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MP! Interviews: ‘Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb’ star Dan Stevens

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Dan Stevens joins the stellar cast of ‘Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb’ as the brave knight, Sir Lancelot.

The third and final installment in the hugely popular series of family films again stars Ben Stiller as Larry Daley, the night security guard at New York’s Museum of Natural History, where legendary exhibits come to life.

We caught up with Sir Lancelot (Dan Stevens) himself to chat about all things chivalry, comedy and even literature.

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How did you get involved in the film?

Ben Stiller was actually a ‘Downtown Abbey’ fan and had seen my work. It is intriguing that there are so many celebrity fans of the show! Ben was one of the more surprising ones. Apparently, Ben and his wife Christine are huge fans. When someone like Ben has seen at least some of your work and is aware of you, it is great. What was really good was to go into our meeting and surprise him with something quite different for the role of Lancelot.

What was it like meeting Ben?

It was delightful. I am a huge fan of Ben’s and it was a lovely meeting. I don’t know what they were looking for exactly with Lancelot but when I read the script, I found it very funny. I just decided to show up with this silly character that I’d actually had in the back of my mind for a while. I didn’t really know exactly what I was going to do with the character, but it was there in my mind and it worked for Lancelot, which is awesome.

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What you did have in mind exactly and what kind of character did you create?

Well first I thought: ‘hang on a minute, not only is Lancelot a fictional, historical character, but there’s no way he would be in the British Museum.’ But that was one of the nice things about the role. It was kind of liberating in itself because I didn’t have to adhere to any historical precedent. Of course, there have been lots of Lancelots in all those movies about King Arthur over the years. [They include Robert Taylor in ‘Knights of the Round Table’  (1953), John Cleese in ‘Monty Python and the Holy Grail’ (1975), Nicholas Clay in ‘Excalibur’ (1981), Richard Gere in ‘First Knight (1995), and Ioan Gruffudd in ‘King Arthur’ (2004)]. But I didn’t have to base the character on anything real. I was just basing it on a particular archetype of the silly Englishman; that kind of blustering, bluff idiot in a way, who is incredibly courageous and confident in what he is doing but is actually very, very quickly and easily confused. I always found that kind of English character quite funny really and that sort of character has appeared time and time again in various films. It was great fun to play him myself.”

Lancelot takes himself very seriously, doesn’t he?

Yes, he adheres to a code of honor and these days it seems to be a very outmoded ideal, that kind of patriarchal belief and iron clad vigor and rigor. Yet somehow it doesn’t quite wash nowadays. It is outdated. But it played well against the very contemporary, cynical and real performance that Ben was giving. Larry is surrounded by all of these crazy characters and Lancelot is just another one of them thrown into the mix, someone else he has to suffer and deal with. Lancelot sees that everyone is on a quest; he loves a quest so he joins in! As much as Lancelot helps Larry and others in their quest, he actually poses a bit of a threat and a challenge. There is a challenge to Larry Daley’s masculinity in someone like Lancelot, which I think is quite funny.

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What was it like walking around with all that heavy armour?

It’s not as heavy as an original suit of armour would have been, but then I wouldn’t have been able to do any of the stunts or any of the action in one of those suits. But it’s still pretty heavy; the chainmail was half metal and half high tensile rubber that moves. The armour had some flexibility in it, so I could fight the Triceratops and seven headed snake dragon and things like that. Plus the sword is really quite heavy. The whole suit of armour weighed more than 50 pounds, and after 12 hours of shooting and doing various action sequences I really felt the weight of it.

In one of the exciting scenes you are charging through Trafalgar Square. What was that like?

It was hard, especially in the rain, because that was obviously one of the things we couldn’t really account for, though the fact that it was all cloudy and rainy added to the atmosphere of London. It was quite wet underfoot and the horse wrangler was particularly nervous about me cantering through Trafalgar Square. The experience was amazing for me because I had not been back to London for a little while. So to arrive back in the city in a full suit of armor and canter through Trafalgar Square on horseback in a full suit of armor was cool. I doubt if that’s something a lot of people get to do. They actually shut down Trafalgar Square for the night. My mum and dad came up especially to watch the scene and my mum very sweetly said ‘well, this probably won’t happen again!’ I thought that was a fair assumption (laughs). Even if I do end up filming in Trafalgar Square again at some point, it probably won’t be in a suit of armour on a horse.

Did fans in central London stop you or was it all very controlled?

Because it was raining and it was at night and because they closed off the Square, it was fairly well controlled, but what they couldn’t stop happening was all the traffic and everything else going on in the background. That is real, so there were people on night buses going past. It was amazing; you can never quite stop real life happening all around you when you are filming that kind of scene on location.

Your character is so funny, which may come as a surprise to a lot of ‘Downtown Abbey’  fans. How much comedy have you done in your career?

