TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "DOWNTON ABBEY")
MICHELLE DOCKERY: (As Lady Mary Crawley) Oh, Matthew, you always make everything so black and white.
DAN STEVENS: (As Matthew Crawley) I think this is black and white. Do you love me enough to spend your life with me? If you don't, then say no.
GROSS: If you're a fan of the Masterpiece series "Downton Abbey," you'll recognize the voice of the dashing Matthew Crawley. He was played by our guest, Dan Stevens. His roles extend far beyond his three seasons on "Downton," which ended with a sudden and dramatic departure. We'll hear about that in a bit. Since "Downton," Stevens has played a heroin trafficker, a psychotic killer, the knight Sir Lancelot and the Beast in the live action film "Beauty And The Beast." He's currently starring in the FX series "Legion," a visually inventive drama spun off of the Marvel Comics "X-Men" series. The second season is just under way. It airs Tuesday nights at 10. In "Legion," Stevens plays a young man who's grown up thinking he has schizophrenia since he has regular hallucinations. He eventually learns he has special powers of mental telepathy and can move objects with his mind.
Stevens spoke with FRESH AIR's Dave Davies, and they began with the opening scene of the series. Steven's character, David, is in a psychiatric institution. He's being visited on his birthday by his sister Amy, played by Katie Aselton.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "LEGION")
KATIE ASELTON: (As Amy Haller) So do they let you throw a little party here or...
STEVENS: (As David Haller) Yeah. They clear out the furniture. We get a DJ.
ASELTON: (As Amy Haller) Really?
STEVENS: (As David Haller) No. We do get better drugs though.
ASELTON: (As Amy Haller) Really?
STEVENS: (As David Haller) No. It's just Thursday - my 260th Thursday as a passenger on the cruise ship mental health. On the plus side, I have mastered the art of eating with a spoon, so...
ASELTON: (As Amy Haller) You're getting better, though. The voices - you're not seeing things that aren't there.
STEVENS: (As David Haller) When can I come home?
ASELTON: (As Amy Haller) That's - what does your doctor say?
STEVENS: (As David Haller) I tell them I'm sane. They think I'm crazy. And if I say, you know what, you're right, I am crazy, then they up my dosage, so...
ASELTON: (As Amy Haller) Oh. How about I talk to them? I'll tell them you seem better to me.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) Time for your meds.
DAVE DAVIES, BYLINE: Well, Dan Stevens, welcome to FRESH AIR.
STEVENS: Thank you very much.
DAVIES: Your character, David Haller, is a young man who's spent much of his life in a mental institution, I guess. You believe you're schizophrenic. You hear voices. You have hallucinations. How did you prepare to play that kind of role?
STEVENS: One of the things that Noah and I were very keen to do was to treat the idea of mental illness with some respect. I think, you know, it's too often - it can be used as a sort of lazy narrative trope to be like, oh, this guy's crazy and now some crazy stuff is happening. And actually, what the show is trying to do, I think, is really be an experienced delivery device and to try and offer up some of what that must feel like to be David and be inside David's head and feel the things he feels, see the things he sees and hear the things he hears, the sound that it - on this show is out of this world. And, you know - and not just to sort of - not to be glib about it.
And I discovered some really surprising things, I think, in conversation particularly with some patients that I was talking to that - you know, these are very high-functioning people very often, and, you know, yes, they might be medicated, but their experience of the world is fascinating.
DAVIES: We should listen to one clip from season two. It's just underway. And this is a scene from the first episode. And a little background - the plot can get a little intricate here. But in the first season, we learned that your character, David Haller, is not actually schizophrenic but someone with these amazing powers of mental telepathy. And we also learned that your mind was sort of partially occupied since you were a kid by an evil presence, a monster, that's called the shadow monster, or Farouk at times. And he was purged at the end of season one and then occupied someone else. And what we're hearing in this scene is that you've returned to your allies in the fight against this evil force after a year in which you'd been away. And you don't really have any memory of where you've been. And here you are speaking to some androids who are on your side and, well, let's listen.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "LEGION")
STEVENS: (As David Haller) I've been someplace else and now I'm here. And we're going to find him, the Shadow King, and put a stop to all this.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) He is part of you.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character) What do they know?
