From Posh To Peril

Dan Stevens leaves Downton and lands in a horror flick

by Jorge Ignacio Castillo

theguest

filmThe Guest
Opens Nov. 14
Studio 7

In 2012, Downton Abbey was at the height of its popularity. Chief among the storylines was the on-again, off-again romance between distant cousins Mary (Michelle Dockery) and Matthew Crawley (Dan Stevens). At the end of the season, the unthinkable happened: Matthew died in a car crash. As was later revealed, Stevens had refused to renew his contract, so his character had to be killed off. It was as if Aaron Paul had quit Breaking Bad midway through.

Stevens had to put up with some bad press (he was disowned by Downton’s creator Julian Fellows), and a degree of derision. After all, more than a few actors who ditched a steady gig to pursue a career in movies have never been heard from again.

Judging by Stevens’ first leading role on the big screen, the naysayers should be prepared to eat their words. The Guest is a pulpy thriller in which the British actor becomes an all-American soldier who’s returned from Afghanistan — or so he says. “David” is received by a midwestern family reeling from losing a son in the War on Terror. The soldier manipulates his way into the household, and only the teenage daughter (Maika Monroe) suspects something is off with his story.

I caught up with Stevens at the Toronto International Film Festival. The affable Brit has no problem letting his freak flag fly: He says he feels more at ease in genre movies, even though he may be too handsome for them.

Do you need to connect at an emotional level with the character you’re playing? And if so, how do you do it with a guy like David?

It’s true that David goes to some crazy extremes in the movie, but we felt we had to earn it by rooting certain aspects in reality — like he was an efficient and expedient soldier, and he was honouring a deep bond with a comrade by visiting his family.

Had you seen Adam Wingard and Simon Barrett’s previous film, You’re Next, before taking the role of David?

Yes: there was a wit and a playfulness to it that grabbed me, and I appreciated their twisted sense of humour. With The Guest they were trying to escape their comfort zone; I was also trying to stretch myself, and we connected. The Guest reminded me of those movies I loved growing up — Terminator, John Carpenter films like Halloween. We dreamed of making a movie that engenders the same experience, of sitting in a theatre with a group of friends and feeling like you’re having a really fun time.

So your confidence in them was immediate?

Adam is a very accomplished filmmaker. He’s made a number of movies that may not have been seen by as many people as You’re Next or The Guest, but that proved he’s practiced his craft. I find guys with a horror background are quite interesting, because if they can make a film that scares people, there’s a good chance they will have a similar control over other emotions.

Do you plan your career meticulously, or just follow whatever you find interesting?

I don’t plan too far in advance. It’s more of a response to something I’ve just done, or following an appetite shaped by recent experiences. In the last couple of years I’ve been challenging myself by connecting with comedy, which I haven’t done in a while. I didn’t ask my agent, “Go and find me a twisted black comedy/action/thriller, preferably by some guys who have done horror.”

What would you say is the biggest misconception about you?

A lot of people associate me with that character from Downton, and that’s not wholly representative of who I am. When you’re in a long-running show like that and you’re in people’s living rooms every Sunday night, they’re quite right in doing so — but there’s a bit more going on. Maybe. Just a bit.


THE NEW SPLAT PACK

The association between director Adam Wingard and scriptwriter Simon Barrett has been uniquely prolific, even aside from The Guest and You’re Next. Wingard and Garrett collaborated in the little-seen but very watchable A Horrible Way to Die, segments in The ABC of Death (“Q Is for Quack”), and V/H/S and V/H/S/2. Because of their DIY background, the bigger budget The Guest gave them, for the first time, the opportunity to delegate. Before this movie, Wingard even had to operate the camera.

“In our mumblecore past, we looked for filmmakers who had an empathetic outlook and an understanding of the filmmaking process, and we had them playing versions of themselves, de facto eliminating the idea of good and bad performance”, explains the director.

It’s worth mentioning some of these collaborators included Ti West (House of the Devil) and Joe Swanberg (Drinking Buddies).

As entertaining as the Wingard/Barrett romps are, you don’t have to look too hard for social and political criticism. An ongoing gag is the indirect participation of shadowy military contractor KPG in the nefarious events that take place in their movies. Simon explains: “We are joking, but we also feel that one of the biggest problems with American culture is the rise of the military-industrial complex and a terrorism-based cold war. The thing about these corporations is that there is no oversight whatsoever, so they seem a good target for our satire. I don’t think we’ll ever make KPG: The Movie, but we like that our films take place in the same fictional universe.”

While Wingard and Barrett are not shy about their desire to leave genre cinema behind, their next project is very much rooted in horror. It’s a remake of the notorious Korean flick I Saw the Devil. Seems about right. /Jorge Ignacio Castillo

2014-11-13