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Credit: FX

The underrated genre appeal of romantic hero Dan Stevens

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Aug 20, 2020, 1:00 PM EDT

Most people are probably familiar with actor Dan Stevens from his breakout role on the globally popular period drama Downton Abbey. As Matthew Crawley, one half of the show's marquee romantic couple, Stevens got the chance to basically introduce himself to the world as everyone's dream boyfriend. Matthew was perfect — thoughtful, kind, and understanding. He loved Mary the way we all hoped someone would love us, always seeing her at her best even on her worst days.

Let's be honest: It's truly no wonder Stevens went on to play a literal Prince Charming in the live-action version of Disney's Beauty and the Beast afterward.

Yet, while there are so few actors out there who can rock a period costume the way Stevens does — and Rufus Sewell, you can call me whenever — or who have the chops to play a CGI Disney prince, his best and most complex performances can be found in his genre roles. His obvious eagerness to dive into strange and unexpected characters who are diametrically opposed to the one that made him famous is certainly understandable and, as consumers of entertainment and pop culture, we've all benefited from that desire.

Since his time on Downton, Stevens has largely chosen projects that are, well, different, to put it mildly. Downright weird even. From smart thrillers and gory horror to magical realism and a deeply cerebral comic book adaptation, this is an actor who's clearly enjoyed confounding those who presumed he would settle into romantic hero and costume drama roles for the rest of this life.

Credit: FX

Perhaps the genre space was always going to be uniquely suited for an actor like Stevens, who seems uncomfortable with being stereotyped as a more traditional posh, well-heeled, and handsome leading man. Instead, genre stories offer him the opportunity to explore the sorts of characters that more mainstream productions would likely never put onscreen. Yet, in the process, he's somehow managed to avoid the dreaded tag of "character actor," striking a balance a delicate balance between acknowledging his movie-star good looks and gleefully subverting the expectations that come with that ideal.

On paper, the 2014 film The Guest should be fairly standard thriller fare. Stevens plays David Collins, a possibly sinister former soldier who arrives at the family home of a fallen Army comrade and ingratiates himself into their lives. But a sly script and a nuanced performance elevate this movie into an exciting thrill ride in which the audience is fully aware of the effect that Stevens is meant to have on them and happily goes along for the ride. The Guest is a film that knows we love this guy no matter what he's doing and is actually counting on that fact to pull us even further into the story.

Even as the truth of David's past — and his status as an elite super-soldier murder machine — comes to light, Stevens' relentless aw-shucks persona and big Boy Scout energy keep the character from descending into pointless killer territory. He's a monster, but the tinge of tragedy that clings to his backstory of genetically engineered torture makes his relentless politeness as much an act of defiance as it is a cover story.

The 2018 horror film Apostle sees Stevens play a tortured — both mentally and physically — former missionary who must infiltrate a cult to save his sister in a movie that should be little more than your standard bloodbath popcorn flick. But though there is plenty of gory imagery that will stick with you long after the credits roll, director Gareth Evans actually manages to craft a surprisingly timely period piece about the harms that religious fervor can visit upon its most devout adherents.

Credit: Netflix

And at its center is Stevens' jittery, unbalanced Thomas — hardly your expected choice for a horror film hero, an unkempt and often incapable man who suffers from plenty of dark, religion-based trauma of his own. It's certainly a… well, let's just say a unique take.

But it is his role on FX's vaguely X-Men-adjacent series Legion that serves as the best example of this intriguing duality that exists in Stevens as a performer.

The awkward cousin of the television superhero world, Legion is the sort of comic book show that felt as though it was redefining the genre on its best days, yet remained generally incomprehensible on its worst. If Stevens were ever going to play a Marvel superhero, it would certainly be in this dark, twisted corner of its onscreen universe — one that's more interested in themes of truth and reality than good guys punching bad ones.

Sure, Stevens looks like he'd be a perfect fit as a feature film version of Captain Britain. But the superhero role he chose instead is a broken, vulnerable, and schizophrenic mutant, who also happens to have abilities powerful enough to destroy reality. As David Haller shifts between possible hero and potential supervillain, earning our sympathy and destroying our trust by turns, Stevens' performance is more than up to the challenge, making him as believable a cult leader as he is a mental patient.

The furthest thing from straightforward superhero fare, Legion explores issues of redemption and grace, alongside personal responsibility and failure. Its ending, though deeply human, is difficult to read as a victory — rather a hope that one day, it could be. It's one that's deeply rooted in the fact that we're all so desperate to believe that David Haller will somehow still turn out to be the hero we want him to be, even if it means starting over in a brand new reality to get there.

Credit: FX

As an actor, Stevens has proven more than willing to weaponize his good looks in stories like this. His painfully handsome face immediately inspires warmth and trust, drawing us in despite ourselves. There's something about him that just exudes niceness.

This is a guy, you think, who would absolutely help you get your cat out of a tree or guide an old lady across the street. Looking at him, we want to believe that Legion's fractured mutant maybe-hero can get better, or that The Guest's damaged villain isn't really the killing machine he's been revealed as.

But the thing is, it's Stevens' chameleon-like talent that makes all that possible, as much as his surface of the sun hotness. Not content to rest on his good looks to power his career, he's instead embraced interrogating what that attractiveness can mean within the roles he takes on. We love a man who's willing to subvert expectations to make a point and have a good time doing it, too. Where Stevens' career will go next is anyone's guess — but it certainly won't be somewhere predictable.

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