Between the one-two punch of FX’s Legion and Disney’s juggernaut live-action Beauty and the Beast remake that just opened, British actor Dan Stevens is having a tremendous time of it. Look back on his career, however, and this sudden boom in both his career and the attention heaped onto him, is not much of a surprise.
I first saw Stevens in his starring — and charming — role as Edward Ferrars in the 2008 adaptation of Jane Austen’s Sense & Sensibility alongside David Morrissey, Dominic Cooper, Hattie Morahan (who also happens to be in Beauty and the Beast), and Charity Wakefield. As an avowed Austen fan, it’s something of a mission to see any and every Austen adaptation or movie that I can. While Stevens is delightful as Edward, being more of a Marianne and Colonel Brandon kind of girl, I didn’t pay Stevens as much attention as I perhaps should have — but neither did many others because it wouldn’t be for another couple of years until he got his big break.
Around 2010, Downton Abbey became an overnight sensation across the pond and fans were quick to fall for Mary (Michelle Dockery) and Matthew Crawley (Stevens). However, unlike his brethren Tom Hiddleston and Benedict Cumberbatch who gained near instantaneous fame around the same time for their turns in Thor and Sherlock, respectively, Stevens never quite broke out beyond Downton. Where fans could namedrop Hiddleston and Cumberbatch by 2011 or so, Stevens was still mostly known simply as Matthew Crawley.
There are several possible reasons for this. Both Hiddleston and Cumberbatch’s stardom came from existing IPs — the former with Marvel Comics, with the Marvel Cinematic Universe already having been established three years earlier, and the latter with the stories of Arthur Conan Doyle, helmed by Doctor Who writer Steven Moffat. As popular as Downton Abbey became, it still did not reach the heights of either Thor or Sherlock, likely because it was a) an original story and b) its genre resembles that of a period, British soap opera intended primarily for a female audience. There’s nothing wrong with this — obviously, I was swooning over Matthew as much as the rest of the audience — but it did limit the series due to the way society treats more traditionally feminine media. As did Stevens’ decision to leave the series halfway through its lifespan, of course.
Still, Stevens’ talent, while perhaps typical of an up-and-coming British actor (appearing in period pieces and stage performances of Shakespeare plays), was apparent from the start, which makes this sudden success all at once immensely satisfying as well as sort of, “Well, it’s about time.”
Following his early exit from Downton, Stevens had small, mostly overlooked roles in films like The Fifth Estate (starring, of course, Benedict Cumberbatch — although as a note, this article is not attempting to pit Stevens against either Cumberbatch or Tom Hiddleston, all are fine actors, but paralleling their career tracks provides interesting analysis of the way celebrity and fame can be gained quickly or over more time) and Night at the Museum 3 in a delightful turn as Sir Lancelot.
In 2014, he found a brief moment of critical acclaim for his leading role in the thriller The Guest, which challenged people’s perceptions of Stevens as simply Matthew Crawley and a dashing, romantic Brit. But while it forced audiences and critics to strip away the pretenses attached to Stevens as an actor and see him in a new light, initial impressions of him remained. Just look at Robert Abele of the Los Angeles Times‘ review of the movie: “One of the many pleasures of director Adam Wingard’s tough, fun thriller “The Guest” is seeing Matthew Crawley — er, British actor Dan Stevens — serve up a mesmerizing star turn of psycho charm.” Even Abele couldn’t resist referring to him first and foremost as Matthew Crawley, even though The Guest revealed a completely new side of him.
However, it didn’t last and Stevens once more disappeared from the zeitgeist — until now. Following the weekend, Stevens is now starring in the #1 film as one of the most beloved Disney characters, the Beast from Beauty and the Beast. While the film is receiving largely mixed reviews, there’s no questioning Stevens’ performance in the film, including his powerful rendition of the new song “Evermore.” Emma Watson is good as Belle, but the emotional anchor of the newest Disney blockbuster lies squarely with Stevens and the humor, humanity, and depth that he brings to the role, even with all the slightly stiff CGI. Stevens is all at once soft, earnest, awkward, ferocious, and charming in the film and it is truly a sight to behold.
Walt Disney Pictures
But many actors have had tremendous performances in blockbusters — just watch the aforementioned Hiddleston in Thor again. What makes Stevens the leading man right now, though, is his versatility and magnetism on screen that he can bring to a variety of roles. It’s one thing for him to conjure up the romance of Beauty and the Beast — once again, he was genuinely lovely in Downton Abbey — it’s another thing for him to do that while he’s also starring in the FX series Legion, which is a starkly different performance than anything Stevens has done before. There is a manic energy in his turn as the mutant David Haller that he so wholly commits to and embodies. I have friends who say if they didn’t know it was the same actor who starred as Matthew Crawley, they never would have guessed it.
In Legion, Stevens is confident, deceptive, fast-paced, but still absolutely charming. He’s an actor you never want to take your eyes off of no matter how big or small the role and it makes the future of his career all the more exciting and compelling. There are few actors whose career choices and performances I’m more drawn to right now and it’s going to be riveting to watch what Stevens does next, and this is only the beginning. 2017 is shaping up to be Stevens’ year and Beauty and the Beast and Legion are only the tip of the iceberg.
In April, two films he completed last year will be released — Colossal, in which he has a small role alongside Anne Hathaway, and The Ticket, which is a starring vehicle for him as a blind man who regains his eyesight. Also coming up he has roles in the films Redivider, a sci-fi film; Permission, with Jason Sudeikis and Rebecca Hall; Marshall, the film about Thurgood Marshall starring Chadwick Boseman and reuniting Stevens with Josh Gad; and The Man Who Invented Christmas, which features Stevens in the leading role as author Charles Dickens in the story about the publication of A Christmas Carol.
So if you don’t believe me quite yet, just wait, because you will. Dan Stevens is shaping up to become one of the most interesting and exalted actors around.
Anya Crittenton | Associate Editor