STEVENS: (As David Haller) Assume everything, be honest.
Well, we were together a long time, and I can still sense him, still feel him. But right now, I think he's hiding from me. So if there was a way you could boost my signal...
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #4: (As character) We have anticipated this. Mr. Loudermilk has developed a device...
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #5: (As character) To help you recover your memories and find Farouk.
STEVENS: (As David Haller) Cary - good. That's good. So when we find him, the Shadow King, what are you going to do?
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #6: (As character) He will be terminated.
STEVENS: (As David Haller) Right, but he's in the body of a friend of mine.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #4: (As character) The scientist, Oliver Bird.
STEVENS: (As David Haller) Yes, Oliver, really - he's a good guy. You'd like him, if that's something you do. Either way, he's a hostage and we are not going to kill the hostage.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #6: (As character) The body must also be destroyed.
DAVIES: And that's our guest, Dan Stevens, from the first episode of season two of the FX series "Legion," which is just underway. It airs Tuesday nights at 10. You know, there are so many scenes in this which are these strange, kind of hallucinogenic journeys. I mean, things will happen, and as an audience member, I'm not sure whether it's reality, a dream, a flashback and it may not be clear till an episode or two later. And I'm wondering, how much did you as actors know about what was coming?
STEVENS: Very little. I mean, I think that's one of the things the show really encourages in us as performers is just a great presence of spirit and a readiness and willingness for all. And certainly in the first season, there was - it was sort of across the board this actorly need to know what year something was set in. And as somebody who's done a fair amount of historical dramas and things, you know, that can be very important sometimes. And people get very obsessive about that as part of their research. And Noah refused to answer the question, and there was definitely a sort of '60s feel to a lot of the styling and the design, but he refused to tell us when this was set. And after a while, that concern fell away. We stopped, you know, looking up 1963 as, you know, as a reference point. And it had this kind of curious effect that we just - we entered into the world of "Legion" fully. And once those concerns fell away, we really, you know, got onboard for the ride.
DAVIES: The other thing that happens in the opening episode of each season is a dance number, like a real production number. The first one is - people have compared it to a sort of a Bollywood thing in the mental institution. The one in the opener of season two is at a disco. And somehow they really work. But it's funny because you're in this drama and then suddenly actors around you suddenly break into a choreographed dance routine.
STEVENS: Yeah, yeah. I mean, I love that this show has the room for dance numbers, for music. There's singing in both seasons. And yeah, dance is an - as an expression of something that isn't necessarily achievable narratively or is achievable but has been done to death, like the idea of a psychic battle or any battle, frankly, you know. There's really not a lot of kicking and punching for a superhero show. But the idea of, you know, how do you portray that? Well, you know, a dance-off. You know, you've got the posturing and the physicality and, you know, it really, as you say, it shouldn't, but it works somehow. And it's really, really fun.
DAVIES: I also wondered if maybe there was a plan since I imagine doing these choreographed dance numbers are challenging and fun for the cast. It's a way to kind of get things started on a way that gets everybody together and moving in the same direction.
STEVENS: Absolutely. And I have been dancing in a number of different things in recent years, and it is an incredible way of breaking the ice, getting to know your co-stars. And so, yeah, for about three weeks before we went into production, Jemaine Clement, who plays Oliver, and Aubrey Plaza and myself were in rehearsal with some incredible choreographers, two guys called Rich and Tone who - they have an amazing story in themselves. They were found dancing in a club in the Bay Area in the early '90s by Michael Jackson's choreographer and invited to dance on the History Tour and since then have choreographed for every big pop act you can shake a stick at. And so they brought their style, you know, and this sort of street dance battle, posturing sort of attitude to "Legion" - on top of which they were already huge "X-Men" fans. So they were so delighted by the challenge of choreographing something for the son of Professor X. You know, this had to be just the coolest, weirdest dance battle you'd ever seen.
And, yeah, it was just three weeks of very, very intense eight-hour day dance rehearsal. And it was a great way of just mentally and physically preparing for the onslaught of five months of filming "Legion" - but, yeah, just, you know, shaking ourselves up and also hopefully shaking the audience up. Like this - you're going to see some things that you've never seen in any other TV show here. And, you know, why not lay that carpet out in the first episode?
