An immensely talented actor, 34-year-old Hugh Dancy has tackled many tough roles: an amoral hedonist in Savage Grace, a troubled alcoholic in Evening and a teacher immersed in the 1994 Rwandan genocide in 2005’s award-winning drama Beyond the Gates. But to most American audiences, he’s best known for his wildly charming parts in lighter fare such as Confessions of a Shopaholic and Ella Enchanted. All that’s about to change, however, with the release of Adam, a thoughtful, heartfelt story about a young man with Asperger Syndrome looking to confront the death of his parents and the odd sensation of love. Here, Dancy — profiled and photographed as various iconic rebels in BlackBook’s August issue — discusses his new film, his fall engagement to actress Claire Danes and the best place in New York to find a good pint of stout. Plus, see a full gallery of behind-the-scenes pics from his photo shoot.
Was it difficult to connect with Adam? It’s your job, as an actor, to understand emotion and expression, but that’s exactly what someone with Asperger Syndrome can’t do. You’ve got to intuit your way into the mind of somebody who has no powers of empathy himself. Most of the time, you rely on other people when you’re acting, how quickly and immediately you can react to what the person opposite you is doing. But in this case, I was denied all of that. He doesn’t react. Still, he is reaching out, somehow. He is drawing conclusions; they’re just often the wrong ones. That’s the paradox, at the heart of this movie—Adam’s clouded bubble, which isn’t entirely opaque. That’s the beauty of the condition—the way that it creates this different mindset—but that’s also the tragedy of it. People with Asperger Syndrome can grasp enough of the outside world to want human contact, to want love and affection, but they don’t necessarily have the tools to go after it.
How did you research the part? There are online communities of people with Asperger’s—Aspies—who have meetings to assist each other and figure out how to deal with the world. I had access to some of those. I knew that people would find the research interesting, but I’ve always felt it’s best to keep that to myself. I will say that I had a brief insight into the incredible day-to-day complexity of living without something that we take for granted, which is the ability to look each other in the eye and see something.
It’s something you and I will never wholly understand. With enough work, you can imagine what it would be like to be a trapper in Alaska, but this is different. In this case, I was asked to figure out somebody whose mind is a different machine. I was a bit daunted by that.
I haven’t seen you carry a film in this way before. I hate that phrase, “carrying a movie.” I never really buy into that, but I know what you mean and, in some ways, it’s easier than having to turn up for two days and just be brilliant. On Adam, my safety cushion—
Your safety net? My safety cushion? [Laughter] What am I even saying? I actually carry one around with me. I’m sitting on it now. Anyway, had I known for certain that Adam was destined for some kind of release, I would have been much more nervous about screwing it up.
Especially when portraying someone with Asperger Syndrome. I’m always very cautious not to be seen “acting.” Some people want to see an actor performing and that’s fine, but it’s not to my taste. The amazing thing about Daniel Day-Lewis, for example, is that, in There Will be Blood, he managed to give a performance so big, yet so completely internalized—there was no bullshit.
A character with special needs or a prostitute—those are usually the two paths to Oscar. Had you considered that? I genuinely didn’t. But now that you’ve said that, if it doesn’t work out for me with Adam, I’ll play a hooker next. There was the worry that if we didn’t pull this off, I would look doubly exposed. Like, “Really? You thought that was going to work? Better luck next time! There’s this great prostitute movie coming out—maybe you should give that a shot.”
Is there any worry… Of course there is! I’m so scared. I’m just a nervous wreck! [Laughter]
Have you considered how your portrayal of a character with Asperger’s will be perceived within that community? It would be terrible to misrepresent the people who had been incredibly generous towards me, who are anxious to gain understanding, and who haven’t really been represented much in popular culture. On the other hand, I’m not a great student of how I’m perceived. I don’t think anyone knows how he is perceived, unless he puts a huge effort into finding out.
But you’re written about a lot. I guess so. But I don’t engage with that.
And don’t know about it, or— I don’t really know about it. My private life is my private life. And the best way to keep it that way is to draw a line. It’s understandable and natural for journalists, because they’re in the business of presenting people and describing people, to ask actors, who are in the business of presenting themselves, about how they’re perceived. But, ultimately, it’s very uninteresting. Sorry, that sounded a little rude.
Don’t apologize. You’re entitled to your personal life. And I certainly don’t think the problem—it’s not even a problem, really—is made any better by complaining about it.
You come from a family of academics, right? My dad was a teacher.
