The Line of Beauty interview - After Elton 2006

Interview by Locksley Hall - October 2006

"Roles like that don't turn up every week,” says young British actor Dan Stevens of his leading role in the BBC adaptation of the Booker Prize-winning novel The Line of Beauty, which premieres Sunday night at 10 p.m. on Logo. Stevens is probably right. He plays Nick Guest, a gay Oxford graduate who moves to London in 1983 to stay with a friend's wealthy family, and he certainly gets to run the gamut of emotions. In the first episode of the three-part adaptation, Nick is a virgin about to embark on a thesis about Henry James.

He has only recently come out, and he is still capable of being overawed by the grand lifestyle of his adopted family, the Feddens. By the second episode, set in 1986, Nick is a hardened character. He has been through his first relationship, with Leo, a black council worker. He has started an affair with Wani, the closeted son of a Lebanese millionaire, who is addicted to cocaine and cruising.

Over the course of the story, Nick will taste the highs of the hedonistic '80s, including dancing with Mrs. Thatcher at a party while high on drugs. He will also taste the lows, as AIDS encroaches on the gay male community and the fortunes of the Fedden family begin to slide. As much as Nick's romantic entanglements, the show is concerned with Nick's infatuation with the glamorous, upper-crust Feddens. Indeed, to right-wing characters within the story, Nick's level of attachment to the Feddens is sinister. They see it as an “old homo trick” for homosexuals to attach themselves to straight families. And they believe that Nick is envious because he cannot have a nuclear family unit of his own.

But Stevens strongly disagrees: “I think this idea of the Feddens and the sort of grand family has more to do with Nick's aesthetic ideals than his sexual ideals. He has very pure and honest expectations and desires for his romantic relationships.” Nevertheless, Nick does wind up conducting a closeted affair. “He falls instantly in love with Leo and is heartbroken by him, and so he goes for Wani, someone he can never really have a fully formed relationship with,” Stevens says. “I suppose the heartbroken reaction to his first, very innocent, pure relationship is to go for something quite impossible.”

To Stevens, the story presents a contrast between two different ideas of what it means to be gay. “There is the romantic, 19th-century notion of homosexuality, which is this secret, indulgent, decadent, dandyish sort of lifestyle — the Wildean ‘love that dare not speak its name.' And almost the love that doesn't want to, that quite enjoys this secret lifestyle. Wani embodies this kind of hedonistic but underground life.” He continues: “And then there is the sort of '60s, very much more modern view of homosexuality, almost parallel with feminism that, you know, actually gays were going to claim their rights and stake a place in society that was outspoken, loud, proud and visible.”

Stevens sees Nick as being caught somewhere between these two ideas: “Nick is very proud of his sexuality. He's completely unashamed of it, but his romantic and aesthetic ideals are more allied with the older world of homosexuality, which is sort of closeted and hidden in these beauteous surroundings.” Of course, it isn't only in the “older world” of the 19th century that homosexuality was expected to remain hidden. Gerald Fedden, the head of the family, is a Conservative member of Parliament. Already susceptible to scandal, his problems increase when a tabloid reveals that he has had a gay man conducting an affair in his house.

Stevens says, “The idea that actually an MP could be damned for having a gay lodger … you know, how accurate that was I can't remember, but it certainly seems to have a ring of truth to a lot of people, this sort of scandal, that just associating with a homosexual in 1987 was ruinous to your political career.” He reflects on the impact of the series in the current day: “I think The Line of Beauty opened a lot of people's eyes to a world that they weren't really aware of, and a world that was skirted around quite a lot in the '80s. The gay community was considered ‘a problem' in the '80s, and the development of understanding in my lifetime has been huge. It was something I was very proud to represent. Not being gay myself, but being very much for civil liberties, and the societal development that we can now talk about these things.” Stevens laughs. “And actually, you have to turn to my parents' generation, and say to them ‘Oh, grow up,'” he says. “There were all these people of my parents' generation saying, ‘Well, you know, I found it quite difficult to watch certain bits of the series, and I had to turn off at certain points.' And it's like, ‘Well, just watch it.'” He laughs again. “Or don't watch it. But it's about time that those sort of dramas were on the BBC, and that it wasn't really an issue.”

