Dan Stevens on Leaving ‘Downton Abbey’: “There Was Never a Big Game Plan”

     June 26, 2020

Dan Stevens is a very busy guy with a flourishing career right now, but back in 2012 when he chose to leave Downton Abbey, many were shocked by the decision. (And some fans were downright outraged as the move led to the death of his character.) The show was a massive hit and showed no signs of slowing down at that point; why walk away from such a good thing? Turns out, Stevens had his reasons and that choice likely played a major role in carving a path towards big credits including The Guest, Beauty and the Beast and, most recently, Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga and also Dave Franco’s directorial debut, The Rental.  

With Eurovision Song Contest debuting on Netflix today, I recently got the chance to chat with Stevens for an upcoming installment of Collider Connected, a series dedicated to highlighting a creator’s entire filmography, paving the way to their newest releases. So that, of course, meant we had to discuss his experience on Downton Abbey. When he first signed on for the show, Stevens did have a few TV mini-series under his belt, but Downton was his first full blown series so we discussed the biggest surprises and challenges of jumping into a production like that for the first time:

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Image via PBS

“It was a real challenge, just the number of people involved I think with that show. You had 20 main characters really, plus the house! And so it was a really interesting jigsaw puzzle putting that thing together. It should be said that when we started that job though, it felt very much like any other British period drama that we were making. I mean, I don’t think anybody would have said, going into Episode 1 of that, ‘Oh, here comes this freak phenomenon that’s gonna be the biggest watched TV show in Spain ever,’ or whatever. You know, there were some really sort of bizarre things that it became. But when we started out, you know, it was very much an upstairs, downstairs story set in another fancy English house … [At the time], it was a big economic downturn and we were just very grateful for the work, you know? [Laughs] And we had no idea what it was gonna become.”   

But of course, Downton became a phenomenon and when you’re part of a show that big, you’re bound to have more offers for other roles coming your way than ever. But the question is, is there any variety to the roles or was Stevens only being approached for characters similar to Matthew Crawley?

“There were a few kind of World War I trenches scripts coming in. And, you know, particularly in England, there are a few narrow bands of things that get made over there, in comparison to say, in America. So yeah, you’re very, very quickly put into that bracket of like, ‘Well, he does posh house dramas, and sort of World War I dramas and anything with floppy hair!’ And I was like, ‘Ok, that’s fine. But I kind of want to do this and that.’ It was like, ‘No, no, no. You can’t do that.’ And so I came to America. [Laughs]”

Clearly Stevens is an actor who greatly values having range in his filmography, so making the decision to take the reins of his career, so to speak, was key. However, it also must have been quite terrifying to leave a thriving show like Downton in order to pursue other projects so I asked Stevens how he came to that decision himself, and also with the help of those around him:

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Image via PBS

“Yeah, I mean, a lot of it comes from the support of my wife. We had two small children when we left the UK and she said, ‘Look, this is clearly what we should be doing.’ And initially I came to New York just to do a play, and then I got a role in a Scott Frank movie with Liam Neeson and things just grew from there. But, there was never a big game plan. Everyone was like, ‘What was the plan after you left Downton Abbey?’ There really wasn’t one other than I wanted to do something else, you know? And so what that then becomes is a great combination of people being prepared to see you do something else and coming to you with roles and, you know, auditioning very often, like I did for Scott Frank and him saying, ‘You know what? I’ve never seen you do something like this. I’d love to see you try.’ And that is literally all any actor wants to hear, needs to hear in order to further their career in acting and find things in other areas. It’s very little other than that. It’s just someone else’s preparation to see you do something else. Because otherwise you will stay in the same thing. And also, it’s saying no to some things. So, you know, you say no to those World War I trench dramas initially. You know, I’m sure I will do one again and it will be great, but if I were to just keep saying yes to the same things, then I would stay in that narrow band. So, it’s looking for the right people, finding those connects and things grow from there. And I would say it’s only very recently that I’ve sort of been in a position to actually say, ‘You know what? I want to do this now.’ Half your life as an actor is spent just being like, ‘Well, what’s anybody doing? Huh, they’re making a movie about Eurovision. Great! I’d love to do that,’ you know? That wasn’t me sort of willing that into being. It comes in stages I think.’”

If you’re looking for even more from Stevens, you’re in luck because you’re getting it on Tuesday, June 30th when we drop his full episode of Collider Connected! We discuss his early inspirations, his experience on Broadway, filming the epic song-along scene in Eurovision Song Contest, and so much more!

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