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After his movie-stealing role in Eurovision Song Contest, Dan Stevens is eager to do more comedy, especially musical comedy, but until then, he’s returning to the genre that launched his film career via 2014’s The Guest. Stevens’ latest brush with horror-thriller comes in the form of Dave Franco’s directorial debut, The Rental, which chronicles a weekend getaway among four friends at an Airbnb-type vacation rental. The English actor plays Charlie, a successful business owner, husband and brother, who seemingly has a picture-perfect life until circumstances reveal a pattern of immorality.
For Stevens, the film allowed him the opportunity to explore subjects that have long fascinated him including mass surveillance and modern technology’s impact on privacy.
“I’ve been very interested in it intellectually since its inception, really, and I’ve very much grown up in that generation of people who are old enough to remember life without… a camera in our laptop, our phone and everywhere,” Stevens tells The Hollywood Reporter. “And I think social media and all of this stuff is sort of a social experiment that nobody really asked for but has just kind of happened. How that’s evolved, how that’s warping our real-world interactions, and sometimes government policy, is pretty fascinating. It’s occupying a lot of my thoughts even now.”
In 2014, Stevens delivered a star-making performance in Adam Wingard and Simon Barrett’s cult hit, The Guest, and genre fans have been clamoring for a sequel ever since. While there’s a desire to work together again, Stevens indicates that it’s not strictly limited to The Guest.
“Unfortunately, Adam is a little busy with some giant apes and monsters at the moment [Godzilla vs. Kong],” Stevens explains. “But we’ve all sort of been looking at ways we can get back together in some way, and I think it will happen as soon as we can make it happen. I don’t know about whether that will necessarily be a sequel to The Guest. I don’t know how that would look, but we’ve got a few other things up our sleeves, perhaps, before then.”
In a recent conversation with THR, Stevens also reflects on 2017’s Beauty and the Beast, the unmade Gareth Evans movie he still hopes to make and his first drive-in experience at The Rental premiere.
Between The Rental, The Guest, Apostle and a couple others, I’m noticing a through-line that your characters aren’t very good houseguests. Have you also recognized this pattern?
(Laughs.) I hadn’t, no, but that’s interesting. I think it’s only over time that these patterns emerged. I pride myself on being an excellent houseguest myself. So, maybe I’m exploring the flipside through my work.
How did your first drive-in premiere go for The Rental? You’ll certainly never forget it.
Yeah, it was actually my first time at a drive-in, full stop. Yeah, it was extremely memorable, and a friend lent us a convertible for the night, so I got to really get the full drive-in experience. But it was strange… I felt for Dave because obviously, your directorial debut is supposed to premiere in theaters, and you’re kind of thinking you’re going to have the usual red carpet thing. But I think it was just that. That would’ve just been the usual fare. And actually, this was extraordinary, and there was a real sense of optimism and defiance about it. As safe as it could be, people wanted to get out and experience something collectively. I think The Rental is great drive-in fare, and I was surprised by how well the movie played in that format. I’d really love to go and see something else at the drive-in now. I think it’s great fun.
What was the crux of Dave’s pitch to you?
I was intrigued by the fact that he wanted to do a genre film. I think a lot of people were expecting him to do something in the comedy space. But he had this pretty serious and quite scary idea that was rooted in some quite real paranoid concerns about the modern world, one of them being this strange world we’re in now where — well, until recently — you could just click on an app and get the keys to somebody else’s house. You can just go in there and behave in ways that you might not behave in your own home. But also this idea of surveillance culture and how much we’re being watched and how that sort of feeds into our paranoia. I think some of the best horror genre films, they do prey on those kind of very real-world fears and obviously take them and warp them into more playful and interesting ways.
The Orwellian term “Big Brother” has long been synonymous with mass surveillance by the government, but what makes this movie so terrifying is that modern technology can turn any ordinary citizen with a credit card into a Big Brother of sorts. Did this movie frighten you in that sense since privacy is waning and has been for some time?
