When Downton Abbey’s fourth season begins in January, Mistress Mary will still be mourning the loss of her beloved Matthew, heartbreakingly killed in a car crash (in 1920!) moments after he’d become a father. But the actor who played Matthew, Dan Stevens, could easily be found at the Toronto Film Festival this week. He plays an editor for the Guardian in The Fifth Estate, starring Stevens’s old pal Benedict Cumberbatch as Julian Assange. It’s a small part (Stevens’s character mainly seems to sit in on editorial meetings), but he seems to have enjoyed the experience. Plus, we’re happy to report he looks more filled out and lighter of hair since earlier this year when he’d gone gaunt to film the Liam Neeson thriller A Walk Among the Tombstones. Jada Yuan talked to Stevens, who is now living in Brooklyn, about Assange, Chelsea Manning, and whether he’ll watch the new season of Downton.
Why’d you want to do this movie?
Because I think it’s one of the most exciting and fascinating stories to have taken place in my lifetime. It was a story I was really, really interested by, and almost obsessed with, long before the movie came along. I went and heard Assange speak in London — he was interviewed by Slavoj Žižek at the Troxy Cinema, three, four years ago, maybe. And I went along with 2,000 other people and heard this guy speak, and I think my judgment of him is still in formation, but I think whichever way you think of him, he’s a fascinating figure to be dropped into our cultural consciousness. And I think that deserves to be acknowledged, and I think that’s what the film does, so I was thrilled to be even a small part in this incredibly wide-reaching story.
Hate to break it to you, but you don’t have a ton of screen time.
Not many people do [laughs], apart from Daniel [Brühl] and Benedict [Cumberbatch]. It’s just one of those films, and I think it’s a testament to the impact that Wikileaks has and a testament to the size of the story that there is such a great ensemble cast, so many great actors from all over the world. They’re from Iceland and Sweden and Denmark and Germany, and we play our little parts surrounding this relationship at the heart of this story that had such global reach.
Is your character based on a real person?
Yeah. Ian Katz. He was the deputy editor of the Guardian at the time. He was pretty instrumental in helping orchestrate the mainstream media’s publication of the cable leaks and the war logs. And he was in communication with Der Spiegel and the New York Times. Yeah, there’s so many stories budding from this one story that there’s just not time to put them all in one movie.
Did you meet him?
Yeah, I did meet him, actually. I finally had lunch with him the day I traveled out to Brussels to start shooting on this. I flew out from New York and went to King’s Cross Train Station, and met him under a statue and we had a very clandestine lunch, and then I got on the Eurostar and went to Brussels, and it all felt very sort of man-of-mystery-type stuff. But he was very generous with his time and information about what it was like just being a part of this story, working in those offices at that time, and really the essence of journalism that was at play, and how exciting and thrilling and terrifying it was.
Did he see Assange as, like, a madman? Or what?
He wasn’t as black and white as that. There was a skepticism at first — like, who is this, I guess, computer geek, just putting stuff up on a website? Like, is that really journalism? And then I think his opinion did change. I think they all realized what WikiLeaks was doing, not necessarily Assange personally. I think one of the interesting things about the story and about our movie is where ego and truth collide. And you have so many egos at play in one newspaper office, and let alone when you put Assange into the mix, and WikiLeaks, and many other newspapers and other politicians. There’s a big human aspect. It’s not just bites of information being transacted. It’s ego blows as well, and that makes for a good drama, I think.
So where do you fall on Assange, Snowden, Manning? Do you find them all to be heroes?
Again, I’m not as black and white as that. But I think it’s fascinating and kind of thrilling to be alive during a time where there is such a paradigm shift in terms of the way we look at the question of truth and where it comes from and whether we trust the people who claim to be giving it to us. And I think those are very good questions that need to be asked more, and it’s amazing that they’re not asked more. And I think the Internet age has facilitated that, but there are many negative consequences to that. The questions of privacy and transparency are ongoing. What’s amazing is that in the few months since we shot this, it now feels like a prologue to where we are now. You know, Assange opened the door through which Snowden walked, and there are many more questions.
And the Manning verdict came out.
What did you think about that?
About the verdict, or about the story itself?
I guess both.
The Chelsea Manning story, now, is a fascinating and kind of tragic one that deserves to be told in its own right — and I’m sure will be. The end of the movie sort of smartly acknowledges that this will not be the only WikiLeaks movie that we’ll ever see. There’s already a fantastic documentary called We Steal Secrets, which touches much more on the Chelsea Manning story, and it’s sort of heartbreaking, his personal story and the reasons behind what he did, and the people who blew the whistle on him. I don’t know, 35 years is a long time. But it’s not over yet.
And when you left that Assange talk, were you jazzed to change the world?
I don’t know about that [laughs]. I’m just fascinated by figures like Assange who have such a kind of, I guess, pure mission. I use pure quite carefully, but he has clearly sacrificed a great deal personally for the sake of his ideology, and that’s always interesting when people do that, because there aren’t many people who behave in such extreme ways for such an extreme cause. At its heart, he has a very — I think he has a very human interest at heart, that people deserve to know the truth. He is absolute about these things, and I think it’s an admirable stance to take. Whether you agree with what he’s doing or not, that sort of absolutist stance is quite rare.
What was it like working with Benedict on this? Judging from the paparazzi camped outside this hotel for him, he’s officially blown up.
Yeah, yeah. I’ve known Benedict for many, many years. It’s getting close to ten, fifteen years that we’ve known each other. I’ve always admired him. I think of my generation of actors he is genuinely one of the finest, and he deserves all the success that he’s earned. To see him work on this — I remember thinking on set what an incredible job he was doing, and what an amazing interpretation — rather than impression — of Assange he was doing.
Well, Assange doesn’t like his accent.
Doesn’t like his own accent, or doesn’t like Cumberbatch’s?
Cumberbatch’s. He doesn’t like Cumberbatch’s.
Has he heard it?
Yeah, he said he didn’t think it was good.
I didn’t think he’d seen the movie. Okay, well.
Well, he’s seen the trailer, at least.
Oh, sure. I think there will be more about the film than just the accent that he doesn’t like. But still, pretty extraordinary performance. He deserves a lot of recognition for this, because it’s a tough one to pull off, I think. He always brings something intense and different to his roles and you can see his great brain at work, which I always like.
Are you going to watch the new season of Downton?
Yes, but I have to wait until January like everybody else, and watch it on PBS, because I live in America now.
Are you curious what happens with Lady Mary and her many suitors?
Yeah, it will be fun. I guess I’ll be watching it in sort of two ways: both watching my friends on the set that I know very well, but also just continuing the story of Downton and watching it as a fan. It will be fun.