By Danny Peary
It’s a big week in the makeover of Dan Stevens, who memorably played Matthew Crawley until the kind, moral and handsome aristocrat was, surprisingly, killed off on Downton Abbey in 2012. On Wednesday there was the theatrical release of the The Guest, in which Stevens plays a creepy, dangerous villain who terrorizes a military family, and beginning Friday, viewers can see the British actor play a Brooklyn drug dealer in the brutal thriller A Walk Among the Tombstones. This time he’s in support of Liam Neeson as Lawrence Block’s troubled unlicensed private detective Matthew Scudder. For the Australian magazine FilmInk, I visited the set last summer when director-writer Scott Frank was filming in the city and did the following interview with Stevens.
Danny Peary: Did you have sympathetic feedback after leaving Downton Abbey?
Dan Stevens: Generally, I did. I think that there were a lot of fans who were upset, but I guess that speaks well for the character.
DP: How long before you left did you tell people you were leaving?
DS: Well, I couldn’t really tell anybody.
DP: I mean on set.
DS: Oh, they knew eight months in advance. They had plenty of time to adjust.
DP: Was it a big decision?
DS: Of course, yeah. It was a huge decision.
DP: Did it have to do with wanting to go to America?
DS: No, not specifically. I felt it was time to be going and I think it’s healthy to follow your instinct.
DP: Who do you play Walk Among the Tombstones?
DS: I play Kenny Kristo. He’s a Brooklyn drug trafficker. I think he’s Lebanese in the book, but they changed that for the movie. He’s also a lot older. His wife is kidnapped. Because he’s a drug trafficker, he can’t pursue the kidnappers via the usual avenues. He has a brother, Peter, who is an addict and through AA knows Liam’s character, Matt Scudder, a retired cop who is a private detective and recovering alcoholic. So it’s a complex web.
DP: Does your character hire Scudder to solve the case and disappear or does he continue through the film?
DS: He comes back into it and gets involved. From my character’s perspective, it’s a pretty classic revenge trajectory. His wife is killed early on and he really wants to get these guys. He’s really upset about what happened to her. She was killed because he won’t pay the ransom. You get the sense that they were going to kill her anyway, but they tried to get some money from him first and he tried to haggle with them a bit. He feels a huge amount of remorse about that. We discover they’re serial killers. It’s not just a one-off that they’ve done, they’ll do this again. I think his wife was their first but they are specifically targeting drug traffickers because they know they have money and can’t go to the cops. Which is pretty smart. But they’ve got Scudder on their tail! There’s a huge, pretty dark confrontation over a lot of things.
DP: Does your character have any thematic relevance?
DS: With my character, it’s about the choices one makes in life. Had he not decided to be a drug trafficker, his wife would have been safe. I think Matt Scudder is also faced with such quandaries, about the choices one makes in life.
DP: How much does your character interact with Scudder?
DS: Quite a lot. That’s been fun, Liam’s great. Kenny speaks to Scudder a lot on the phone through the movie but toward the end, he’s like Scudder’s sidekick. He comes along with him. It’s this real motley crew tracking down these killers. It’s a very unconventional bunch, which is fun to see.
DP: Why did you choose to play such a character? I don’t think anybody would say, “There’s a drug dealer in this script, so let’s cast Dan Stevens.” [Similarly, it's surprising anyone would think to cast Stevens as the killer in The Guest.]
DS: No, but that’s what’s exciting. The exciting thing for an actor is to have someone like Scott Frank say, “I think you can do this!”
DP: When you read the script, what were your reactions?
DS: It was a real page-turner, like the book. There are some scripts you read and they resist you in some way, and that can be good sometimes–a challenging read can be good, because you’re part of it. Some scripts, don’t quite hold together. With this script, I wanted to get there, I wanted to see what happened next. It really kept me reading, and my character is so interesting. He’s not clear-cut. Like you say, no one’s expecting to see me play this, so I think, “So why does Scott want me to play this? What is it that he sees in the character, that he sees in me?”
DP: Did you ever come up with an answer?
DS: I guess he thought of me because he needed to find some sympathy for a character who you may not ordinarily fell sympathy for in a movie like this. Initially, it’s easy to resist feeling anything for him. But then you suddenly see it from his perspective and you think that whatever he does for a living, what happened to his wife is pretty nasty.
DP: Did you audition?
DS: No, we just had a chat about it. I was interested because I’m a huge fan of similar kinds of movies. We had a huge conversation about Dog Day Afternoon, Dirty Harry, the ‘70s genre, very character-heavy. I grew up watching those films. Scott’s very smart writer and when this genre is done well, when it’s really nailed, it’s great! For me, it was a very exciting opportunity.
DP: Before the film started, did you all sit around the table and read the script?
DS: There wasn’t a cast read-through, but I sat with Scott a lot, and we talked again a lot.
I didn’t know him before, but I’d seen The Lookout, and I’d seen Out of It and I loved that. He did a similar thing in that movie, no one’s expecting to see. We have these conversations which honestly consist of talking about other movies. So you have a shared vocabulary and we definitely had that from the beginning.
DP: And did that continue while making the film?
DS: Definitely. Our dialogue was very on-going, and I trust it’s going to shape the narrative very, very much. We don’t have to put what we’re thinking into full sentences. He can just say, “That bit in Dirty Harry,” and I can say, “I know what you mean” and we’ll do the scene again, and it’ll be better. That’s a great relationship to have.
DP: So making this, is it an “I’m-making-a-movie”adrenaline rush!
DS: Not really, but I’m doing what I’ve always wanted to be doing. It’s very much the same as working on other sets. I’ve done a lot of TV back home in addition to Downton Abbey. There are good sets, bad sets. This happens to be a good one. The adrenaline, it’s always there.
DP: Where does this film fit into what you want to be doing as an actor? Is it an oddity?
DS: I hope it’s not an oddity, and with all the work I do, I hope it’s part of a progression. It’s an exciting new category. I’d love to do more movies like this.