Dan Stevens Interview: How Being 'Downton Abbey's Hero Has Changed His Life

Dan Stevens

First Posted: 04/11/11 11:37 Updated: 04/11/11 12:03

Matthew Crawley has had a rough ride in the second series of Downton Abbey. Not only has he been (temporarily) laid-up as a wheelchair-bound war veteran, he's also faced the prospect of losing his coveted title of heir, with a disfigured chancer turning up and claiming to be the previous claimant everyone thought had died.

But Dan Stevens, the 29-year-old actor who plays Matthew (and shares the same gentlemanly manner as his onscreen character), is glad his character has had a hard time.

"I've really enjoyed the challenging storylines, and hope to see that continue in the twenties," he tells us in a break from filming the Downton Abbey Christmas Special.

As he will, with confirmation that Sir Julian Fellowes' award-winning period-drama has just been commissioned for a third series.

Stevens (who claims to know nothing of this at the time of interview), says only: "If we do another series, then there could be some quite interesting goings-on. But we haven't seen anything yet, it hasn't even been confirmed that it's happening."

(Yesterday, Stevens, and the 11.5 million people, on average, who have been watching the first six episodes of series two, got their wish granted as ITV director of drama commissioning Laura Mackie announced: "We're absolutely delighted to be bringing Downton Abbey back for a third series, as we follow the inhabitants of Downton as they move into the roaring 20s.

"It's rare to find a drama that the audience connects with so strongly and we're extremely proud to have commissioned a series that has become such a phenomenon.")

Stevens has experienced at first hand the Downton phenomenon, which has included sales of elbow-length gloves soaring by 584 per cent at Debenhams, as women try to emulate the glamour depicted on-screen by the troubled but always elegant Ladies Mary, Sybil and Edith.

Not because he's found his tailor out of stock when he's gone to pick up a new cravat, but because his life has completely changed since starring in the global hit.

Before Downton, Stevens had mainly appeared on stage, after director Sir Peter Hall spotted him as a first-year undergraduate at Cambridge, where he was acting in a Footlights production of Macbeth.

He went on to work extensively with Hall, and appeared as Edward Ferrars in the BBC's Sense and Sensibility. But since Downton, he's been catapulted into heartthrob status. He admits: "There's never a dull moment now."

When did he first realise the scale of the TV sensation he was involved in?

"I was in America during the first series and I was getting emails about the ratings, but I wasn't aware of the scale of it. Coming back through Heathrow, people going the other way were coming up to me and saying how much they loved the show and how they were sad they were going to miss it on Sunday.

"That was the first time I realised, people knew the show inside and out. And that reaction has only got stronger."

Explaining how playing Lady Mary's true love has affected his life, Stevens says: "I meet people in everyday life and they say things like, 'Nice to see you back on your feet.' [referring to Matthew's time in a wheelchair]

"Since Sunday's episode, I went into the newsagent and he said 'You're looking better.' Since Matthew has had his injury, people have been talking a lot about below my waistline. Twitter has become a strange place since then."

Stevens is one of the new breed of TV actors who engage with their fans online. He currently has 17,160 followers and counting, and his fame is only set to rocket further as Downton Abbey continues its reign as the UK's most popular drama series for a decade.

The stardom hasn't gone to his head, though: "I'm shocked at being recognized. You go to places you don't think you would be and still, you are. Taxi drivers often recognise me... but I haven't got a free ride yet."

With his cut-glass accent, impeccable manners and easy charm, which he blames on his education, it's unlikely you'll ever see Stevens falling out of a nightclub with a gaggle of Downton groupies.

Just like his character Matthew, there's a level of class about Stevens, even if he wasn't born into it. Instead he picked it up through a scholarship to Tonbridge School and three years at Emmanuel College. He's also very happily married to South African jazz vocalist-turned-singing teacher, Susie Harriet.

Talking of the glamorous party scene, Stevens confesses: "It's nice to get your glad rags on for awards like the Baftas, but it doesn't happen all the time."

Although shocked about the level of recognition he's received personally, Stevens says it's clear to see why Downton's been so popular...

"It's classic storytelling with a modern structure. There's the pace of a modern show and a lot is borrowed from American dramas, so it's not surprising it is popular overseas too.

"It's not an adaptation of anything so we're not constrained by what happened next in Charles Dickens' or Jane Austen's tale. We can be a lot more free."

What about accusations that it's nothing more than a posh soap opera?

"Soap opera seems to be a dirty word, but actually they are the most popular shows we have. People want to know what happens next, people hate the villains and love the lovers. It's good, fun TV. But I wouldn't call Downton a soap opera as such."

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Filming for the third series of the show starts in the New Year, but we've still got an extra treat to look forward to before the year's out - the Christmas special.

Giving a sneak peek into what Christmas with the Granthams is like, Stevens said: "We filmed Christmas dinner earlier in the week and we've got an enormous Christmas tree. We've filmed the unwrapping of the presents.

"Not in our pajamas though, it's still slightly formal. The wrapping paper is beautiful, they found these amazing designs, the sort of stuff you'd find in Liberty or somewhere. There haven't been many exciting presents though, no iPads or anything."

Never mind the presents - what we want to know is if Matthew will be kissing Lady Mary under the mistletoe?

Stevens' lips are, of course, sealed - we will, inevitably, have to keep watching.

Downton Abbey is on Sunday 9pm on ITV. The DVD of the series is released on Monday 7 November.

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