Yeah, we’re all walking around with cameras in our pockets now. Yeah, it’s something I’m constantly fascinated with. I’ve been very interested in it intellectually since its inception, really, and I’ve very much grown up in that generation of people who are old enough to remember life without all this. You know, without a camera in our laptop, our phone and everywhere. So, seeing how that has changed the way that we behave, but also just online, the illusion of anonymity and how that’s warping people’s behavior. So, the fact that somebody on Twitter with some sort of supposedly anonymous handle can just write whatever bile they feel like, it’s a pretty dark chapter for humanity. And I think social media and all of this stuff is sort of a social experiment that nobody really asked for but has just kind of happened. How that’s evolved, how that’s warping our real-world interactions, and sometimes government policy, is pretty fascinating. It’s occupying a lot of my thoughts even now.
Because of current events, I can’t help but view entertainment through our present-day lens. And among the points that have struck me the most is that it’s not enough to be not racist; it’s important to be anti-racist. So, when Mina (Sheila Vand) questions Taylor (Toby Huss) over rental housing discrimination, the three other characters stood out to me because they were silent throughout the argument. Is the state of the world also changing the way you perceive your own work as well as entertainment in general?
Yeah, I mean, the front end of the movie, really, is sort of dominated by that question, and you’re right. Those other characters are silent in the face of that. There’s a question of, “Is Mina objecting too much?” or “Is this rooted in some sort of truth?” And of course, it is, but they don’t see that. And actually, watching that sequence at the drive-in the other night, it did have a sort of, I guess, renewed resonance. But a huge part of making the movie was talking to Sheila about her experiences as an Iranian-American and the prejudice that she’s experienced in so many different ways. It’s not always overtly hostile, but it’s the more sort of insidious and subtle ways that can actually be just as damaging and deep-rooted and part of that systemic racism.
I loved the bro wordplay scene between Charlie and Josh (Jeremy Allen White), especially “Broseph Gordon-Levitt.” Was the bro back-and-forth scripted because I’m already attached to the idea of Franco and Joe Swanberg playing this game together while writing?
Some of it was, yeah. I don’t know if they are friends with him or whether they had a nod. I know that we had some other improvs in there. I think “Scarlett Brohansson” didn’t make the cut, but there were a few that we were playing with.
That exchange also helped sell me on the notion of you and Jeremy being brothers. Since independent film rarely affords you the time to connect with someone who’s playing a partner, best friend or family member, do you often worry about whether you’re able to convey a sense of history between your characters and those closest to them?
That’s a good question. Often, that is left to chance or to the people who are putting the movie together, whether it’s the director, the casting director or the producers. They have a sense that these two or three actors will get along. In this case, it was really four. We had to have a sense of history between all four of us. I had a couple of mutual friends with Dave and Ali (Alison Brie), and so there was a sort of mutual assurance that we’d get along. I didn’t know Jeremy. Sheila and I had met previously through Ben Sinclair, creator of High Maintenance. We had been introduced in Brooklyn, and we had just a brief interaction a couple years ago. She seemed really, really great, but I hadn’t sort of thought any more of it. Then the opportunity came up to work with her, and I thought she was great in A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night. So, you suspect that you’ll get along with people when you’re working with them, but there’s no telling and it’s part of the sort of lottery and the weird alchemy of moviemaking, really. Fortunately, with someone like Jeremy, he’s just so easygoing, and he’s a very easy guy to get along with and immediately pop up a relationship with.
Charlie wasn’t that supportive of his brother’s relationship with Mina. If Josh has had such a troubled life, shouldn’t Charlie want Mina’s presence and influence in his life?
Yeah, it’s interesting, you know, that question of brothers. It’s something that’s come up again a little bit recently — and I think Dave Franco is no stranger to this question, either. What is it like when your brother does something extremely stupid or in the case of Charlie, something pretty objectionable and awful? I’ve had a couple of friends who have been in this situation or situations like it. In this case, it’s always brothers, for some reason, but I’m sure it happens with sisters, too. When somebody you are a blood relative of does something unspeakable, how does that affect your relationship? How does that affect your positioning in the world? And there’s the stuff that rains down on you, perhaps unfairly, just because of your shared surname. I think they’re interesting questions to be looked at, and in the wider world right now, I think we’re all facing situations where family members of ours are holding views that we don’t share and it takes a lot of unpacking. There’s a lot of awkward conversations to be had.
