Downton Abbey actor Dan Stevens has recently opened up about why he left the successful series before its conclusion. Downton Abbey, created by Julian Fellowes, is set in the early 20th century and tells the story of the aristocratic Crawley family and their numerous servants who live downstairs. The series ran until season 6 between 2010 and 2015, and along the way amassed a huge fan base, as well as many accolades including 15 Primetime Emmys. The viewership of Downton Abbey has continued to grow in the years since the series’ conclusion, especially with the release of the Downton Abbey movie in 2019. A sequel film, Downton Abbey: A New Era, is scheduled to hit theatres on May 20.
Given Downton Abbey’s huge success, it may be difficult to imagine any actor wanting to leave the series early. However, Stevens did just that after Downton Abbey season 3. At the time, fans had watched for nearly three years as Matthew and Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery) had navigated their ‘will they/won’t they’ relationship, only to finally get married at the beginning of season 3. It was hardly the payoff fans were looking for, when in the final moments of the Downton Abbey season 3 finale, only minutes after Mary had given birth to their son, Matthew is killed in a car accident. However, Matthew’s death was not originally part of the Downton Abbey storyline, but a necessary plot point after Stevens’ decision to leave the role.
In a recent interview with The Guardian, Stevens explained why he decided to leave a lead role on a such a successful series. According to Stevens, his departure was due to having “creative itches left unscratched.” Stevens explained that he initially signed on to Downton Abbey up to season 3, and when the contract was up, felt an urge to explore different roles and genres. While Stevens admits that many people thought he was “mad” for exiting the show, the actor was excited to enter “the great unknown” of his career. See his full quote below:
“There were definitely creative itches left unscratched, genres I hadn’t worked in. Three years were up, that’s what we’d initially signed up for, and the appetite to explore further was too great … It’s not something I expect people to readily understand. Some admire it, others think I was mad: that the part was the greatest thing that could ever happen to me … But the question is what would satisfy you? A bit more money and the same thing for another decade, or the great unknown. The wild west. An open playing field of potential.”
Ultimately, the decision to leave Downton Abbey and take a risk worked out well for Stevens. The 39-year-old actor has landed numerous major roles in both film and television in the years since his departure from the series, perhaps most famously playing The Beast in Disney’s live-action adaptation of Beauty and the Beast with Emma Watson. Currently, Stevens stars alongside Julia Roberts and Sean Penn in the series Gaslit, which is a retelling of the Watergate scandal.
Stevens’ exit, while surprising, makes sense in retrospect. Before Downton Abbey, the actor was largely known for his period drama roles, but has since had the opportunity to expand well beyond this niche genre and take on a varied selection of parts. While Downton Abbey fans were certainly saddened that they never saw Mary and Matthew get their happily ever after, perhaps Stevens’ departure was for a greater cause. The actor truly seems happy in his career and grateful for the exposure that playing the beloved Matthew Crawley gave him. Of course, viewers can still return to the early seasons of Downton Abbey to see Stevens in the part, but the Crawley family’s journey will continue when Downton Abbey: A New Era releases next month.