DAVIES: Dan Stevens played Matthew Crawley on "Downton Abbey." He currently stars in the FX series "Legion." Its second season is just under way. It airs Tuesday nights at 10. We'll continue our conversation after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MGMT SONG "ELECTRIC FEEL")
DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR, and we're speaking with actor Dan Stevens. You may know him from "Downton Abbey." He currently stars in the FX series "Legion." Its second season premiered this week. It airs Tuesday nights at 10. Sometimes friends ask what interviews I have coming up, and the best way to describe you was, I'm interviewing Matthew Crawley from "Downton Abbey." You know, huge hit - the PBS series was a huge hit here in the States.
DAVIES: I got hooked. I watched every episode. Let's hear a clip. This is early in season one. And "Downton Abbey" is the estate of the Earl of Grantham who has no male heirs. You play a distant cousin, Matthew Crawley, who would be the heir. And it would make everything swell for the family and the estate if you would marry the eldest daughter, Lady Mary played by Michelle Dockery. She's a fiery independent spirit, and there's clearly an attraction. But she kind of doesn't like the fact that you don't really lead the life of an aristocrat. You actually work. You have a job. You're a lawyer.
And we're going to hear a dinner scene here where everybody in the family wants you two to hit it off. But Mary is kind of taking shots at you, and you're responding. We'll hear a little bit of Maggie Smith chiming in. She's the Earl's mom. And it begins with the Earl of Grantham speaking, played by Hugh Bonneville. And he's speaking to you, Matthew Crawley.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "DOWNTON ABBEY")
HUGH BONNEVILLE: (As Robert Crawley) By the way, if ever you want to ride, just let Lynch know, and he'll sort it out for you.
DOCKERY: (As Mary Crawley) Oh, but, Pa, Cousin Matthew doesn't ride.
STEVENS: (As Matthew Crawley) I ride.
DOCKERY: (As Mary Crawley) And do you hunt?
STEVENS: (As Matthew Crawley) No, I don't hunt.
MAGGIE SMITH: (As Violet Crawley) I dare say there's not much opportunity in Manchester.
STEVENS: (As Matthew Crawley) Are you a hunting family?
DOCKERY: (As Mary Crawley) Families like ours are always hunting families.
BONNEVILLE: (As Robert Crawley) Not always, Billy Skelton won't have them on his land.
DOCKERY: (As Mary Crawley) But all the Skeltons are mad.
STEVENS: (As Matthew Crawley) Do you hunt?
DOCKERY: (As Mary Crawley) Occasionally. I suppose you're more interested in books than country sports.
STEVENS: (As Matthew Crawley) I probably am. You'll tell me that's rather unhealthy.
DOCKERY: (As Mary Crawley) Not unhealthy - just unusual among our kind of people. I've been studying the story of Andromeda. Do you know it?
STEVENS: (As Matthew Crawley) Why?
DOCKERY: (As Mary Crawley) Her father was King Cepheus, whose country was being ravaged by storms. And in the end, he decided the only way to appease the gods was to sacrifice his eldest daughter to a hideous sea monster. So they chained her naked to a rock...
SMITH: (As Violet Crawley) Really? Mary, we'll all need our smelling salts in a minute.
STEVENS: (As Matthew Crawley) But the sea monster didn't get her, did he?
DOCKERY: (As Mary Crawley) No, just when it seemed he was the only solution to her father's problems, she was rescued.
STEVENS: (As Matthew Crawley) By Perseus.
DOCKERY: (As Mary Crawley) That's right. Perseus, son of a god - rather more fitting, wouldn't you say?
STEVENS: (As Matthew Crawley) That depends. I'd have to know more about the princess and sea monster in question.
DAVIES: Ouch. That's our guest Dan Stevens in a scene from "Downton Abbey." This is a fun relationship to follow. I think I read you said that - you know, there's a lot of dinner scenes here where people really get dressed up and do dinner - you know, the family of the Earl. You said these scenes were tough, torturous. Why?
