“The Guest” is a little tale about a lying ex-soldier named David Collins who should be locked up tight in a psych ward. David is played by Dan Stevens with his … sigh … swimming-pool eyes. His abs will make you breathless when he walks out of the bathroom shirtless. Ooh, baby.
You probably know Stevens as Matthew Crawley, a saintly gentleman with a fine British accent married to Lady Mary on “Downton Abbey.” It’s a bit of a jolt to see him playing a character like this. The 31-year-old Stevens is British, but you’d never know it in “The Guest” as he nails a Kentucky accent.
David shows up on the doorstep of a grieving family who just lost their eldest son, Caleb, in Iraq. David addressed Caleb’s father (Leland Orser) as “sir” and Caleb’s mom (Sheila Kelley) as “ma’am” while he explains he and their son were comrades in Iraq and before he died, Caleb told David to check on them. David becomes almost a surrogate son to them and a hero to their 15-year-old boy, Luke (Brendan Meyer). The audience can see David is a maniac, but the family can’t. Teenage daughter Anna (Maika Monroe) is the only one that is not having it — she figures out something is awry and does some digging on the Internet.
A surprising number of people start turning up dead. Even after Luke knows David’s secrets, the boy is too grateful to tell. David has kicked the ass of anybody who ever bullied Luke at school, and it’s a thrill watching the bad classmates get what they deserve.
This could’ve been a really bad B-movie but it wasn’t. It was fun — and funny. I recently sat down with the director Adam Wingard and screenwriter Simon Barrett for TheBlot Magazine in Midtown Manhattan to talk about “The Guest,” which opened in limited theaters on Sept. 17 and opens wide Oct. 3.
Dorri Olds: I found myself laughing during your horror movie. Can we talk about that?
Simon Barrett: People comment a lot on our sense of humor. We like to be dry and sarcastic as opposed to making overt, broad jokes. If we didn’t have humor in our movie, it could’ve been somber and monotonous, and I don’t think that would’ve been fun or entertaining.
What kind of personality type is Dan Stevens?
SB: He immediately got that the script was funny. That was really the most important thing; that whoever played David shared our sensibility in order to pull off this role.
Adam Wingard: There’s something very exciting about taking an actor that people know from one perspective and putting him into a new context. We wanted a guy who could infiltrate this family and project this likable personality to earn their trust. We talked about “Terminator” a lot in reference to this movie, but I didn’t want to cast an Arnold Schwarzenegger. I was more interested in casting someone like Michael Fassbender when he played an android in “Prometheus.” Luckily, Dan was ready to put on the extra muscle mass.
When you first began he was thin, right?
AW: Yeah, he was emaciated because he’d just done “A Walk Among the Tombstones.”
SB: We needed a Christian Bale like in “Batman Begins,” but [Dan] was more like Christian Bale in “The Machinist.” But Dan is the kind of actor that embraces a transformation like that. He worked out intensely every day.
He sure looked good with his shirt off in that scene.
AW: We knew that was going to be a big selling point. [Smiles] It’s really funny how we put so much emphasis on scheduling that. We only had a month for Dan to bulk up before we started filming, so we scheduled that scene for the last week of filming, when he’d be in his peak physical form. The day of shooting that was really funny because the DP (director of photography), who has gaffed at tons of movies and commercials, really understands how to light someone so they look their absolute best. We spent longer setting up that scene than any other sequence in terms of the amount of time it’s actually on the screen.
I discovered that there’s a technique that they use in Hollywood movies, I mean, even though Dan was in great shape, we wanted to show the most peak version of that, so what we did is 24 hours before the scene, Dan cut out all liquids, which is kind of dangerous because we were in New Mexico. You have to down gallons of water every hour just to stay hydrated. Then right before that scene, we had him drink a soda — that sends a surge through you and makes your veins pop out. Then they had him do 100 pushups, and then we had him come out of the shower. Everything was as tight as possible. I’m giving away trade secrets here, but those kinds of things are not as simple as just having Dan step out of the shower.
“The Guest” opens wide Oct. 3. Rated R. 99 minutes.
If you have a sense of humor and love action, go see this winner. But first, watch the trailer:
Watch video excerpts from this interview:
Dorri Olds is a contributing journalist for TheBlot Magazine.