I recently watched your work as Drew Cola in Lucy in the Sky, and then I debated with a friend as to whom we felt the most sorry for: Drew or ‘Dirtbag’ Danny from Her Smell. While my pick was Drew, I’m curious to hear your take on this pressing matter.
(Laughs.) That is a very good question. They’re both slightly pitiful characters, I suppose. ‘Dirtbag’ Danny, I don’t think you should feel too sorry for him. Whatever the prequel to Her Smell was, ‘Dirtbag’ Danny, no doubt, earned that name in some pretty horrible ways. I think Drew Cola, “the nicest guy at NASA,” was what we used to call him. There’s just that guy who just loves his job, loves his wife and everything’s going great. And so, I suppose I’d probably feel a little more sorry for him despite how shortsighted he is.
Regarding Her Smell, was that scene with the shaman a wild thing to be a part of since Elisabeth Moss was basically possessed by her character?
Yeah, I mean, that whole shoot was pretty wild. It was a great one to be involved in. I think Elisabeth Moss is one of the great actresses of our generation, and she really threw herself into that role, quite literally in some of the scenes. It was just incredible to witness some of the insanity of that movie. I was very lucky to be a part of that one.
Dan, what do I have to do, who do I have to call to get a sequel to The Guest?
(Laughs.) Well, I suppose it starts with Simon (Barrett) and Adam (Wingard). Unfortunately, Adam is a little busy with some giant apes and monsters at the moment [Godzilla vs. Kong]. But we’ve all sort of been looking at ways we can get back together in some way, and I think it will happen as soon as we can make it happen. I don’t know about whether that will necessarily be a sequel to The Guest. I don’t know how that would look, but we’ve got a few other things up our sleeves, perhaps, before then.
My mother would never forgive me if I didn’t ask the following question: Just how close were you to appearing in the Downton Abbey movie via flashback?
(Laughs.) I mean, that’s really a question for Julian Fellowes. I would suggest the answer would be “not very.” (Laughs.) But yeah, I don’t see how that would have happened, really. Yeah, that’s a Julian Fellowes question.
I was quite fond of your Netflix movie Apostle. Given the material, did that shoot put you through the wringer?
It did. That was a really tough one. I mean, it was great. I got to work with Gareth (Evans), an incredible cast and a great crew down in Wales, a place that I absolutely adore. But just the nature of the movie, it was pretty gruesome and grueling. Some quite extreme setups. But it was great to get to work with Gareth Evans; I’m a huge, huge fan of his. That really came out of a conversation about another movie that we’ve still yet to shoot, which is a bigger project a bit further down the line. But he said, “Look, in the meantime, before I get that one off the ground, I’ve got this crazy idea. What do you think?” So, it was a great way to start our relationship off and now that we’ve been through that, I don’t think there’s anything we can’t achieve, really.
Now that you’re a few years removed from Beauty and the Beast, what is your current perspective on your time as Beast?
Oh, it’s amazing how that movie has gone around the world and how it’s been enjoyed. And for my kids, as well, just an amazing thing to have done for them. And also, to get to work in that sort of space of technology, really. That kind of motion capture with the facial capture that they use is really breaking new ground. It’s obviously been used a little bit in other things since, but it really felt like we were at the cutting edge of something. And that’s something I’d be very, very keen to explore again. Just an incredible experience.
At the time of this interview, Eurovision has yet to premiere on Netflix, but it looks like you had a ton of fun playing Alexander Lemtov. Is this the most comedic work you’ve ever done? Are you hoping to do more comedy in the future?
It’s up there, for sure. I love getting my teeth into comedy, and it’s something I’m looking to do more of — a musical comedy, especially. I’m a huge fan of Will Ferrell, always have been. This was just so much fun and so silly. It’s a pretty joyous film, I think. It’s just pure silliness.
The Rental is available in drive-ins, select theaters and on demand July 24.
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