STEVENS: They were only because there's a large number of casts set around a very large table in a very dark, smoky room. And so you have to film - you know, if so-and-so is - you know, Maggie Smith is talking to Michelle Dockery, you've got to film over Maggie Smith's shoulder and Michelle's shoulder. Then you've got to shoot over Hugh Bonneville's shoulder and my shoulder and anybody else who's talking. And so the camera has to, you know, do several takes over each shoulder, as it were, and go round the table.
It can just take a very long time. And I don't think after a few years very few people enjoyed shooting those scenes. But when you see them on the screen, they are some of the most entertaining because of scenes like that, where it's just a fantastic back-and-forth - you know, with a line thrown in from Maggie Smith. And, yeah, it's where a lot of witty repertoire takes place.
DAVIES: The series is so much about class relationships around the turn of the century. You grew up in a middle-class family and then went to Tonbridge, which was sort of, you know, a more - I don't know - I guess a different kind of school. Did you feel like you were encountering a different world - a different kind of class environment?
STEVENS: Yeah, I mean, I've been lucky in my life that I've moved around, you know, all different sort of classes and people from all backgrounds. And I really - I've really enjoyed that experience, I think. And not everybody gets that experience. And, you know, England is - it's a strange little country, really. And it's a mad collection of islands, the British Isles. And there are some very, very strange ways there. And, you know, the class division is so deeply embedded. And, you know, there is such hideous snobbery.
It's something that I think everybody over there has experienced in some way from whatever background they are from. And, yeah, I think, you know, it was a really fun show from that point of view - to explore those and to explode some of those - some of those things that, you know, happen to this day - obviously to a different degree. But there is - yeah, that snobbery is definitely pervasive in that society for sure.
DAVIES: Well, fans of the show will remember what happens at the end of season three, which I think airs right around Christmas - is you just very suddenly die in a car crash - single car accident at the end.
DAVIES: Just describe the reaction. Was it actually Christmas Eve or Christmas Day that this was broadcasted?
STEVENS: I think it was Christmas Day. And I think what made it almost more punishing was the fact that the previous season had ended. We did a Christmas special. I don't think the first season had a Christmas special, as far as I remember. But the second season, we had this extra episode on Christmas Day, and there'd been this beautiful proposal, you know, the most ultraromantic scene that "Downton" could produce - you know, Matthew Crawley kneeling in the snow, you know, proposing to Lady Mary. And it was so rosy and golden, and it was just a really lovely Christmas episode. And everyone though, aw, that's nice. And so the following year, I thought, wow, you know, that seemed to go well; let's do another Christmas special. But, of course, they had to dispatch of Matthew somehow. And yeah, I didn't know when they were going to do it in the season.
I kept waiting for the script to come in where he was going to - I don't know - go hiking in the Himalayas and, you know, fall off a cliff or something or, you know, get gored by a stag in the Scottish Highlands. And nothing came, nothing came. And then this script came in and - so Mary had been pregnant, and the baby was born. And the initial script was, the family went to the hospital to visit Mary and baby George, who was named before the royal baby George, incidentally - so, you know, trendsetting there. And the family went to visit the baby and Mary, and they were all coming out of the hospital. And I think Matthew was talking to his mother, maybe, or - he was talking to somebody, and he had a line like, I've never been happier in my life. And he stepped off a curb and was hit by a grocery truck.
STEVENS: And everybody - so the script came round. I think it was - I can't remember if it was emailed or put in our trailers as - in the paper form, but simultaneously, everybody grabbed the script, ran back to their trailers, read through it. And it was almost simultaneously, you had people just running out of trailers saying, no way, no way. And there was a sort of mass revolt that this was just too - this was too much. It was too shocking, and it was insane. And I think had that been the version, it would've upset even more people than the eventual draft, which was only the second version. It was that, you know, he was going to be driving away, I think, you know, in his AC and, you know, was clearly gloriously happy and wind blowing in his floppy blonde hair and, you know - and then got into an automobile accident instead. But it was only marginally less shocking than the original plan.
DAVIES: Well, so it happens. Everybody's watching. They're feeling great. They're sipping their eggnog or whatever. And then you just - blop (ph) - you die. And the reaction was just overwhelming. And a couple of tweets - one person tweeted, I'm 100 percent done with this show; I can't breathe.
