Dan Stevens is a man of many masks. He’s been a dashing aristocrat in Downton Abbey, an extremely proficient trained killer in The Guest, a monster with a heart of gold in Beauty and the Beast, and he’s currently playing an ultrapowerful and mentally unstable mutant in FX’s Legion. Even if you’re a fan of all of the above, it’s still easy to lose track of the connective tissue between the roles Stevens takes because he so fully immerses himself into each one. (And he was quite literally immersed in that padded mo-cap suit and CGI makeup as the Beast.) For the new movie Apostle, which starts streaming this week on Netflix, Stevens transforms again into a drug-addled, wild-eyed lapsed priest who is sent on a mission to rescue his sister from an island-dwelling cult. What he finds upon arrival, though, is a place that feels like the strange island in Wicker Man, but dirtier and more primitive — and the pretense of normalcy a lot less convincing.
Apostle is the first feature from Gareth Edwards since his brain-rattling action spectacular, The Raid 2 (the equally impressive sequel to the writer-director’s breakout film, The Raid: Redemption). But where those movies are elegant marathons of unending martial-arts setpieces, Apostle is an anaerobic slugfest, and at its center is Stevens as the strung-out Thomas Richardson, who gets stabbed, thrown around, tied up, and lightly shredded to bring Evans’s turn-of-the-20th-century period piece, folk-horror tale to life. Talking with him about it, though, Stevens sounds in great spirits about the whole thing. He likes going from overcoats and bowler hats to doing his own stunts and feeling the bitter cold of a Welsh night on his skin while he gets pummeled by heretics. He also told us about what it’s like to be covered in smashed-up bananas for days on end — and how he made sure to protect his spine during those fight scenes.
I was so excited to see something new from Gareth Evans because I’m such a fan of The Raid films.
I was thrilled to get to work with him. I was talking to him previously about another film that we haven’t yet made, and in the meantime this came along, and it was very exciting to work with Gareth on his first English-language film. I think he’s the only Welsh-born director who has only ever previously directed in Indonesia [laughs]. So yeah, I’m a huge fan of The Raid and The Raid 2, and when I discovered that they were made by a boy who grew up in the Welsh valleys and not by some Indonesian old master I was blown away. Then I realized that we were basically the same age, and he happened to be coming through New York one day when I was living there. We went and had a pint together and I just sort of sat and listened to him talk about shots.
He’s somebody who is very good at pitching something based entirely on a sequence that he’s got in mind, and from that one sequence he’s able to communicate the passions and the story in all directions. So he was talking about this mad sequence for this other film and I thought, “My God. This guy is somebody who’s clearly gonna be insanely fun to work with. I’m going to learn a huge amount about filmmaking and about the specifics of storytelling, frame by frame,” which is what I think masterful filmmakers can do and concentrate on. So we dived into this.
My first introduction to you was The Guest, so I was really glad to see you doing something really aggressive in film again. I remember when I first became aware of Downton Abbey and thought, “That’s the same Dan Stevens?!”
I enjoy both, and that’s what I think has been exciting about the last few years, is the opportunity for people to realize that it’s okay to do both. That’s really where I live, is in that kind of surprise. Doing some of the things that Gareth wanted to do in this movie, it surprised me how far we went sometimes. There’s a lot of good things coming out of south Wales at the moment film-wise, and Gareth is right behind them. I’m a huge Wales-ophile.
You get into pretty insane brawl with a man in a wicker mask, and his lair of death houses something like a human-sized meat grinder. What was that like?
Yeah. I lose several digits, but he loses a part of his face. So who’s laughing now? It’s an amazing character, the Grinder, this sort of a bizarre pulp creature that’s basket-headed and bloody. It’s an amazing film for sequences on tables in a way. There’s the purification table, and then the Grinder’s is a bit more of an obliteration table. And then Lucy Boynton’s character lays me out on her and prophet Malcolm’s table and it’s either extreme kindness or total annihilation.
I loved that this Grinder character is just wearing sensible trousers, along with that horrifying head adornment.
