Dan Stevens on His ‘Mildly Terrifying’ Role in New Series, Gaslit

No one gives a better first impression than Dan Stevens, who is casually seated in the backyard of his Los Angeles home in a crisp, white tee ready for his Zoom interview. He admits it’s his go-to look as he’s gotten older. The British actor is incredibly gracious, charming, and polite — which is immediately apparent during our virtual conversation. The 39-year-old actor catapulted to fame when he portrayed Matthew Crawley in the hit period drama Downton Abbey and then went on to star in a wide range of roles, including thriller The Guest and the musical film Beauty and the Beast, where he starred alongside Emma Watson.

Now, the actor takes on the role of real life former White House Counsel John Dean in the eight-episode drama series Gaslit, which is a modern take on the 1970s Watergate scandal. It also stars Julia Roberts as Martha Mitchell, Sean Penn as Nixon’s loyal Attorney General John Mitchell, and Betty Gilpin as Mo Dean.

Stevens describes it as “a bonkers story,” and the fact that he plays a real-life character who is still alive made it all the more terrifying for him to play — a challenge he admits he looks for when taking on certain projects.

Ahead of the series premiere this Sunday on Crave, we spoke with Stevens about his role in Gaslit, how he has avoided being typecast, how much he loves costume fittings, and how he slays his red carpet fashion, which is quite different from his personal style.

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Congratulations on the series. How did it feel to take on a role like this and with such a renowned cast?

It’s great! I mean, it’s a really fun gang. A lot of them are used to improvising with a comedic sensibility so that really brought a lot of life to the script, which was already quite playful and fun. But sometimes I think historical dramas can be a bit dry so it was nice that this one was actively looking not to be and also not looking so much at the history, but more at the humanity behind it and the characters around the story — real strange network of people around this bizarre story. It’s this amazing chapter in American history that had so much resonance for the rest of time.

You’ve spoken about your desire to challenge yourself. You said that being mildly terrified is what drives a lot of your decisions these days — calibrating the right amount of terror. How did this series present that sort of a challenge and thrill for you?

Yeah, it’s a big responsibility taking on a big American story like this. Also, with a character that is still alive, still in living memory, [it’s a little trickier] — people very much remember watching those hearings. Depending on who you talk to, John Dean is remembered very differently. So it’s kind of an [interesting and] tricky role to play in terms of where do we place him in our story and how do we feel about him? We need to relate to him [in some way], but in no way did we want to [completely] sympathize with what he was doing, excuse him, or give him some sort of a redemption story either. I just wanted to look at his involvement and what that meant in the wider fabric of the story. So in that sense, it was mildly terrifying, I suppose (laughs).

To play a real-life character, generally actors try to find relatable elements in the person. So, when playing a real person in this series, do you try to emulate him? Or do you prefer to see it as a fictional TV role, simply going by the script?

It’s a bit of both. With a character that is extremely well known, I think you want to be as faithful as possible. I’ve just been watching the Pam and Tommy series, and I think Lily James’ performance of Pamela Anderson is extraordinary. I think the transformation is very life-like; it’s incredible. I don’t think John Dean is known and remembered in quite as vivid detail, and people are maybe a little more forgiving if things look and sound a little different. But there are hundreds of hours of footage of talking at the hearings around that time, and quite a lot of material. There’s also the older John Dean who is frequently on CNN, almost as their resident corruption expert, and has been called on quite a bit in recent years. So there’s a lot to look at and explore.

“Each character I play allows me to test myself in a slightly new way and using a different side of myself.”

What was your preparation or research process for this?

He wrote a book called Blind Ambition, and that phrase alone is hugely helpful in terms of how I thought about Dean. Then there was Mo Dean’s book, which was also helpful. The ambition tale Dean brings to this story is really key and that was the way in I suppose. I was just thinking about how exciting it would have been to be asked to be junior counsel before it all went down; just what a real moment and opportunity this was for him. It’s almost a sort of classic tale; we’ve seen it in Hollywood movies forever where there’s the young upstart who gets in way over his head and realizes that things are way more corrupt than he ever imagined. There’s a bit of that in the John Dean story — this fresh young lawyer who gets in with the old suits. I don’t know if he’s directly to blame, but I think he definitely played a part in it; there’s no question and I would never look to excuse that. But I think he realizes too late what he’s got himself into, and I think that in itself is quite dramatic, and gives you plenty to sink your teeth into.

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From what I’ve seen with your portrayal of John, he seems to be ambitious but it’s blind ambition leading him.

Yes, he’s certainly very ambitious. He’s keen to be on CNN, he seems very concerned with how many Twitter followers he has, and it’s just these things continue in different forms. I guess you have to find something in a character you’re playing even in the most despicable of characters — ‘likeable’ is the wrong word but something you can relate to at least. I think it’s very rare that a person thinks they’re bad. I don’t think this was the case. As you said, the bit about blind ambition — sometimes your ambition can shield you from what is actually going on — it blinds you to the moral and ethical consequences of what’s happening and it’s very key here. That’s a big part of the John Dean story.

