With a star turn in the upcoming film Adam, Hugh Dancy prepares to take center stage.
This story first appeared in the June 19, 2009 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
Hugh Dancy is having a moment. After years of receiving critical acclaim for supporting roles in such films as The Jane Austen Book Club, Beyond the Gates and Confessions of a Shopaholic, the British actor takes center stage as the title role in Adam. The film, which will be released in July and was a breakout hit at the Sundance Film Festival, stars Dancy as a young man afflicted with Asperger’s Syndrome. His sheltered life is shattered after his father dies. Incapable of normal social interaction because of his condition, Adam falls in love with an upstairs neighbor, played by Rose Byrne, and must learn to adapt to the outside world. Dancy’s performance is riveting. He inhabits the character both mentally and physically, bringing to life Adam’s inner turmoil through tics, twitches and continually shifting eyes, which seem to look anywhere but straight ahead. It was a role unlike any other he’s attempted and a risk Dancy relished. “Terror attracted me to it,” he laughs. “As an actor, you’re asked to portray someone who’s had a different life experience than you,” he says. “This was different. It was trying to figure out someone who has a whole different wiring, a different mind altogether. It’s the kind of brain that doesn’t allow for empathy, which is the tool you use most to help you in your job as an actor.” On the personal front, Dancy has been equally as visible, particularly in New York where he lives. In February, he and actress Claire Danes announced their engagement; subsequently, the duo has been photographed everywhere, from the star-studded Costume Institute Gala at the Metropolitan Museum of Art to Time magazine’s 100 Most Influential People dinner to the opening night of the American Ballet Theater. “The Met Ball was great,” says Dancy. “Seeing Tom Brady and Gisele was fairly remarkable,” he continues, referring to the recently married quarterback and supermodel. “They really are like creatures from another planet, a better planet, physically speaking, of course.”
Admittedly more slight of stature than Brady, with his tousled hair and piercing blue gray eyes Dancy is no slouch in the physicality department. Though he once was a face of Burberry, he’s loath to discuss matters of style, groaning when the subject comes up. “As an actor, you get three different experiences—one, when you’re working and people are fussing about you. Two, the business of premieres and events, where you’re also styled and it’s pretty much out of your hands, and the other third of your life. It’s a welcome relief to me to not have to put too much effort into that. “That being said,” he adds as a caveat, “you’re in proximity to the fashion world and I’ve made some good friends over the years, so I’d like to think you observe a certain amount by osmosis. I’m perhaps one step up from where I was.” It’s the grit rather than the glitter that holds allure. “I really love working,” says Dancy, when asked what drives him. “When it works well, the rewards are enormous. The other rewards, the more obvious rewards, the more visible glamorous side of it, would very quickly lose its appeal if it wasn’t for that other thing.”To that end, Dancy looks for directors who suggest instead of dictate. “I like someone who’s going to be there for support and will also give you the confidence to try things out and relieve you of your self consciousness,” he says. “If someone talks a great deal about the tiny permutations of the role, it’s not always a good sign. I don’t want to be bombarded with all those thoughts.”
The son of a well-known British philosopher, Dancy, who turns 34 this month, was educated at Winchester College and Oxford University, and still keeps a flat in London. While he’s happy to maintain a working relationship with Hollywood, full-time residency isn’t in the cards. “Sometimes [Hollywood] seems alien and kind of impossible and unnatural and other times it’s a dream factory and magical. It’s a weird tension between the two that keeps it interesting,” he says. “I’ve gotten used to the diversity of London and New York, which doesn’t really exist in Los Angeles. If you’re going to be serious as an actor, you have to expose yourself to diversity, but at the same time, I’m aware that not living there is a luxury.”