Dan Stevens Layers Misdirection as One of Our Most Thrilling Movie Stars

Movies Features Dan Stevens
Dan Stevens Layers Misdirection as One of Our Most Thrilling Movie Stars

When I picture Dan Stevens, I see his eyes first—cold, blue and mysteriously blazing.

A single startling glance from this chameleonic actor can communicate volumes, though the magnetic power of his stare owes more to a sustained withholding, a gnawing sense that behind those piercing orbs lurks something implacably else. Yet, such is the actor’s force of charisma: You’re drawn to him as a moth to a flame.

In Maria Schrader’s science fiction romantic comedy I’m Your Man, out Friday in select theaters, Stevens’ glacial blues are wide and unblinking, frozen in the same curious facsimile of existential cogitation that informs the rest of his sublime turn as Tom, a humanoid robot designed to court the unconvinced Alma (Maren Eggert).

When there’s new data to interpret, Tom glances off to the side, processing, and you can almost imagine the code running in parallel streams down the insides of his irises. Often, he affixes Alma with comically intense eye contact to deliver painfully stilted flirtations such as “your eyes are like two mountain lakes I could sink into,” especially amusing given that this sentiment could be reflected neatly back at Stevens to capture the alpine frigidity of his gaze.

It’s not that Stevens’ eyes are more striking than the rest of him—in I’m Your Man, his performance is a marvel of stiff, mechanical body language—so much as that they’re the one constant for a diabolically talented cinematic shapeshifter. The more you study Stevens’ physical presence—the tension in his often ramrod posture, his equally inflexible politesse, a smile that can flicker imperceptibly between cool and almost cruel—the less you realize you can trust this handsome stranger. In many of Stevens’ finest performances, there’s something instantly off-putting about him, and it’s all in the eyes. Their emptiness feels calculated.

It’s that uncanny quality that makes Stevens such a flawless fit for I’m Your Man, which ponders the degree to which hardwired human emotions such as love can be approximated by increasingly lifelike artificial intelligence—as well as whether our skepticism about programmed emotions can be overcome by programs sophisticated enough to mirror our every impression of love back at us. Adding to the surreal artifice of Stevens’ performance in I’m Your Man is that it’s his first delivered entirely in German; the actor’s been fluent since his college years, and there’s a real shock and enchantment to watching Stevens quote Rilke in the original German.

More than perfect, Stevens’ Tom is made-to-order, and Stevens so excels in the role because he too appears preternaturally capable of turning in any performance asked of him. That Tom speaks German with a slight British accent is explained away as part of his programming; Alma likes her men “exotic,” you see, but not too exotic, and Tom aims to please. Putting together a breakfast banquet, dancing the rumba and artfully scattering rose petals around a candlelit bubble bath he’s drawn, unbidden, for Alma, Tom can access a virtually endless database of romantic clichés—which, unfortunately, has the net effect of making all these gestures feel about as intimate and endearing as an algorithm’s birthday email.

And yet, fascinatingly, the actor’s automaton feels far warmer and less motor-driven than you’d expect. That’s essential to Schrader’s design in I’m Your Man; as we’re watching Tom, we forget his robotic nature and are genuinely moved by his sense of a soul. Often, Stevens’ characters aren’t quite so innocent. Across the past nine years, since the actor departed his breakout role as the picture-perfect Matthew Crawley on popular British period drama Downton Abbey, he’s weaponized his movie-star good looks across a series of surprising and subversive roles: A ruthless killing machine in The Guest; a mutant diagnosed with schizophrenia on mind-bending superhero series Legion; an alpha male barely masking his inner monster in The Rental.

A grounding force, Stevens is not; whether in Disney musicals (Beauty and the Beast) or gnarly folk horror (Apostle), his charged screen presence can be utilized in such a way that heightens the fantasy of the film around him. In comedies, such as the recent farcical remake of Blithe Spirit, he enthusiastically throws himself into the task of making us laugh, betraying not a shred of self-conscious restraint. Not all absurdly charismatic actors can also play charismatically absurd, but Stevens is always in on the joke, and he plays tightly wound characters by bulging those eyes and frantically gesticulating, as if the characters are dimly aware they’re suffocating beneath the massive weights of their egos.

But in creepy genre fare, he’s just as chillingly effective as a wolf in sheep’s clothing, concealing more sinister machinations beneath a poised and polished exterior. Few actors working right now can match his ability to convey psychological fracture. Apostle, from The Raid director Gareth Evans, finds Stevens playing an anguished former missionary who must confront a violent cult in order to save his sister; the skin-crawling horror and brutal tension of the film, especially in its slow-burn first third, flows from the actor’s twitchy, bug-eyed performance.

But the most complete showcase for this side of Stevens is Legion, where his portrayal of the powerful, tortured mutant David Haller splintered into a funhouse-style hall-of-mirrors exhibit across three seasons. The show’s season two finale, which stacked our sympathies against David, was a particular monument to his talent: After opening the episode by singing The Who’s “Behind Blue Eyes” (of course) and facing the show’s main antagonist, David also confronted alternate versions of himself, playing emotional turmoil, manipulative cruelty and profound inner conflict essentially back-to-back-to-back. Within David’s smarting vulnerability, escalating mania and eventual turn toward villainy, Stevens never lost sight of the psychological wounds and intense delusions driving the character—or stopped coming up with sensitive, soulful ways to show us his multitudes.

Those who still know Stevens best from his breakout role as heir presumptive Matthew Crawley on Downton Abbey might find all this surprising, given the refined warmth and wit he brought to the screen as that soap opera’s romantic lead. But others who’ve followed his career since know Stevens is far too skillful, driven and hungry a performer to play the part of a Hollywood heartthrob.

