He is the perfect gigolo, handsome, debonair, attentive. It’s as if he can read his partner’s mind and anticipate her every new wish and need. He speaks excellent German with just a hint of an English accent – and that makes him even more attractive to his female patron. He is also a robot. This is Tom, the humanoid played by Dan Stevens, in the new screwball romantic comedy, I’m Your Man, which premiered in competition at the Berlin Film Festival last month.
Eleven years after the shock death of Stevens’ character Matthew Crawley in a car crash at the end of the third series of Julian Fellowes’ Downton Abbey, the British actor has built up an immense list of credits. He has done Shakespeare and Noël Coward on stage.
He has made thrillers, literary adaptations, action-adventures and comedies. He has tackled big Hollywood studio movies and edgy independent pictures. As he leaps from project to project, it has sometimes seemed as if he is trying to put as much distance as he can between himself and the TV period drama that made his name.
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Now, here he is, starring as a blue-eyed android in a foreign-language arthouse movie that was shot in Berlin in the middle of the pandemic.
“It was a challenge on top of a challenge on top of a challenge,” the 38-year-old Stevens says about playing Tom. “It’s a very interesting, complex role for any nationality but some of the dialogue is, I think, even for a German, quite complicated.”
He was receiving intricate instructions from his director, interacting with the crew and then performing on camera as a robot – and all in a language that he studied long ago at school “and continued it a little bit at university” but spoke only on family holidays in North Rhine-Westphalia.
“My algorithm is designed to make you happy,” the dishy young robot tells the lonely academic Alma (Eggert) who has taken him home for a three-week trial on the instructions of her boss.
He is sensitive, soulful, funny, a slick mover on the dance floor and, in a scene which miraculously avoids voyeuristic prurience, an attentive lover. He even has a touch of self-deprecating irony. Whether these are his innate characteristics or are simply what Alma wants to see in her pet robot is left up to the audience to decide. She becomes besotted by him, or, at least, besotted by her idea of him.
Filmmaker Maria Schrader (star of Deutschland 89 and also the director of the Emmy-award winning Netflix drama Unorthodox) chose Stevens to play the robot not just for his charm and good looks but because, as she puts it, he “was not specifically known in Germany.”
However, his co-star Maren Eggert admits that, when she was pregnant, she watched every episode of Downton Abbey on German TV. She was so taken aback by Matthew’s death that she had to call her sister for solace.
In person (or at least via Zoom), Stevens is very like his character in the film. That is not to say he is robotic but he shares Tom’s fluency and easy charm. He jokes about the robot’s skin, insisting that Tom is not made out of cheap plastic but of “very high-grade silicone.”
He clearly enjoyed the technical challenge of playing a non-human. “It’s interesting that bridge between what he [Tom the robot] is pre-programmed with, the algorithm that has been calibrated by Alma… and then there is the Tom that must be learnt. In the inter-personal relations with Alma, he is improving or trying to improve. Each situation, it was looking at, well, is this a pre-programme he is running here, is this something he knows how to do or has to learn how to do?”
Ask Stevens an awkward question and he will parry it just as deftly as Tom bats away Alma’s inquiries about just what makes him tick. In the UK, fans and journalists have not let Stevens forget Downton Abbey. They still wonder why he was so keen to leave the series. Doesn’t he sometimes wish that he could exorcise the memory of Matthew Crawley for good?
“‘Exorcise’ suggests Downton Abbey occupies some demonic status in my consciousness which it definitely doesn’t,” Stevens protests.
“There is no way I would wish to erase the memory of it. In fact, it has been the bedrock of my career and so I am very, very grateful to it. Very often as an actor, you have to explain [to people] what you have been in – and very often they haven’t seen anything. It can be a bit demoralising. It’s lovely to have something you can connect all over the world with people on.”
I’m Your Man is Stevens’ second German-language film. His first, made right at the start of his screen career, was Hilde (2009), a biopic of the movie star Hildegard Knef. As a Cambridge English Literature graduate, Stevens reads movie scripts with the same forensic attention to detail that he once devoted to set texts.
“For me, I’m Your Man was just a delightful screenplay. I could see the playfulness with which it was written but also the big, big questions it was asking underneath. That, for me, is always attractive,” he says of the way the film deals with love, masculinity, identity and AI. Part of his preparation, he explains, was to watch old Cary Grant screwball comedies.
Stevens didn’t bring his own “baggage” or “preconceptions” but tried hard to be exactly what director Schrader and co-star Eggert wanted, he says. The women were calling the shots with Schrader turning old sexist movie stereotypes on their head. Stevens is the object of the gaze, the eye candy, not Eggert’s Alma.
The film offers a satirical, not altogether flattering, view of masculinity. Stevens confides that he used to have a postcard on his fridge at home which summed up the difference between the sexes. “[With] men, it was one switch and then [with] women, it was an entire board of knobs and dials and things like that,” he says. “I am not sure that my wife would want a robot version of me. I think if she was going to get a robot, she would probably go for something that was entirely alternative.”
Portraying the robot, he adds, gave him new insight in how to treat women. “That’s a very, very important question and it has been in the zeitgeist really, how can men be better,” he reflects. Tom exists to improve Alma’s life. Whether that means ensuring she feels truly loved or tidying her apartment or making her a better cup of coffee, he shows the same dedication. “That’s why Tom was quite so fun to play because it was going between these big philosophical questions and the minutiae of the comedy.”
I’m Your Man confirms Stevens’ consummate skills as a comedic actor. You can understand just why he is cast both in Noël Coward screen adaptations such as the recent Blithe Spirit and in far broader Will Ferrell farces such as Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga, in which he played the outrageous Russian pop singer Alexander Lemtov. He has impeccable timing and isn’t afraid of looking ridiculous.
That said, Stevens takes his craft seriously. “Comedy is very, very difficult,” he says earnestly. “Performing comedy in a foreign language… I have to say, to make anybody laugh in a foreign language is an absolute dream. It really feels like a great achievement, to be able to bridge that gap and find humour.”
Ask him the most important thing he learned from making I’m Your Man and he replies with even more extreme mock seriousness. “One lesson I took away, whether you’re a robot or a human, is regularly to update your software.”
I’m Your Man will be released in the UK later in the year