DAVIES: Another one - my mom cried. My cat cried. What the hell? My whole life is ruined.
I will admit that I stole those from an episode of "The Graham Norton Show," which you appeared on.
STEVENS: Right, right.
DAVIES: ...In which they talked about this. So...
DAVIES: Yeah. How do you react to that?
STEVENS: I mean, there's a number of different ways you can react to that. I suppose, initially, it was - you know, it was upsetting to me that I had upset so many people. I, you know, habitually don't like upsetting people. I don't mind sort of putting people at their unease sometimes and, you know, surprising and disturbing people. But if I'm actively making people's grandmothers cry, you know, that's not a great thing. It's not something I'm hugely proud of. But I think it was just - it's a testament to how much people cared about that character and about that relationship and how invested they were in the show. You know, it's a rare thing that people get so into a character like that. And yeah, I guess, you know, I'm sorry.
STEVENS: You know, I get guys - particularly, guys who want to tell me how upset their wife was, which is usually code for, you made me cry, and I'm not going to fess up to that, but my wife was very upset.
GROSS: We're listening to the interview FRESH AIR's Dave Davies recorded with Dan Stevens, who stars in the FX series "Legion" and played Matthew Crawley in "Downton Abbey." We'll hear more of the interview after a break. Also, film critic David Edelstein will review the new comedy "Blockers," and jazz critic Kevin Whitehead will review a concert recording by pianist Martial Solal. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to the interview FRESH AIR's Dave Davies recorded with actor Dan Stevens. In "Downton Abbey," he played Matthew Crawley. Now he stars in the FX series "Legion," which has started its second season.
DAVIES: You starred in the live-action version of the "Beauty And The Beast," directed by Bill Condon, which was - had to be an interesting challenge because there are your - you know, it's the fairy tale, but it's not animated. I mean, you actually have to be, like, a 7-foot-tall beast. What kind of challenges did that present, just physically?
STEVENS: Yeah, I mean, that was - it was a whole barrel of challenges, really. And I think not only just the responsibility of portraying an iconic fairy tale character that's already been adapted so many times in many different ways, but all - you know, particularly in the animated version - bringing that to life in a way that had never been done before using technology that has been used in parts in other movies but, you know, never in this way for a lead romantic role - a lead romantic role that's singing.
And, you know, because of the, as you say, the size that was required - a lead romantic role singing and dancing on stilts, and so we had a, you know, a motion-capture suit that was capturing, you know, the physical orientation of the Beast on the set. And then every week or 10 days, I would go into a booth, and they would capture the facial expressions separately. And so I would play all of the scenes twice, and they would convert the facial expressions into the Beast's face and then map that onto the Beast that they captured in motion capture, which is a more conventional way of doing that kind of thing. You know, they would fuse them together at a later stage.
And so just the leap of imagination and the faith that we were all putting in these digital wizards to sort of create this beast was huge. And I'd never done anything like it before. I don't think anybody had. And, you know, I spoke to some actors who have worked in this kind of thing before, Benedict Cumberbatch, Andy Serkis was very generous with his time. And, you know, they were they encouraging about their experience.
I spoke to Mark Ruffalo, who, you know, obviously, he's used something similar, playing the Hulk in the "Avengers" movies. And he said - I described to him the way that we were trying to do the Beast, and it was this long pause on the phone. He just went, no, no, that's - that's impossible. That's impossible. You've got to tell them to do it a different way. And this was like the Friday before we were going into production. And I was like, I don't think they're going to listen to me, Mark.
DAVIES: And you had fangs. Did you have to speak through fangs?
STEVENS: Not on the day. We were exploring - at one stage, we were exploring a prosthetic route for creating this Beast. And yeah, this incredible dental technician came and fitted me for these brilliant fangs that just - you know, they were great. And they were quite easy to talk with, but we didn't need them for the rendering in the end. But I had them to play with. And so I got to - in preproduction just got to sort of take them away and play with them and think about how this very, very vain young man, this sort of an arrogant prince would have shaped his mouth if he was sort of trying to hide these things and encourage this very sort of downturned mouth and this sort of, you know, and that sort of tilted the larynx a bit. And then it sort of developed this beastly voice who was just sort of incredibly miserable, unhappy and posh. And, you know, and that's really where the Beast's voice came from was just sort of playing around with his fangs.
