You may well know Dan Stevens from his role as Matthew Crawley in the phenomenally popular period drama Downton Abbey. However you might be surprised by other projects he’s done. These include the cult hit The Guest, Night at the Museum III, Frankenstein and Dracula. He will also be in the upcoming sci fi drama Colossal and as the ‘Beast’ in Disney’s new live action version of Beauty and the Beast. There he is co-starring with Harry Potter’s Emma Watson.
In his new FX TV series Legion Dan stars as David Haller, the mutant son of Charles Xavier, from the X-Men comic books. Diagnosed as schizophrenic as a child, David has been in and out of institutions all of his life. Now in his early thirties, he must confront the shocking possibility that the voices he hears and the visions he sees may actually be real. The series is created and produced by Noah Hawley of Fargo fame.
Dan stopped by the TV Critics Association tour to discuss his fascinating new role on Legion. The show premieres on February 8th 2017.
Legion, 101 - Katie Aselton and Dan Stevens
Legion, 101 “Chapter 1” – Amy (Katie Aselton) and David Haller (Dan Stevens) ©2016 FX Networks, photo by Chris Large

Have you been offered superheroes before?

I’ve certainly been offered roles in comic book adaptations before, but none of them have quite peaked my interest like this one.

I (liked) the combination of the insanity of the Legion story with a storyteller like Noel Hawley, a great novelist. Having read some of his books, I felt in very good hands with something as crazy and as ambitious as this.

Is this a show that you could feasibly miss the Marvel tag at the beginning and watch the first two episodes and not know that it’s X-Men?

Yeah, I don’t know if you need to have read the X-Men comics, or even really know who Legion is, to get what’s happening with the show.

Noah was very determined to come at this from a (different) angle. It certainly has a very fresh esthetic to it. It doesn’t look like any other comic book adaptation I’ve seen, so I think it will pleasantly surprise a lot of people.

Legion, 101 - Dan Stevens, Rachel Keller and Aubrey Plaza
Legion, 101 “Chapter 1” – David Haller (Dan Stevens), Syd Barrett (Rachel Keller) and Lenny “Cornflakes” Busker (Aubrey Plaza) ©2016 FX Networks, photo by Chris Large

Are we going to hear the word X-Men, or are you trying to carve out something different?

(pauses) I’m trying to think if you hear the phrase X-Men or not. I don’t know if it is explicitly referenced, but there is certainly references to the wider Marvel universe and the world of mutants and mutations.

Your look on this show is very different than on Downton Abbey. Was that intentional?

The look was defined by Noah. We were working up to the full Legion hair from the comic books. We haven’t got there yet. It’s a good haircut, I like it.

Can you talk about the initial diagnosis of David being mentally challenged?

Yeah, that was certainly a starting point. He’s obviously exhibiting symptoms that had him diagnosis as paranoid schizophrenia since he was eighteen.

Legion, 101 - Dan Stevens and Rachel Keller
Legion, 101 “Chapter 1” – David Haller (Dan Stevens) and Syd Barrett (Rachel Keller) ©2016 FX Networks, photo by Michelle Faye

What kind of research did you do?

I talked to both sufferers and psychiatrists. One psychiatrist in New York gave me his time with incredible, human stories of delusion. It’s a very human condition and I’m deeply fascinated by that stuff anyway. So to have a show that I can put my own personal interests to work in has been fascinating.

I think from a (story) point-of-view it really lends itself to a very playful narrative and that all of these multiple realities that David experiences are, for the sufferer, quite real.

Are you aware when David is in and out of reality?

Noah was quite deliberate in not letting me know exactly, at any given moment, whether what was happening was real. So it was up to me to choose how much David was believing it.

Sometimes it’s quite surprising how real he finds something that is clearly insane. But he’s ready to accept almost anything at any given moment. That’s an alive place to be as a performer, where the idea of what’s coming into the story at that point can be really crazy and quite out there, but David is ready to take it on.

What kind training did you have to do for this?

There’s a musical number or two that required some special skills, I don’t want to give too much away. But it’s quite a physical role in that way. Scripts would suddenly pop up and it’s like, ‘Oh, he plays a banjo.’

Can you talk about doing those dance scenes?

To have a show that legitimately has room for musical numbers, physical theatre, physical comedy, contemporary dance, banjo playing, and not to have it seem too out of context somehow (is amazing). Everything is potentially within the context as far as Legion is concerned. Every script has an extraordinary challenge somewhere in it.

And the dance numbers are brilliant. I’ve been in quite a lot of dance (routines) recently and getting to know your cast mates through a dance (rehearsal) is fun.

Legion, 101 - Dan Stevens
Legion, 101 “Chapter 1” – David Haller (Dan Stevens) ©2016 FX Networks, photo by Chris Large

Which was more challenging for you, the extreme physicality in Legion or the make up in Beauty and the Beast?

I think physically the Beast is the most challenging role I’ve ever taken on. The condition I had to have my body in to puppetry that suit on stilts was like nothing else I’ve ever experienced.

Actually, there’s a lot of dance involved in that role, albeit on stilts, but it was a very intense dance training process.

Have you experienced anything like that before?

British period drama tends to be from the neck up, and you’re under three layers of tweed or plush velvet. It’s a very different mode of working.

So coming over here and getting to work with a number of different directors from all over the world, and the kind of demands they ask of you, has been great expanding my range.

Dan Stevens Soundbytes

Dan was asked if he was aware of the David Haller character before he was approached to play him.
After the panel, Dan was reminded that he left Downton Abbey after only three years. His contract for Legion could run seven years – was he okay with that?

Judy Sloane

Judy is Film Review Online's regular Los Angeles based reporter.