Interview: Dan Stevens on ‘The Guest’, Action Films, & Playing a Creepy Dude

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photo(3)Gwen Reyes // Critic

Dan Stevens stars in THE GUEST, the newest thriller from wunderkind indie-horror director Adam Wingard and writer Simon Barrett (YOU’RE NEXT), as a former soldier who visits the family of his deceased platoon mate and promises to take care of them no matter what. The handsome stranger, David, seems perfect in every way, until the truth behind his reason for visiting the Peterson family slowly begins to reveal itself. Hot from his experience as Cousin Matthew on DOWNTON ABBEY, Stevens disappears in David and the end result is a fun whirlwind entry into the thriller landscape.

Stevens stopped by Dallas during a September press tour to chat with Fresh Fiction and other press members about dipping into creepy characters, the fun of accents, and finding the perfect mixture of comedy and gore in THE GUEST.

This is a huge departure from Cousin Matthew, what was it like playing such a creepy guy?

Well he’s not just a creepy guy. That was one of the biggest things about this role. We wanted to play with the audience a bit. I certainly grew up loving those kinds of movies that tease an audience and kind of take you for a ride a bit. From the opening scenes you feel like you’re in good hands and you’re just going to be taken where these crazy filmmakers want to take you.

We wanted a certain charm to [David] that gets him in the door and ingratiates himself to a number of the family members, but also have a creepy element to him where the audience would keep asking how they feel about him. The “hero-villain” thing goes out the window really. And ultimately it’s about whether the character is entertaining and whether we can stretch those sympathies for a character who is seemingly doing some quite nasty things.

So you’re obviously British…

Yes, obviously. Or hopefully not too obviously in the movie.

Right. So what kind of preparation did you do to get the perfect southern accent for David?

Accents have always been something I’ve loved doing and it’s been great in the last couple of years to start working that into some on-screen characters and play more Americans. It’s a great privilege to get to come to another country and be embraced as a native in those roles.

The Kentucky was an interesting one. I think people do say that the southern accent is, perhaps, a little bit easier for Brits than some of the other accents in this country. I don’t know if that’s true but I certainly took to it well. I have a great friend who is from Kentucky who I got to read “The Gettysburg Address” to me so that I would know some of the sounds of the accent. So I loosely based [the accent] on [my friend], since David says he’s from Louisville, Kentucky. I’m not sure if we believe him, but we wanted to believe as much that came out of his mouth as possible. We took a Louisville accent, put it through a couple of different shapes, and also ran it through a slightly military dialect. Anybody we know who has ever been through the military – even in England – [knows] your native accent is modified to an extent. And that was very interesting as well. That slightly blurs the background of this character, which we wanted. We wanted him to have a slightly mysterious past.

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How did you get yourself, mentally, into the place to play David?

First we wanted to route the character in at least one or two realities, in order to then go to the crazy extremes that we go to. One was that he was a very good soldier, and that’s why he was picked for the program in the first place. And also he was a pretty nice guy, actually. He was a normal guy and excellent soldier, and certain elements of the reprogramming he’s been through have now removed key elements that you and I would recognize.

He’s there to help the family and I certainly believe what he’s saying about Caleb and the bond to his friend. He wants to go back and check on his family, see that they’re okay, and pass along a couple of messages. But the way that he carries things out are…you know, there is something off about him. Adam [Wingard] and I were keen to explore what happens when you put a character like that, whose had the obvious emotional responses that you or I would hopefully have, and remove those responses and role that character in there. That’s where the fun of the film comes from.

What was in the fireball drink that you used in the bar scene?

Cinnamon schnapps and Tabasco sauce, I think. It’s a good weapon.

So you enjoyed doing the action scenes in the film?

Very much, yeah. Wouldn’t you?

One of the really delightful things about taking on this project was working with Adam and Simon, who both clearly love movies. They’re steeped in cinema. But also the fact that Adam grew up in Alabama and I grew up in Britain, but watched almost exactly the same movies growing up. We were inundated with American action-thrillers in the 80s and 90s, and I grew up with John Carpenter movies. BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA was a big meeting point with me. If I find anyone who likes that movie I chance we’re going to get on.

But with Adam the list just went on and on. You know from the HALLOWEEN movies to the TERMINATOR movies. He made me re-watch TERMINATOR one and two back-to-back, which I’d never done before. If you ever get to watch them in one sitting I highly recommend it.

The sense of humor that comes from knowing those types of films and knowing the fun that someone like Kurt Russell had as Jack Burton or Uma Thurman had in KILL BILL is what makes them special.

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What about finding that perfect balance of comedy and horror?

That was the line we really wanted to dance. And I think as soon as people know that they have permission to laugh at a film like this that’s a good thing. We take audiences down, you know, a really ridiculous path in terms of going between [funny and gruesome]. And we really push them.

Without giving too much away there is a certain death that happens toward the end of the movie where even if you’ve been going along with all of the carnage up until this point that you go ‘oh, come on!’ Even our most loyal viewers think ‘really? This is awful.’ But then we start to play on the guilt that you feel as an audience member for having enjoyed all of the violence up until that point.

That was something about YOU’RE NEXT that I really loved. YOU’RE NEXT does a very similar thing in terms of you think you know this world, you think you know what kind of film you’re watching and then they just sort of tip you up and then tip you back again. And by the end you realize you’re in this ridiculous world where all of this carnage and this gore has essentially led up to A.J. Bowen’s character with this middle class aspiration for possibly a honeymoon in Paris. You have all these people who have died in the most ridiculous ways and this is the payoff [at the end of the movie]. It was such a deliciously dark sense of humor.

So there was a lot of fun to be had in the action-thriller genre. Sending someone in to help who ultimately wreaks destruction is both funny and also very pertinent to a lot of global and political issues we were loosely nodding at.

THE GUEST opened Wednesday, September 17th.

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