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Taking the fast lane to success

Newcomer Dan Stevens, 22, is winning praise for his work in 'As You Like It.'

February 25, 2005|Diane Haithman | Times Staff Writer

Dan Stevens is certainly not the only actor ever to take a meeting at Universal Studios, but if the stunned reaction of a studio receptionist is any indication, he may be the first actor -- nay, the only living human being -- ever to arrive by subway.

"I almost got laughed off the phone by the secretary," recalls Stevens, 22, a recent graduate of England's Cambridge University.

"I said: 'Where's your building?' And she says: 'Where are you?' And I said: 'I've just got off the Metro.' And she says: 'You've just got off the what?' I said: 'Yes, I'm by this trolley with a lot of people.'

"I was about to go on the Universal Studios tour instead of my meeting with casting directors," Stevens sheepishly concludes. "When I get back to London, I need to learn to drive, that's the long and short of it."

Appearing in "As You Like It" -- a new Theatre Royal Bath/Peter Hall Company production that played at the Brooklyn Academy of Music before coming to the Ahmanson Theatre -- marks the English actor's first visit to the United States.

"It's been an eye-opener, and it was quite a scary prospect," he observes. "It's almost like learning to swim or something: The later you do it, the scarier it seems."

As in London, Stevens could navigate New York City via "the tube"; now he's getting used to six-lane freeways where one may get stuck in traffic behind a hulking SUV occupied solely by a 105-pound woman and her Chihuahua. Still, he's loving it, especially the downtown location where the cast is staying. Not only is it close to a Metro stop, it's also near the poolside roof bar at the Standard. "It's the coolest bar I've ever been to. It's like something out of 'Blade Runner,' " he says.

He's also been to Malibu, "jazzed up" his dressing room with postcards purchased during a visit to San Marino's stately Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens, and admits to taking full advantage of the mesmerizing effect of a British accent on young salespeople on Melrose Avenue.

Stevens may have been intimidated by the U.S. but didn't think twice about accepting an opportunity most young actors might find far more daunting: making his professional debut in a Shakespeare production directed by the famed Sir Peter Hall.

And opposite the boss' daughter, no less -- the role of Orlando's beloved Rosalind is portrayed by Rebecca Hall, also a 22-year-old Cambridge grad.

"You don't say no; it's a huge honor for someone like Sir Peter to give me this chance," says the tall, blue-eyed Stevens with characteristic humility. "Maybe it's a risk, but someone going out on a limb and saying 'Let's give this guy a chance' is what any young actor needs. And that's what I'm going to have to look for out here -- the chance to take risks. It's one thing to be good at your job, but you do need the luck."

There was a certain amount of luck involved in Stevens' being cast in this part: He was first noticed by Peter Hall in a Cambridge student production of Shakespeare's "Macbeth." Cambridge does not offer a theater major -- Stevens earned his degree reading literature -- but allows students plenty of performing opportunities.

Along with acting, Stevens also wrote and performed stand-up comedy, mostly because "anything else I go out and do onstage is never going to be as scary."

Peter Hall admits that he would probably not have been in the audience had not his daughter, then 19, been portraying Lady Macbeth.

The famed director was so impressed with Stevens that he had no doubts about choosing him to portray Orlando despite his lack of professional experience. Peter Hall has also asked Stevens to portray Claudio in his production of "Much Ado About Nothing" in England this summer.

"It's interesting -- many male actors tend to be afraid of making fools of themselves, but he made Orlando into a bit of an oaf, a bit of a clown," Peter Hall says. "He is confident enough to know he can play a fool but still be sexy and attractive. The camera is going to love him."

It will have to if Stevens is to be successful, the director adds. Even if Stevens chooses to concentrate on theater, says Peter Hall, "as a young actor, you don't have any potency if you don't have a screen name."

Luck may have brought Stevens to the cast of "As You Like It," but being good at the job is responsible for what Stevens calls the "lovely buzz" that has surrounded the production since it opened in London.

While critics anticipated a fine performance from Rebecca Hall, Stevens seems to be holding his own with American reviewers.

Back home, London Evening Standard critic Nicholas de Jongh charged that Rebecca's Rosalind lacked "wit" and Stevens failed to fully explore Orlando's "sexual ambiguity."

U.S. critics, however, have been more enthusiastic.

Daily Variety praised Stevens' "risk-taking" performance: "What makes Stevens' portrayal so affecting ... is his knack for transforming familiar speeches so they sound fresh and new."

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