STAGE TO SCREENS: Dan Stevens, From "Downton Abbey" Heir to Broadway's The Heiress
By Brandon Voss
November 13, 2012
British heartthrob Dan Stevens doesn't mind if you attend The Heiress expecting to see his sweet "Downton Abbey" character Matthew Crawley — just as long as you leave debating the intentions of roguish American fortune-hunter Morris Townsend.
Dan Stevens is a sucker for a good period drama. American audiences know the British actor best as Matthew Crawley, earnest heir presumptive to his fancy family's estate in the 1920s-set series "Downton Abbey," which returns January for a third season on PBS. (It has already been seen in the U.K.) The stage regular has now hopped across the pond — in person and character — to star in the Broadway revival of The Heiress, Ruth and Augustus Goetz's 1947 stage adaptation of Henry James's 1880 novel "Washington Square," which runs through Feb. 10, 2013, at the Walter Kerr Theatre. Stevens, 30, plays Morris Townsend, a man of questionable motives in courting a shy heiress. He recently spoke to Playbill.com about sharing his Broadway debut with Oscar nominee Jessica Chastain, experimenting with Tony-nominated director Moisés Kaufman, and craving the spotlight since before he can remember.
How have you been enjoying New York City?
Dan Stevens: It's fantastic. It's one of my favorite cities, and I've always wanted to spend more time here. It's very exciting to have my family here as well.
Your second child was just born in August, so it probably wasn't the most ideal time to uproot your family and come to New York. Did you have any hesitations about doing The Heiress?
DS: Well, it's such an amazing opportunity, and I'm lucky to have a wonderful wife who was as excited about the opportunity as I was and happy to take on all the challenges that came with it.
Are you treating the gig as an extended family vacation?
DS: We've definitely been doing a lot of fun things that I wouldn't necessarily have done if I were here alone. But I also have to rest up and look after myself while doing this play, and with small kids, that's never easy.
Have you been able to see other theatre around town during rehearsals or on nights when The Heiress is dark?
DS: Not too much, no. I was very lucky to be able to see Jake Gyllenhaal in If There Is I Haven't Found It Yet, which was directed by a friend of mine, Michael Longhurst. It was a fantastic production. I hope to see more shows on our off nights. I'm desperate to see The Book of Mormon, and I've heard good things about Grace.
Jessie Cave and Dan Stevens in Arcadia.
Photo by Catherine Ashmore
Your last stage appearance was in 2009 as Septimus Hodge in the West End revival of Tom Stoppard's Arcadia. Were you itching to get back on stage?
DS: I was. Every couple of years, I find myself missing the theatre. It's where I started out, and I've always loved it. But I guess I'd sort of forgotten the thrill of it until I got back onstage here, especially with Broadway audiences, who are famously the best in the world. It's such a great feeling, and I love getting out there every night. Coming back to theatre is something I'm keen to do for the rest of my life. It recharges my batteries, so to speak.
Have you found any notable differences between Broadway audiences and the audiences back home?
DS: The Broadway audiences are very vocal and seem very engaged. For certain shows, especially with a show like The Heiress, the audience's reactions sound like "The Jerry Springer Show" sometimes. That seems to be a very New York thing. Oh, there's also the entrance round of applause here, which we don't get too much in London.
I'm not surprised that your character gets some strong audience reactions. On paper, Catherine's suitor comes across as a dishonorable, gold-digging villain.
DS: And I think it's possible to see him like that. But with this production Moisés and I were very interested in exploring how much honor you can find in him. I think you can believe a lot of what he says. Sure, he would've enjoyed Catherine's wealth and luxury, as would anyone, but maybe he and Catherine would've had a nice life together — we're not sure. He may've really loved her, but we'll never know. With a well-known play like this there are certain expectations, so people look out for the lines where Morris comes across as a gold-digger, but I like trying to find the good in him as well.
Jessica Chastain and Dan Stevens in The Heiress.
photo by Joan Marcus
What a responsibility you must have to defend poor Morris, time and time again.
DS: [Laughs.] Yeah. But it's interesting, because a lot of people familiar with the play and the movie version have come to see our show and have had their expectations of Morris confounded. It's a refreshing production in the sense of how we've approached all the characters.
Were you already familiar with the play or the 1949 film when you were offered the role?
DS: I'd never seen a production of the play. I had seen the movie, but I haven't revisited it. I suppose I just wanted to focus on the text and the interpretations of the characters that Moisés and our cast have come up with. And I think it works. It makes sense to me.
Tell me something you learned about Morris during the rehearsal process that wasn't initially on the page for you.
DS: When Henry James was writing these characters in "Washington Square," he was certainly aware of this sort of new wave, a reaction to the Industrial Revolution, when there was a kind of young man who wasn't necessarily cut out for rugged hard work and who enjoyed luxury, beauty, and beautiful things for no other reason but for pleasure. I like the idea that there may be an element of that in Morris. While other people are driven by their American work ethic, Morris appreciates beauty, and he finds something beautiful in Catherine; she may not be the prettiest girl, but there's something very open, honest, and pure about her that Morris responds to.
