From ‘Downton Abbey,’ Dan Stevens goes to be a most welcome ‘Guest’

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It’s been almost two years since Dan Stevens’ beloved Downton Abbey character, Matthew Crawley, met with an untimely end, and some die-hard fans of the PBS costume drama still may not quite be over it. But for the 31-year-old British actor, Crawley’s tragic death marked a kind of rebirth – or at least a chance to strike out in some very different directions as an actor.

Stevens stars in two films opening this week, playing characters who would never be mistaken for the kind, noble Crawley. In the thriller The Guest, in theaters, Stevens is a steely-eyed, possibly homicidal American soldier who upends the lives of a family when he mysteriously shows up on their doorstep. In the crime drama A Walk Among the Tombstones, opening Friday, he stars opposite Liam Neeson as a hardened New York drug trafficker seeking vengeance against the men who kidnapped and murdered his wife. Stevens spoke to the Los Angeles Times:

When you were doing “Downton,” you said you sometimes felt like Matthew Crawley was “too gentle.” Were you looking for a way to explode any notion of typecasting you as “slightly repressed period English guy?”

Well, there was no guarantee that it would explode anything, but from a personal artistic sense, it just felt good to explore some other avenues. I guess part of the appeal of (Downton) was that you had this sort of milquetoast guy with this very strong woman by his side. It’s been fun the last couple of years getting to expand that range a bit. That’s all I’ve ever dreamed of, really, is that opportunity to just try another accent or put on another suit and see how it feels.

Fans were shocked by your sudden exit from the show at the end of the third season, and some seemed to feel a bit betrayed. Were you surprised by the reaction?

I guess I was. In a funny way, it was a curious compliment to the character that people missed him so much and couldn’t bear to see him go. What’s been heartening recently is that now people are starting to see a few of the things that I’ve been up to since and are beginning to understand the desire to go try different things.

Benedict Cumberbatch said in an interview that he thought the second season of “Downton” was “atrocious” – and soon after that you guys worked together on the film “The Fifth Estate.” Did you give him a hard time about that?

Yeah, but just for fun. It’s great to have a few ways to tease Benedict. He was mortified by that quote. Everyone is entitled to their opinion, but I think it was one of those out-of-context things that got spun into something silly.

For “The Guest,” you had to transform yourself physically into a buff special-ops soldier. How did you pull that off?

It was a great challenge. I trained seven days a week, four hours a day with a guy who had previously been a world taekwondo champion. It was a lot of circuits, weights, martial arts – basically just not stopping at the point where I normally would stop, the point where it hurts.

I’ve always wondered if it alters your personality temporarily to get ripped for a role like that.

I don’t know – you’d have to ask my wife [South African singer Susie Hariet]. I certainly haven’t kept up that kind of regimen since because, apart from everything else, it’s very time consuming. But it did have an extraordinary effect mentally and emotionally in terms of preparing for the kind of man that character is.

On top of acting, you studied literature at Cambridge, you co-founded a literary journal, you’ve been a columnist for the Daily Telegraph, and you play the violin and cricket. Have you always been this annoyingly well-rounded?

Well, I don’t play the violin very well, and I don’t play cricket well at all. But I just like challenging myself in new ways. Now I’m trying to focus that more toward my acting, so that each role has a different element to it.

In 2012, you served as a judge for the Man Booker literary prize. How many novels did you have to read?

I think it was 147 novels in seven months. It was quite a stressful time. I was also producing [the film] Summer in February, my wife was pregnant with our second child, and I was shooting the second series of “Downton.” I’ve been trying not to be that busy again, but I seem to be failing.

You’ve also got a couple of comedies coming up: “The Cobbler,” with Adam Sandler, and “Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb,” in which you play Sir Lancelot.

Yeah, if you had told my 16-year-old self that I would someday work with Adam Sandler and Ben Stiller within six months of each other, I think I would have fainted. One night when we were shooting [Museum], he was like, “I really have to ask you some Downton questions.” I said, “OK, as long as I’m allowed to ask you some Zoolander questions.” He has an encyclopedic knowledge of the show.