has evolved from British toff to Hollywood tough guy and now a fairytale beas
life after Downton’s Matthew Crawley
Dan Stevens knows that some fans still haven’t got over his exit from Downton Abbey four years ago, when his beloved character Matthew Crawley shockingly died in a car accident after visiting his wife and newborn son at the hospital.
“I was apologising to people for months,” the 34-year-old classically trained English star admits goodhumouredly as he recalls the angry reaction of fans who felt blindsided when Matthew was killed during the final moments of the 2012 Downton Abbey Christmas special.
“First, after Christmas in the UK, and then when it aired in America three months later. There was a double whammy of grief I had to deal with from people approaching me everywhere I went. But I’ve certainly enjoyed having other things alongside that great show to talk about now, so people can finally see what I’ve been up to and understand why I left.”
Leaving one of the most popular shows of all time at its peak was a huge gamble for the softly spoken Cambridge-educated son of teachers. It could have become another cautionary acting tale, like actor
David Caruso leaving after one season of NYPD, then failing to make it as a movie star. But Dan hasn’t looked back since moving his jazz singer wife, Susie Hariet, and their two young children to New York to pursue a Hollywood career. His first postDownton role saw him as a bulked-up American army veteran in the film
The Guest and then he faced off against Liam Neeson as a drug trafficker in the film Walk Among the Tombstones.
Now he is back on TV for the first time since Downton Abbey, in Legion, a big-budget new series based on Marvel Comics characters, and this month he takes on the lead role in the latest Disney blockbuster, Beauty and the Beast.
The live action remake of Beauty and the Beast was a challenge for the actor – not least because his character has a singing part.
He says his South African born wife, a jazz singer turned singing coach – who at 41 is seven years his senior – helped him prepare for the role.
“She coached me for the audition. It was really exciting [to
sing] but not something I’ve done a huge amount of,” says Dan, whose other big challenge on set was coping with the weight and size of his costume.
“I was wearing a giant muscle suit and on stilts. Emma [Watson, who plays co-star Belle] was there in her beautiful dress and I was sweating away in this lycra thing, just looking really weird. I had this Formula 1 racing driver’s vest underneath the muscle suit so when I overheated, they could plug me in like a fridge. It would cool me from the inside out.”
Beast and Legion are both a far cry from playing Downton’s upright young aristocrat who treated everyone equally despite their class strata, a role that followed on from appearances in TV period dramas Sense and Sensibility and The Turn of the Screw.
Fans who can’t quite put their finger on why the man who wooed and won Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery) looks so different in his new role as the skinny, brown-haired Legion mutant may be surprised to hear his hair was dyed blond during his time on Downton Abbey. “I also put on a bit of weight for Downton because it just seemed right for the period and I’ve lost it all now and got myself in shape for this role,” he adds. Dan says he hasn’t dyed his hair since Downton and reveals that choice was not his. “If you remember in the beginning of Downton, Matthew didn’t come in until the end of the first episode, after he gets the letter from Lord Grantham. I’d been cast in the role but they’d been shooting for two-and-a-half weeks before I came in and during that time the producers had realised that almost all the male cast members had dark hair,” he recalls. “So I had a call from [creator] Julian Fellowes at the last moment saying, ‘We’ve got too many brownhaired boys, would you mind being blond?’ and I said, ‘Okay, fine.’ I was thinking it was just one season of a show and I was just pleased they’d asked me to dye it instead of recasting, but then it ended up being three years!”
While Dan is getting the best reviews of his career in Legion, which screens here on Sky’s SoHo channel, he cheerfully admits his role in Beauty and the Beast is much more impressive to his home audience of daughter Willow, eight, and son Aubrey, five. In the live-action remake, he sings and dances the famous songs from the original animated classic as he plays the arrogant young prince who’s being LEFT: Dan as Matthew Crawley with his wife Lady Mary, played by Michelle Dockery. The actor had to dye his hair blond for the role. punished by being transformed into the Beast. “This movie is a particular favourite in our house,” he beams. “My daughter loves Belle and I brought her on the set on the day we did the ball sequence at the beginning of the film, when the prince is dancing with 60 princesses in big meringue dresses and beautiful jewel-encrusted wigs, and she almost lost her mind with excitement!”
He confides that Willow was less impressed with his transformation into the Beast. “She said I looked like a hippo,” he says with chagrin. “I’m in a giant muscle suit covered with grey lycra and I wear stilts that take me up about 10 inches taller than I am, to six feet 10 inches. I had to work hard to get my body in the right shape to walk on those stilts so it was quite a physical challenge too.” While playing the Beast was physically demanding for the actor, Legion was more of a mental challenge.
Unlike most Marvel Comicsinspired entertainment, Legion is not a story of fighting action heroes battling evil villains. The eight-part series created by Noah Hawley – the man behind Emmy and Golden Globe winning crime series Fargo – is a psychological drama in which his character, David Haller, is introduced as a troubled young man living in an asylum and being treated for diagnosed paranoid schizophrenia.
The character can be traced back to the X-Men world, as it turns out
David is the illegitimate offspring of Professor Xavier, played by both Patrick Stewart and James McAvoy in the hit movie franchise. “From quite a young age he’s been diagnosed as being paranoid schizophrenic,” Dan says, “but when our story begins, his world is invaded by a group of other people who tell him something quite different; that this is not a mental