Mr. Stevens said he has always wanted to spend some “serious” time in New York. “It’s such a creative place,” he noted. “It’s frenetic and energetic and can be very confusing. At the same time, if you’re as busy as I am, the city fits around you. I’ve been here at quieter points in my life and I just thought, ‘Wow, these guys move fast,’ and this time I’m like ‘Hmm, yeah, this seems about my pace.’
“It’s a mad, mad city but I’m in a mad place at the minute.”
Mr. Stevens’s rise has been remarkably steady. Adopted at birth, he gained an academic scholarship to a prestigious English academy, where at 13 he landed the role of Macbeth in the school play, beating out children five years older than him for the part. His audition has since been written about by the director, Jonathan Smith, his former teacher, now a friend and the author of Summer in February. Mr. Smith is one of two major figures who have undeniably assisted his ever-inflating career
The other is Sir Peter Hall.
After high school, Mr. Stevens studied English at Cambridge, where he began to shed his “willfully difficult” attitude, and discovered comedy. Performing with the prestigious sketch group the Cambridge Footlights, he also tried stand-up and began venturing to London to entertain rooms of as few as 12 people. “I never aspired to be a stand-up comedian, but I always wanted to try it,” he said. Admittedly, many of his appearancesfell “flat on their face,” but even that, he said, was an experience.
While at Cambridge, Mr. Stevens impressed as Macbeth again, this time alongside Rebecca Hall, the daughter of Sir Peter, a founding member of the Royal Shakespeare Company, who naturally came to watch. The man has seen “the Scottish play” plenty of times; he’s not easily impressed.
Sir Peter Hall subsequently gave Mr. Stevens his first West End debut and his first West End lead, casting him in four productions in total, including Orlando in As You Like It, which eventually transferred to New York. Four years later came Downton. Now, here he is again.
“You have to remember the people to be thankful to along the way,” Mr. Stevens said with signature humility. “But I always maintained a degree of self-belief.”
No doubt that’s getting easier, what with the rapturous reception Downton has enjoyed.
“I remember, we had the staff from Buckingham Palace come and visit the set,” Mr. Stevens recalled. “They serve in the royal household, and they said every Sunday night—I think they all live on the top floor, in the servants’ quarters of Buckingham Palace—they all gather in one room and watch the show. That is astonishing.”
Whether another season of Downton will come to pass is anyone’s guess. He’s a little coy about the subject.
“If I was given the opportunity to work more here, I would take it,” he said, an admission that, while benign, seems guaranteed to chill the blood of Downton fanatics. Then he added, meaningfully, “I think it will all become clear.”
A week after our breakfast, Mr. Stevens emailed as he was returning from London, where he’d just presented Hilary Mantel with her Man Booker prize. He was due back in New York that evening and expected on stage to recommence previews for The Heiress. He was exhausted.
“Last night was momentous,” he wrote. “[I’m] celebrating the end of an extraordinarily challenging few months.”