Dan Stevens Talks Charles Dickens and The Man Who Invented Christmas
The Man Who Invented Christmas is a fascinating look into the mind of the great Charles Dickens. The film, which opens in theaters everywhere this week, is all about the creation of A Christmas Carol. Dan Stevens portrays Charles Dickens in the film and completely disappears as an actor. I was delighted to have the opportunity to chat with Stevens about his role as Charles Dickens but also about his career in television and on the stage. Dan and I had a delightful 15-minute conversation which you can now read in its entirety below.
Dan Stevens: Hi, Scott.
Scott Menzel: Hey, Dan how are you?
Dan Stevens: I’m alright, finally we get to talk.
Scott Menzel: Yes, finally.
Scott Menzel: Are you actually at the premiere right now, are you actually calling me from the world premiere?
Dan Stevens: Not yet, but I’m on my way.
Scott Menzel: Well I appreciate it so much that you’ve taken the time to connect. First, I think there is a lot of congratulations in order, not only for this film but also for Beauty and the Beast earlier this year. You’ve been having an incredible year.
Dan Stevens: Thanks so much.
Scott Menzel: This leads me right to my first question. With The Man Who Invented Christmas and Beauty and the Beast, both of which, are very notable works of literature. Both of these pieces of literature have been turned into movies and stage plays, so how was it to play two different iconic characters?
Dan Stevens: Well I guess, in a way, I didn’t play the Beast in my mind, I still made it like two and a half years ago or something. It’s always a bit of my brain that leans towards all things literary so when a script about Dickens comes along and I love Dickens and I’m intrigued by him. I looked at the script and it was a very charming take on a biopic really. I guess it’s important to say also, Dickens is a real. He was a real man and the Beast is a literary character. So I hadn’t really done that kind of biopic before. I’ve been part of biopics or films about people but not looking at a character like Dickens, not as a sort of cradle to the grave thing, was quite daunting and intimidating. There’s a lot there and just sort of bringing this man gently off of his pedestal for a moment and looking at him as a human being, as a man who was under an enormous amount of pressure and struggling with the artistic process trying to create his next big hit. For me, it was as much a film about the artistic and creative process as it is about Christmas, so I just am always intrigued by that.
Scott Menzel: I thought you were absolutely fantastic in this role.
Dan Stevens: Thank you.
Scott Menzel: You really do become Charles Dickens. I forgot that I was watching you and you just transformed. What was the process like? How much research did you have to do, because clearly, everyone has seen a Christmas Carol over and over and over again, but in terms of this backstory which is pretty eye-opening and I love what you were talking about earlier with the creative process and all the creativity in his mind and the dark places he sometimes had to go in order to get these characters. How did you research all that? How did you as an actor bring it all to life?
Dan Stevens: Well, there was a couple of books that I looked at. Particularly there’s a book by Robert Douglas Fairhouse called, ‘Becoming Dickens’ which is a very helpful title if you’re about to play him. So I delved into that one. Very interesting book about his early years really in the run-up to all of the twists actually and before he really had his first big hit but you know, looking at the younger man because so often we think of him as sort of a great bearded patriarch but it’s nice to look at someone out of that context before it all came together and actually a moment where it could’ve all destabilized for Dickens.
Michael Patrick Hurns’ annotated edition of the Christmas Carol, was an invaluable resource and there are actual lines from letters that he discovered in his research that are in the introduction and annotations that made their way into the movie. There’s a line that Dickens wrote in a letter to his friend Foster, played by the great Justin Edwards in our film and really a very deep and important, male friendship there. He talks about the wrong fire burning in his head, and Susan’s script was wonderful as it was but I felt like this was a great line that Dickens himself wrote that I wanted that audience to hear coming out of his own mouth. It was written at this time he couldn’t get this thing done the way that he wanted it and it was a very specific aim he had, which was epic and huge, which was to write this universal human tale of greed and darkness and redemption, that’s ultimately, incredibly hopeful.
The idea that an awful man in your town, there is a possibility of redemption for him and that he has the power to himself change, and also bring change to those around him and spread the wealth and spread the love. That’s a pretty tall order, and yet, he was fired up about this idea and couldn’t quite get it out, and yeah, the wrong fire was burning in his head.
Scott Menzel: I loved every minute of this movie and it really is one of my favorites of the year. It was a tough year. There are so many great performances this year, so this hard to really say who’s gonna get nominated and who’s not but I do think that your performance is really award-worthy. It’s that good.
Dan Stevens: Thank you very much.
Scott Menzel: What was it like working with the brilliant Christopher Plummer?
Dan Stevens: Just wonderful. His name was attached long before mine and he had been loyal to this project for many years actually. And there was always a huge draw to get to work with somebody like that and then not only to say that you worked with him but to discover that on the set he turned 87 and he is sharp as anything, incredibly charming, funny, lovely, witty and all of the sparkle and wit that you see in Scrooge, that’s there in Christopher Plummer’s Scrooge and I think for a lot of people who maybe done know this tale that well or coming at Dickens fairly new, I love the idea that Plummer will be their Scrooge. It’s a delight and it’s really sweet and there is mischief and it’s not an easy role to fill. For me, not many people have played Dickens on screen, I don’t feel like there’s a huge amount of competition out there but he and I were just talking about it just now, that his Scrooge is an amazing to step up and will only add to a canon of performances like that. A role like Scrooge, it transcends the story. Scrooge is such an archetypal character in our social consciousness, it’s extraordinary.
