The British actor Dan Stevens had two different languages to embrace in his new film. For one, the robot rom-com I’m Your Man, released in select theaters this weekend, is a German production, entirely in German, which means that Stevens was tasked with tackling his first full-fledged leading role in that tongue. “They were looking for a non-German actor who spoke German who had that sense of otherness and foreignness but who could also get their head around—or their mouth around—the complex German required for the role,” he says. But the character Stevens plays is not actually German. He’s not actually anything. His first language is algorithm. He’s a robot. “I never really wanted us to forget the machine,” he says.
In Maria Schrader’s shrewd comedy, a professor named Alma (Maren Eggert) is tasked with evaluating the functionality of a new technology, essentially an AI boyfriend portrayed with a calculated stiffness by Stevens. His name is Tom and he thinks he knows what Alma wants: Roses in the bathtub, grand romantic brunches. Alma, who studies Sumerian texts, rejects all of his stereotypical advances, and yet she ultimately connects with his desire to understand. The same way she probes ancient writings for poetry, he tries to comprehend the strange reality of being human.
“Her head is like 4,000 years in the past, she’s got a really epic sense of the scope of humanity anyway. She’s being forced to look at the immediate future of humanity and this possible android cohabitation,” Stevens says. “And all the while I think as an audience you are forced to think about where are we? Where is the human race right now, and also just about the imperfections that really make up human relationships rather than perfection.”
Stevens, who hesitates to say he speaks German “fluently,” studied it in school and would trot it out on vacation with family to visit friends who lived in the country. He asked the cast and crew of I’m Your Man to speak to him entirely in German on set, which he ultimately forgot until they wrapped and all started addressing him in English.
But getting the elevated dialogue right was just one detail that went into his performance. He referenced classic Hollywood stars like Cary Grant and Jimmy Stewart. “I guess [I was] very much wanting to satirize this idea of the romantic lead and the idea that this well-groomed guy would deliver these cheesy lines and everyone would fall in love with it,” he says. He also took dance lessons throughout the shoot to learn a perfect rumba that Tom executes during his and Alma’s first meeting. It was good robot training: “The mechanics of that dance and actually how precise that dance should be if you’re going to score well on Dancing with the Stars is very helpful to feed into the physicality of a robot.”
Stevens is an actor that could have easily spent his career playing the kind of men that Tom is emulating after he broke out as Matthew Crawley in Downton Abbey, but he’s always made the weirder choice. He’s played a creepy intruder in The Guest and a hammy Russian pop star in Eurovision, as well as the Beast in Disney’s Beauty and the Beast remake. “I get sent romantic leads every now and then and sometimes they are interesting and sometimes they’re not,” he says. “It was really fun to take a role that picked apart that idea about what is a romantic lead, and what does that even mean?”