STEVENS: And it was - and that was great fun, too. So, you know, in that sense, I was incorporating some of my voice work that I used to sort of do in the audio booth, where I would sort of pull extraordinary faces to achieve some of these voices that I was playing. And I got to sort of do that in person for once, which was really fun.
DAVIES: Well, you also had to sing. And I thought we should listen to a little bit of this. This is the Beast, played by our guest, Dan Stevens, in the film "Beauty And The Beast." The song is "Evermore." Let's listen to a bit of this.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "EVERMORE")
STEVENS: (As Beast, singing) I was the one who had it all. I was the master of my fate. I never needed anybody in my life. I learned the truth too late. I'll never shake away the pain. I close my eyes, but she's still there. I let her steal into my melancholy heart. It's more than I can bear. Now I know she'll never leave me, even as she runs away. She will still torment me, calm me, hurt me, move me, come what may. Wasting in my lonely tower, waiting by an open door. I'll fool myself, she'll walk right in and be with me for evermore. I rage against the trials of love...
DAVIES: That's Dan Stevens singing. Your wife is a professional singer. Susie Hariet, right? Jazz singer.
STEVENS: Yeah, well, Susie Stevens now.
STEVENS: That's how she likes to go these days.
DAVIES: Did she work with you on this?
STEVENS: She did. She coached me for the initial audition, where I sang the Beast's song from the stage musical because he doesn't sing in the animated film. But there was a song for the stage musical that didn't quite fit narratively with how they wanted to tell the story this time around. And so Alan Menken just leapt at the opportunity to write a new ballad for the Beast at this incredible mournful point in the story. Yeah. And by the time we got the new song along, I was put in touch with Susie's vocal coach from the Royal Academy of Music in London, Anne-Marie Speed, who is an incredible woman and just enabled me to access the musculature of my voice in a way that I had only ever dreamed of.
And as I say, I've always enjoyed voice work and vocal work and changing my voice and doing things with my voice but didn't really know what I was doing. I was just sort of doing it instinctively by ear. And she was able to sort of connect me with actually what's going on in the voice. She works with this amazing method called the Estill voice method. And it really is about just sort of using the musculature of the voice. And it stops being in the head and just starts being a sort of, you know, muscle memory, as it were, and getting to know a song with your muscles. I don't know a better way to describe it really. But she helped with the, you know, development of the Beast voice but also, you know, then how he was going to sing in that voice. And a lot of people think that it's sort of, you know, it's massively distorted or whatever, and it's not. It's, you know, it's the Beast, you know.
DAVIES: You also voice audiobooks. You've done 30 of them. Is this right?
STEVENS: I think maybe more than that, yeah. I haven't done any for a little while, but I used to do a lot when I lived in London, yeah.
DAVIES: So what's the appeal?
STEVENS: I've always loved - I've loved listening to audiobooks since I was a child. I love reading. I love reading aloud. I think it's a great exercise and a great skill that I've always enjoyed working at. I've always enjoyed doing, you know, myriad voices. And that's not always something that I can do in my physical life as an actor. You know, there's not every role that, you know, enables me to do that. And, you know, some of them are terrible. And the only place I can let them out is in an audio booth.
DAVIES: Some of your voices are terrible?
STEVENS: Oh, yeah, sure. But, you know, when there's a book that requires 75 different accents, you know, some of them are going to be terrible, but that's OK. But it's a very intimate experience. I think, you know as you probably know from working in radio, you know, alone in a booth with a microphone is - it's a singular thing. And, you know, when I meet people who are audiophiles, audiobookphiles (ph) if that's a word - probably not - but, you know, people who enjoy that experience of sitting with a reader in their headphones, whether it's on the way to work or in the bath or something, you know, you have a very intimate relationship with your listener. And you're creating a world for them and for yourself with pure imagination sitting there with a book, you know, often with great writing, which I enjoy. And, you know, conjuring this world for them with the voice alone is a great - it's a great privilege. And it's - yeah, it's something I've always really enjoyed.
