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Dan Stevens on Downton Abbey, the Anti-Mary Faction, and Twitter Slaps

Downton Abbey’s first season concluded with a number of cliff-hangers: a missing wife, a forbidden upstairs-downstairs love affair, and oh, a World War. But none of these complications vexed Downton’s audience so much as Matthew Crawley’s decision to call off his relationship with the icy Lady Mary. Dan Stevens, who plays Crawley, was given the unenviable task of breaking Mary’s heart — and bringing the viewers’ hate upon him. Vulture sat down with Stevens to discuss the audience reaction, the surprising number of people who actually root against a Matthew-Mary relationship (including, weirdly, Amy Heckerling), and what to expect in season two, which debuts on Sunday. Warning: The second half of this interview contains major spoilers! You have been warned.

Are you aware how big a phenomenon Downton is here?
Well, we came in through a PBS junket in the summer, so we saw L.A., San Francisco, Seattle, and we saw the reactions to the first series there. And that was the first of an inkling I had that people were excited about it. And then I came over to New York a couple of weeks ago for a friend of mine’s album launch. I was at the Rockwood Music Hall, and we just popped out of the road to get a bite to eat in the East Village, just in a little Cuban place. So in there, just little low-key lunch, catching up with my buddy, and I said how nice it is to be in New York, everything’s gone crazy back home. We’re getting recognized a lot, and it’s all gone a bit strange. He’s a really, really old friend of mine. It was nice to get back and touch base with him and get back down to earth. He said, "Yeah, that must be nice to be over here." And at that point, the girl on the next table leaned over and said, "Are you in that show? I love Downton Abbey, can you sign my napkin?" [Laughs.]

You know that New Yorkers don’t do that, right?
No. She was sort of quite embarrassed by it, but it was just the timing of that. I had literally just been saying to Freddy, "Oh, it’s so nice to get away from all that." And a number of us have been stopped in unlikely places here.

Such as?
Well, I think Jo got recognized in a café today, and I was just …

Did anyone spot you at Barneys? [Stevens and Hugh Bonneville had just returned from a shopping expedition to buy Michelle Dockery’s birthday present.]
[Laughs.] There were a few people double-taking.

People seem to get pretty heated about the Matthew-Mary drama. Does anyone come up on the street and yell at you?
What’s funny is that it’s almost completely split down the middle of people who think that Matthew and Mary should get together.

There are people who don’t think they should get together?
Oh my God, I get so many people saying —

Who?
Um, Amy Heckerling. She wrote me this e-mail after watching season one. She’s like [does a vaguely valley girl American accent], "Just watched season one, thought it was great. Hope you don’t get with Mary, she’s a total bitch." [Laughs.] I was like, okay. And lots of people think that Mary is totally wrong for Matthew.

Which team are you?
I’m team Matthew. I have to sort of go where Matthew goes. I suppose that’s what it means, not committing to this too heavily. I think there’s always going to be something there. There’s always that little spark, isn’t there? Which is what makes the relationship fun, even if they hate each other’s guts for two episodes. When they get in a room, there’s something quite feisty, which is fun to watch, and fun to play with as well. Michelle and I have a lot of fun playing against all that.

You’re not picking sides?
If I played the whole thing as if Matthew hated Mary, there wouldn’t be anything interesting there. And if it was sort of an out-and-out thing, it wouldn’t be interesting. It’s one of those weird relationships which does exist in real life. I know people in that situation where they just cannot be together, but they were kind of made for each other and they love each other so much, and they want to just rip each other’s clothes off, but they get mad at each other. It’s just mad. But we hope they’ll end up together.

[SPOILERS BEGIN HERE]

So, I should admit that I have actually seen season two, even though it hasn’t started here yet.
[Whispers.] Did you download it? I won’t tell anyone.

