theatre, film & tv past and present 2001-2008 & 2013…
From whence did this rising star spring? With characteristic modesty, Stevens cites how “lucky” he has been at least five times during our conversation. “It is surreal. I’m starting to get double-takes on the tube and things, which is a bit unnerving. But that’s not really what I’m in it for, and I sort of didn’t really think about that… I don’t feel like a proper grown-up at all,” he giggles.
Despite not having seen much theatre as a child, acting has “always been a dream” and Stevens remains grateful for his parents’ support. “It’s not every parent who smiles when their child tells them they’re going to be an actor, because they know that they’re going to be supporting them for the next twenty years.”
Stevens unquestioningly chose university over drama school. An English student, he developed his acute interest in literature “with the knowledge that [Cambridge] was quite a good place to become an actor from”. Surrounded by other theatricals, it provided good preparation for the industry outside. “There was sort of a microcosm at Cambridge of the professional world, with all the competitiveness and bitchiness.”
But it isn’t every young actor who finds himself playing Macbeth to Rebecca Hall’s Lady in their first year of university. Nor do many actors have Peter Hall as the first credit on their CV.
Stevens auditioned for As You Like It during his finals, and within months of graduating began an international tour with The Peter Hall Company. “The New York audiences were phenomenal… I always remember someone on the metro recognising me and saying ‘thank you so much; you’re like a cultural Red Cross package’. They were so excited to have Shakespeare spoken by English actors.”
Similarly, you can sense the buzz that Stevens gets out of making connections with his audiences and fellow company members. He admits to feeling “a bit nervous” about working with the legendary Hall initially, “but that was instantly dispelled by the fact that he’s just a very gentle, lovely man… I think the reputation he has is probably based on something that happened in the 60s, when he was a fiery youth. He’s actually mellowing.”
Peter Hall has remained an important mentor to Stevens. Having worked together on As You Like It, Much Ado About Nothing and Hay Fever, the pair evidently get on extremely well. “It’s been nice to have him on board from an early stage so that we’ve developed a relationship together… He has a great understanding of what actors can do, and what he can’t do.”
Like Coward, Hall insists that his actors arrive off-book on the first day of rehearsals. Stevens clearly enjoys Hall’s direct approach: “He’s a very text-based director; there’s no sort of woolly philosophical frills.”
Did Stevens share the same sort of rapport with Sam West? “It’s interesting the sensitivity he brought to directing, which was very different to the sensitivity that Peter Hall has in the rehearsal room – much, much more intuitive and instinctive, which isn’t always the quickest way of getting to the direction”.
On every production that we discuss, Stevens seems drawn to the ensemble experience of performing. On The Romans in Britain: “Sam was very good at instilling that feeling of a group adventure; it was a really great ensemble – seventeen actors playing fifty-eight roles and there was no real star in that show.”
Similarly, for Stevens, Hay Fever “feels like a joint effort and a group exploration and adventure”, which Stevens obviously relishes. Was he not a little daunted working with Dench? “She’s very supportive and encouraging… incredible to watch and learn from, on stage and backstage, in the way she treats the rest of the cast and the crew… She’s just an incredibly, impossibly lovely person… I’d love to be able to dish some dirt, but there isn’t any.”
Stevens was aware of Hall’s intentions to direct Hay Fever from an early stage, and immediately informed him of his desire to play Simon. “I think he thought I was a bit mad, because he doesn’t think of it as a particularly great role. But it was a style that I was keen to try out.”
Stevens’ fascination with the English language shines through: “Coward’s not the sort of playwright that you can do your own version of, really; you can’t modernise it. You have to submit yourself to the cadences of 1920s speech.” Above all, Stevens is keen to challenge himself and experiment with different artistic and performance styles, from Shakespeare to the “kind of edgy” Romans in Britain, to Coward and now The Line of Beauty.
Shot last Autumn, the three-part drama begins this Wednesday on BBC 2. Based on Andrew Hollinghurst’s “beautiful” 2004 Man Booker Prize-winning novel, The Line of Beauty tells of sex, drugs, greed and lust in Thatcherite Britain.
Stevens stars as its lead, Nick Guest, a 21 year-old gay Oxford student, experiencing his first sexual relationship. “My Mum wasn’t hugely enthusiastic initially about The Line of Beauty, because of its subject matter”. Will she be watching? “I don’t know. I’ve had in the back of my mind that I’ll sort of pop home and break the telly before she can watch it… I’ve told them they can watch episode 3, because there’s no sex or drugs in that one”.
How does Stevens himself feel about this major television performance? “It’s the first role that I’ve actually created, as it were, rather than playing a part that lots of other people have played before, and that was very exciting.” Stevens brushes off the fierce competition for his role, again attributing his success to good fortune: “I was hugely lucky and hugely honoured to be asked to play it.”
Surprisingly, Stevens hasn’t been pushed into telly jobs by his agent, whom he describes as “very sensitive to what I want to do and to developing a long-term career. He’s not in it for the quick buck.” Stevens has clearly made smart, selective choices in his brief but brilliant career, and it has been an unusually “group effort” with his agent. “At the end of the day, I think what a lot of actors forget is that they’re employing their agent… if you don’t want to do something, you don’t have to do it”.
With feet firmly planted on the ground, Stevens is also astutely aware that “the nation’s collective memory is rather short”; he is already hungry for work beyond Hay Fever and The Line of Beauty.
So, what does the future hold for this bright young thing – are there projects in the pipeline? “Well, I’m still working on a pipe line in which to have things, at the moment”, he self-effacingly jokes. Showing palpable enthusiasm to break into film, Stevens is equally determined not to give up theatre. You get the impression that he values and earnestly learns from every professional experience. “All I’m ambitious for is variety”, he says, mentioning Ibsen, Bernard Shaw, Ayckbourn, Beckett, Pinter and Osborne, before letting slip that he’s currently looking at Jimmy Porter.
“I’d love to work with [Michael Grandage]. The legacy he left in Sheffield was a great one. People spoke very highly of him there.” On a roll, Stevens then excitedly refers to the National: “I’d love to work there, but they haven’t shown any interest yet,” he laughs modestly. Watch this space.
Rhona Foulis © 2006
Originally published on R&V 16-05-06
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