DAVIES: Well, a thing a lot of people probably don't know about you is that you, one year, became a judge for the Man Booker Prize, which is, you know, England's most respected literary award for which you read 147 books. Is this right?
STEVENS: Yeah, in seven months. It's not something I would recommend (laughter).
DAVIES: And you have little kids at home during this?
STEVENS: I did, yeah. In fact, during that year - so it was 2012 that we judged that, and I think we started reading them towards the end of 2011. My wife was pregnant with our second child. I was shooting the third season of "Downton." I was producing a movie and, yeah, trying to read 147 books, you know, for the Booker Prize. And, you know, there's a panel of five judges. And it was myself and four very esteemed literary, you know, people from the, you know, English literary scene. There were professors and critics and, you know, massive brains and me just sitting there throwing in my six pence of what I thought of these books.
But it was an honor to be asked and an amazing challenge. And yeah, I don't know if I would do it again in a hurry, but I'm really glad that I did it because it really - it changed the way that I think about literature. And, you know, just for one year, looking at the landscape of literature and what makes great literary fiction, you know, there really are no rules to that prize. You're just looking for the greatest work of literary fiction that year, which - whatever that means. And that means something different to everybody, I think. So trying to reach a consensus on that was an incredible task.
DAVIES: Dan Stevens, thanks so much for speaking with us. It's been fun.
STEVENS: Thank you.
GROSS: Dan Stevens is now starring in the FX series "Legion." He spoke with FRESH AIR's Dave Davies, who is also WHYY's senior reporter. After a break, Kevin Whitehead will review a new concert recording by pianist Martial Solal. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONNY ROLLINS' "SKYLARK")
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. The teen sex comedy "Blockers" opens in theaters this week. It's directed by "30 Rock" and "Pitch Perfect" writer Kay cannon and stars Leslie Mann, John Cena and Ike Barinholtz as parents trying to stop their daughters from having sex on prom night. Film critic David Edelstein has this review.
DAVID EDELSTEIN, BYLINE: "Blockers" is a pushy, raunchy, loud sex comedy that works like gangbusters. What's novel is that it has two diametrically opposed sets of protagonists - three close but very different teenage girls who make a pact to lose their virginity after senior prom and three parents, two men, one woman, who embark on a hysterical odyssey to stop the plan from reaching fruition.
If you think the parents' behavior and indeed the whole premise sounds reactionary in this day and age, you're not alone. That's why the parents are pretty much the butt of all the jokes and why they're constantly getting lectured, not just by kids but also other adults. They're told they're applying a different standard to daughters than sons, and they know that. They're dumb, but they're not stupid. And still, they go forward, enacting some ancient guardianship ritual that feels right even when it's wrong, which is incredibly funny if they're not your parents, anyway.
"Blockers" is the directorial debut of Kay Cannon, who wrote "Pitch Perfect." I'd burn my boats and say she's the best thing to happen to comedy in years if she hadn't also written "Pitch Perfect 2" and 3, which stunk. But on the evidence, she's a sensational director. You can tell she has a background in comedy improv because of how free the actors seem. Brian and Jim Kehoes' script is good, but it's the giddy, all-in performances that put every scene over the top.
Jabbering Leslie Mann hasn't been this wonderful since "Knocked Up." She's Lisa, the single mom of Julie, the girl who informs her friends she's having sex with a guy she loves after prom. John Cena, the ex-wrestler with the sweet face and humongous upper body, is Mitchell, dad of Kayla, who says she'll also have sex on prom night, though with her ponytailed lab partner she barely knows. Ike Barinholtz is Hunter, the divorced, alcoholic, largely absent dad of Sam, the girl who vows to sleep with a boy, even though she's plainly in love with another girl at the school. The three parents are together when Julie's laptop computer chimes.
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LESLIE MANN: (As Lisa) Julie left her laptop open.
IKE BARINHOLTZ: (As Hunter) You guys are snooping on our kids?
JOHN CENA: (As Mitchell) No.
MANN: (As Lisa) We don't understand what they're saying, so it's not snooping.
BARINHOLTZ: (As Hunter) Oh, oh, I love puzzles, just saw "Inferno."
