INTERVIEW:Hugh Dancy’s latest role is moving but refreshingly unsentimental. Showing how difficult Asberger’s syndrome can be, both for those who have it and their families, was part of what attracted him to the part, he tells ANNA CAREY
IN A VERY nice suite in a very nice hotel in Soho, a group of journalists are waiting to meet Hugh Dancy. We’ve been sitting around for about half an hour, eating croissants and checking the batteries on our dictaphones, when a press person comes in and announces that Hugh is ready to talk to The Irish Times.It turns out that all the other waiting journos are going to do a group interview. “You’ve got him on your own?” says one woman, as everyone stares at me with the sort of envy that would surely only be justified if I were running away with Mr Dancy for a weekend in Paris instead of having a friendly chat about his new film in the room next door. But there’s something about Hugh Dancy, the 33-year-old star of such diverse projects as Confessions of a Shopaholic, Elizabeth I, Shooting Dogsand Ella Enchanted, that has a strange effect on people. The man has charm to spare.
This charm is evident in his new film, Adam, written and directed by newcomer Max Mayer. It’s the moving but refreshingly unsentimental story of a solitary young man who develops a relationship with his new neighbour Beth (the excellent Rose Byrne), a primary school teacher. The relationship, however, is complicated by the fact that, as is only made explicit about a third of the way through the film, Adam has Asperger’s Syndrome, a Autism-related condition that can make social interaction difficult.
Dancy admits he knew “nothing about Asperger’s” before taking on the role. Preparing inevitably meant a lot of research. “It’s a really complicated and very specific condition that brings with it a lot of secondary conditions, and it’s not something you can just wrap your head around in a day because it involves a different sort of wiring altogether. I think if I had sat down without taking a lot of that in and immediately met a room of 20 people with Asperger’s – as I later did – I would have just been blown away.”
When he did meet with people with Asberger’s, he found they were enthusiastic about the project. “The guys I met watch a lot of TV and movies, and they knew my whole career by the time I came in – they’d googled me,” he says. “It was daunting – I’ve never been in a room with so many people with such attention to detail! They really wanted me to do a good job, but they also really wanted to see the movie, and they wanted to meet someone who was making a movie that they could watch and feel a connection to the whole process. So that was wonderful.”
Dancy is aware of the responsibilities involved in portraying a member of a group who are not usually depicted on screen. “I always knew there were a lot of ways I could screw this up, but the worst thing I could possibly have done was to misrepresent people. And I’m glad to say that now I feel like I haven’t.” So far, feedback from people with Asberger’s and their families has been “overwhelmingly positive, which is almost unique”.
What’s particularly impressive about the film is that, unlike the syrupy likes of Forrest Gump, Adamdoesn’t sentimentalise its hero. Mayer shows how difficult Asberger’s can be, both for those who have it and their families – which was part of what appealed to Dancy. “In some depictions of people who are not neurotypical, it’s very much about the idea of the Holy Fool: they are Other, and isn’t that wonderful, because they teach us things,” he says. “As opposed to the fact that actually, it’s really fucking tough.” In one of the film’s best scenes, Beth apologises to Adam after a fight by giving him a box of chocolates. His response? “I’m not Forrest Gump.”
It’s one of Dancy’s favourite scenes. “What’s so fun about that scene is not just the line but the fact that Adam’s telling a joke, and Beth’s almost more taken aback by that than the actual line,” he says. “I thought that was a really important moment. The one thing I learned talking to these guys is that they do have a sense of a humour. That doesn’t mean they’re necessarily the best joke tellers, there’s a lot of exposition. But it’s there.”
Adam is a long way from Dancy’s last big role as Luke, the hero of frothy romcom Confessions of A Shopaholic. Dancy seems aware of the silliness of that project, but says he likes to mix things up by doing big mainstream films such as Shopaholicand King Arthuras well as smaller projects. “I like both. I essentially want to have my cake and eat it. I want to continue to work in the theatre as well, and I consider myself very lucky to be able to work here and in the States; I don’t feel the need to pick sides, really.”
Dancy credits his old public school, Winchester College, with giving him a good introduction to the acting world. “I think I got more out of what I did at school than what I did later at university. I was lucky because my school physically had a great theatre. So I had the experience of being on a proper stage, which some people don’t get even if they go to drama school.”
After Winchester, Dancy studied English at Saint Peter’s College, Oxford. His father, Jonathan, is a celebrated professor of Moral Philosophy and his mother Sarah works in academic publishing. Did he ever feel any pressure to follow in their footsteps? Was he nudged towards doing a postgrad? He laughs. “Oh, God, no. I felt that by going to Oxford and studying an actual subject I had gone far beyond the call of duty. Although of course, I didn’t really do that out of a sense of duty, it was for myself. I never wanted to go to drama school, I knew I wanted to study English at university.”
Dancy says his parents have always been totally supportive of his choices. “The only time I ever remember them slightly clenching was when they asked me, when I was still at school, if I was thinking of going straight to drama school, and I could see them holding their breath.” When he reassured them that he didn’t plan on heading off to RADA, “they did sort of collapse with relief”.
These days, he says, he thinks that he and his father’s choices have something in common. “For all of the distinctions between that world and what I do is, both are vocational. I mean, my dad isn’t just an academic, he’s a moral philosopher. You don’t just go into these things because you’re thinking ‘what the hell, why not?’ It’s not a box you just tick. You do it because you really feel drawn towards it.” And while he is the first actor in the family, it seems he’s not the only showman. “I think no family is without theatricality in one guise or another. You just have to scratch the surface.”
These days, home for Dancy is both London, where he has a flat, and New York, where his fiancé Claire Danes is based. They met on the set of Evening, the 2007 film whose starry cast also included Meryl Streep, Glenn Close and Vanessa Redgrave. He was, he admits, initially a bit intimidated by his co-stars. “I’m as starstruck as anybody, but as soon as you’re actually working, that all goes rapidly right out the window.”
In Adam, he shares scenes with Frankie Faison, best known for playing Commissioner Burrell in The Wire. Was he a fan of David Simon’s celebrated show? “It is, for me, hands down, the best television series ever made – there’s no competition. I’ve still got three episodes left of the fifth season – don’t say a damn thing! It can’t be spoiled! We’ve been watching them at home pretty much back to back like so many other people.”
He was thrilled when he realised he’d be acting with Faison. “I tried to contain my excitement so I could retain some scrap of dignity, but actually I overdid it because I never, in the course of the shoot, said to Frankie, ‘look, I worship that show’. And a few months later, I told him that I really loved The Wire, and he was, like, ‘why didn’t you tell me, man?’ Fortunately I’m still in touch with him so one day I’ll sit him down and totally pick his brains about it.”
Dancy’s next project, The Art of Deception, will see him playing Dutch forger Han Van Meegeren, whose fake Vermeers fooled the Nazis and led to his subsequent post-war trial for treason. It’s not an immediately sympathetic role, but Dancy relishes a challenge. “In Adam, there was a challenge about taking on the character, and I realised the best place to be is one where you’re slightly terrified. In fact, just before I did EveningI rang my dad and said ‘There’s a lot of really good actors who I look up to, and a character I feel is great, and I really don’t want to mess it up’ and he said ‘But isn’t that exactly where you want to be?’ And it is.”
Adamis on general release