How much of the plot did you know ahead of time?
Actually not very much. I think for both this and last series, we signed up having only seen two maybe three scripts, so I think this series we’d only seen the first two episodes. And we tend to film them in blocks of two. You’re sort of drip-fed the story line, in a way, which kind of helps for pitching the arch of a story that you don’t commit to fully – you don’t know what’s going to happen in episode A. The character might not know that they die or fall in love, or end up killing somebody —

Or be paralyzed.
Or be paralyzed. I certainly didn’t know that was going to happen. And, in fact, the episode where Patrick, possibly Patrick, shows up — when that script was delivered and I’m flicking through it, I’m thinking, Oh my God, he’s written me out of the series. This guy’s come back. I’m out. This is it. I’m desperately reading through the thing like, Oh phew, he’s gone away. Matthew’s still here. He can stick around. This is fine. But I was genuinely a bit upset. I thought, This is the end. And you know, there’s a real buzz that goes around set every time a new episode is delivered in the same way, I hope, that there’s a buzz among the viewers each week. It’s like, "What’s happening next? Oh my God, they did what?!" We definitely have that …

So there was a time when you were paralyzed and you didn’t know if he was going to be able to walk again?
Julian Fellowes wasn’t on set that day. I ran to the producers, straight there, and I was like, "Tell me this is gonna be okay, right? This is gonna be okay?" One of them literally raised an eyebrow. She couldn’t tell me exactly what happened, but she was like, "I think it will be fine." I was like, okay. You do, in a show like this, put your trust in … your story line is in Julian’s hands and you put your trust in him that he won’t make you do anything too stupid, or too ridiculous.

Do you guys kiss up to him?
No, no.

But do you go in and ask for things, or ask about things?
I think the boy who played William, in the first series he would go up to Julian and say, "You know, I can play the piano." And so Julian would write this scene where William was playing the piano in the maids’ quarters and things like that. So I’m sure he would be up for it, but we never come up with too many suggestions. His story lines are so entertaining and delicious anyway that I couldn’t come up with much better. And some of the story lines he threw my way this season were just incredible.

I want to ask about a specific moment, when you’re in the wheelchair at the end of an episode, and suddenly there’s, uh, a feeling. What exactly is being felt in that moment?
Well, you only have to go on Twitter to see the various theories. I think the wording in the script was "a sort of tingling in the legs." But it was misinterpreted, or open to interpretation. There was a lot of reference to my genitalia; I’ll put it that way. But obviously that was a big concern given the story line that Matthew was the heir — he needs to produce a mini Matthew at some point. So, that was quite the funny week on Twitter.

Do you read a lot of what’s said on Twitter?
Quite a lot. It’s impossible to read it all, and certainly impossible to respond to it all, but it’s a sort of modern equivalent to fan mail, in a way. People still want autographs occasionally, but more often than not people just want to engage and say hi or that they enjoy the show, or just say something stupid about what the feeling below my waist might be.

Do people yell at you? Or yell at Matthew?
You mean on Twitter? Oh God, yeah.

What’s the reaction you’ve gotten after the finale?
At the end of season two, after the unsatisfactory ending of episode eight, the speech to Mary that is sort of this, "It’s over," or whatever, there were a lot of being out there saying things like, "Dan, if you see Matthew, please slap his face for me." Things like that.

Do you want to slap him or do you identify with his position?
Well, I sort of had to identify with his position, really. But I think that’s one of the great things about the show is that there are these story lines that people really, really care about. And they just get really mad at the screen like, "Just kiss the girl!" And I think that’s fantastic when people get so involved. We saw the Christmas screening on Monday night in a cinema in London that was you know, in a cinema full of people, it was the first time we’d seen an episode with the audience’s reactions in our ears. It was amazing. It was like being in mad pantomime or something, with people cheering and clapping, and booing. It was really exciting to witness just how people engage with it. It’s not a regular show. However good some other shows are, I love our show. I can’t imagine a mass screening of The Wire, say, evoking that kind of response. And I love The Wire; I think it’s genius television. But our show gets to people in a sort of quite a big expressive way. I suppose Twitter is one way of people letting that out to say, "Slap yourself." [Laughs.]

Photo: Jon Furniss/WireImage