Legion star Dan Stevens on acting, religion and leaving Downton Abbey
British actor does not like things being too easy – lucky, then, that Legion, now in its second season, has him feeling he is getting a ‘workout’
Actor Dan Stevens is endlessly curious. Adopted at birth by teachers, he explains that they instilled in him curiosity and a desire to question things. “Perhaps they would suggest more gently than I sometimes interrogate things, but they [encouraged] a questioning mind, [and] a faithful one as well.”
It was his questioning mind that made him leave the juicy role of Matthew Crawley, a character in the popular British historical period drama Downton Abbey who marries his distant cousin Lady Mary, in search of something more challenging.
Now he is starring in US television channel FX’s popular show Legion, which is in its second season.
“I don’t really fully engage with something unless I’m a little bit scared,” says the 35-year-old actor. “I don’t want to be terrified stock-still, but I don’t love the feeling that something’s too easy.”
It would have been simple, he says, to “walk into a first world war trench drama off the back of Downton but not necessarily straight into something like The Guest [the 2014 thriller in which he played a serial killer]. Those kinds of movies and explorations led to Legion, which is a wonderful amalgamation of a number of things I’ve been working on.”
He says he likes to feel like he is getting a “workout” in some way, and Legion does that in more ways than one. “It’s a continuation of the exploration of different things and trying things in different ways.”
His childhood didn’t seem to foretell the man he would become. He was a voracious reader as a child and spent most of his schooling in a boarding school. He majored in English literature at university and was reared in a pious Christian family.
“I think growing up around people with faith is a very interesting thing to have witnessed. I feel very lucky. My grandfather is a very devout man, and I found that dedication and the spirit with which it infused his whole life was very inspiring, really. I could only ever hope to be that at peace,” he says.
“I’m very lucky to have witnessed that. I think it’s a common mis-selling that religion is going to fix everything. I don’t know if religion with a capital ‘R’ is necessarily going to fix anything. But I think faith and a certain belief in certain things are helpful qualities. When it’s transmuted into something a bit more institutional, then it becomes problematic, I find.”
Acting, he says, is something he has done – in one form or another – ever since he was a child. “And I think it’s the sense of play, the sense of collective play. It’s something that I’ve increasingly enjoyed in working as an actor – that sense of the collective. If enough people want something to happen, it will happen, I believe.
“And I think any creative project is a bit like that – a play or a film or a show – you’re pushing a very strange-shaped stone up the hill, and hopefully all together at the same time and the same sort of way and sometimes there’s a lovely view at the top of it. And I think it’s that.”
Though he has had tough times as an actor, he never wanted to quit. “I’ve been tremendously lucky with the opportunity I’ve had and the people I’ve got to work with and the people who’ve given me a leg up as well, who’ve taken a shot on me.”
Married for nine years to singer Susie Hariet, now a full-time mum, Stevens has two daughters aged eight and one, and a five-year-old son.
“Becoming a father influenced me as a person, but as an artist as well, in terms of what I think about, how I think, the things that I read, the things that I choose to exclude from my life,” he says.
“I’ve given up drinking. I don’t watch the same kinds of movies loudly in the living room that I used to – you know, little ears. I think for an actor it’s a very healthy thing to think about somebody other than yourself. I think that’s useful for any human being.”
Legion (Season 2) is on the Fox Channel (518) on Now TV