Thrust into fame as one-fourth of a front-page celebrity sex scandal, Hugh Dancy’s tabloid past now seems a distant memory as he prepares for his two most satisfying roles yet: in his latest film, as a man with Asperger syndrome, and next month, as Claire Danes’ husband. (See more of Hugh Dancy in BlackBook here!)
“I like having paint on my hands,” says Hugh Dancy, picking at the telltale yellow specks on the tips of his manicured fingers. “It lends the illusion that I have an honest career.” Only an hour earlier, primary colors were splattered across the 34-year-old actor’s body and face, a nod to the troubled abstract expressionist painter Jackson Pollock, at BlackBook’s rebel-themed photo shoot. Now, over pints of toasted lager at Barbuto in Manhattan’s West Village, he considers the characters he has just inhabited. “James Dean portrayed rebellion brilliantly,” he says, “but I don’t necessarily think of him as a rebel. If anybody deserves to be considered a rebel in his own right, it’s Marlon Brando. He really overturned things.”
Dancy’s transformation into the Sex Pistols’ Sid Vicious was more difficult for the affable Brit, for whom the bassist was a beautiful and tragic figure, but also a nihilistic showboat. “He had a wild, self-destructive bent,” says Dancy, “and I guess there’s something rebellious about that. But to be a real rebel, you must have a clear vision of not only what you don’t like, but also what you want to replace it with. It’s about more than just cutting yourself with a razor.”
Ultimately, Dancy, who graduated from the University of Oxford with a degree in English literature, aligned himself most closely with the late-Victorian era writer Oscar Wilde. “I think Wilde did something remarkable,” he says, “at least by the standards of his society: He painted his vision of life, not only by being gay, but also through his shockingly new ideas about how we should look at art.
“Lord Byron was also clearly a remarkable man,” he adds, referring to the controversial, flamboyant pioneer of Romanticism. “He clearly didn’t give two shits about what anybody thought of him.”
Not so for Dancy, a charming actor who plunged head first into the muckrakers’ den after he became romantically linked to actress Claire Danes, with whom he starred in 2007’s Evening. At the time, Danes had been dating Billy Crudup, who left Mary-Louise Parker, seven months pregnant with her first child, for the Romeo + Juliet starlet. It’s a tangled web, to be sure, and one that Dancy and Danes, set to marry in September, have refused to discuss since going public with their relationship. Rumors about Dancy’s sexuality and sex life have since fueled rag fodder in equal measure to his commanding onscreen presence. “I’m English, and I have a very well developed sense of denial,” he says, polite but guarded. “When attention like that becomes a problem, I try to blot it out as if it’s not there. I guess it’s in my genetic makeup.”
With the release of this month’s Adam, an earnest film centered on the life of a man with Asperger syndrome, Dancy hopes that public interest will shift to his profession—sort of. The difficulty inherent in playing anyone with a disability, he understands, is that expectations of naturalism are set impossibly high. The consequences have not gone unnoticed by Dancy, who admits, “This project was rife with opportunities for me to fuck it up enormously and, by doing so, prove my own limitations. To botch the whole thing would have been calamitous.”
Recognizable, in large part, for his work in agreeable, urbane fluff such as Ella Enchanted, The Jane Austen Book Club and Confessions of a Shopaholic, Dancy embraced the opportunity to delve more deeply into his dramatic side. “I’m delighted to have done Adam, but I’m just as proud of Shopaholic,” he says. “Actually, I should calibrate that. I’m more proud of Adam, but I’m not automatically more proud of it because I play a character with a ‘condition.’”
He looks up from his second beer, his sharp eyes like two daggers dipped in syrup. It seems unlikely that the coiffed and tailored former Burberry model would have much firsthand experience with rebellion. But Dancy was forced into acting, initially, as punishment for “kicking the bricks” as a teenager. “I didn’t get in that well,” he says. “And I made a lot of noise because I wanted to impress people. I trace a lot of that now to being a miserable, pissed-off teenager.” Dancy is no longer fighting and screaming for attention—there’s more than enough of that in his life at the moment. “As actors,” he says ominously, “we’re reliant on how we’re perceived. But one has to be careful, because that way madness lies.”
As James Dean: T-Shirt by H&M, Jeans by Calvin Klein Jeans. As Oscar Wilde: Shirt and Jacket by D&G, Pants by Prada. As Sid Vicious: T-Shirt by John Varvatos. As Jackson Pollock: Shirt by Banana Republic, Jeans by J Brand. Grooming Rheanne White @ See Managment. Prop Stylist Shawn Patrick. Location Industria Studios.
PHOTOGRAPHY BY MARY ELLEN MATTHEWS STYLING BY EMILY BARNES