Most actors would kill for a shot at playing a Marvel superhero or the lead in a prestige-cable drama. Dan Stevens is the first actor who’s managed to snag both of those prizes in a single casting announcement. The slender Englishman plays David Haller, the tortured protagonist of FX’s surreal Legion, a series created by Fargo creator Noah Hawley as a loose adaptation of elements from Marvel’s X-Men mythology. David has psychic abilities that have been misdiagnosed as schizophrenia for much of his life, and Stevens plays him with a thrillingly twitchy discomfort, acting as a Virgil to the viewer’s Dante as they enter the mutant’s troubled and troubling brain.
We caught up with Stevens twice to talk about the role, first while he was filming the final episode in rural Squamish, British Columbia; then in an interview for the Vulture TV Podcast (below), just before the airing of the series premiere. The following is a compilation that pulls from both discussions, in which Stevens talks about researching mental illness, transitioning away from his role as Matthew Crawley on Downton Abbey, and narrowly avoiding death at the paws of a Canadian bear.
I understand that you spoke with people who live with schizophrenia and doctors who treat it while you were researching the role. What was the most interesting thing you learned from those conversations?
One of the fascinating things you learn when you talk to paranoid schizophrenics is they experience a sort of fantasy realm, a realm of the unreal — but to them, all of those realms are quite real. There’s a harsh reality to them that most people don’t see. And so I was trying to give equal belief/disbelief to all sorts of different scenarios. So there’s certain scenes where it’s very clearly reality and David should know that, but is not so trusting of that. And there are others which are clearly fantastical and bizarre, and he’s taking them quite literally and seriously and everything in-between, you know?
That’s a tough tightrope to walk, as an actor.
I guess “tightrope” is right, but it’s more playful than that, really. It doesn’t feel quite so treacherous. Slacklining, maybe. I was reminded of something that a British theater director, Peter Hall, taught me about playing kings or princes in Shakespeare: It’s not so much walking into the set saying, “I am the king” — it’s actually how all those around you treat the king. So it kind of comes from how people around David are behaving, if you know what I mean? It’s not just that he’s not paranoid schizophrenic, it’s that there’s something else quite special about him, which he doesn’t care for particularly. There was one doctor who told me of a patient who, essentially, his issue was that he was the Second Coming of Christ, but very reluctantly. He really didn’t want to be dealing with this right now. It was just like, God, I’ve been asked to do this job and it’s just like — I don’t have time! I don’t want to do this, y’know? That whole idea really stayed with me. I find there are too many superhero stories where someone goes, I have superpowers? Great! That sounds cool, let’s roll with that. I liked the idea of innate reluctance.
Did you read superhero comics when you were growing up?
Yeah, of course. Well, didn’t you? I guess there were people who didn’t. But no, my brother and I were big into the X-Men growing up. I mean, not to the extent that I’ve kept many of [the comics]. I think there was a point where I was like, “Okay, I’ll put this box out.” But definitely the spirit of them stayed with me. Where we’re diving in with Legion, it’s taking the spirit of them more than an actual frame-for-frame adaptation. There’s something about the character, the sense of awe and wonder that I remember getting from those X-Men comics. And also having a playful universe where you can bat around really big concepts and ideas.
Right, and families of misfits, too.
Yeah. People who have been branded as different, as mutants, as freaks, whatever. I think that underpins a lot of the X-Men universe, really. How do we treat those differently to ourselves? And that’s a big ol’ question.
Speaking of big ol’ questions, “What the heck is this show?” is one that I’m sure viewers are going to ask, and that I’m sure you asked when you got the role. What did Noah Hawley tell you Legion was? It’s so hard to summarize.
I mean, there were a few things. For a man of letters, he can be a man of quite few words. I think he said some very elusive things, like, [American accent] “It’s going to be beautiful and weird,” and stuff like that. And I was like, “Okay, that sounds good. Weird good?” “Yeah, of course.” I like things that are confidently weird, things that own their weirdness. I thought the Fargo seasons were amazing, you know? Incredible creations. Those series were kind of crazy in their conception, really. We talked about a lot of influences and passions, and a lot of those things have poured into Legion. We discovered that we both liked Wes Anderson. We both like Kubrick. A Clockwork Orange, but also Lindsay Anderson’s film, If …, which was Malcolm McDowell’s first movie.
