A version of this story about Dan Stevens and “I’m Your Man” first appeared in the International Issue of TheWrap’s awards magazine.
Dan Stevens might be too good-looking. At least, that’s what German director Maria Schrader was hoping when she cast Stevens’ chiseled features and piercing blue eyes in “I’m Your Man,” a romantic comedy of sorts that deals with the relationship between a cynical career woman (Maren Eggert) and an android who’s been programmed to be her perfect man.
His performance — which is delivered, by the way, entirely in German — takes the charm that was so evident in “Downton Abbey” and the post-transformation scenes in “Beauty and the Beast” and throws in just enough tics to let us see the algorithm beneath the flawless smile.
“You break it down and distort it, somehow,” said Stevens, who worked with Schrader to figure out just how much machine to display in each scene. “It seemed very funny to me that he was pre-programmed with chat lines and mannerisms: This is what a man stands like, this is how he moves his hands when he’s thinking… It wasn’t ‘How does a robot do this?’ — it was ‘How does a thing trying to be human and failing slightly do this?’”
Delivering the entire movie in a foreign language was fun for the actor who had learned German in school and on frequent trips to visit family friends, and who spoke the language in his first movie, 2009’s Hildegard Knef biopic “Hilde.”
“Somewhere in the halls of the German film industry, somebody said to Maria, ‘I think Dan speaks German,’” he said. “She was looking for a foreign actor who could get their head around the fairly complex German required, but who also had a sense of otherness, a faintly foreign quality.” The script he received even said that the android spoke in a British accent, which made him the ideal actor: “It made a lot of sense, because there’s a joke in the film that Alma likes her men sort of foreign, but not too exotic – British ticks the box.”
Where an actor might ordinarily work to figure out his character’s backstory, Stevens’ character, Tom, doesn’t really have one: He comes from the factory, where he was programmed to be how he is. “In fact, Tom creates his own backstory for him and (Eggert’s character) Alma, which was quite fun. What’s interesting with Tom as opposed to other famous A.I. creations is that he’s actively looking to become more human and evolve and learn and calibrate. He’s not just a fixed entity.
“A lot of the process wasn’t so much about the backstory, but about tailoring Tom increasingly to Alma and to what she would want or need in any given situation. In his machine way, Tom wants very much to succeed, which is a sweet thing to watch. Because he’s really a naïve character.”
Of course, he’s a naïve character who can call up just about every bit of human knowledge in a few seconds. “He knows everything except some of the more nuanced intricacies of human nature,” he said. “You could know all of Wikipedia, but you might not know why someone yells at cars when they walk across a crosswalk. There are all these wonderful details about the strangeness of humanity and how weird we are as a people.”
In the end, he said, “I’m Your Man” simply uses “the classic trope of any romantic comedy, with two people who shouldn’t be together.” With that in mind, he and Schrader watched old Cary Grant and Jimmy Stewart comedies for inspiration, even borrowing Grant’s hair color for Tom. “Those performances are very stylized in their way,” he said. “And we thought, ‘Well, what if we abstract that?’ So we took elements and mannerisms from those movies, broke them down and distorted them.”
The performance puts Stevens alongside Tilda Swinton as a British actor starring in one of the films in this year’s international Oscars race. (Swinton is in the Colombian entry, “Memoria.”) The film also landed U.S. distribution from Bleecker Street and is one of the most seen of this year’s entries in the category.
“I was delighted by the tone of it,” Stevens said. “It was somehow both very sweet and funny and had this lightness of touch,” he said. “There was room for physical comedy, but at the end of the day there were some very big questions flying out of it. It had this very German sense of being deeply profound and philosophical, but also witty and playful.”
He grinned. “I wouldn’t say German cinema is known for its comedy — but when it does it well, it’s really interesting.”