"That's a lot of my face!" remarks Dan Stevens, when I tell him I've watched Blithe Spirit, released in the UAE on Thursday, and The Rental, his two latest and remarkably different movies, in the space of two days. The English star is being modest. Ever since his career-making role in Downton Abbey abruptly ended in 2012, when his character Matthew Crawley died in the Christmas special, he has deliberately kept that face of his fresh in our minds.
Along the way, he has been a murderous army veteran in The Guest, the Beast to Emma Watson's Belle in Disney's Beauty and the Beast live-action remake and a schizophrenic mutant in X-Men-related TV show Legion. "It's a dream to turn from one thing and go and do something completely different," he says. "That's really all I ever set to achieve – variety."
Last year Stevens, 38, showed the lengths he was willing to go to with the "deeply silly" Netflix movie Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga, playing an outrageously flamboyant Russian singer. "That was definitely a big 'Are you up to this?' kind of question. And I'm sure for a lot of people, the answer would have been 'no', for whatever reason," he says.
Stevens filmed that in 2019, directly after shooting new movie Blithe Spirit. "So I had a double whammy of a comedy summer," he says. Adapted from Noel Coward's 1941 play, a briskly comic farce about mediums, marriage and mayhem, Blithe Spirit casts Stevens as Charles Condomine, a writer who is desperately seeking inspiration for his latest opus. "He starts off pretty fraught, I think, and just gets fraughter!" Stevens says, with a laugh.
The twist comes after Condomine invites spiritualist Madame Arcati (Dame Judi Dench) to his home for a seance so he can explore the occult for research. While she’s been branded a fraud, this proves otherwise when she communes with the dead – specifically Charles’ late wife Elvira (Leslie Mann). Suddenly, Charles is faced with a marital nightmare, with Elvira back on the scene and less than happy that her widowed husband has been remarried – to Ruth (Isla Fisher).
“There hadn’t been an adaptation of it for, I guess, about 60 years,” says Stevens, referring to the original David Lean movie made in 1945, starring Rex Harrison and Margaret Rutherford. “I think there’s something bleakly comic in Noel Coward, about how funny he finds people in great distress, grieving. Some of these deepest and greatest of human emotions … he’s very wicked with them.”
The film is directed by Edward Hall, son of the acclaimed theatre director Sir Peter Hall – who, in an intriguing twist, first spotted Stevens when he was a student at Cambridge in a production of Macbeth, starring opposite his daughter, Rebecca. As Stevens puts it, their updated take on Coward's play is deliberately frothy. "We're trying to have a bit of fun with it," he says. "It's very bright and poppy. It's fun for the eyes."
One of the film’s most remarkable characters happens to be the house in which the Condomines live – a fabulous Art Deco mansion, Joldwynds, nestled in England’s Surrey. So impressive is it, the owners were forced to deny the advances of a particularly famous musician. “David Bowie had persistently tried to buy it. And they’d refused. Which is a sort of odd thing to say about your house, but there you go. I can imagine Bowie strutting those halls.”
It's not the only spectacular abode Stevens has shot in recently, with a Pacific coastal holiday home the setting for his preceding movie The Rental, which was released in August last year. Directed by actor Dave Franco, it's a twisty thriller that starts out with two couples arriving at an Airbnb weekend retreat. "Dave started talking to me about this idea that really was born out of some quite deep-seated societal paranoia about the strange world that we now live in, where you could just click a button and go live in somebody else's house."
This desire to throw himself into genre films is another reason why Stevens has managed to avoid the costume drama straitjacket that so many English actors fall into. As he rightly points out “some of the greatest filmmakers” are genre-hounds. He recently treated his children – he has three, with South African jazz singer Susie Hariet – to a Steven Spielberg epic. “I was so excited to show the kids Jurassic Park for the first time,” he says, grinning.
When making his own choices, it’s about keeping things fresh. “Challenging myself and meeting filmmakers who have interesting challenges for me: ‘I’ve never seen you do this before. How do you fancy having a crack at that?’ Sometimes I’ll look at it and go, ‘Absolutely not!’ For a variety of reasons. It might just be like, ‘I don’t think I can do that.’ But if the challenge is right, and if I’m feeling up for it, anything is possible.”
Blithe Spirit is in UAE cinemas now