Funnily enough, comedy is where I started out. I did almost entirely comedy when I was at Cambridge. I was in ‘Footlights’ and they didn’t do a huge amount of straight drama. I did two plays and weirdly those were the performances that got me my agent and first job out of university. But all the rest of the time I was doing stand-up comedy and comic plays and I went on tour with Footlights. So most of my friends in the business back home are comedians who came out of Footlights. I never had an ambition to be a stand-up or to be a comedian, but it’s something that I’ve always enjoyed, something I’ve always been comfortable doing. It was great to reconnect with that on ‘Night at the Museum’ and it wasn’t totally alien to me. Ben and Shawn Levy were very encouraging of me and what I was doing with Lancelot. We had great fun playing with the character. Nobody’s seen me do anything quite like this before, unless they happened to be in Cambridge in the early part of the last decade.

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What was it like working with other great comic actors including Ricky Gervais, Owen Wilson and Steve Coogan?

It was certainly a very intimidating group of people, but they were all really welcoming. Steve Coogan is a great hero of mine. There are some serious comedy heavyweights in this movie and it was awesome to step in and play with those guys. I’m still kind of pinching myself that I get to line up alongside them.

Robin Williams is back in this film in one of his final roles, as Teddy Roosevelt. Can you talk about the experience of working with him? 

Getting to work with Robin Williams was probably the highlight of my career. He was a huge inspiration to me growing up. He was an actor who was able to make people laugh as much as cry in a huge range of movies. The diversity of his career was awe inspiring. To meet him and to work with him and to talk with him about all sorts of things was amazing. He was an incredibly generous man, very encouraging of young talent and very excited by young people coming into the business. It was obviously a very sad year. For me it was a great honor to have worked with him and amazing to be in what would be his last film.

Which are your favorite Robin Williams films?

There are so many, like ‘Good Morning Vietnam’. I was obsessed with that film as a kid. I knew the script off by heart at one stage. But ‘The Fisher King’ is one of my favorites. It was interesting; we actually talked about that film on set. A big element is about the Holy Grail [which relates to Lancelot] and we talked about that. It was really magical actually and something I’ll never quite forget.

What was it like working with Shawn Levy?

It was great. There was a real sense of him trying to foster the fun and comedy on set. Shawn secures an environment that’s very playful. People feel comfortable being silly and trying stuff out and if it doesn’t work, trying other things out. Things didn’t fall flat if they didn’t work; he would say: ‘try something else.’ Ben and Shawn both encourage playfulness. That is one of the things that delighted me. One of my favorite scenes is where they’re just about to go into the nine-headed snake dragon (Xiangliu) Chinese chamber. At the doorway there’s this back and forth thing between Lancelot and Larry. That was a really fun, playful day. We found stuff in the scene that wasn’t necessarily on the page, which was great.

Is there any historical figure from history that you’d love to meet?

Probably Homer as in Ancient Greek Homer (not Homer in ‘The Simpsons’). Homer was the original storyteller. It would be fun to meet him.

It must be fantastic to work on a film like this that your children are going to be able to enjoy.

It is, my daughter has seen the trailer about 50 times and actually my children have never been to a movie theatre yet, so this will be the first time that they set foot in a cinema. They are very excited. Christmas should be fun this year.

What do you think people have got to look forward to in this film?

I think it’s the quintessential family movie. There’s a great deal of humor for the grown ups as well as a lot of silliness that can be enjoyed by everyone and that is the mark of a great family movie. When you take the kids to see a movie you want to enjoy it yourself. You don’t just want to sit there while they have fun and you’re thinking: ‘what is this nonsense?’ Ricky, Steve, Ben and Owen’s humor appeals to a cross section of generations really. So there is something for everyone in the film. Also I like the father-son storyline between Larry and Nick, which I think is beautifully rounded off in this third film. There a few great new characters too. Rebel’s character is hilarious. There are a lot of new elements to the story as well as the familiar favorites. I think it’s a lovely film that is both extremely funny but also very moving at the end. I actually found it incredibly moving. That is what the great family movies do, they move you. The end of ‘Toy Story 3’ is very sad but it also has a lot of classic fun in and amongst everything else.

You have done quite a variety of projects since leaving ‘Downtown Abbey’. Do you still keep up with the show and your former co-stars?  

Yes, of course. It’s lovely to keep watching it and to see old familiar colleagues who are still in that world. I miss the guys really, it was a great three years on ‘Downtown’, but it’s been exciting to move on and to see what comes after that.

Two years ago you were one of the judges for the Man Booker Prize. I believe you had to read a huge number of books. Do you still read a lot?

I had to read 147 novels! I’m not reading quite as much as that now, but I am still an avid reader and trying to keep that up while doing everything else I’m up to. I’ve just read ‘The Miniaturist’ by Jessie Burton, a new novel published this year which is absolutely fantastic.

Can you talk about your upcoming projects?

I did a film in Cleveland called ‘Criminal Activities’ with John Travolta that was directed by Jackie Earle Haley. It is his directorial debut and it was great. I did a drama over the summer called ‘The Ticket’, with an Israeli director called Ido Fluk. This is his first English language film and that was with Malin Akerman and Oliver Platt. It’s a beautiful little film. And there are some more great things coming up next year. It is all exciting.

‘Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb’ is out in cinemas nationwide right this second, go and see it!

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Written by Oliver Meakings

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