Last updated at 10:30 PM on 23rd December 2011
As millions await tomorrow’s Downton Christmas special, Dan Stevens, aka Matthew Crawley, talks about himself... and why his on-off romance with Lady Mary has divided the nation
Why someone would expect to bump into Downton Abbey’s dashing heir in the frozen food section at their local supermarket is anybody’s guess. But they do. ‘I can’t push a trolley around without at least two people going, “It’s you, isn’t it Matthew?”’ says Dan Stevens, the actor who’s set the collective female pulse of the nation racing as the dreamy-eyed Matthew Crawley. ‘For a few weeks it was completely fine for the functionality of my nether regions to be a topic of conversation.
So a complete stranger would come up and say, “Is it – nudge, nudge – OK?”’
He’s referring to the question mark that hung over Matthew’s ability to have children, until our crippled war hero rose miraculously from his wheelchair towards the end of the last series to reveal he probably could. In real life, Dan, 29, has no concerns about his virility.
Happily married for two and a half years to singer Susie Hariet, he has a two-year-old daughter Willow who’s the apple of his eye.
But in the flesh Dan, with his floppy blond hair and blue, blue eyes, is so Matthew Crawleyish it’s impossible not to muddle the two.
Which is probably why I blurt out, ‘Are you finally going to get together with Lady Mary?’
It is, after all, what everyone in the country – from the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge to palace servants – is dying to know. And why the posh and not-so-posh alike will be settling down at 9pm on Christmas Day for a scrumptious two hours of Downton Abbey.
‘When we were on set filming the Christmas special, some of the footmen and housemaids from Buckingham Palace were invited along to watch,’ says Dan. ‘They’re huge fans and they told us that on Sunday nights on the top floor of Buckingham Palace – where the servants live – they all gather in one room to watch it. Some of the Royal Family watch it too. We’ve been told Wills and Kate are fans.’
Super. But please, put us out of our misery.
Will you be grabbing Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery) under the mistletoe? The second series left 12 million fans gnashing their teeth as a grieving Matthew, whose fiancée had been carried off by the Spanish flu after she caught him in a clinch with Lady Mary, vowed they could never be together as it was ‘all wrong’.
No, it wasn’t Matthew. It was so not wrong. Go on – make our Christmas Day. ‘I think there were a load of empty wine glasses thrown at the TV at the end of series two,’ he says. ‘I got lots of angry messages. Let’s just say this special is a little more heart-warming. It’s Christmas.
Lavinia’s been dead for a while. At the end of series two Matthew felt the house was cursing him, but some of that has lifted now.’
So, will they or won’t they?
‘Lady Mary’s a force,’ he says with a twinkle in those eyes. ‘It’s interesting – half the viewers hate her and some love her. The director of cult teen film Clueless, Amy Heckerling, who’s Downton-obsessed, emailed me to say,“Can’t wait for the next series. Hope you don’t get with Mary. She’s a total bitch.” But just at the moment you think Mary’s the biggest ice queen witch you’ve ever seen, she does something lovely.’ Lovely enough to steal a kiss from her? ‘I can’t remember...’ he says. But judging by the way his eyes are dancing I suspect he can. I’d also hazard a guess the director of Clueless will be hurling her Christmas pud at the TV.
Downton Abbey’s festive storyline is, of course, a fiercely guarded secret as the ITV1 period drama goes head to head with a Christmas special of Absolutely Fabulous on BBC1.
What we do know is Nigel Havers will be joining the cast for a pheasant shoot, while poor Mr Bates (Brendan Coyle) stands trial for murdering his wife.
Oh, and Matthew takes to the floor with Lady Mary at the New Year’s Eve party as her fiancé, Sir Richard Carlisle (boo, hiss), played by Iain Glen, becomes an unwanted house guest.
It says something about the skill of the acting – and Julian Fellowes’ brilliant writing – that, as the plot moves from the sublime to the sublimely ridiculous (the relationship between Matthew and Lady Mary has withstood misunderstandings, rebuffs, love rivals, threatened impotency and a threatened inheritance), we actually still care.
Dan, whose break as an actor came at Cambridge University when he was spotted by Sir Peter Hall while appearing with his daughter Rebecca in Macbeth, had decided to ‘move on from period dramas’ after parts in Sense And Sensibility and The Turn Of The Screw on TV and a role in Sir Peter’s theatre production of Hay Fever – until he read the script.
‘It was so good, and the role was so intriguing, I thought I’d do one more,’ he says. ‘It interested me that Matthew was not a little Lord Fauntleroy but a middle-class lawyer who was plonked in the middle of all this. That’s something I can relate to.’
Dan is the adopted son of two schoolteachers.
A precociously bright child, he won a scholarship to the posh Tonbridge boys’ boarding school in Kent, but never really felt he fitted in, so rebelled by regularly bunking off and was eventually suspended.
‘Smoking and drinking came as standard. I don’t smoke any more and haven’t for about ten years. But as soon as I arrived at Tonbridge I did. Smoking is a really important signifier at a place like that. It puts you in a different gang. I don’t really like to talk about being suspended because it’s not something I’m proud of.’
His poor parents must have been tearing their hair out? ‘Like any parents they were very disappointed and wanted me to behave better,’ he says. I wonder if being adopted had a part to play.
‘I’ve always tried to turn it into a positive, but there were years where it was a negative and I could pin a lot of problems on it, because you just do when you’re 15. It’s that age when everything’s awful,’ he says.
‘There’s a five-year window when you’re trying to work out who you are and where you’re from. I know what I need to know about them [his biological parents] but I’ve never actively tried to look for them.
'There are details I do know that I wouldn’t share because they’re very dear to me – very special. Some of them do go some way to explain who I am. But my daughter is the first blood relative I’ve ever met – which doesn’t make my adoptive family any less special.’
Which I’m sure is true. Indeed, as this lovely, funny, bright young man continues to talk it’s clear he is enormously close to his parents and adopted younger brother, who was an usher at his wedding to Susie two and a half years ago.
They met six years ago in Sheffield, where Susie, who is 36, was appearing in a musical and Dan was rehearsing a play. Acting, Dan says, had become a passion at school. By 15, he was spending his holidays with the National Youth Theatre, where he discovered girls.
‘Each summer I’d spend a month in university accommodation with other kids up to the age of 21. You can fill in the blanks. So, yes, girls were very important to me.’
Was his love affair with Susie an overwhelming Lady Mary-like thing? ‘We were just having a lot of fun,’ he explains, ‘and we continued having a lot of fun. Then I thought, “I’d quite like to have this sort of fun for the rest of my life.”’
By the time they got around to marrying in his parents’ village in Sussex, Susie was six months pregnant with Willow.
‘It wasn’t a shotgun wedding, I’d proposed a year before,’ he says. ‘But Willow thought she’d pop in somewhere in between. I don’t think there’s ever a right time to have kids. I’m actually pretty glad it’s happened quite young. A friend of mine said something lovely when she had her child, she said she’d given birth to her heart, which made complete sense to me.
'Willow’s birth was just extraordinary. She didn’t cry. She was quite silent and just lay there. The first noise she made was this sort of “Do, re, mi” sound.
Even the midwife looked up and said, what was that?
For the first six months I just looked at her and thought, “She’s the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen.”’
Dan is clearly besotted with his young family.
This Christmas they’ll be sitting with his parents watching Downton along with the rest of us. ‘Being married simplifies a lot of things,’ he says. ‘It just feels right.’ Exactly – so have a quiet word with Matthew, Dan. Please.
Downton Abbey, Christmas Day, ITV1, 9pm. Christmas At Downton Abbey is released on DVD and Blu-ray on Boxing