Interview: <em>Downton Abbey</em>'s Dan Stevens

Downton Abbey, the Emmy-winning period drama, follows the lives of aristocratic Crawley family and their servants in a grand Edwardian country house in 1912. The sinking of the Titanic leaves Downton Abbey's future in jeopardy, and the arrival of Matthew Crawley as heir causes anxiety amongst the family. Will the family be able to hold things together when put under pressure?

Meet Dan Stevens, the 29-year-old British actor who plays lawyer and heir Matthew Crawley. Dan has had a long history in theatre acting and has a particular penchant for period dramas.

We chatted to Dan about the show's popularity, learning to fit in and his South African wife, Susie Hariet.

Channel24: What drew you to work on Downton Abbey?
Dan: It's period drama that we do really well in England, but with a modern twist; we're not tied by any of the rules of adapting a book, it's not Jane Austen or Charles Dickens, it's just Julian Fellowes [creator] and his crazy mind.

Channel24: How do you go about preparing to play someone who lived 100 years ago?
Dan: It's difficult because there's not a lot of archive material to look at and to listen to. But you can read around, and we have a great historical advisor on the show who works in Buckingham Palace and he's a herald to the Queen and he knows all about the aristocracy and the upper classes; he's very knowledgeable about that time. He's good to talk to about the way people behaved, the way people carried themselves, even right down to what fork they used at dinner.

However,  I don't think we talk how people would have really talked back then, because if we did that, if you hear recordings from the 1930s and actually hear the way people spoke,  it's very very strange, and you think 'What are they doing? That's really weird', so we all made a decision to not quite adopt that way of speaking because I think that would be quite alienating for the audiences.

Channel24: Fill us in on your character Matthew Crawley and any similarities you share with him.
Dan: We don't really see him until the end of the first episode. The heir to the Abbey died on the Titanic, and they look down the family tree, and discover the new heir is this second cousin or whatever, a middle-class guy, a lawyer living in Manchester, not from their background at all. So they call him up, say 'You are now the heir; can’t get out of it, got to come live here and learn our ways'. So he upends his life and goes to live among them and he really has to work things out. He goes and explores and discovers, takes some things on board and forgets certain things, and I guess I can relate to that. I've had times in my life where going to a posh school or going to university and mixing with a different group of people, you have to adapt a little bit. I like exploring those kinds of characters – outsiders going in.

Channel24: Like Kate Middleton who has to learn all these new ways and decide how much like Princess Diana is she going to try to be – or not.
Dan: Yeah, I hear they're big Downton Abbey fans so maybe she's learnt a thing or two.

Channel24: What are some of your favourite TV shows to watch?
Dan: I grew up loving period dramas. I really did, so it is a bit of a dream come true getting to act in one myself. More recently I've really gotten into the big American TV shows like The Wire, The West Wing, The Sopranos. Breaking Bad is another brilliant show. I like those big, long-running series.

Channel24: A show you'd love to join the cast of?
Dan: The Simpsons.

Channel24: Did you expect Downton Abbey to do so well and win so many awards?
Dan: No! It's something we do well, and do a lot of, so from our point of view as actors we just thought well, we just doing another one of these shows, and that's great. We felt it was a good one, we all got on really well, the script was really terrific and everyone seemed to grow into their characters very quickly. But you can never really predict that kind of crazy success, and the way it's taken off in the most far-flung countries. We get letters from all over Europe, South America, Australia, New Zealand, and America at the moment, and hopefully soon South Africa.

Channel24: Well, your biggest fan is South African – your wife.
Dan: Oh well, yeah, so I already know that South Africans have good taste. We love coming out to South Africa, it's our second home. We spend quite a lot of time in Jo'burg.

Channel24: How did you and your wife meet?
Dan: We actually met in England, she came to study in England and she stayed on for a bit and she was working in theatre. And we met when she was doing a show, and I was doing a show next door, we used to hang out.

Downton Abbey airs on BBC Entertainment (channel 120 on DStv) on Sundays at 20:30.

(Catch a repeat of episode 1 on Monday February 20 at 22:04.) 

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