Dan Stevens knew little about Watergate before being cast in Gaslit, a new prestige drama about the 1970s American scandal that toppled a president and shook America. The 39-year-old actor, of early Downton Abbey fame, might now be sitting in his very own Los Angeles garden but, as with many Brits, his knowledge of the affair extended only to the most superficial stuff. “I knew it spawned the gate-suffix,” says Stevens, over Zoom. He’s wearing a jazzy Paul Smith shirt, behind him lush leaves and that Hollywood sunshine. “But you quickly realise there’s a universality to that stupid level of corruption. It’s found in every administration in every country in the world; it just so happens that these guys got caught.” He sees glaring parallels with the British government, or as he put it in a now viral One Show segment: “You’ve got a criminal for a leader who is wrapped in a messy war, embroiled in a stupid scandal, surrounded by ambitious idiots and really should resign… Oh no I’m sorry that’s the intro to Boris Johnson.”
Also starring Julia Roberts and Sean Penn, the five-part series – based on the highly successful Slow Burn podcast – sees the often-told story of nefarious political espionage rerun once more, but through the experiences of characters who might otherwise have been considered minor players in a story of high-level Washington rot and paranoia.
“It was one of the first times that something played out on television in real time,” says Stevens. “We’re immune to the hypocrisy of our leaders these days, but back then it was such a scandal. And so much of it was buried.”
Roberts plays Martha Mitchell, the Arkansan socialite and wife of President Nixon’s loyal attorney general, John Mitchell (Sean Penn). Despite party affiliation, she’s the first person to publicly sound the alarm on Nixon’s involvement in Watergate. Stevens, meanwhile, takes on the part of young hotshot Republican lawyer John Dean, who was steadily climbing the ranks of power when the Watergate break-in occurred. There was talk, before filming started, of Stevens meeting with Dean, one of the few surviving figures depicted. Today, he’s a regular face on CNN and the speaker circuit; either national hero or treacherous rat.
“I was keen to sit down with him,” says Stevens – but somehow, word got out about the lunch date. “Then I was told I’d have to speak with Universal’s lawyers in advance, which I didn’t want to do; I didn’t think it would make the meal taste particularly nice.” Instead, he pored over source material: footage from hearings, newspaper clippings. There was plenty to work from as Stevens set about doing what he always does: throwing himself in at the deep end, and learning on the job.
In his own words, Stevens was quite the “energetic” child. Adopted just days after birth, he grew up first in Essex, then Wales and Sussex, as his parents – both teachers – moved to follow work. His own school reports, meanwhile, were at least consistent in their content: “Daniel must learn not to distract others” a recurring theme. He’s somewhat guarded when it comes to setting out the full extent of his adolescent indiscretions. He’s blanked out, he says unconvincingly, the details of any major misbehaviour: “Let’s say I was never very good with the institutional side of education.”
At nine, he was sent to boarding school. His parents believed a “fully immersive” education might do them all some good. “It’s a weird thing,” he says, of the public school system. “The further you get from it, the more absurd it seems to be to put 60 boys in a house run by teenagers. It takes on its own Lord of the Flies quality – or character building, as the English like to call it.”
On a scholarship, he attended Tonbridge School in Kent, where his, let’s say, spiritedness, was quickly channelled into the drama department. “I was shepherded by some great teachers who recognised I could and should act,” Stevens says. “I was nurtured in that direction and kept away from too much trouble, which was an incredible gift.”
It became clear early on that he was a talent. There was his turn as Professor Higgins in My Fair Lady, but it was a production of Macbeth, when he was 14, which was a truly formative role. After he auditioned for the part of Fleance – something of a minor character – his teachers suggested he should, in fact, take the lead.
Reading English at Cambridge University, Stevens found the Footlights. “I was doing standup, sketch shows and musical comedy,” he says. Granted, he adds, much of it was mediocre. “I never had ambitions to be a comic,” he continues, “but I learned a huge amount about stagecraft from doing it: the ability to get up and make words work for an audience, timing, rolling with what makes people laugh.”
In his final year, Stevens was once again cast as the lead in the Scottish play. And, Cambridge being Cambridge, it just so happened that playing Lady Macbeth was Rebecca Hall, now actor and writer. Back then, however, she was a fellow undergrad drama type, whose father was the revered theatre director Sir Peter Hall.
“Dan was this striking, oddball guy,” she tells me, the pair are still friends. “He has always been incredibly dextrous – his brain works very fast. My father appreciated nimble actors, and Dad spotted that incredibly quickly.” Impressed, Sir Peter offered Stevens a gig playing Orlando in a touring production of As You Like It before graduation. Student life was swapped for treading the boards. “It was incredible,” Stevens says of the opportunity, “a real apprenticeship in classical theatre, being part of a touring troupe, what I might have been taught at drama school had I gone.” With no formal training, Stevens worked it out as he went along.
