After spending three seasons on the critically-acclaimed PBS drama “Downton Abbey” (before his nice-guy character Matthew Crawley was tragically killed off of the series in 2012), English actor Dan Stevens was ready to move onto something completely different. In the throwback thriller/comedy “The Guest,” Stevens finds exactly what he was looking for in David, a charming yet completely berserk American soldier, who infiltrates the home of a family in mourning by telling them he served with their son in the military and was with him on the day he died. Once the family opens their doors to this stranger, it becomes a fight for survival as David turns out to be the exact opposite of the polite, straight-laced young man he initially pretended to be.
During a phone interview last week, Stevens, 31, talked to me about what he thinks director Adam Wingard and screenwriter Simon Barrett are doing differently in the thriller genre today, and why he felt a film like “The Guest” was the perfect way to disconnect himself from early 20th-century Yorkshire.
My sense of humor is sometimes very juvenile, so I have to tell you that I’ve been laughing all morning watching your recent appearance on “Good Morning Britain.”
Well, first of all, we want to get across to people that this movie is funny. There is a twisted sense of humor there. So, I guess we did that all in one fell swoop on “Good Morning Britain.” It was one hell of a morning.
What do you think a director like Adam Wingard and a screenwriter like Simon Barrett are doing for the horror genre no one else is doing right now?
When you meet Adam and Simon, you quickly realize what sense of humor they have. They’re trying to step outside of their comfort zone. “The Guest” borrows from the horror genre, but they also want to speak other languages, too, and have fun. I saw and loved [Adam and Simon’s 2013 film] “You’re Next.” I thought it was hilarious and such a riotous film. It was very playful. They were doing something with the horror genre that I hadn’t seen before. Simon said the other day that “The Guest” is a very charming home-invasion horror. It’s a formula you think you know, but you don’t.
I think there is a lot of wit in both “You’re Next” and “The Guest.” There’s also a lot of really well-done campiness. I think, however, sometimes the word “camp” can have a negative connotation to it if it come across as cheesy. How do you think “The Guest” avoids that?
Well, I think there are a lot of things that feed into that. I think when we get into the ridiculousness of it all, it is written with one or two realities kept in mind. I think one of those realities was this family in mourning and the bond that David has for his friend, this soldier who has died. Once we’ve established those rules and set that reality, then we can go to some pretty crazy places like films did in the 80s and 90s. I have to say, growing up in England we were saturated with American action thrillers. A movie like “Big Trouble in Little China” was a major turning point in my life. The comedy and humanity they were able to get out of those action sequences was great. It was important for us to do the same thing with “The Guest” and give the action sequences a little humor and character to them.
Was that throwback sensibility to the film something Adam made you and the cast aware of as you were shooting this? Did it feel like you were making a movie from the 80s or 90s or did all that happen in the editing room?
Well, we weren’t trying to pretend like we were in the 80s or 90s. It’s very much a contemporary story. But it is set in the desert in this slightly timeless landscape. I think, of course, the soundtrack and Adam’s choice of music gives it that throwback feel.
Since most people know you for your role in “Downton Abbey,” is it important for you at this stage of your career to play against type so you don’t get typecast in any way?
Well, typecasting only happens when you say yes. I would’ve felt foolish stepping down from something like “Downton” and into something that was similar. I was looking for something different. I was exploring a lot of different possibilities. I’ve been doing that for the last couple of years – really exploring a range of things. I certainly didn’t think I would end up in something as batshit crazy as “The Guest.” But when it came along, it just made perfect sense. It appealed to my sense of humor and it also felt a little bit dangerous. As soon as I sat down with Adam, we established that we shared that dark sense of humor.
Describe what it was like to play an American?
For an actor like me, it’s a delicious prospect – to step into something that is far out of your own experience. Getting my head around the accent was fun. I’ve always enjoyed doing accents and voices and that sort of thing. To get to work some of that into an on-screen character was cool. It was interesting to me how this Kentucky dialect, in particular, fed through a militarized dialect and formed the psychology of the character.
You’re going to be all over the big screen this fall with movies like “The Guest,” “The Cobbler,” “A Walk Among the Tombstones” and the third film in the “Night at the Museum” series. Aren’t you worried moviegoers will be tired of you by the end of the year?
(Laughs) Well, [all those films are] all for different types of crowds. “Night at the Museum” is definitely something my kids can see. My daughter is four and my son is two, so I don’t think I’m going to show them “The Guest” for a couple of years. But I certainly am having fun exploring all these roles and entertaining people in a lot of different ways.
Next year you’re going to star in a film called “Criminal Activities,” which will be Oscar-nominated actor and San Antonian Jackie Earle Haley’s directorial debut. What do you think Jackie brings to the table that would have you believe he has what it takes to be a director in this industry?
Jackie is an amazing actor and someone who I’ve admired for years. It’s always interesting when an actor wants to direct. I think a lot of actors leap at that opportunity. Jackie certainly has the sensitivity as an actor to really shape his scenes. He is a very sensitive guy. I haven’t yet seen how that film has come together, but I’m sure all eyes in San Antonio will be on that movie.