BEVERLY HILLS, CALIFORNIA - When Dan Stevens met his "Beauty and the Beast'' co-star Emma Watson in pre-production, she wanted to get to work analyzing the story and the themes. He just wanted to talk about her U.N. speech about gender inequality.
"It was so impressive and so mighty in its message. I was so blown away by it,'' Stevens said recently.
He quickly realized that her ideas actually did apply to the film too. Between the spoiled Beast, the sleazy Gaston, the gracious Maurice and others, Stevens began to think about just how many different types of masculinity are on display in the film, which opens in theaters Friday.
"Looking at these little elements of the patriarchy that she can smash through on her quest through the movie and the challenges presented to her as a girl, they tally so beautifully with Emma's project,'' Stevens said. "I love storytelling and fairy tale and myth and getting to grips with those fundamental elements is something that I really get a kick out of.''
At 34, Stevens is perhaps still best known for his role as Matthew Crawley on the PBS period series "Downton Abbey,'' which he somewhat infamously left five years ago to pursue other things stateside. In the interim, the English actor has found roles in edgy indies, like the home invasion thriller "The Guest,'' and even in campier family fare like "Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb'' as the overconfident Lancelot.
Now Stevens is on the verge of becoming a household name with a leading role on FX's edgy comic book series "Legion'' and, of course, "Beauty and the Beast'' - by far his highest profile role since "Downton.'' Ironically it's also one where his face is largely hidden for most of the film.
"It's still my face driving it,'' Stevens said, insisting that his friends and family have said they can definitely tell its him behind the facial capture technology that turns the blonde-hair blue-eyed human male into a horned and hairy beast.
Besides, it allowed him to focus on the performance in the eyes - something he studied in Jean Marais' performance in Jean Cocteau's 1946 version of ""Beauty and the Beast'' to prepare.
"It was very important to me to preserve the beast's soul through the eyes,'' Stevens said. ``It's kind of the last human quality that he has shining through.''
As a father to three children with wife and singer Susie Hariet - Willow (7), Aubrey (4), and Eden (10 months) - Stevens has an added interest in balancing hard R-rated genre work with more family-friendly fare.
"I almost certainly would have said yes to this whether I had kids or not, but it is a big factor and informs some of my choices for sure these days,'' the actor said.
He would often bring his kids to the "Beauty and the Beast'' set to see him in action.
"I love it when crew members or other cast members bring their kids on,'' he said. "It helps you remember why you're making it and who you're making it for.''
It also made for some amusing observations from his children. Stevens' costume consisted of stilts and a cumbersome grey muscle suit that the visual effects people would eventually use to morph him into the Beast in post-production.
"My daughter said I looked like a hippo,'' he said. "It helped with that Beast feeling of feeling monstrous and like he didn't fit in.''
With four other projects in various stages of post-production, from a role in a historical drama about Thurgood Marshall to the rom-com "Permission'' and "Legion's'' renewal for a second season, Stevens is doing what he's always wanted.
"I'm having a great time just exploring a number of different areas that I never dreamed I'd get to explore,'' Stevens said. "And, hopefully, slipping into some quite unrecognizable roles.''
The Beast isn't a bad start.