EXCLUSIVE: Dan Stevens Embraces the Unknown to Bring 'Legion' to Life

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Photo: Getty Images

Dan Stevens has a lot to be grateful for.

Previously best known for playing Matthew Crawley on Downton Abbey, the culmination of his work in the five years since leaving the Masterpiece series has come to fruition as the actor leads back-to-back high-profile projects, most notably Disney’s live-action remake of Beauty and the Beast and the FX X-men series Legion. The former dominated the box office, taking in $1.2 billion worldwide, while the latter debuted to critical acclaim and has since earned considerable Emmy buzz. The success of those two projects, coupled with the releases of Colossal with Anne Hathaway, Kill Switch, The Ticketand the Tribeca Film Festival debut of Permission, not only makes Stevens feel like the man of the hour, but also makes Crawley seem like a distant memory.

“I've felt like I've grown so much as an actor,” Stevens tells ET of the opportunity to showcase a transformation from lord and lover to a multifaceted character actor, able to slip in and out of various genres. “To be given the opportunity to play in all these different spaces and to see where some of them might lead -- and I'm not going to claim that all of them are going to be successful avenues -- but I enjoy exploring them all.”

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For the British actor, who moved to New York City after leaving Downton Abbey and has been busy building a filmography of roles that are very unlike his breakout character, he looks at each role as an opportunity for growth. “I think successful or not, they teach you something as a performer,” Stevens says. And Legion, in particular, has given him a lot to play with as an actor.

On the series created by Noah Hawley, Stevens plays David Haller, the mutant son of Charles Xavier who is diagnosed with schizophrenia at a young age and is plagued by voices in his head. Wildly imaginative, the show is not a typical cinematic X-men experience as audiences go inside Haller’s head as well as different realms -- like the character, often not knowing what’s real or not. 

Photo: FX

Purposely kept in the dark by Hawley, Stevens didn’t know the truth about what was happening during filming. “It’s a pretty fascinating process,” he says. Often shooting one episode when he received the script for next installment, Stevens would reconsider his ideas about what they were shooting. “The show was playing with us as we were playing with the audience. It was a really interesting, interactive experience.”

Admittedly, the one central question most of the cast got hung up on was what year Legion took place. After Hawley refused to discuss that detail, Stevens eventually gave up on the question. “And as soon as you do, it starts to really open up things,” he says.

Ultimately, Stevens found that “not knowing” informed his portrayal of Haller. “Anybody who suffers from any of these similar conditions has to relinquish a certain amount of control over much they know about what is real and what isn’t,” he says, explaining that although terrifying at times, it was also very liberating. Once people gave in to “not knowing and finally started to embrace the weird mystery and abstract nature of the show” did Legion really started to blossom.

Having seen Stevens’ unexpected turn in The Guest, one of his first post-Downton roles that saw him portray a villain, Hawley was certain the actor could handle the ever-changing tone of Legion. “Dan’s strength is he can be whatever he needs to be in the moment,” the creator says of Stevens’ ability to shift from comedy to romance to drama and back again. “He comes to these moments with the same groundedness as the most dramatic scenes. But at the same time, given the tone of the show, he never descends into melodrama.”

For all the seriousness of the show, there were also those fun challenges, like learning to play the banjo for a cover of “The Rainbow Connection” or performing a Bollywood-style dance number in the premiere episode. “The first unusual task was that [dance] sequence, and most of us thought that was as weird as it was going to get,” Stevens says. “Boy, were we wrong.”

While the actor certainly delivers a standout performance as Haller, the role is as unexpected as they come for an actor widely known for a costume drama. But the actor is relishing in every moment of defying expectations. “It’s a big playground,” he says of only recently being able to explore the many different avenues that come with his Legion character. “You know, it’s ‘role of a lifetime’ stuff.”