Much has been made of the post-Downton Dan Stevens transformation since his dramatic Christmas day departure left a nation sobbing into their figgy puddings. Gone are the chubby cheeks and blonde locks of Matthew Crawley, replaced by a suave reincarnation – all popping cheekbones and dark tresses. But when I greet the Croyden-born actor, the plummy accent and sparkling blue eyes that characterised the late Downton heir are still intact – and the poster for Stevens’ new film, Summer in February, leaning against the wall behind us, bears more than a passing resemblance to Matthew.
Stevens still had one foot in the Downton door when he was shooting his new movie – a romantic drama that also happens to be set in 1913 Edwardian England – but this was a project he’d been trying to get off the ground long before Julian Fellowes came a-knocking.
“It’s a story that’s haunted me half my life,” he explains. “I first read it when I was fourteen or fifteen and it really stayed with me. It was a very emotional, sometimes painful and sometimes delightful experience seeing that sense be born onto the screen.”
Written by Jonathan Smith, Stevens’ drama teacher at Tonbridge School, Summer in February is set in Lamorna, Cornwall – home of The Newlyn School of artists – and tells the story of the doomed love triangle between painter Alfred J Munnings and army officer Gilbert Evans who both fall in love with aspiring student Florence Carter-Wood.
The narrative remained hidden for much of the twentieth century until Gilbert’s son, David, discovered his diaries and showed them to Smith who in turn became inspired by the tragic chain of events. “This very reserved British diary contains some powerful, heartbreaking moments,” explains Stevens, who is producer in addition to playing Evans opposite Dominic Cooper’s enigmatic Munnings.
The subsequent novel was published back in 1995 at the same time as a teenage Stevens arrived at the illustrious boarding school. “The whole of Kent and Sussex I’m sure was alight with talk of Summer in February,” he recalls, “and a lot of people said it would make a great film, but we had a duty to the book to get it right so we took our time knocking the screenplay around a bit.”
In turn, that screenplay attracted the likes of Cooper and Hattie Morahan who Stevens had previously starred alongside in 2008’s Sense & Sensibility. “It was never deliberate but it sort of made sense for a lot of reasons,” he chuckles. “Hattie in particular is so wonderful as [painter] Laura Knight. I did Sense & Sensibility as we were developing this and I met Hattie and thought, ‘Oh my god, she’s just like Laura Knight,’ and when it came to make the film I was so excited she wanted to do it. Dominic had every ounce of the requisite roguishness that we wanted for Munnings and he demonstrated quite a bit of that in Sense and Sensibility with Willoughby.
“The dilemma Florence faces in our film is quite a classic Austenian dilemma – the girl presented with Mr Nice and Honourable who is desperately in love with her and Mr Roguish Rock ‘n’ Roll. And they always pick the wrong one…”
Indeed, Stevens’ manner is so polite and considered as he fields my questions that it would be easy to assume he resembles the former, although his childhood memories of acting for Smith whilst at school hints at something of a young ladies’ man.
“If you were half decent at acting you had the chance to be shipped out to the local girls school and be in their plays which was awesome. Essentially it was a good way to get out of Tonbridge and meet girls. Acting has kind of remained for me a good way of getting out of Tonbridge and meeting girls. That’s where it all started.”
But it is his drama teacher Stevens credits with convincing him to attend Cambridge University, where he was first spotted by Sir Peter Hall in a Footlights production of Macbeth, opposite his daughter Rebecca, recently the star of Parade’s End. “Jonathan set me on the straight and narrow. I think I could easily be distracted and was quite distracting. Putting me on the stage was quite a good way of channelling that.”
And channel it he has, with an impressive pre-Downton CV which saw him appear in a string of acclaimed stage roles as well as the BBC’s 2006 adaptation of Alan Hollinghurst’s The Line of Beauty. But it was Julian Fellowes’ period drama that made him a household name, both in the UK and also in America where, after quitting in dramatic fashion last year, the 30-year-old has made a base for his family after appearing in Broadway play The Heiress late last year.
“I just enjoy the buzz of New York – it’s somewhere I’ve always wanted to try living for a bit. I don’t know if I’ll be able to do it forever because it’s exhausting at the same time as it’s energising but there’s a real electricity out there which I’m enjoying.” Does he miss anything about living in Blighty? “Curry. You can’t get a good curry in New York.”
Next up is Wikileaks drama The Fifth Estate, filmed last year with Sherlock’s Benedict Cumberbatch, before Stevens plays against type as a sketchy drug trafficker opposite Liam Neeson in A Walk Among the Tombstones. Does he ever dream of a regular role behind the camera following his experience of producing Summer in February?
“It’s certainly given me an appetite to look for more material to develop so that’s something we’re looking at. Not necessarily tragic love triangles in Cornwall, but the idea of taking a book that I feel strongly about and having a vision for it is something that’s quite exciting to me. I may even try to direct at some point in the future but that’s a little way off.”
Summer in February is released today in UK cinemas nationwide