His writings on Particularism are world-renowned. Picking up my dad’s books is like picking up a Boeing assemblage manual. It’s meaningless to me because I don’t have the wherewithal to understand it. So I haven’t tried. But the basis of his position, as I understand it, is that there is no such thing as a moral principle. I can say that proudly.
And I can nod. But neither of us really knows what the hell that means. [Laughter]
Did he bring that home with him when you were going up? The thing that defines your childhood experience is the kindness of your parents, and they were wonderful. But, yes, he was a teacher who would ask questions, sometimes to the point that it was infuriating. He was always one step ahead, like a good teacher ought to be.
As a teenager, having a father whose life has been spent disavowing empirical morality—it’s kind of like hitting the jackpot. [Laughs] Actually, Dad, I will be staying out late tonight.
Was acting an acceptable career path for you to choose? My parents have always supported me, so I was never waiting in fear for the day when they would call up and order me to get a proper job. But it occurred to me later that this was because my father is not just an academic, but also a moral philosopher. And if anything, acting was my “calling.”
How do those relate? You don’t go into moral philosophy lightly. I think of it as an incredibly brave choice because it sails so closely between pointlessness and brilliance. It’s so easy to mock the seeking of answers. You must really want to do it, not just because of potential mockery, but because it’s such an extreme way to spend your life. So I think my parents understood when I said, Look, there’s this thing that I really want to do. It means a lot to me, but I don’t know what kind of future it’s going give me.
Were you equally passionate about modeling? I have absolutely no passion for modeling. Christopher [Bailey, the creative director of Burberry] is one of my dear friends, and I don’t want to be casually dismissive of the entire industry at all. That whole experience confronted my expectations of fashion a little bit. I was surrounded by people—Mario Testino, Kate Moss—who were at the top of their profession, and who I found to be charming and genuinely creative. Not superficial. Not bitchy. Not any of those easy stereotypes. But the actual act of sitting in front of a camera, while fun for a day, would not sustain me.
Was that your first modeling gig? It was my first and last. Well, no, I did a Gap ad as well. Burberry was a great experience—the quintessential shoot for a British guy.
You said “last.” Do you mean that you haven’t done anything since the Gap campaign or that you won’t model again? Never say never.
In your relationship—given that Claire is the face of Gucci and that you’ve done a lot of Burberry stuff—you must be hooked up pretty well for clothes. [Laughs] Well, I’ve got this Gucci watch… but it’s a real divide, isn’t it? I sometimes get very nicely suited out for an event, which is fantastic, but the next day they usually take it back. I don’t particularly live for clothes, either. But I’m an actor, you know? I dress up for a living.
Are there certain bars you frequent in the city? I went to Mars Bar a while ago. That’s a real shithole. It’s possibly the only bar in the world I’ve been to, apart from one in Romania, where I actually felt scared. In Romania, I felt scared because I thought I could get my throat cut, but Mars Bar scared me because of the lifestyle it represented. I’ve discovered some really fantastic dive bars in New York.
Have you been to Lit Lounge? It looks like a dive bar, but people like the Olsen sisters go there all the time—there are paparazzi staked out sometimes. No, that sounds like my idea of hell. The thing that defines dive bars is that it’s absolutely genuine—you can’t fake it. I like pubs, too, like the Four-faced Lion. It has the best Guinness in the city.
I haven’t been able to find a bar in the city that pours good “Black Velvets.” What’s that?
It’s a mix of apple cider and Guinness. Which is presumably lethal. It’s like in school, when you believed that if you took three aspirins and drank a soda you would get high.
I’d like to ask about your engagement. Give me your best shot.
There’s speculation about where you’re getting married, when you’re getting married, the details of ceremony. What do you feel comfortable sharing? I’m not going to share any of it. Like I said, it’s best kept private.
Would you feel comfortable talking about her professionally? I met Claire when we worked together on Evening. At that point, it really was just a professional situation. I had great respect for her in the abstract, and my experience with Claire as an actress, which is always when you know that it’s the real thing, is that she listens so well that I felt literally picked up by the bootstraps. It’s easy sometimes to shut down, to cruise through, say, the third take. But when you’ve got a good actor like Claire opposite you, you think, Shit, I can’t cruise—she’s actually listening to what I’m saying. You have to step it up. And that’s the same with any good actor I’ve ever worked with, not only Claire. But I realized that about her the minute we started working together.
Would you consider the possibility of working with Claire now that your relationship has changed? I would think about it more carefully, obviously, but the answer is pretty obvious. Some people would say no immediately, but not me, although I also wouldn’t look for an opportunity to do it. It would have to present itself.