Who would have thought that the most successful alumni from “Downton Abbey” would be Dan Stevens? And, no, Maggie Smith doesn’t count. Stevens is having a peak 2017 even it took him a good five years to get there.
After leaving the popular period drama in 2012 Stevens earned raves for his performance in the indie “The Guest,” but mostly found himself landing supporting roles in disappointing fare such as Bill Condon’s “The Fifth Estate” or Scott Frank’s “A Walk Among Tombstones.” The past year has been something of a game changer for the 34-year-old actor. He’s earned critical acclaim in Noah Hawley’s groundbreaking FX series “Legion” and landed the iconic role of the Beast in “Beauty and the Beast” which reunited him with Condon.
Stevens took some time this past weekend to chat about both his mo-cap intensive musical monster and his experience playing a mutant with a little too much going on inside that powerful head of his.
Dan Stevens: Thanks man. You saw it last night?
I saw it Thursday. Not at the premiere. There was a second screening at the DGA while people were seeing it at the premiere.
Oh cool. How did it go down at the DGA?
It went great. It was beautiful. My friend was crying at the end. He was very moved. It’s his favorite Disney animated movie. He loved it.
And he felt like we did it proud?
He did. Absolutely.
So, how did you even get into the mix for this iconic role? I know you’d worked with Bill before, but…
I mean that’s really a question for, I guess for Bill or for Lucy Bevan, the casting director. I certainly got on well with Bill. I worked very, very briefly with him on “The Fifth Estate” and also with the DP, Tobias Schliessler. And, you know, he’s got such a lovely way of working. He’s got a great skill at bringing a nice group of people together. But I couldn’t really say. I put myself on tape singing and sent it along, like, I guess a bunch of people did. You know I’m sure there were other people in consideration.
Can you tell us what you sang on you’re audition tape?
Yeah, I sang the Beast’s song from the Broadway show, cuz at that point “Evermore” hadn’t been written. Alan [Menken] knew that they were gonna write a new song for the Beast, but he hadn’t finished it at that stage, so yeah, I sang that.
Did you have a musical background beforehand? Did you train in theater school?
I didn’t go to theater school, so I didn’t train in that sense, but I did do musicals as a kid and after I left high school I did a production of “Cabaret,” and once I got into professional theater — it seems to be much more of a choice in London… you go musical theater or you do Shakespeare.
People really don’t go back and forth?
I don’t know why but it certainly wasn’t encouraged and it wasn’t presented to me as an option and, so, yeah, it fell by the way side I guess, but I’ve always enjoyed singing. And I never dreamed the moment when I reconnected with it would be on this kind of scale. But I’m delighted that it has because it’s reminding me that actually I can do it. I do enjoy it. I enjoy dancing, and there may be more musical things on the horizon.
So because of your experience, this wasn’t a case where you were insanely nervous about tackling the material, I’d guess.
That’s not to say I wasn’t insanely nervous. I definitely was, but I had months of training, and I got to work with an incredible voice coach from the Royal Academy of Music in London, Anne-Marie Speed, who has an amazing … she uses an amazing vocal technique called the Estill [Method], which really connects you with the muscularity of your voice. It’s difficult to visualize sometimes what’s going in our insides, you know, and to have the same kind of control over that as you would your external musculature. So that was a revelation to me, to see how I could connect with my voice and the things that I could do that I never dreamed I could do with my voice.
So, are you up for doing a musical again? Are you like, “I would do a musical on stage now” if I could?
Doing it on stage is a different beast, you know, eight shows a week kind of thing. That’s a big undertaking. I would definitely consider it. I would love to do it on film again, but yeah, maybe on stage, we’ll see.
Maybe you can sing in “Legion” season two. Maybe [creator Noah Hawley] will figure out a way to work it in there.
Maybe there is some singing in season one. [Laughs.]
Oh, maybe. I’ll get to that in a second. But for ‘Beast’ you were on set the entire time correct?
And I haven’t seen any behind-the-scenes footage yet. It might be out there…
No, I think I had it all burned.
But knowing it’s mo-cap and digitally recreated, are you wearing anything that looks like him at all?
I was wearing about a 40 pound muscle suit on set, and the muscle suit was covered in gray lycra so to give me the silhouette of the Beast, that they could then hang the digital … well they made real costumes of the Beast that they then digitized and hung on my digital frame. It’s mind blowing. So, I got to see the Beast’s front coat. There was this enormous beautiful, blue coat that I never really got to wear, but it existed and then was digitized and now exists on the screen. But yeah, I was on the stilts puppeteering this muscle suit every day and then the facial capture was done separately so every two weeks I’d go into a booth, have my face sprayed with UV paint, about 10,000 dots, and 27 little cameras on the UV flickering light would capture everything that we’d done in the previous two weeks. And Emma [Watson] would be there again, sitting on the other side of this cage and we’d play all of those scenes again and anything that I’d been doing, whether it was eating, sleeping, roaring, waltzing, I did again with my face, and they took that data, morphed it into the Beast’s face and mapped it onto the body that I puppeteered on the set. So in a sense, it’s every millimeter of my face is driving that digital mask of the Beast.
You said they put UV paint on you. I’ve never heard about this before with mo-cap.
Right, it’s a totally new.
Is it colored? Is it clear?
It’s UV, so under normal light you-
Oh, duh. You don’t see it. It’s just clear.
But it was a very high frequency flickering UV that was then captured by these little cameras. If you imagine, it’s almost like a sort of digital mesh over my face you swish around. So all you could see were the dots moving really. Everything else was invisible. The technology’s been used before for certain creatures or certain moments in film, but never this extensively for a romantic lead, to get the sensitivity of that performance, singing, close-ups, all of that, with nothing interfering. I was not behind any prosthetic or fur or latex or anything. There were no cameras dangling between me and Emma when we were playing those romantic scenes. That was really the reason for going that route I think, was to have those scenes play unimpeded.
We don’t have a lot of time, but I have to ask you about “Legion” because it’s freaking amazing. It’s fascinating. The last episode [episode four] was like watching a sci-fi Terrence Malick movie.
Actually I’ve just seen episode five and you’re in for a treat.
The way the show is conceived, that could not have all been on the page. When you watched episode four, is that what you thought you were doing? I know the plot points were clearly there but…
Yeah, it depends what aspect you’re talking about. The visuals I think are stunning and Michael Wylie‘s production design is insane and the sets were beautiful and weird. And they were kind of weird spaces to inhabit. That definitely fed into the scenes. And the music is obviously a huge influence and Noah gave us a great playlist of 160 tunes of all different shapes and sizes and periods and genres, all of which either appear in the show or certainly have a massive influence. Yeah, I think there was definitely a sense that we were making something pretty psychedelic at times, but I just had such an awesome time making it, an incredible team working on it. And Dana Gonzales, who shot the thing, who won the Emmy for “Fargo” last year, and who is very much part of the Noah Hawley crew, is just incredibly talented. I think every episode there was at least one thing that the camera team alone were trying that was just so insane that they were really excited, and I as an actor get excited being around crews that are excited about what they’re doing. So all departments were really firing on all crazy cylinders to make something pretty unique.
Did it feel like you were making an indie movie at times?
It definitely felt like we were making an eight hour film at times. It had a different feel to the process for sure, and I think that shows. It has a very unique feel to the show. It just gets crazy.
“Beauty and the Beast” opens nationwide on March 17th. “Legion” airs Wednesdays at 10 PM on FX.