Set off the coast of Cornwell in the period leading up to World War I, Summer in February is a absorbing drama about love and loss among a trio of friends in an artist commune. Inspired by a true story, the film features Dan Stevens as Gilbert Evans, a man torn between his friendship with artist AJ Munnings (Dominic Cooper) and his feelings for Florence Carter-Wood (Emily Browning). Florence chooses to marry Munnings, a decision that she later regrets with consequences for all three.
We got a chance to speak with Dan Stevens about the film, the casting process and getting out of his comfort zone with his role in The Guest, which premieres at the Sundance Film Festival later this month.
Tribeca: In addition to starring in Summer in February, you also served as one of the film’s producers. Does all the hard work you put in before filming make the shooting experience all the more satisfying?
Dan Stevens: It’s kind of an extraordinary experience. Summer in February is the first project I helped to develop, and it was quite magical to see it come into being. It was actually a good 7 or 8 years before we got on to the set. When you’ve lived with a story and a character, especially a figure like Gilbert Evans, for so long, it’s really special and gratifying to see his world become a movie reality.
Tribeca: Are you interested in developing future projects?
DS: I’m looking at a few things and am interested in developing more films. I’d love to explore different genres, but Summer in February was a real passion project. It’s something that I always wanted to get made, and I am really proud that we accomplished it. Hopefully, I can find another project that is just as exciting.Tribeca: You previously starred with both Hattie Morahan and Dominic Cooper in the most recent adaptation in Sense and Sensibility. Were you allowed to provide your input during the casting process for Summer in February?
DS: Dominic was always my first choice. He has the requisite roguishness that we needed for Alfred Munnings. Ever since we first started talking about making the movie, I just knew Hattie would make the most perfect Laura Knight. I’d like to think that everybody who’s seen the film agrees. She just captures something is quintessential to Laura Knight, who was almost the godmother of that artist community. She was the real rock at the center of it all. She was the shoulder that they all came to cry on at various stages—Hattie really gives such a magical performance.
Tribeca: The artistic community within the film feels very modern for the era right before the Great War. Given that we live in an age of cynicism, do you think the same types of communes could flourish in the present day?
DS: Those kinds of artist communities do exist all over the world even now. Obviously they’re not as remote as they once were. Now everything is so connected, and people can get to those places far more easily. I think it’s hard for us to appreciate quite how cut off, remote and different Cornwall was in 1913. It’s just worlds away from Downton Abbey, for example—similar era, but it’s so different. We very much did not want to make a period drama. It’s a character story. It’s a love story. And it is, as you say, very modern in its essence, I think.
We very much did not want to make a period drama. It’s a character story. It’s a love story.
Tribeca: When preparing to play characters with literary ties like Gilbert Evans and Edward Ferris, do you pay special attention to the source material? Or do you prefer to interpret the role directly from the script?
DS: There were a few things that fed into the movie. One was that we were very lucky to have the support of David Evans, the son of my character, and his family. He has a lot of artifacts. I was able to look at the diaries that Gilbert Evans wrote that inspired the story and really talk to this man about what his father was like, which was a fairly unique position to be in. The book is also incredibly well researched and beautifully written. For an actor, it’s invaluable to have access to certain passages from the novel that really get to the heart of what the story is about.
Tribeca: You’ve appeared in period dramas, horror comedies, and really wonderful literary adaptations. Is there any genre you’d like to tackle, but haven’t had the opportunity, yet?
DS: [laughs] Lots, I’m sure. Maybe something set in the future. It would be quite fun to do something in space. Tribeca: You’ve recently completed The Guest from TFF alumni and accomplished indie filmmakers Adam Wingard and Simon Barrett. The film—an action/thriller—is a different experience for them as it is for you. What was your reaction to the project?
DS: I was really excited to get to work with Adam and Simon. I thought You’re Next was phenomenal in terms of how it played with genre. They seemed like incredibly smart filmmakers, and they are. It was great to dive into a different kind of project with them. It was incredibly fun to play with and hopefully, it’ll surprise people.
Tribeca: There’s no chance you could talk a little bit about the premise, could you?
DS: I can’t talk too much about it at the moment. [laughs] You have to wait and see.
I think it’s hard for us to appreciate quite how cut off, remote and different Cornwall was in 1913.
Tribeca: Did your preparation for The Guest differ from the process you have used for other roles you’ve tackled?
DS: It’s a very physical role, so there was a lot more training that went into that, which was great. I really enjoyed doing the work, but it was hard.
Tribeca: Adam and Simon have been collaborating for years. What is it like for an actor to come into a director-actor relationship with these two guys who have this established rhythm?
DS: I felt very honored to be invited into the fold. As you said, it’s a partnership that is well oiled, and it’s great to work on a set where people know each other so well and can execute exactly what they want. Adam really has a great visual sense, in addition to his incredible wealth of knowledge about movies in general. It’s very reassuring for any actor to step onto a set like that.
Summer in February opens this Friday, January 17 at the QUAD Cinema in NYC.