The actor is now almost a decade removed from his much-publicized Downton exit. At the time, Stevens was non-committal about the future, indicating simply that he wanted his next roles to be different, which naturally flabbergasted fans who’d fallen for his terribly decent Downton hero. Of course they had: Matthew was perfect. And in hindsight it’s clear that playing such a dashing, clean-cut character was unfulfilling for Stevens, for whom such straight-ahead gallantry must feel like a blank canvas in need of bold, colorful brushstrokes, rather than the finished portrait.

That’s at least certainly the impression one was left with by Stevens’ first post-Downton roles, In Scott Frank’s A Walk Among the Tombstones, a satisfyingly nasty and hardboiled piece of pulp fiction, Liam Neeson played a tortured ex-cop and Stevens co-starred as the heroin trafficker who hires him to track down the sociopaths who abducted and butchered his wife. Physically sickened with hatred and with those cobalt blue eyes turned black as night, Stevens was mesmerizing to watch—and at home in the film’s pitiless criminal underworld.

This turned out to be a warm-up for Adam Wingard’s The Guest, still perhaps Stevens’ most iconic role, in which he played a secretive ex-combat veteran who gradually infiltrates the family of a dead soldier, claiming to have served with him. Between his impossibly chiseled physique, dead-eyed intensity and wry sense of humor, Stevens was an ice-cold customer, hot as hell and devilishly charming. The Guest is a loving riff on ‘80s action-horror fare, and Stevens carefully calibrated his morally ambiguous, Terminator-esque antihero to match the film’s synth-drenched, impeccably cool vibe.

Stevens excels at playing this kind of charismatic man of mystery, whose motives and true nature remain compellingly opaque—and perhaps unknown even to him. Though the Hollywoods they inhabit couldn’t be more dissimilar, Stevens most resembles Cary Grant in this way, especially the hidden version of Grant surfaced by Alfred Hitchcock in films like Suspicion, where he flipped his heroic leading-man image on its head to play a notoriously charming ne’er-do-well.

Like Grant, Stevens is equally dexterous with psychological thriller and screwball comedy, playing both silly and serious with marvelous dedication. In Eurovision, the operatic puffery of his cocksure Russian contestant Alexander Lemtov culminates in a scene-stealing performance of “Lion of Love,” a hilarious, hyper-sexualized number in which he’s surrounded by bursts of flame and dancers in gold-lamé pants. Yet the ferocious, mad-eyed zeal with which Stevens belts out his erotic aria (“Let’s get together, I’m a lion lover / And I hunt for love / On the savannah”) ensures he’s the star of the show.

After fearing he’d be pigeonholed as the perfect gentleman on Downton Abbey, Stevens expertly subverted that role with secret psychos (The Guest, Apostle, The Rental) then flipped expectations further with outrageous screwball roles (Eurovision, Blithe Spirit). As such, I’m Your Man feels like a real progression, skewering the idealized masculinity he once embodied with a more meditative yet lightly mischievous touch.

I’m Your Man has already been officially selected to represent Germany in this year’s Oscar race, and it’s not all that hard to see why the independent jury members gathered to make that decision think Schrader’s film could be competitive for Best International Feature. With it releasing in the first weeks of fall (generally considered the start of awards season), I’m Your Man has more visibility to voters than other German-language titles this year—and Christian Petzold’s widely acclaimed Undine, though released stateside this spring, was eligible last year.

Like the category’s most recent frontrunner and eventual winner—Denmark’s Another Round, which starred Mads Mikkelsen and whose director, Thomas Vinterberg, was also nominated in his category—I’m Your Man is elegantly made and thoughtfully existentialist in tone. More importantly, it’s the rare contender in this category whose leading man is familiar to voters. (At the very least, Stevens should leap out at those in the Academy who deigned to hand Eurovision a surprise Best Original Song nomination last year, and presumably watched Stevens steal the film out from under Will Ferrell and Rachel McAdams before doing so.)

The actor is too laser-focused on craft for one to imagine him craving A-list celebrity status, but he’s increasingly recognizable to mainstream audiences; he even spent four years acting for Marvel, albeit on a series like Legion that allowed him to keep his artistic integrity intact and not outstay his welcome. Though “recognizable” might not be quite the right word to describe the results of his most high-profile performance to date—a mostly motion-captured performance in that live-action Beauty and the Beast—Stevens also brought an impressive Shakespearean import to his tragically misunderstood Beast, which was more reminiscent of Jean Marais’ agonized loner in the Jean Cocteau’s 1946 film than anything else in Bill Condon’s slavish, too-shiny remake.

Whether I’m Your Man sends Stevens’ stock soaring higher or vanishes swiftly into a back catalog (both distinct possibilities in a year as off-kilter as this), one senses that Stevens’ best roles are still ahead, as this quietly sensational actor continues to hone his craft while selecting roles that broaden his appeal and make clear his range.

It’s Stevens’ commitment to the art of the surprise that most distinguishes him in an industry prone to typecasting our most exciting new performers before seeing what they can do. Through his refusal to slow down for long enough to accept such limitations, Stevens has emerged as one of those actors you can watch in anything. In that truest, most thrilling sense, Dan Stevens has become a modern movie star.

Isaac Feldberg is an entertainment journalist currently based in Chicago, who’s been writing professionally for seven years and hopes to stay at it for a few years more. Frequently over-excited and under-caffeinated, he sits down to surf the Criterion Channel but ends up, inevitably, on Shudder. You can find him on Twitter at @isaacfeldberg.

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Share Tweet Submit Pin