Former Downton Abbey star Dan Stevens has always preferred the “slightly more absurd” versions of the King Arthur legend (think Monty Python and the Holy Grail), so it’s with that spirit that he steps into the role of Lancelot in the third installment of the Night of the Museum franchise, Secret of the Tomb, out on Friday. This time, Ben Stiller travels to the U.K. and, with his magic tablet, makes figures at the British Museum come to life. “Inside this tin suit that is on display there comes out this totally imaginary, fictional character,” Stevens said. “He’s obviously not real, even though he thinks he is.” Stevens prepped by watching a lot of sword fighting from Errol Flynn films as well as The Princess Bride (“a big influence”) so that he could embody the spirit of a lost knight who thinks he’s on a holy quest. The actor chatted with Vulture about wishing for his own sword, Shia LaBeouf disrupting his Broadway play, and remembering his co-star Robin Williams.
What was it like wearing the suit of armor? Some of those weigh close to 100 pounds.
I think mine was about 50 pounds, because obviously there was a lot of action, a lot of stunts. So there was a stunt version and a more aesthetic one that was harder to move around in. Thank god they didn’t put me in one of the original suits! I don’t know what I would have done in that. There were some shots where I had to be using the real sword, which was incredibly heavy as well. And there was a stunt version we used for some of the fancier stuff. With the swordplay in this as well, we wanted to get a bit of that Errol Flynn–type flair into a broadsword fight. We’re used to seeing broadswords used in a hacking, Game of Thrones–y way, and for this, we wanted to get a bit more fancy with it. I had done bits of broadswords at school, in various school productions. Not so much fencing or that kind of thing, but I had a fantastic teacher, who was a real armory enthusiast, and he loved every feature of that, helping the violence look real. So I’ve been playing with broadswords since I was about 14. This sword was a beautiful object — I keep asking the film studio if I can have one, but they haven’t put in the mail yet!
Luckily you’ve been bulking up, so you could actually lift those things. They’re really, really heavy! I’ve tried to hold a sword out like that, and I could barely do it.
I’ve been doing a lot of action movies, yeah! I’m almost chemically an entirely different human being than I was about two years ago. [Laughs.] For The Guest, I bulked up, got into Special Ops/Marine shape, and for Lancelot, I had to stay in quite good shape. Even though you don’t see the actual physique underneath all that armor, actually just to hold that thing up, to move it around? My back was suffering by the end of the day. [Laughs.] You know that scene on the roof where I’m holding Ben at arm’s length with a sword held out? Because it’s a key scene, and it’s in close-up, they needed the real sword. So stupid me, I decided I was going to hold him at arm’s length. Holding anything at arm’s length for five minutes tends to make your arm a little sore, but this?! So there are a few cuts, where I had to say to them, “I’m sorry! I have to let this go!” So yeah, there were some interesting challenges to the suit and all the gear.
Plus your nose was dripping at the same time. For a comical effect.
[Laughs.] Yes! But I tended to forget, because I couldn’t really see it. In between scenes, I’d be having semi-serious conversations with Ben or someone, and then just kind of mid-sentence, they’d say, “I’m sorry. I just can’t talk to you anymore.” I would forget that I had that thing on.
Lancelot gets confused when he discovers a West End stage production of Camelot, and disrupts the play during a pivotal moment. Ever have something like that happen to you?
Uh, yeah! Shia LaBeouf showed up loaded during a performance of The Heiress and was pretty disruptive.
That’s weird, because he did that to Cabaret, too.
I know! And they managed to escort him out. But our play, they weren’t quite on the ball during The Heiress.
Was he doing the same kind of thing? Smoking, yelling, grabbing people?
I don’t know if he was smoking, but he was definitely hollering, and I think he thought he was in Cabaret while watching The Heiress. That was a pretty strange onstage experience, I have to say. And for the first half, we didn’t know who it was. And then we came off [during intermission], and Jessica Chastain, who had just worked with him in Lawless, was like [whispers], “I think it’s Shia!” And yeah, by the end of the play, it was definitely him. [Chuckles.] There’s a history of actors breaking character and coming out and telling groups of schoolchildren to shut up and behave, or whatever. As an actor, you wonder, What would I do? And there have been moments where someone is eating very loudly or is just being very disruptive, and you think, Oh yeah, I wish I could step out and actually do something about it. But I have yet to really do that. Someday, maybe. I wish I’d had a broadsword then.
This is one of Robin Williams’s last roles. Watching his character contemplate his own death, there’s an extra layer of sadness there.
I was so moved watching the film. It’s a very moving sequence at the end, so I was incredibly emotional watching it the first time. And I’m sure I will be again. It was one of the highlights of my life, really, getting to work with one of my all-time heroes. He’s a huge inspiration to me. I can’t count the number of his movies where he’s made me feel so many different things. Throughout my life, he’s made me laugh and cry, more than anybody I can think of. So to get to meet him and work with him and realize what a gentle soul, and a generous soul, he was … it was magical.
He was also very, very good with my daughter. She was so very taken with him. She called him “Robins Williams”! She drew pictures for him, and he was incredibly kind to her. He loved the sense of wonder she had with all the sets, which were incredible to walk around as a grown-up, so god knows what was going through her 5-year-old mind. [Laughs.] He was just a huge fan of laughter, really. He was a champion of the laughs. He just really enjoyed other people being funny. He really encouraged that and fed off of that. I think that’s my enduring memory of him, really. He was tremendously encouraging to me in my first studio experience, in my first big comedy, and there are some things he said to me that I will never forget. I don’t want to share them, but I’ll take them with me always.