How Dan Stevens brought out his singing beast to rule Netflix's 'Eurovision Song Contest'
But as big cat-loving Russian billionaire singer Alexander Lemtov in "Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga" (now streaming on Netflix), Stevens steps his song and dance level up from beast to apex predator.
As the rival to hapless Icelandic duo Lars Erickssong (Will Ferrell) and Sigrit Ericksdottir (Rachel McAdams), Lemtov belts his signature "Lion of Love" tune while prowling around the stage. It was a dream fulfilled for the British actor, who grew up watching the annual international competition.
"When I heard 'Lion of Love' for the first time, I was just crying," Stevens says. "I loved the idea of performing it on a giant Eurovision stage."
Here's how Stevens, known as ill-fated aristocrat Matthew Crawley in "Downton Abbey" and seen next in the horror movie "The Rental" (out July 24), made the Lemtov leap:
Dan Stevens was pumped for his perpetually shirtless scenes
Lemtov was described in the script as "a stranger to buttons," Stevens says. So as soon as he nabbed the part from director David Dobkin, Stevens bulked up.
"There were a lot of push-ups," he says, "Lemtov's got his chest out all the time and I'm surrounded by these four incredible professional dancers, all shirtless and in insane shape. I had to keep up."
Wearing a wig modeled after George Michael in his Wham! days, the closest Stevens' Lemtov comes to a shirt in "Eurovision" is a gold lamé vest that gets dramatically pulled off onstage.
No lying, those high notes are operatic
Stevens took power-pop opera cues from real Bulgarian-Russian mega-star Philipp Kirkorov. The forceful sounds were also pure Eurovision.
"It's generally believed that the act that can hit the highest note and hold it the longest stands a very good chance of winning," Stevens says. "Lemtov definitely falls into that category."
Onstage, Lemtov builds up to that peak, with lyrics like "Thousands tried to tame me, but I roam free, until I saw you and you saw me."
The song's fist-over-head, explosion-filled finale rocks.
"My God, he's got a great voice," Dobkin says.
The hot choreography included whips and real flames
Each year in the real Eurovision, there's at least one "oversexualized, very erotic choreographed number with leather and fire," Stevens says. Cue Lemtov, who worked a whip in one "Lion of Love" version.
"Initially, the whip they gave us was too short," Stevens says. "They were sort of trolling some interesting stores in London for exactly the right implement." He was safe using it: "No one lost an eye."
The moves alongside pro dancers, set by "So You Think You Can Dance" choreographers Tabitha and Napoleon D’umo, were complicated. But Stevens had mastered waltzing on 10-inch platform stilts as the Beast in the iconic ballroom scene, so he was up to the task.
Further complications involved avoiding the real flames shooting out of the stage.
"It was absolutely epic," Stevens says. "It was an amazing feeling with those flames going off. With that choreography, it got quite hot and steamy up there."
He posed for the huge, naked Alexander Lemtov statutes
Lemtov's "Eurovision" mansion is filled with 8-foot naked marble statues that resemble the billionaire singer (who pretends not to notice the similarity). Stevens sat for a detailed digital scan of his head, which was re-created on a 3D printer and fitted to a generic classical statue body. The statue's private parts were modeled on off-the-shelf sex toys, which Stevens jokes are "anatomically correct."
Then Stevens had to spend days on the set with the nude doppelgangers.
"We had people singing, dancing and walking around them and we were shooting that sequence for like three days," he says. "It was pretty weird."
Stevens swears he didn't take a statute home, even if 2014 Austrian contestant and Eurovision winner Conchita Wurst requested one.
"I don't know if it made its way to Vienna, but there are at least six of those things floating around somewhere," the actor says.
He admits he did take Lemtov's gold stud earring as a keepsake.