A childhood friend of Dan Stevens phoned him up recently. He had, he said, been catching up with the screen career of the 32-year-old actor and former Downton Abbey star. “You!” he said, gob-smacked. “You get to do all the stuff!” He was referring, specifically, to the bullet-ridden mayhem of Stevens’ high-octane actioner The Guest, and the gritty gut-punch of the star’s crime drama A Walk Among The Tombstones.
But he might also have been nodding towards Stevens’ role as a swashbuckling Sir Lancelot in the latest instalment of the blockbusting Night at the Museum franchise (Secret of the Tomb), or as the hapless investor who runs up against mobster John Travolta in the upcoming Criminal Activities (“Travolta was very cool,” Stevens will later say. “One day, it was cold on set, and he just starts singing, ‘I’ve got chills, they’re multiplying’”).
Point being, Stevens has been busy. Knocking out six movies in two years, he is everywhere and nowhere, undercover and in your face, transformed utterly from film to film, from beefcake (The Guest) to emaciated wreck (…Tombstones) to bearded hipster fop (…Museum). He is, he says, “finally living out the dreams of my youth.”
Of course, it looked shaky for a while back there. Soft-faced, Cambridge-educated and with an unremarkable TV résumé, like the safe man’s version of college buddies Eddie Redmayne and Tom Hiddleston, he suddenly defied the winsome populism of Downton Abbey by quitting, in 2012, at the height of the show’s global dominance. “It was a terrifying, monumental decision,” he says, “And a stressful time.”
Uncertainty followed. He became a Man Booker Prize judge. He produced a movie about a Cornish painter, Summer in February (2013). And he played slippery Morris Townsend in The Heiress on Broadway last year. Then backstage one night, writer-director Scott Frank (Get Shorty) made him an offer he couldn’t refuse. “I want you to try, for me, to do something really, really, dark,” said Frank. A Walk Among the Tombstones is the result, and Stevens, who impeccably plays a simmering, grieving drug dealer in it, hasn’t looked back since.
He now lives in New York with jazz-singer wife Susie Hariet, and their two children. There are more, bigger, movies on the way that he cannot yet discuss. And yes, he says, he does have moments, such as the time earlier this year when he rode on horseback in a full suit of armour through Trafalgar Square while filming Night at the Museum, where he thinks, “I really am doing all the stuff. And it’s awesome!”
Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb is out on 19 December