Dan Stevens: Charles Dickens was trying to put the heart back into bleakness of Christmas
Dan Stevens steps into the shoes of the famous novelist in new film The Man Who Invented Christmas. He meets Laura Harding to talk about his move to America and avoiding being pigeonholed
It has been five years since Matthew Crawley died at the wheel of his car on Christmas Day, reducing Downton Abbey fans around the world to blubbering wrecks. But Dan Stevens, the actor who rocketed to fame playing him, looks fit as a fiddle right here in front of me, fresh off a plane from Los Angeles.
He has been living there for a while now, having embarked on a Hollywood career after walking away from the ITV drama, and it clearly agrees with him.
He looks remarkably trim and fit and that is likely down to the fact he is a superhero - playing the X-Men character David Haller on TV series Legion.
But that has not stopped him from returning to period garb for a new role, and a decidedly British one at that.
In The Man Who Invented Christmas he takes on the part of Charles Dickens, as the author struggles to conjure up a hit after a string of flops that jeopardise his financial future.
His agonising writer's block eventually leads to the masterpiece that is A Christmas Carol.
Stevens, who read English at Cambridge, said Dickens was regarded as "this giant monolith" - but he did not let the sheer scale of the writer's legacy intimidate him.
Trying to include Dickens' whole life in one film would have been a bit much, he says.
"But what's quite fun about this one is we just take a really neat slice - six weeks of his life, where he sets this impossible deadline of producing this Christmas book, that really encapsulated a lot of things he was feeling about social justice and inequality and also human misery and greed.
"He was trying to put a bit of laughter and the heart back into the bleakness of Christmas.
"It's an amazing book and it was just nice to dive behind it and see the manic man behind the creation of it all."
Stevens doesn't remember the first time he read A Christmas Carol, adding: "It's always been part of the fabric of our Christmas and I think of various film versions - the Alastair Sim one from 1951, The Muppet Christmas Carol which is a firm fixture in our house, Bill Murray's Scrooged. I've just been steeped in it my whole life, really."
Rather than tackle another A Christmas Carol adaptation, for the new movie they decided to 'look at it from a slightly different angle', he says - and the artistic process it portrays is pretty agonising.
Dickens is essentially haunted by the characters he is writing, but particularly Ebenezer Scrooge, played with gusto by Christopher Plummer.
"There is something about the universal artistic and creative process for anybody who has had a success with one thing and then followed it up with something else that hasn't been so well received," says Stevens.
"He was practically a rock star after The Pickwick Papers and Oliver Twist (but) then Barnaby Rudge, American Notes and Martin Chuzzlewit didn't go down as well and he was up against it at the difficult seventh-album phase or whatever.
"This is really his comeback and a real turning point in his life professionally and personally - and for us, culturally, a massive, massive shift.
"He put a lot of pressure on himself. He had four kids, one on the way, mounting debt, and was just hugely ambitious for this particular project."
The concept of the novella was 'a mad idea' as well, Stevens says: "This almost sci-fi idea of a man travelling throughout time in his life and learning (from) this moral tale with supernatural elements thrown in, it was such a bizarre creation. I was just interested to see, how bizarre was this man (Dickens)?"
Taking on the role meant another period piece. That is something the actor, now 35, has largely avoided since leaving Downton, perhaps as a way of dodging the pigeonhole he might otherwise have got stuck in?
"There is a lot of smoke on set with period things, that is something people don't appreciate," he laughs. "There is always a guy in the background wafting what they call atmos. It's some sort of toxic fume that makes everything look very pretty in the background - but it's literally a guy's job to make us all choke."
Addressing the question more seriously, he says: "I hadn't done a period thing for a little while because I had done a few when I was here (in the UK).
"I was excited to approach a piece like this with a slightly fresh take and implementing some of the lessons I've learned from working in America with American comedians."
A landmark for him, he says, was working on Night At The Museum with the late Robin Williams and with Ben Stiller: "Just learning little lessons from them was really invaluable and the energy that they brought to their work was so infectious."
Stevens' move to the US has allowed him to take on a wider variety of parts than he might have in England, where he could have languished in breeches and bonnet territory forever.
"That has always been my dream (to show different sides of myself). I think initially it was a narrower band of roles that I was taking or allowing myself to do - or being offered, I don't know.
"Certainly, since going to the States, I've been challenging myself in all different directions and have been lucky enough to find people who are prepared to see me try those things."
The Man Who Invented Christmas is in cinemas now