Actor Dan Stevens, who made his name by playing Matthew Crawley — a pivotal character who combined stalwart decency and a great deal of romantic appeal — on the phenomenally successful British TV series “Downton Abbey,” has a number of new projects in the works. (The fourth season, the first without Matthew, is currently on PBS in the U.S.)
One of Stevens’ new ventures is the film “Summer in February,” set in pre-World War I Cornwall, which is based on a true story of the English equestrian painter Sir Alfred Munnings and also stars Emily Browning as Munnings’ first wife, Florence Carter-Wood, and Dominic Cooper as Munnings. It seems that there was a love triangle involving Munnings’ best friend, Gilbert Evans, played by Stevens, which had tragic results — a tale written out of the official narrative of the artist’s life and only uncovered after he died. Munnings later became head of the Royal Academy and one of the pillars of the British artistic establishment, known for his extraordinary paintings of horses and riders and also for an ill-advised, bibulous rant he gave toward the end of his life against modern painters — which cost him his job.
After she died, it appears that he never spoke of Florence, whom he met during an early bohemian phase when both were artists at the Newlyn School in Cornwall and their mutual friend Evans managed the Boskenna estate in West Cornwall.
The film, directed by Christopher Menaul, currently in U.S. theaters, is also available via video on demand and will be in iTunes on Tuesday.
“It’s based on a novel written by an old mentor of mine,” Stevens —who is now living in Brooklyn Heights with his wife, South African singer Susie Hariet, and their two children, Willow and Aubrey — says. “I read it when I was 16.” The friend he refers to is Jonathan Smith, a longtime teacher at Tonbridge School, which Stevens attended. “I’ve lived with this story half my life,” he adds, recalling that “it was a lighthearted joke” at the time that he would make an ideal Evans. In the end, Smith wrote the screenplay for the film.
Stevens points out that Munnings “wrote a three-volume autobiography, but doesn’t refer to this tragedy so early on in any of their lives. He didn’t marry again until he was in his 50s, he was so heartbroken.” When he did, he chose a woman who was a gifted equestrian herself, Violet McBride, the daughter of a London riding teacher. They lived at Castle House, a dwelling on the borders of Essex and Suffolk, which was later turned into a house museum devoted to Munnings’ work.
“The book deals with depressive characters who are pursued by darkness,” Stevens says, referring to “Summer in February.” Carter-Wood wanted to become an artist partly to escape her upper-middle-class background and her domineering father — but she found that the rebellious, working-class Munnings, who seemed to represent the polar opposite of her background, wasn’t really who she loved. The picturesque landscape of Cornwall, what Stevens calls “a very, very special, magical part of Britain,” becomes a character in the film.
As for Stevens’ departure from “Downton,” which created an enormous controversy on both sides of the Atlantic, he says mildly that now he is just “exploring other avenues, I think.”
The actor, for instance, appeared in “The Heiress” on Broadway in 2012, opposite Jessica Chastain. “That was really just magical, a dream come true,” he says of the experience. “A warm and likeable community, such a stunning cast, a lucky introduction to New York, and I have stayed on…”
Asked about his favorite actors and actresses, he says, “It changes every time I see something. I admire a lot of actors.” He does, however, single out Hattie Morahan, who plays artist Laura Knight in “Summer in February.” The historical Knight went on to become a noted British painter and a Dame Commander of the British Empire.
Stevens studied at Cambridge, rather than attending, say, the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts. “I liked the fact of being surrounded by a lot of brilliant minds, not all of whom wanted to become actors, writers or directors,” he says. “There were doctors, scientists — there’s really everything student-generated. You just get stuck in. It’s not institutionalized in that sense. It nurtures a passion for it [acting], instead of perhaps killing it. I came out even more enthusiastic.”
Other recent projects include “A Walk Among the Tombstones,” set in Brooklyn in 1991. He’s currently recording an audio book of the Robert Fitzgerald translation of “The Iliad.” Stevens will also appear in “Night at the Museum 3,” which, he says, “is going to be a lot of fun.”