Just wearing trousers — a Welsh winter-into-spring kind of thing, where it’s never quite next summer, you know?
So you’re doing all these dangerous-looking things and Gareth is meticulous about his shots. How is the preparation for those really brutal scenes?
Oh, he comes to those sequences knowing exactly what he wants, and it’s almost like when it comes to our involvement you can put everything into that the because you’ve rehearsed and choreographed it. So, the exhaustion that you might feel doing that beginning to end for real in one take, you can actually just sort of fire off these little shots where it’s like, “Okay. What I just need in this shot is his head hitting the table.” So we just do that 100 times or whatever and cover him in more fake blood and mushy banana, which, after three days of shooting the sequence, really started to hum and the vileness of the scene amped up. The stench and the gore intensified.
Wow. That sounds immersive.
It was nothing compared to the offal trough, as I affectionately called it, that I had to crawl through.
Is that where you’re crawling through the extremely narrow tunnel filled with dirty water and people parts?
Yeah. That was a low point — temperature-wise and everything else. But the mangler was really special, because it was kind of watching a master action filmmaker at work, beat by beat, and learning about how impactful to make each scene rather than just hurling yourself at this basket-headed man and somehow trying to look like you’re winning. It’s beautifully choreographed and it’s not always comfortable, but you feel it. It feels weirdly safe, because it’s in such a masterfully controlled environment, however stinky it might’ve been.
If you’re signing on for a movie with the Raid guy, I assume it’s because you want an intense, full-body acting experience.
Yeah, because that’s what I want to bring to a director that excites me so much. Like, I see how much he puts into it and I see how much he believes in what he’s about to do. I want to get stuck in it as he is really, just as a fan and out of respect for his work and what I feel when I watch his movies. I want to bring something pretty intense and epic. It’s really fun, and we’re already talking about the next thing that we’re going to do, because it’s just a such a joy working with him and he’s just — for somebody who makes such gory, horrific films — he is such a gentle, sweet, kind, and generous man. It’s a wonderful opposition. I guess he just gets it all out in his work, and he just chuckles. He chuckles away. We’ll shoot one particular shot, and it might be the bloodiest, goriest, shot in the sequence, and he’ll of course be like, “Oh, that’s lovely,” with a sort of gentle chuckle.
All while you’re just covered in gore and you smell really bad.
I’m covered in banana, mushy, bloody banana dripping down my face.
They actually use fruit for that?
Oh, yeah. Someone would come on with a giant paint brush in between takes and just slather on another layer. And off we go!
The mystery folk-horror of this reminded me a lot of The Wicker Man.
There’s definitely a bit of The Wicker Man, a bit of Ken Russell’s The Devils in there. And I think there’s something kind of noirish about this stranger from out of town coming in on a secret mission. There’s almost a bit of Shane in there or something, and Gareth constantly talked about wanting to do a Welsh Western. It’s, uh, a project in development. Let’s put it that way. We’ll see how that goes. There’ll probably be another film in between, but there’s something about the tone of those films that we both love and it’s just really peculiar to sort of see that genre, that tone applied to that landscape.
Since you’re not a martial-arts-trained action star, did you ever have to modify the fight scenes to something mortal people can do?
To be honest, in terms of action, I really am enjoying doing as many of the stunts as I can physically do, increasingly getting very physical. There were a couple of shots where I was like, “Gareth, my spine doesn’t bend that way. Actually, no human could do that. Well, sure you could do that if the guy who was attached to it didn’t care about his spine, but I assume you do.” He’s like, “Yeah, I do Dan. I do care about your spine.” And he genuinely does care about my spine, I believe. And body temperature was quite another conversation. You know, it gets pretty cold in Wales and some of that water was not heated, but the banana was nice and warm.
It sounds like a very Hollywood-endorsed spa treatment, coating yourself in soft, rotting bananas while you’re shirtless in the freezing cold.
It was a layer, and at that stage you’ll take anything, whatever you’ve got. Mushy banana? Great. Just slather it on.
This interview has been edited and condensed.