Do you relate to his ambition?

Well, I think ambition takes all sorts of forms, and I’ve certainly been guilty of it in my own life and career. Hopefully not to that extent, but it’s a relatable quality. I think this is obviously a very extreme example of it. When we’re talking about ambition to be close to the President, that’s not something I particularly relate to — I have no ambitions to be in the inner circle of power in Washington or in Westminster. But I know people who are ambitious, and who have been ambitious to be in those circles. I know some of the things that they have done to get there and that were some of the things they have ignored to remain there. That stuff still goes on, and always has gone on; it’s fascinating to look at the web of people around the seat of power in whatever country you’re looking at.

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Wow, that’s very interesting. What about ambition as it relates to your career? You have an eclectic resume so when it comes to the roles you’ve played, are there any you feel really captured an aspect of yourself that you rarely get to show?

That’s an interesting question. I don’t know, I hope each of them sort of cracks open something that I haven’t quite explored before. That’s something I try and whether it’s in the same genre, or period, or whatever, each character I play allows me to test myself in a slightly new way and using a different side of myself. I think High Maintenance was an interesting one, in terms of just the style that it required and also the storytelling was just very beautiful and felt very personal in a way. It was the start of a really lovely relationship with that team and those people and so maybe that. I think they all have little bits of me scattered in there somewhere.

One of the things I’ve noticed with your work as an actor is how you have avoided being typecast — from drama to horror to comedy, you’ve done it all. How have you managed to avoid that?

Yeah, I think typecasting really comes from saying yes to the same kind of thing too often. Sometimes that’s something that people really want to play, and they just want to be doing one thing and be known for that and that’s great. That’s definitely one kind of career. I’ve always been excited by transformation and hopping around in different things. That sometimes confuses people, and you’re talking to Hollywood executives, and they don’t know what to do with you. And that’s fine, too. I just want to work with those people, I suppose. But there are certain people out there who are really excited to see me do something I haven’t done before and so am I.  Those are the meetings you try and find — like-minded people who are looking to expand and surprise people’s expectations of them.

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On this show, you’re often wearing suits and ties for the most part. Do you enjoy that side of the acting world — the formality, the tailoring, etc. — or is it more just part of the job?

Yeah, the costume fitting is always a really exciting moment in character development, because it’s one of the first times that you’re combining your thoughts — you might have had a conversation with the director or one of the other actors, but actually the costume designer has a very key vision and they have their own thoughts about how this character looks and feels. Hopefully, you meet somewhere in the middle. Sometimes you walk into a costume fitting, and it’s like, ‘Yeah, this is exactly what this person would be wearing!’ Sometimes they can take hours as well; it could be a very long process, depending on how much they’ve got to wear. You’ll try different things…it’s sometimes trial and error and finding certain things but I love a costume fittings, to be honest. Costume designers can be a great source of inspiration for how you go about playing a character.

Whether it’s on the red carpet or on the street, the way you dress always comes across as being very thoughtful and sartorially forward — I’ve also noticed your occasional matching nails. Were you much of a suit and tie guy before you had to start walking the red carpet?

Not really, I mean, I suppose in the UK I was a bit more. I think in the UK, men’s fashion tends to lean a little more formal. Also, when I was younger, I used to want to dress older. I would put the blazers and suits on and try and pretend I was older. Now that I am older, I try and dress younger, I’m all shirts and sneakers. Living in California as well, my personal style has gotten a lot more relaxed and casual. It’s very rare that I would put on a suit for my own enjoyment these days. But for a red carpet, I will and I often try and have fun. I think I’ve almost worn every single colour of the rainbow now on a red carpet — and yes, occasionally with matching nails. There’s certainly a way you can communicate through what you’re wearing, through your style, especially on a red carpet — it’s a bit of personal expression. Since I’ve been in the business, I feel like men’s fashion, red carpet or otherwise, has gotten a lot more vibrant and exciting. It’s really bright. It used to just be grey, black, or blue and that was kind of it and I feel like in the last decade or so it’s gotten a lot more exciting.

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Stevens continues to impress on the red carpet, as he wore a creamsicle-inspired suit with swaths of red, yellow, orangem and purple at the Gaslit red carpet premiere In New York City earlier this week. He told Vanity Fair that he wanted to “come disguised as a work of art.” Clearly, the actor is not here to blend in, whether in real life or reel. 

Gaslit is based on the first season of the critically acclaimed “Slow Burn” podcast, and premieres Sunday, April 24 on Crave. The eight-episode series follows a weekly release with new episodes dropping every Sunday.

Red Carpet photos courtesy of Jamie McCarthy/Getty Images for STARZ and stills from the series courtesy of STARZ.