He soon moved to London and carved out a career in the industry. There were West End roles, and plenty of period telly: The Line of Beauty, Sense and Sensibility and The Turn of the Screw to name a few. When, in 2009, auditions for Downton Abbey were being held, it seemed to be a job like any other. “I’d done my fair share of period drama by that point,” he says. “I considered not going up for it, or not doing it when I got it. I felt I’d already done them.” In the end, Stevens decided to do just one more. “Nobody knew what it was going to become,” he says. It was commissioned as an eight-part mini-series. “There was no sense when we were making it that it would be the juggernaut it turned into.”
Julian Fellowes, Downton’s creator and writer, remembers clearly what he saw in Stevens: “Dan had this tremendous power on screen and is one of the handsomest men I’ve ever met,” he tells me. “He had a charming moral decency we felt would work.”
In late 2012, three seasons in, Downton was still clocking up 10m+ British viewers during its Sunday-night airings; in the US, that figure was hitting a staggering 24m week on week. But while the show was going from strength to strength, Stevens was eyeing up an exit, discontent at the prospect of a lifetime playing floppy-haired, morally decent, period-drama chaps.
“There were definitely creative itches left unscratched,” Stevens explains of his decision to leave the show, “genres I hadn’t worked in. Three years were up, that’s what we’d initially signed up for, and the appetite to explore further was too great.”
It was only close to the start of filming for that third season that Stevens confirmed his departure. Fellowes tells me a major death had already been booked in for episode five, leaving them little room for another. So on Christmas Day 2012, his character, Matthew Crawley, was killed off in a fatal car accident in what was, quite frankly, an ending altogether void of festive cheer.
“It’s not something I expect people to readily understand,” Stevens says of the departure. “Some admire it, others think I was mad: that the part was the greatest thing that could ever happen to me.”
It takes some self-confidence, surely, to walk away from such a secure spot in a behemoth of broadcasting, at a time when increasingly lucrative contracts were, no doubt, being negotiated once more. “But the question is what would satisfy you? A bit more money and the same thing for another decade,” Stevens replies, “or the great unknown. The wild west. An open playing field of potential.”
Being in such a high-profile production also came with attention. “There was certainly a feeling that such a level of focus from the British tabloid press was not the greatest thing to have in one’s life,” says Stevens. “We got out of the UK at a time when it wasn’t hugely problematic. And maybe it wouldn’t have been. But there was this fear of raising a family into that environment.”
And so, Stevens headed stateside. By that January, he was rehearsing for his broadway debut opposite Jessica Chastain. Then came a movie in Brooklyn. Stevens upped sticks and settled in New York with his wife – Susie Hariet, a South African Jazz singer and teacher – and their two oldest children. Six years later, by now with another child, they headed west to LA, where the family has remained.
“There’s an imagination in casting here that’s refreshing,” Stevens says. “If you haven’t been seen doing something, they might be open to seeing you try. There are strict channels in the UK: ah you play posh period dramas? In your box you go. Gritty northerners? That’s what you’ll do… I could see a world in which sticking around wouldn’t have been satisfying.”
If a diverse plethora of parts was his ambition, it’s fair to say he has achieved it. From sci-fi (Colossal, Kill Switch) and family blockbusters (Beauty and the Beast, Night at the Museum) to Apostle’s sheer horror, Stevens has grafted to carve out quite an eclectic career. He’s also been dipping his toe back in comedy, earning himself no shortage of admirers, Will Ferrell included. The pair worked together in Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga, which Ferrell also produced. “He showed up on the first day with this fully fleshed-out character, complete with Russian accent,” Ferrell tells me. “He was working far harder than I was, whether improvising with me or performing his song and dance numbers. Plus, through the night he was auditioning for other projects; he has this extraordinary dedication to his craft.”
“You have to be prepared,” Stevens says, “for people to be confused by your desire to do both animated family comedy and twisted horror in the same calendar year.” It’s that creative stimulation that he thrives on.
“That’s not to say you and I won’t sit down in 10 years when I’ll have been playing the same sitcom character for a decade, and I’ll mutter something about mortgages and school fees…” But honestly? Stevens can’t see that happening. “Possibly there’s a certain creative ADHD in me,” he says. “I’ve tried all sorts, not all of it successful. It’s terrifying and thrilling, but if the territory is too familiar, I’ll just get bored.”
Gaslit premieres on Sunday 24 April on StarzPlay