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Sunday 22 October 2017

Dan is a man on a mission

After his dramatic departure from 'Downton Abbey', Dan Stevens has immersed himself in bringing a life-long dream to the big screen

Emily Browning and Dan Stevens in Summer in February.
Emily Browning and Dan Stevens in Summer in February.

Julia Molony

Playing the lovable, decent Matthew Crawley in Downton Abbey made Dan Stevens a big star. But just at the moment he had become internationally famous, Stevens made the decision that it was time to move on. Last season, he jumped ship, leaving behind the security of Downton to go it alone. He's already successfully parlayed his profile into a number of exciting film projects, including his first Hollywood film, but the one he's here to talk about today is a very British labour of love that, in a way, he has been incubating since he was 14.

It was while he was a boarder at Tonbridge School that he first read Summer in February, a fictionalised version of true events written by his drama teacher, Jonathan Smith, also a respected author.

The story centres on the Edwardian Lamorna group, an artistic commune in Cornwall. They were, he says an "exciting bohemian progressive group, a world away from the sort of Downton Abbey-ish quarters of upper middle class London and society in the south east."

Central to the set was the British painter AJ Munnings, and the film follows a real life love triangle between Florence, a beautiful young women with artistic aspirations who escapes the stifling restrictions of her upper class background to come to Cornwall and promptly falls in love with two men – the charismatic, mercurial genius Munnings, a giant of British art in the making (played by Dominic Cooper) and Gilbert Evans, the steady, kind-eyed land agent who runs the commune, played by Steven.

Gilbert is not an artist and therefore exists outside "that relationship between painter and subject, which is curious and can be very special," he explains. Florence "has to navigate some quite treacherous emotional waters as well and is clearly a little disturbed, perhaps."

It has the feel of a coming- of-age story at the cusp of the Great War. These young people caught in a moment of great social and political change, whose lives are up-ended by unruly private passions.

"There's a classic literary narrative at the core of what is a true story really. This girl fleeing something and falling for two very different men and probably falling for the wrong one and there being heartbreaking consequences to that – it's been there in literature throughout. And there's a reason for that – because it happens in real life," Stevens says.

The day I meet him, Dan is off to the premiere of the film at the Curzon in London. It's an "extraordinary" kind of experience, he explains, given this piece of work has, in a way, been with him since his own adolescence.

"The story fascinated me in so many different ways, and I lived with it half my life really – I read it when I was 14 or 15 and I've been turning it around in the back of my mind since then I suppose. But it's been about seven or eight years in the making, getting this together."

His relationship with Jonathan Smith, the writer, has been an enduring and creatively fertile one. It was Smith who first singled out Stevens for his talent, becoming his mentor when he arrived at the exclusive Tonbridge School on a scholarship, and setting his course when he cast him as Macbeth in a school production when the boy was still just 13.

"He nurtured my love of theatre, the spoken word of literature. He also saw somebody who could potentially go off the rails, but he channelled me in the right direction, he encouraged me to go to Cambridge and read English," Dan explains.

Stevens had been rebellious as a teenager. "Rather than dismissing it or trying to subdue it he channelled it," he says.

The adopted son of two school teachers, Stevens was born in Croydon and grew up in Kent. He has spoken in the past of his struggles to fit in at public school. "I didn't get on with the other kids," he said in an interview two years ago.

"I didn't fit in. My parents thought it was an amazing opportunity for me, but I felt quite isolated. There were a lot of very rich children there and that did something to me. I spent most of my time running away, causing problems."

But under Smith's mentorship, he turned that restlessness to good use, and the two have "remained lifelong friends. I've been in a number of his radio plays and we've worked together over the years while continuing to develop this screenplay".

After graduating from Cambridge and making his first strides into his acting career, Dan decided to use his influence in order to set the process of turning Summer in February into a film in motion. The result is that he's very close to this project, on which he is co-producer, as well as playing one of the leading roles.

"I doubt there will ever be a book or a project that I'm quite so attached to," he says.

That may be so, but he's got plenty of exciting things coming up. This year, he'll start shooting a role in a new adaptation of Swallows and Amazons, and will be playing a Guardian journalist opposite Benedict Cumberbatch's Julian Assange, in a new film about the Wikileaks founder.

All in all, it seems jumping ship from Downton Abbey has been a wise decision but it is not to say he didn't find leaving bittersweet.

"What we lived through ... going through that bizarre explosion that the show had – none of us were expecting it. Watching it go all over the world, was really special. And only those that were a part of that will ever really know what it felt like, so that's something that we'll always share," he says. There are no hard feelings, he insists. "Everybody understood – there were a few of us who moved on after series three and everybody respects and understands those reasons. It was just something each of us felt we had to do. That's why it's called an option. Three years is up and we had the option to move on and I took it. It felt risky but also there was an excitement and a sense of adventure attached to that risk and I'm enjoying it."

It's also ushered in a whole new stage of life. Last year, he left Downton and England behind simultaneously, moving to Brooklyn, with his wife, the South African jazz singer Susie Hariet and their two young children, Willow and Aubrey, to immerse himself in the richly creative landscape of New York. "It's a good area for young families," he explains "and we're right by the river and it's a very exciting city and I find it very inspiring."

However, a part of him will always remain in London. "I still feel a big part of London and all my friends are still here," he says. For now, the leafy streets of Brooklyn are home. In moving to America, his choice of coast really speaks volumes about the sort of career he's aiming for.

"There's a great literary scene that I love, and I'm fascinated to tap into that New York film community. There are a lot of filmmakers who flock there. There's a great independent film scene which I've been lucky enough to begin to tap into."

'Summer in February' is in Cinemas now

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