Very much the aesthetic of that period of English filmmaking.
Right. There is a bit of a British Invasion, British New Wave influence going on in Legion, just as a stylistic choice. That was something Noah really wanted to bring into the show, and I was all for that. There’s something about the confident weirdness about those films that I find electrifying to watch.
And speaking of confident weirdness, Legion is a real departure from the work you’ve done in the past. Was there part of you that was really excited about getting to prove that you could do something wildly different from Downton Abbey?
I mean, it wasn’t really about proving that, but being allowed the space to play in this kind of arena. It is a total delight for any performer. And I think a big part of my reason for wanting to move on from Downton and from England was to explore some different genres and to take in some different influences, I think. And the range of people I’ve already got to work over here and the styles I’ve been learning about. And there’s dance numbers and musical numbers we play with.
Oh, really? There’s the Bollywood one in the first episode.
There’s one in the first but there’s more to come. Maybe not Bollywood, specifically, but yeah, there’s room for that kind of craziness.
What sticks out in your memory about working with Jean Smart?
Oh, she’s amazing. I mean, she really is the godmother of the set.
I heard she brought cookies one day.
Oh, she brings all sorts of gifts, yeah. She brought my baby daughter a Royal Tenenbaums Adidas red tracksuit. It’s the cutest thing I’ve ever seen. I don’t know what possessed her to do it. She was like, “I just saw this and thought of your little girl.” Anyway, she’s the most thoughtful woman. But she’s electrifying as Melanie Bird, this headmistress of Summerland, this secret enclave of these mutants in our world. She just commands such automatic authority and respect. There’s something very classic about her style. I’ve obviously grown up watching American movies and television my whole life, but to work with these people who have been immersed in that kind of style of acting, that kind of style of performance, I just love it. It’s a delight to my senses to work in these different media.
When you’re doing a CGI scene, how do you, as a performer, approach that differently from a practical scene?
I’ve done a fair bit of it recently. I’ve sort of come to the conclusion that it’s actually not different. It’s just a bit more imagination. Because even if it’s a practical set, [points to the table in front of him] this isn’t really that, [tugs his shirt] I’m not really wearing this. So when it’s green screen, you just turn the dial up a bit more. I always sort of look at filmmaking as an exercise in collective madness, anyway. It’s like, We’re all going to get in this room and everybody’s going to believe that “x” is going to happen. It’s all about imagination really, and sometimes you just use a bit more of it I suppose.
Legion was largely shot way out in the middle of the woods, an hour’s drive away from Vancouver. Did that environment help you get immersed in the surreal nature of the show?
I suppose so. And yet, one time we were there, there was the last take of the day or something and it was twilight. Moonlight was climbing and we were racing to get this one particular shot. We’re just about to go and this bear emerged just up here.
It stopped just out of shot, went on his hind legs, watched the whole take, and then just scampered off. None of the crew could see it, but the cast could see this bear. The crew were like, “Action! We’ve got to go! We’re losing light! Come on!” And we were like, Are we supposed to walk towards the bear? That’s everything we’d been told not to do! It was fine. No one got eaten that day. But yeah, it is a strange place to be.
Tell me about working with Aubrey Plaza.
What’s she like off-camera?
Crazy woman. But absolutely brilliant. She has a great kind of clown thing going on. She’s got this incredible persona that she’s in possession of and she’s very much in control of. And her comedic skill is really unparalleled. I mean, she’s wild. But the sense of playfulness and fun, it’s exactly what this show needs and requires. It’s just so fun to go to work with someone who has that kind of carefree attitude.
Last question. The most important question. What’s the hardest word to do in the American accent?
Thanks. It’s one of the first words I have to say in the show, and I was terrified of saying it.
It’s about as American a word as you could ever come up with.
Yeah. Did you know there’s gluten in Twizzlers?
Are you gluten-free?
I’m a glutard. I ate a lot of them one day on set and felt really not very well. But maybe that’s just because you shouldn’t eat a lot of Twizzlers.
I like to think of your inability to digest gluten properly as a mutant power.
Yeah, right? It’s human evolution.