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News > Arts & Culture > Film, TV and Radio > OT Dan Stevens (MH 96-01) features in yesterday's Observer:

OT Dan Stevens (MH 96-01) features in yesterday's Observer:

He attended Tonbridge School,where his, 'spiritedness', was quickly channelled into the drama department. “I was shepherded by some great teachers who recognised I could and should act,” Stevens says.
Dan Stevens in LA, where he lives with his wife and three children. Photo:Doug Inglish/Trunk Archive
Dan Stevens in LA, where he lives with his wife and three children. Photo:Doug Inglish/Trunk Archive

Michael Segalov writes in The Observer:

"People thought I was crazy!"

This was the response when the actor famously left Downton Abbey at its height, fearful of being typecast as a floppy-haired aristo. Now based in LA, he’s starring in everything from comedy and horror to a new series about Watergate

Dan Stevens knew little about Watergate before being cast in Gaslit, a new prestige drama about the 1970s American scandal that toppled a president and shook America. The 39-year-old actor, of early Downton Abbey fame, might now be sitting in his very own Los Angeles garden but, as with many Brits, his knowledge of the affair extended only to the most superficial stuff. “I knew it spawned the gate-suffix,” says Stevens, over Zoom. He’s wearing a jazzy Paul Smith shirt, behind him lush leaves and that Hollywood sunshine. “But you quickly realise there’s a universality to that stupid level of corruption. It’s found in every administration in every country in the world; it just so happens that these guys got caught.” He sees glaring parallels with the British government, or as he put it in a now viral One Show segment: “You’ve got a criminal for a leader who is wrapped in a messy war, embroiled in a stupid scandal, surrounded by ambitious idiots and really should resign… Oh no I’m sorry that’s the intro to Boris Johnson.”

Also starring Julia Roberts and Sean Penn, the five-part series – based on the highly successful Slow Burn podcast – sees the often-told story of nefarious political espionage rerun once more, but through the experiences of characters who might otherwise have been considered minor players in a story of high-level Washington rot and paranoia.

“It was one of the first times that something played out on television in real time,” says Stevens. “We’re immune to the hypocrisy of our leaders these days, but back then it was such a scandal. And so much of it was buried.”

Roberts plays Martha Mitchell, the Arkansan socialite and wife of President Nixon’s loyal attorney general, John Mitchell (Sean Penn). Despite party affiliation, she’s the first person to publicly sound the alarm on Nixon’s involvement in Watergate. Stevens, meanwhile, takes on the part of young hotshot Republican lawyer John Dean, who was steadily climbing the ranks of power when the Watergate break-in occurred. There was talk, before filming started, of Stevens meeting with Dean, one of the few surviving figures depicted. Today, he’s a regular face on CNN and the speaker circuit; either national hero or treacherous rat.

“I was keen to sit down with him,” says Stevens – but somehow, word got out about the lunch date. “Then I was told I’d have to speak with Universal’s lawyers in advance, which I didn’t want to do; I didn’t think it would make the meal taste particularly nice.” Instead, he pored over source material: footage from hearings, newspaper clippings. There was plenty to work from as Stevens set about doing what he always does: throwing himself in at the deep end, and learning on the job.

In his own words, Stevens was quite the “energetic” child. Adopted just days after birth, he grew up first in Essex, then Wales and Sussex, as his parents – both teachers – moved to follow work. His own school reports, meanwhile, were at least consistent in their content: “Daniel must learn not to distract others” a recurring theme. He’s somewhat guarded when it comes to setting out the full extent of his adolescent indiscretions. He’s blanked out, he says unconvincingly, the details of any major misbehaviour: “Let’s say I was never very good with the institutional side of education.”

At nine, he was sent to boarding school. His parents believed a “fully immersive” education might do them all some good. “It’s a weird thing,” he says, of the public school system. “The further you get from it, the more absurd it seems to be to put 60 boys in a house run by teenagers. It takes on its own Lord of the Flies quality – or character building, as the English like to call it.”

On a scholarship, he attended Tonbridge School in Kent, where his, let’s say, spiritedness, was quickly channelled into the drama department. “I was shepherded by some great teachers who recognised I could and should act,” Stevens says. “I was nurtured in that direction and kept away from too much trouble, which was an incredible gift.”

It became clear early on that he was a talent. There was his turn as Professor Higgins in My Fair Lady, but it was a production of Macbeth, when he was 14, which was a truly formative role. After he auditioned for the part of Fleance – something of a minor character – his teachers suggested he should, in fact, take the lead.

Reading English at Cambridge University, Stevens found the Footlights. “I was doing standup, sketch shows and musical comedy,” he says. Granted, he adds, much of it was mediocre. “I never had ambitions to be a comic,” he continues, “but I learned a huge amount about stagecraft from doing it: the ability to get up and make words work for an audience, timing, rolling with what makes people laugh.”

In his final year, Stevens was once again cast as the lead in the Scottish play. And, Cambridge being Cambridge, it just so happened that playing Lady Macbeth was Rebecca Hall, now actor and writer. Back then, however, she was a fellow undergrad drama type, whose father was the revered theatre director Sir Peter Hall.... read the full article in the Observer here

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