CENA: (As Mitchell) Yeah, great. What did they say?
MANN: (As Lisa) OK, so there's something about an eggplant handshake.
BARINHOLTZ: (As Hunter) Eggplant agreement.
CENA: (As Mitchell) Yeah. They got an agreement to make eggplant parmesan.
BARINHOLTZ: (As Hunter) No, eggplants are [expletive] in teenage emoji language.
CENA: (As Mitchell) What?
MANN: (As Lisa) You know what? That's true. Julie told me that, that the emojis have - they all have secret meanings. So, like, trees are weed and snowflakes are cocaine and that thing is yasss (ph) queen.
BARINHOLTZ: (As Hunter) Yasss queen.
CENA: (As Mitchell) Wait, what the hell is that?
BARINHOLTZ: (As Hunter) You've never heard of yasss queen?
CENA: (As Mitchell) No.
BARINHOLTZ: (As Hunter) All right, grandpa.
MANN: (As Lisa) This is sex if I've ever seen it illustrated in emoji form.
CENA: (As Mitchell) Oh, no, no, no, maybe not. They're best friends. They're just saying like, you're OK with me. You're OK to me.
EDELSTEIN: John Cena is more a face-puller than actor, but he's so dopey and vulnerable that it doesn't matter. My hat is off to him for the scene in which he's forced to participate in a sort of backwards beer-chugging contest. Never mind. I also won't spoil the movie's slapstick high point, which involves near-naked grown-ups with blindfolds. But I'll say the cameos of Gary Cole and Gina Gershon kill, and kill again and keep killing in your head when the movie's over. And then there's the scene in which Lisa leans over the wheel in pursuit of the girls and their dates in a limo while Hunter urges her on.
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BARINHOLTZ: (As Hunter) I have seen every single "Fast & Furious" movie - OK? - all of them, dozens of times. Have you seen any of them?
MANN: (As Lisa) I saw the Tokyo one, and I saw the one where The Rock punches the torpedo.
BARINHOLTZ: (As Hunter) Well, those are the best two to see. OK. In times like this, I ask myself one question. WWVDD? You know what that means?
MANN: (As Lisa) What would Vin Diesel do?
BARINHOLTZ: (As Hunter) No one's ever gotten that before. OK. What we're going to do - we're going to kiss the bumper. You give it a little tap, and then they're going to spin and stop, and we're going to spin and stop the other way. And we're going to look at each other, and we're going to go, it's all about the family.
MANN: (As Lisa) Wait, I don't feel comfortable running the kids off the road.
BARINHOLTZ: (As Hunter) This slow and unfurious attitude is not helping us. You have to believe.
MANN: (As Lisa) OK.
BARINHOLTZ: (As Hunter) Kiss it.
EDELSTEIN: Ike Barinholtz might be the breakout star of "Blockers." At any given moment, his face is doing five different things, all of which are funny and some of which are alarming, since he looks dissipated, haunted, like a human car wreck. And the three girls - Kathryn Newton as Julie, Geraldine Viswanathan as Kayla, and Gideon Adlon as Sam - are so superbly self-possessed that even I, father of two teenage girls, felt reasonably comfortable with most of their decisions, though their projectile vomiting from drugs and drinking had me thinking about texting my kids.
The best thing about "Blockers" is for all its high-velocity raunch, there's something fundamentally healthy about the way these kids and their parents act out. Lisa wants to save her daughter from making the mistakes that she, Lisa, did. Stereotypical strong dad Mitchell is warped by his own strength. He's so muscle-bound, he can barely move. Hunter is trying to correct for a lifetime of errors in one night. The movie has the quality of an ancient bacchanalian comedy in which humans are reckless fools, but the forgiving spirit of comedy itself leaves the characters in one piece and the audience exhausted from laughing.
GROSS: David Edelstein is film critic for New York magazine. If you'd like to catch up on FRESH AIR interviews you missed, like this week's interviews with former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright about her new book, "Fascism: A Warning," and with Mark Oliver Everett, the founder of the band Eels, check out our podcast. You'll find lots of FRESH AIR interviews. FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Mooj Zadie, Thea Chaloner and Seth Kelley. I'm Terry Gross.
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