Stevens is adamant that the prospect of shocking certain audience members didn't faze him. “I've always relished that kind of controversy, really. In a way, as a job it embodied all the sorts of things that I'd like to achieve in my career. Which is: high-profile, good-quality drama with interesting characters, but at the same time not treading that safer line. “And there are safe jobs — I've just done [Noel Coward's play] Hay Fever with Judi Dench in the West End, which is about as safe as you can get. And that was brilliant in a totally different way. But The Line of Beauty — I knew we were on to a good thing. Saul Dibb's a fantastic director, and it was a brilliant adaptation of a wonderful book.

And yet I knew that readers of [conservative British newspaper] The Daily Mail weren't going to like it — and that delighted me even more, I think.” He laughs at the idea. A lot of the controversy over the book The Line of Beauty centered on different opinions of its leading character. Viewed as simply naïve by some, to others he was cold, opportunistic, hedonistic and hard to empathize with. “Some people really didn't like Nick, and some people really sympathized with him,” Stevens says. “So that was interesting one. And actually, when it came to it, I just sort of had to make some choices. It treads an interesting line between sympathy and … unsympathy.”

He decided to humanize the character and make him warmer. “When I read the book, I certainly had more sympathy for Nick than some of the reactions I'd heard. Also, he's so crucial to that series and you see so much of him, that if I'd played him as unlikable, it would have been quite unwatchable — and quite unplayable. And so I think I had to like him more than some. That's not to say he's flawless.” Stevens continues: “But I did sympathize with Nick's condition of just wanting to be completely absorbed and consumed by this fantasy world that he's encountered. A world that initially he feels embodies all of his aesthetic ideals It's beautiful, the way the story is constructed, in that this world slowly crumbles, and is left ringing quite hollow. And a lot of people's memories of the '80s were of quite a hollow, superficial decade. I don't think that's necessarily true, but it's certainly an interesting facet of the decade, that money and power had all sorts of strange effects on the way people interacted and behaved.”

One effect of money and power is that a family like the Feddens is willing to take in an outsider like Nick, almost to adopt him. “I think that for a lot of wealthy, upper-class families, in times of economic boom, and in times of emotional boom in a way, when things are good, it's quite attractive to have an aesthete around,” Stevens muses. “To invest in art, in piano recitals, in the finer artistic things.” He explains: “At the beginning of the story the Feddens are quite open to this character of Nick, this aesthete coming in. He doesn't have any great purpose, but he's an artistic, romantic, intellectual figure — something of a curio, almost, to have around the house. As the '80s progress, and the recession kicks in, and things start to fall apart personally in the Feddens' life, they have to start chopping off all the extravagant arms of their life. By the end of the story they can't really afford to have that around any more.”

To some viewers, Nick shows his naïveté in seeming to believe that he will be with the Feddens forever. Stevens agrees that Nick still has a lot of learning and growing up to do in the period covered by the story, even though Nick is no longer a teenager. “It's something that people don't really tell you when you're growing up, that actually a key part of adolescence happens between the ages of about 19 and 25,” Stevens reflects. “That's the really emotional roller-coaster of a stage. You've left university, you're out on your own, you're confronted with the real world. It's quite an incredible time, a difficult time. Nick comes to London from a little town in Northamptonshire, and it's a great voyage of personal discovery for him.” Stevens himself was born in 1982, a year before the story of The Line of Beauty begins.

“It was fascinating to be part of a piece that was about something within my lifetime, but not really something that I was conscious of,” Stevens says regarding the show's social criticism of the 1980s. “I think people were quite surprised by somebody who was a child in the '80s being part of a commentary on a period that they didn't really understand. So I was reading about Thatcherism, reading about the political turmoil of the early '80s, the problems that homosexuals had in the mid-'80s — it was a fascinating decade, really.”

Stevens' next project will also be for the BBC. He is to star in a TV film adaptation of Dracula, which will air in the United Kingdom later this year. “I'm playing Lord Holmwood, who is an English aristocrat who realizes he's inherited syphilis,” Stevens explains. “So he gets Dracula brought over from Transylvania for some kind of special transfusion which goes horribly wrong. It's a slight flight of fancy from the Bram Stoker novel. But it still retains a lot of the key elements. It's good fun.”

Stevens has already attracted a lot of attention for his Line of Beauty role, with some predicting that he could become the next Hugh Grant. Asked about his future plans, he says: “I want to do more of everything, really. I love London, and I love British theater, and there are a lot of great roles in television and theater over here. But I've got representation in America, and I'm going to pop over there and see what's happening. It's a lottery, the film world. But I'd like to go where the interesting roles are.” He laughs and advises, “Watch this space.”

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