Since moving into the palatial Yorkshire estate on TV’s Downton Abbey, British actor Dan Stevens has gained worldwide heartthrob status—even earning the nickname, “The Downton Dreamboat.” Stevens got his start in BBC adaptations of Sense and Sensibility and Dracula, and in West End mountings of Hay Fever (opposite Judi Dench) and Arcadia. Now, he’s arrived in the States to make his Broadway debut in The Heiress as dashing fortune hunter Morris Townsend opposite Academy Award nominees Jessica Chastain and David Strathairn. But acting isn’t Stevens’ only passion: He’s Editor-at-Large of the online literary quarterly The Junket and served as a judge for the Man Booker Prize—requiring him to read 145 novels in the past year. Broadway.com chatted with Stevens about his new life in New York City, meeting American fans at The Heiress, and whether he’d play Matthew Crawley if a Downton Abbey musical came to Broadway.
Congratulations on your debut! How did The Heiress first cross your radar?
I knew the book from years ago—I love Henry James. Then I was approached and they said, “There’s this adaptation of Washington Square.” I read the play and thought it was phenomenal. It’s such a well-constructed piece, and it’s a very intriguing role—all of the characters are intriguing. Then I had a chat with Moises [Kaufman, director] and we were away! It’s a very exciting way to make my Broadway debut.
In The Heiress, Morris Townsend can sometimes come off as a slimeball—what is your interpretation of this role?
I think it’s ambiguous, and it’s quite fun to play with that. A lot of people say to me, “Oh, you’re playing the villain.” But I think in this production, he does generally love Catherine. He is also interested in her wealth and luxurious things and beautiful things, which he enjoys—and he doesn’t necessarily have a right to. But I think that’s quite an interesting angle to explore.
What did you think when you heard Jessica Chastain was going to be playing your heiress?
I was very excited. I’ve admired David [Strathairn as distrustful dad Austin Sloper] for years, and Jessica has been in some incredible pictures; she’s a wonderful, wonderful film actress. So I was thrilled to get to work with both of them. And I’d heard amazing things about Judy Ivey, who’s a Broadway legend. It’s a really exciting team, a nice gang.
What is it like getting to be up close and personal with your fans while Downton Abbey is airing new episodes in England?
Doing film and TV, you don’t get so much to meet the fans, and it’s especially exciting for me to come all the way over here and meet people who are as crazy or more crazy about Downton as they are back home—American fans are more enthusiastic. I met a girl the other day who said she hadn’t spoken to her mom for 10 years, and now they sit down every Sunday and watch the show, and they’re getting on so much better. We never intended Downton Abbey to be family therapy treatment, so it’s lovely.
Rumors are swirling about whether or not you have signed on for season four. What’s going on?
The viewers won’t be grateful for any spoilers, and I figure the best thing is just to keep watching the show, keep enjoying the show and not to read any gossip columns or any rumors.
What has been your favorite scene to shoot on Downton Abbey?
I had a lot of fun doing the second series with the World War I stuff. The boys-only stuff with bombs and guns and falling in the mud. That was a lot of fun. The dining room scenes get a little tedious to film at times, but everything else is great.
Shirley MacLaine joined the cast of Downton this season—what kind of energy did she bring to the set?
[Laughs.] She was delightful. She has the most extraordinary energy! She was a great raconteur, and she was full of anecdotes and stories and sometimes even songs. It was a great fun couple of weeks having her around.
We dreamed up a cast for a Downton Abbey musical a few months back—what do you think? Any suggestions?
With this show, anything is possible. [Laughs.] Somebody else would be better off singing Matthew’s part than me! I sing occasionally, but I don’t think you wanna hear me singing Matthew Crawley.
You have a knack for playing men of earlier eras—Do your fans get taken aback to see you wearing modern clothes?
I’m sitting outside wearing jeans right now, and nobody’s stopped me yet. [Laughs.]
You’re playing a more modern character in Vamps, which is coming out soon—what was that like to shoot?
That was a great fun project. I’ve been a big fan of Amy Heckerling’s for years and she came to London and saw me in something years ago, and we kept in touch. Then this project came along and I was delighted to be a part of it. It’s a fun piece and I hope people enjoy it. It’s kind of silly, but it’s fun.
Do you think you and your Vamps co-star Alicia Silverstone might catch up while she’s starring in The Performers on Broadway?
It would be lovely to see her. We’re gonna be neighbors in fact [on 48th Street]. We’ll catch each other at some point, I’m sure.
Is your family enjoying New York life? [Stevens and his wife, jazz singer Susie Hariet, are parents of a two-year-old daughter, Willow, and two-month-old son, Aubrey.]
We’re absolutely loving it. We’ve been enjoying the park and the museums. We took a trip on the Staten Island Ferry today to see, as my daughter calls it, the “Statue of Libertry.” [Laughs.] And I really enjoy going on the boating lake in Central Park with my daughter.
Are you dressing up for Halloween this year?
We’re onstage that night, so I’ll be dressing up in my costume. I don’t know whether I should appear at the stage door in a crazy outfit or not! We haven’t bought any costumes [for the kids] yet—we don’t do Halloween in the U.K. the same way, so we’re just getting the hang on how you do it over here.
As you rehearsed for The Heiress you were also judging the Booker Prize, and had to read 145 novels. How did you do both at the same time?
Looking back on it, it’s a crazy thing to have taken on. But it was fascinating—there was never a dull moment. It was pretty tough, and I wasn’t the most sociable guy this year. But we finished it last week, with Hilary Mantel’s Bring Up the Bodies winning the prize. I’m gonna enjoy a few weeks of not reading too much, maybe catch up on some TV box sets [laughs].
You also may be the only actor on TV to have his own online literary magazine.
I started The Junket with some friends from [Cambridge] University. We all have other jobs, but we wanted to write more for ourselves, and we were spending a lot of time sitting in cafes and bars talking about this, and after a few years said, we should do it. So we produced a really neat looking magazine that champions great writing and I’m really proud of it.
You said at one point that you would like to write a novel. What kind of books are the most inspiring to you personally?
I’m certainly not writing a novel at the moment, but I love the idea that I might one day. For the moment I’m enjoying short form journalism and the occasional essay, but I’ll keep chipping away and see what comes out.
You just turned 30 this month! How was your birthday?
We had a cake backstage, and the cast decorated my dressing room. They wrote on the mirrors and put streamers and balloons up. I can’t take the balloons down; they’re too pretty. At the stage door, there was a very kind girl who had a little Matthew Crawley doll made, so that’s sitting in my dressing room. That was quite sweet!
See Dan Stevens in The Heiress, opening November 1 at the Walter Kerr Theatre on Broadway.