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Dan Stevens’ acting career continues to take new twists in ‘Blithe Spirit’

Ed Symkus
More Content Now USA TODAY NETWORK
Dan Stevens and Leslie Mann go the screwball comedy route.

Fans of the series “Downton Abbey” will long remember the final episode of Season 3. The character Matthew Crawley, who was the show’s male romantic lead, heir to the title of the Earl of Grantham, and an all-around nice guy, was killed off. That plot turn shocked and angered viewers. But it was a different story for Dan Stevens, the man who’d been playing him for those first three seasons. His career took off.

The British actor had already done plenty of theater, and was piling up appearances in a number of TV series, mini-series, and TV movies when he landed the role on “Downton.” But three years of living among the upstairs and downstairs folks in the North Yorkshire mansion was enough; it was time to spread his acting wings. A play in New York (“The Heiress”) led to a part in a film (“A Walk Among the Tombstones”), small parts in other films, a starring role - under lots of makeup - in “Beauty and the Beast,” and three seasons as the lead in the science-fiction action series “Legion.”

In the new film “Blithe Spirit,” a remake of Noel Coward’s 1941 play, which became a classic 1945 film starring Rex Harrison, Stevens plays the male lead, Charles Condomine, an alcoholic trying to adapt one of his own novels - actually written by someone else - into a screenplay, but is suffering from writer’s block, and is being badgered by his needy wife (Isla Fisher), the ghost of his mischievous first wife (Leslie Mann), and a fraudulent psychic (Judi Dench). In acting terms, Stevens is trying his hand at raucous, screwball comedy. He spoke about the film by phone from his home in Los Angeles.

Q: How did “Blithe Spirit” come into your life?

A: There was a sort of circularity to it. My first West End theater job was in a production of “Hay Fever” by Noel Coward, starring Judi Dench, and directed by Sir Peter Hall. And now, years down the line, his son Ed approached me and said, “There’s a really fun new adaptation of ‘Blithe Spirit,’ I’m going to direct it, do you want to be involved?” And it had all the right hallmarks of something I would want to do.

Q: So, did you go back to look at the 1945 Rex Harrison film?

A: I know the Rex Harrison version, but I wouldn’t say I revisited it for this. There’s no point in remaking something the same way. In my mind, I’m not doing it for the Coward purists. It’s to introduce some comedy and silliness based on something that was written by Coward, but to a modern audience, and, I hope, with a bit of a modern flavor to it.

Q: Was there anything in particular that attracted you to playing Charles Condomine?

A: I’ve always thought of him as a sort of classic British character, a man at the end of his tether, whether it’s a John Cleese type, or maybe Leonard Rossiter. Men who are sort of on the brink of a nervous breakdown, usually fueled by a martini or two. I’ve always found there to be something funny about their pain, in a way. Their tragedy is that they’re just ridiculous and funny.

Q: I have two questions that date to the early part of your career. What were you doing just before finding out you landed the part in “Downton Abbey?”

A: Our first child had just been born. So presumably right before getting that job, I was changing a diaper.

Q: And is it true that you did some standup comedy?

A: I did it as a student, and briefly afterwards. I love going to it and watching it; I love it as an art form. I was given the opportunity to try it with the Cambridge Footlights (sketch comedy group). Writing your own stuff and making it work onstage, with just you and a microphone, is a real enviable skill, and I loved doing it. But I never really had ambitions to be a standup, long-term.

Q: You relocated from England to the United States a few years ago. Was that yet another case of taxes being too high over there or was it strictly a career move?

A: I would credit (writer-director) Scott Frank for that. He offered me the part in “A Walk Among the Tombstones.” We were talking about the role in that movie, and he said, “I’ve never seen you do this before; I’d love to see you try.” But the attitude in England, too often, was, “I’ve never seen you do this before; I don’t think you can do it.” I was so heartened by Scott’s attitude and belief. And then Adam Wingard came forward with “The Guest” and said, “I’ve never seen the guy from ‘Downton Abbey’ do an action movie, but I’d love to see you try this.” And that’s what fires me up as an actor. I want to be challenged and I want to surprise people.

“Blithe Spirit” opens in select theaters and premiers on VOD on Feb. 19.

Ed Symkus can be reached at esymkus@rcn.com.