Dan Stevens and the Allure of Kooky Characters


The kookiest characters onscreen this season may be the ones played by Dan Stevens.

This batch of charismatic weirdos joins the collection of peculiar roles he has amassed since the 2014 thriller “The Guest,” his post-“Downton Abbey” breakthrough. Stevens, 41, lands somewhere between leading man and character actor, and he revels in the mischievous tone required for these offbeat parts, some of which he describes as “funcomfortable.”

Right now in theaters he can be seen as a winning monster veterinarian in “Godzilla x Kong: The New Empire” and as a corrupt cop turned bloodsucker in the horror comedy “Abigail.” This summer, he will appear in “Cuckoo,” a sci-fi horror mash-up set in the Alps, in which he plays a German scientist whose welcoming facade hides a fascination with a bizarre endangered species.

Stevens, who is British, recently spoke with The New York Times over coffee in the Silver Lake neighborhood of Los Angeles. He wore a long-sleeved T-shirt bearing the defining image of “The Holy Mountain,” Alejandro Jodorowsky’s 1973 cult classic: a man seated and wearing a pointed hat, framed by two women.

During the interview, Stevens talked about his interest in genre movies and why his goal is always to make a director laugh. Here are edited excerpts from the conversation.

I have to ask about your “Holy Mountain” shirt. That’s a great, trippy midnight movie.

I’m a huge fan of Jodorowsky. He’s a true visionary dreamer. I absolutely love filmmakers who present you with unforgettable imagery. He’s a common touchstone with a lot of great filmmakers I admire.

What were you watching growing up?

It was somewhere between Amblin movies [like “The Goonies” and “E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial”] and John Carpenter. But I also watched a lot of British comedy. I’ve always had very mixed tastes.

Do you consider yourself a horror fan?

Yes, but I’ve met real horror fans and I wouldn’t go toe-to-toe with them in a quiz. Horror shares something with comedy, which I love just as much, in that you instantly know if it’s working in a crowd. The audience feedback tells you. Filmmakers in both are actively looking to poke the audience and evoke a reaction.

Have you always been a fan of genre films or is that the impression we get from your body of work?

I’ve done more horror than any other genre, although one could say period drama is a genre as well. I’ve always been attracted to horror. Mainly because they’re such playful films and usually the filmmakers are themselves very playful people. I like being part of that game-playing aspect of filmmaking, with the audience and sometimes with the actors.

Would you say weird characters are inherently more enjoyable to play?

From the output this year, that seems to be what I enjoy doing. [Laughs] I’m looking to continue that trend. But it can be all sorts of different kinds of characters within that remit. Straight leading men don’t tend to be that interesting. It’s rare that they’re written as the most interesting role in the script. [Laughs].

How do you know when a peculiar character, like the ones you play in “Cuckoo” or “Godzilla x Kong,” is working?

It has to be something that makes the filmmaker smile, that gives them the right kind of laugh that’s going to see them through the making of this thing. That usually transmits through the screen. Audiences tend to enjoy something we’ve mischievously enjoyed creating.

How would you describe the vampires in “Abigail”?

It seems that when people get turned into vampires in the world of “Abigail,” they just become worse versions of themselves. [Laughs] There are certain vampire movies where the vampires become very sultry, or sexy or have superpowers, but in ours they just become [expletive].

They are also criminals. They don’t come from a wealthy lineage of vampires.

No. These are new-money vampires.

For Trapper, the vet who treats Kong, were you channeling any specific personality?

There’s probably a bit of Kurt Russell’s Jack Burton [from “Big Trouble in Little China”] in there. A smattering of Ace Ventura and a lot of those ’80s action figure guys. But also, a bit of a British pop star that emerged in the last few years called Sam Ryder. He was in the Eurovision Song contest. He’s such a sweet, optimistic, happy chap. I thought it would be lovely to see a British character like that.

You recently voiced a character in the English dub of “The Boy and the Heron.” Is voice acting for animation something you are actively pursuing?

I have had ambitions to get involved for a while. Since I was a kid, I’ve always enjoyed doing voices. It’s some of the earliest evidence that I was into this at all, making cassette tapes and doing silly made-up radio shows with different voices. There are characters you can play in animation, in voice-over, that you could never play in live action.

Did you ever intend to pursue a more traditional leading-man career?

I don’t think I had my sights set on that. Other people assumed that’s what I wanted and maybe put those things in front of me. It just didn’t quite click. “Character leads” are my sweet spot, whether they’re actual lead roles or just fun parts within an ensemble. That’s the stuff that tends to light me up.

Growing up, were there any actors whose path you hope to emulate one day?

I’ve always admired any actor who is able to be in a family fantasy epic, and then in a weird, creepy horror, like Robin Williams. He was in something as sweet and innocent as “Hook,” and then years later in “One Hour Photo.” The fact that this performer was allowed to do that was so exciting to me.

Do you use the word “allowed” because you feel the industry restricts actors?

It’s one of the challenges, particularly if you make it big in something specific when you’re young and people want to see that forever. “Downton Abbey” was on TV. You’re in people’s homes on a Sunday night. There’s a peculiar ownership people feel over your character. And they just want more of it. Audiences can get greedy, and I want to serve up something different. That’s not going to be to everyone’s taste.


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