The sight of Dan Stevens in modern attire shouldn’t be disarming, but it is. As Downton Abbey’s swoonworthy Matthew Crawley, he’s become the epitome of Edwardian-era gentility; so the blond, blue-eyed British actor looks a bit anachronistic wearing a dark T-shirt, cargo pants and sneakers with orange socks in the café at the Signature Center.
He’s here rehearsing for his Great White Way debut in The Heiress with another Broadway newbie, rising film star Jessica Chastain (who stops by to say hello before settling down for her own interview two tables away). This 1947 play by Ruth and Augustus Goetz, based on Henry James's novel Washington Square, offers another chance to send Stevens back in time, in this case to 1850 New York, where his penniless American character, Morris Townsend, woos Chastain’s Catherine Sloper, the plain, painfully shy, very rich daughter of a doctor (played by David Strathairn).
In The Heiress, Stevens gets to take on a dishonorable figure—one quite unlike the Downton Abbey war hero and all-around golden boy who got engaged to Lady Mary last season. “Everybody who knows the play says, ‘Oh, you’re playing Morris. He’s a villain, a gold digger,’ and I’m like, ‘Well, that is one way of looking at it,’ ” says Stevens with a laugh. “But it’s not as interesting to play if he arrives twiddling his metaphorical mustache. The moral ambiguity between those three lead characters is more complex than that. I’m enjoying finding a real humanity for them, which is not always easy, because they each behave in quite strange ways.”
Indeed, the play sees Morris making so many admiring comments about Catherine’s lush surroundings that it can be hard to imagine true affection lying beneath them. But Stevens, who studied English literature at Cambridge, sees another side to Morris, when viewed in the context of the idealistic Aesthetic movement.
“He has a great appreciation for beauty and beautiful things,” the actor notes. “Henry James was writing this in 1880, so
he was aware of the Aesthetic movement and its reaction, really, against the Industrial Revolution—this idea that you must work and get your hands dirty to enjoy luxury. By the end of the 19th century, there was a whole movement of young men who just wanted to lie back and enjoy pleasure and beautiful objects. It didn’t mean they didn’t also fall in love, and I think Morris is both in love with Catherine and her lifestyle. The two aren't necessarily mutually exclusive. Henry James was a remarkable creator of paradoxical lives and inner lives kind of rubbing up against each other.”
Besides appearing in The Heiress this year, Stevens is also a judge for the Man Booker Prize for Fiction, for which he had to read 145 novels; he spent several months shooting season three of Downton Abbey (which premieres on PBS in January); and he starred in a film that he also executive-produced (Summer in February). He’s been working like someone with a bucket list full of items to tick off, even though he only just turns 30 next month. “I’ll be far too busy to care about that,” he says of the pending milestone. “I already feel 30.” On top of that, Stevens and his wife, Susie, became parents for the second time, when their son, Aubrey, was born in May. (Daughter Willow turns three this month.)
Stevens’s first visit to New York, and to the U.S., came seven years ago, when he played Orlando to Rebecca Hall’s Rosalind in As You Like It at BAM, a touring production staged by her dad, Sir Peter Hall. (The director had been impressed by Stevens’s performance as Macbeth opposite Rebecca at Cambridge.) “It’s a city I’ve always wanted to spend some proper time in,” he says. “We’ve been enjoying the park and the Museum of Natural History, finding the good kids’ stuff to explore. Willow’s very excited by New York—yellow taxis and things like that.”
And the actor is not about to complain about being recognized by Downton devotees—although he’s surprised how frequently it happens. "It’s almost bigger here than it is back home,” he says. "They really love it here. But that kind of attention is not debilitating.” As to whether he’d consider returning for a fourth season, Stevens isn’t making any promises, or offering any spoilers. “There’s a lot of speculation, isn’t there?” he says coyly. “It should be interesting to see what happens.”