Dan Stevens and Michelle Dockery in Downton Abbey.
After the success of "Downton Abbey," which has made you much more recognizable, do you have to work extra hard to make sure that audiences don't see you as Matthew Crawley?
DS: This has been a great opportunity to show American audiences something different and break the mold a bit, but it's actually been fun to have audiences arrive expecting to get Matthew Crawley and then actually getting Morris Townsend. They immediately want to like him because he looks like Matthew, who's so honorable and good, and yet Morris might actually be a scoundrel. So we've been able to play with the audience's preconceptions, not only of Morris but also of the actor playing him.
Before you arrived in New York for rehearsals, were you aware of how popular "Downton Abbey" was here in the States?
DS: I wasn't really. I've been here a couple of times over the past few years, so I was aware of the growing mania, but this trip has been pretty intense. There are times when I've left home and thought I was flying away from "Downton" mania, but actually I was flying head-on into it. You guys are even crazier about the show than people back home. The stage door has definitely been very busy every night, but it's been kind of thrilling.
Your first visit to New York and the U.S. was in 2005, when you played Orlando in As You Like It, a touring production staged by Sir Peter Hall at Brooklyn Academy of Music. Were you intrigued even then by the idea of doing Broadway?
DS: Absolutely, and for the last seven years I've been dreaming of coming back and performing here again. It was a phenomenal experience. Although it was out at BAM, we had a very engaged, lively New York audience come out to see our show — I think there's just something about Shakespeare being done by a British company that they love. New York just has such an exciting energy. It's taken a little while for me to come back and do Broadway, so I'm very excited that it's finally happened.
Did you see your first Broadway show during that particular visit?
DS: I think I was too busy that time. I'm not sure I saw anything during that trip. But the last time I was in New York was a couple years ago while I was filming the Amy Heckerling movie "Vamps." My wife came over and I took her to see A Little Night Music with Bernadette Peters and Elaine Stritch, which was funnily enough at the Walter Kerr. So when we found out that The Heiress was going to be at the Walter Kerr, it felt like it was meant to be.
Growing up, what was your earliest exposure to live theatre?
DS: My dad tells me that he took us to a pantomime when I was very, very small — panto being a sort of English phenomenon. There's traditionally a part of the show where they'll invite kids up on the stage to interact with the show. I was too young to remember this, but my dad says that I was running up onstage before they even asked us. Later on at school, teachers would write in reports that I would distract others or that I was reckless, but I was allowed to let that energy out on the school stage, and I was lucky to have been taught acting by some very inspiring teachers.
Stevens in The Heiress.
Photo by Joan Marcus
You famously got your big break as a first-year undergraduate at Cambridge University while playing the lead in Macbeth opposite Rebecca Hall, daughter of celebrated stage director Sir Peter Hall. Your substantial working relationship with Sir Peter Hall began after he came to see the production and offered you work once you'd graduated. What did you learn from that legend?
DS: Yes, I've been very lucky to get to work with him on a number of different productions. There are two major things I've taken from my time with him. The first is that you should always trust the text. I've never been a fan of directors who clutter a piece with all sorts of crazy preconceptions or weird ideas. Sir Peter sits and tries to make sense of the text. His productions are very clear, you can understand every word, and he makes sure that every actor in his company understands every word that's coming out of their mouths. I think that's so important. The other thing I really love about him is his very musical ear. He's a huge jazz, opera, and classical music fan, so he really hears the musicality and the rhythms of different plays and playwrights, and he encourages you to do the same.
Other directors clearly have a lot to live up to. How does Moisés Kaufman measure up?
DS: Well, I don't know how much musicality there is in The Heiress. [Laughs.] Moisés is a wonderful director — so enthusiastic and brimming with ideas. His rehearsals were a very exciting place to be. He's a great listener who really champions this sort of laboratory of ideas, where all the actors have a voice and the freedom to experiment and try different things. This is a play you can really reconfigure in so many different ways: You can play Morris as an outright villain for sure, you can play Catherine's father as really hard, and you can play Catherine as a really stupid girl. I don't think they're any of those things, but we could certainly try levels of that in rehearsal, and that's really helped to create a truth in our production that we're comfortable with.
Jessica Chastain is also making her Broadway debut in The Heiress as Catherine. Were you familiar with her work before this?
DS: Yes, of course. She's very well known in the U.K. and her film work is very respected there. I was very, very excited to meet and work with her. I'd heard great things about her. In fact, she'd been over in the U.K. to film an adaptation of Agatha Christie's "Poirot" for English television. Funnily enough, she worked on that with Hugh Bonneville, who's in "Downton," and he spoke very highly of her. Her reputation certainly preceded her, and I was not disappointed. She's delightful.
During rehearsals I spoke to Jessica, who admitted to me that she sometimes gets distracted by your crystal blue eyes. Have you heard that a lot from your costars?
DS: [Laughs.] I'm gobsmacked. That's very sweet of her, but I don't know what to say to that. Yeah, I guess so.