Scott Menzel: How many versions of Christmas Carol there has been? It’s amazing to just think about the Muppet one where you have Michael Caine as Scrooge.
Dan Stevens: Yeah, which itself is a great, great rendering of that tale, I think it’s one of my favorite films, it’s certainly one of my favorite Christmas films and we watch it every Christmas eve and actually I guess there’s a portrayal of Dickens in that, so I’m up against that. But it’s told with such affection for the tale and also with affection for the creative process behind the tale as well which … it really warms my heart every year, that movie is something special.
Scott Menzel: I agree, it’s terrific, I love it too. I try to watch it every year myself. Which, this movie hopefully will soon enter that realm as a new holiday classic that people will consistently revisit, year after year.
Dan Stevens: That’s lovely to think that.
Scott Menzel: As an actor, you started out on the stage and then you transitioned into TV and then you got into movies. What’s that transition like, and out of the three art forms that you have been a part of, which one, in particular, do you enjoy the most and why?
Dan Stevens: Well, I think the electricity of Great live theater, it takes a lot of beating and I certainly learned a huge amount for my years in theater. I regret that I hadn’t done a play in the last few years, but I’ve also really enjoyed immersing myself in movies in a way that I didn’t get a chance to in my 20’s. Just exploring roles in a different way, strangely, it’s actually film that has taught me more about physicality and that’s been incorporated into the way I think about roles. Much more strongly in the last few years. But they all sort of feed each other and doing a TV series teaches you all sorts about … more about the business and the stamina required for a six-month shoot versus an 8-week sprint is very interesting in looking at how you shape a role over 10 hours, as opposed to, two. That’s very interesting.
Scott Menzel: And another thing that I’m curious about is, you’ve kinda worked on a really wide range of movies, which is something else that I really admire about you as an actor is that you don’t play one particular role, you kinda go and play different genres and different characters, and I love that. But what I was gonna ask about that is, what is the difference in terms of … almost like budget restraints? So working on a bigger film along the lines of maybe, ‘Night at the Museum’ or ‘Beauty and the Beast’ as opposed to working on something that’s a little bit smaller and personal, like ‘The Man who invented Christmas’ or, ‘The Guest’?
Dan Stevens: In my mind, in terms of preparation and everything, very little. I like to immerse myself and explore things vocally and physically, and intellectually in as many different ways as possible, irrespective of budget, that’s not really my concern. I guess the time committed to looking at certain scenes in a bigger budget thing is nice and it’s a great luxury, but equally, the pressure that a lower budget project can put on something and the pace that, that injects can really affect a performance and the shape of a project.
So I don’t know, I haven’t really found that I enjoy one over the other particular. I look at the roles, I look at the directors I’m working with and just work from that angle really. Yeah, I guess everybody always wishes they had a bit more budget and a bit more time.
Scott Menzel: Yeah, I was just always wondering about that, because I’ve noticed, I’ve been a fan of film since I was like five, and as I grew up, I always was watching the big budget movie and all the blockbusters but now as a mature adult who does this for a living and kinda follows this, it’s always interesting watching the amount of substance that you get in a smaller budget film, and the performances not … every once in a while you get a big budget film where the performances really wow, but for the most part, it’s all about the special effects and razzle-dazzle.
Dan Stevens: Yeah, and that’s where a lot of the money goes very often …
Scott Menzel: But I feel like you really get to pour your heart and soul when you do like, ‘The Guest’, you were so freaking good at that. I feel like you were so freaking good in this movies, but I feel like it’s because it’s constrained and everyone involved is just passionate about it.
Dan Stevens: Yeah, I think with the bigger budget thing it often comes down to the Director remembering what his or core story is and I think with something like, Beauty and the Beast, Bill Conden really kept the love story and the pain and beauty of Beast’s story, he really kept that alive for me in the midst of all of this crazy … the effects stuff, which was mind blowing for everyone involved and could have easily distracted us from that, he would always bring it back to that, and I think a great director at any level will do that. Will turn you back to … whatever craziness is happening on set that day, will sort of keep you tapped into what really matters at the core of the story.
Scott Menzel: Perfect, and then one last question and then I’ll let you go, once again, I do appreciate you taking the time to call me back, I know you’re busy. Future projects, is there anything, anyone, you really wanna work with? Is there something that you aspire to do? Just talk a little bit about the future and sort of what you hope it holds for you, Dan Stevens.
Dan Stevens: Yeah, well I hope to keep exploring and trying all these different genres. I particularly … there’s a young New York Director called Robert Agers, who I’m a big fan of, who directed ‘The Witch’ …
Scott Menzel: Oh yes, that’s great.
Dan Stevens: And so, yeah. That’s somebody who’s on my list. And I just had the great pleasure of working with Garret Evans who directed the “Raid” movies on his new film, which will be out next year called, “Apostle” with Michael Sheen. And is somebody else, I would love to work with again. And I don’t know, to be honest. The future is an exciting prospect.
Scott Menzel: Yeah, no I think … like I said, I think you have what it takes, I think you continuously get better and better with every new role you take on, so you’re gonna be around for a very long time in this game and I really do appreciate you taking the time to give me a call back today, I really do. It meant the world. Alright, well, enjoy the premiere, good luck.
Dan Stevens: Have a Merry Christmas.
Scott Menzel: Thank you, Merry Christmas to you as well.
The Man Who Invented Christmas opens in theaters everywhere on November 22, 2017.