Dan Stevens studied theater at the London-based National Youth Theater and English literature at the University of Cambridge, where he was a member of the amateur theatrical club, The Footlights. Familiar to Masterpiece fans for his role as Edward Ferrars in Sense & Sensibility, he was also seen in the 2007 Masterpiece production of Dracula.
When Downton Abbey's heirs perish on the Titanic, the modern-thinking outsider Matthew Crawley reluctantly responds to a summons as the new heir. In tragedy, possibility! Dan Stevens (Sense and Sensibility) plays Matthew Crawley, and in December, 2010, he spoke with Masterpiece's Richard Maurer about the role and the challenges — for both character and actor — of fitting in to the world of Downton Abbey.
Select a topic from the list below to see Stevens's thoughts, or choose Show All to see the entire interview.
Preparing For And Portraying Matthew Crawley
Your character, Matthew Crawley, is the linchpin of the story, isn't he?
Eventually, yes. He's the reluctant heir to Downton Abbey. He's not the true blue-blooded aristocracy; he's a lawyer from Manchester. When they look down their family tree and discover who is set to inherit, they're not at all happy about it. And neither is he, really. His life is uprooted, and he has to go live in their midst and learn their ways.
How did you arrive at your interpretation of him?
Funnily enough, scheduling had a big hand in how that came about. They filmed most of episode one before I arrived, since Matthew only appears toward the end of it. So all of the characters both upstairs and downstairs, who are quite cynical about Matthew's arrival, had actually in real life had a chance to bond and work together and play together for a good four weeks before I appeared on the set. It was an interesting case of life imitating art. Here I was an outsider, not quite sure of my footing, which was the same relationship that needed to be played out on screen!
Did you do anything special to prepare for the role?
Obviously, you have a very established world for the family that lives in Downton Abbey and also for the servants; you can see where they live, where they work, and who they interact with. The problem with Matthew is that he has no such context. He is suddenly thrust into the world of Downton. I was a little bit at sea with the character and [screenwriter] Julian [Fellowes] and I discussed this over lunch. It turns out there are precedents for Matthew's situation in real life — for aristocratic families who found that a non-aristocrat was set to inherit, someone who in the end brought fresh ideas and a sense of the modern world to their old way of living, and in some cases revitalized an estate and saved the fortunes of an old family. This helped me to see that Matthew is not quite a maverick character, but someone who just looks at the world in a different way.
Is there anything in your own background that you gave you insight into Matthew?
In fact, it's not an unfamiliar scenario to me. I went to a public school and I went to Cambridge University, but I'm not from an aristocratic or an upper class background. So I've known that sensation of being a little bit on the outside and trying to muddle through and get along with these people, yet remain true to myself.
How did your relationship with Hugh Bonneville develop on screen and off?
On screen, Hugh's character is a stickler for tradition and the rules, and he knows that he has to accept Matthew, whether he likes it or not. For his part, Matthew comes in with his hackles up, ready to resist at all costs. So there is that initial tension between them. But Hugh and I got along incredibly well. He's very funny on set, and we share a great sense of humor. So by the time the on-screen relationship had softened, we were great mates and able to have a very good laugh while filming those scenes. I think that probably shows.
Your difficulties with your valet, Molesley, are very nicely portrayed. Did you discuss how you would do it with Kevin Doyle, who plays Molesley?
It was very much an organic process on the set. Kevin brought something so beautiful to that character — a man of a bygone era who knows his place in the scheme of things and desperately wants to fulfill it. And yet he has to contend with Matthew, who not out of any spite or malevolence is very keen for Molesley not to fulfill it. A very sweet sort of drama unfolds, where you have Molesley quietly suffering in the background as Matthew is railing and fuming against this situation that he's been put in.
Your relationship with Mary, the earl's oldest child, is also quite complex.
Yes it is. There are so many little subtleties that disrupt the conventional story line that we think is coming. I think Julian must have had a lot of fun playing with them in his script laboratory.
The World Of Downton Abbey
Was there anything about the period that surprised you?
I've done a Jane Austen adaptation and I've done adaptations of the gothic novels Frankenstein and Dracula, so costume dramas and period pieces are very much home territory for me. But unlike those, this was an original screenplay. Because of this, Julian was able to get into the plot a lot of things which you could never find in a straight-laced Victorian novel — things you would never find in Jane Austen. You could barely find them in Charles Dickens.
There's also a modern element to it.
Yes, Julian has set the story in the last possible era of that old world, before the modern era really kicks in. There are signs that it is coming, which Julian has a lot of fun with. Hugh Bonneville's character, the Earl of Grantham, complains that the high street of his local town is crowded with cars; he says he saw five parked and at least three went by while he was there!
One thing that confuses Americans is the way aristocrats have titles that keep changing as their relatives die. So instead of saying Mr. Crawley for Robert, we're supposed to call him the Earl of Grantham. Is this also confusing for the English?
Yes, it confuses the hell out of us as well. Before we even started shooting we had a two-day workshop with Alastair Bruce, an old friend of Julian Fellowes and his wife, who was our historical advisor on everything from which knife and fork you pick up first to how you behave in the presence of a character like the Earl of Grantham's mother, who is played Maggie Smith. That was incredibly useful. But it's still desperately confusing. Actually, since we made the first series, Julian Fellowes has been made a peer, so I have no idea how we refer to him when we see him for series two.
Has any of the upper class etiquette you learned rubbed off in your daily life?
Not at all. I wish I could say it had, but I'm still just as sloppy at home as I always was.