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Hugh Dancy—Adam—7/24/09

/content/interviews/295/1.jpgAn Oxford University graduate with a degree in English Literature & Language, Hugh Dancy has played many a literary hero, among them David Copperfield, D'Artagnan, Daniel Deronda, and Galahad. American audiences know him best, though, for his roles in the romantic comedies The Jane Austen Book Club and Confessions of a Shopaholic, or as Prince Charmont in Ella Enchanted. Dancy has also appeared in Black Hawk Down, Savage Grace, and Evening, and he has starred in stage plays on both sides of the Atlantic, including the Broadway revival of Journey's End. His latest challenge: playing Adam Raki, a man with Asperger Syndrome who heroically pursues a romantic relationship that poses unique challenges. During the San Francisco stop (at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel) of his barnstorming press tour, Dancy chatted with me about Adam and other career highlights.

Groucho: As you've pointed out, acting is reacting.

Hugh Dancy: Right.

Groucho: So how did you rewire yourself for "mind blindness"?

Hugh Dancy: (Laughs.) Erm, well, by trying to be specific about it, I suppose. I found that the first few days were very unnerving. I mean, although I'd done the work—I knew what I was aiming for—but just trying to make that final leap, you know? It was still falling into place. The first few days of any movie, actually, are unnerving, but in this case particularly so. But as it fell into place, as I think I became more sure about what was going on with Adam behind what he presents to the world, it actually, in a way, became a kind of pure experience, because I wasn't able to rely upon the normal tools that you have as an actor: eye [contact], that reaction. Y'know, it is easy to kind of think, "Well, I can get—I'll just listen really well. I will—and I'll look at this person in the eyes, and I'll kind of be communicating overtly." And y'know, that's partially—that's what you're paid to do. I mean, that is the job, to some extent. But so, trying to be specific about Adam and honest and really have to be clear about his thought process was ultimately very beneficial.

G: Yeah. I'm sure you've been hearing variations on this all around the country, as you go with the film, but I do know a couple of people with Asperger's, and I thought you nailed it completely.

HD: Oh, thank you. Yeah, I mean, it's—I guess, yeah, you're trying to get the constants right, while not to suggest that you're somehow playing everybody that ever lived with Asperger's, which is clearly not true.

G: Right. In troubleshooting a role over the course of production, was there a learning curve at all, or did you find things that worked for you or didn't work for you in being in the right mindset to step before the camera?

/content/interviews/295/4.jpgHD: Ah. Erm, yeeah, I mean, we had so little time that really it almost felt like it was over before it began. In the sense that there was no point at which I thought, "Oh! This is how it works. This works for me, and now I'm good. I'm good to go, everybody!" We just didn't have that luxury. But at the same time, I think that's also something to do with the character. You asked earlier how did I wire myself for "mind blindness," and I think that's a very good way to put it. It is a different wiring. It's ultimately not one that I'm equipped with. In the same way that somebody with Asperger's is just not equipped with the wiring that I have. And that's not, in my opinion, that's not a distance that I can fully make up. In the same way that—you'd like to think as an actor that you could make up the distance between yourself and somebody with a different job or who's grown up in a different part of the world or whatever. You start with the externals, and then you go deeper and deeper, and then you're kind of there. But it's not true when you're being asked to actually shut down certain parts of your brain. So, y'know, I mean, I think you can kind of make up that distance, but you're always having to remind yourself. It was everyday, like "Arrh, just push yourself that final ten yards. Which, again, is a very good, ultimately—a very good demand to be put on you. There's no final comfort zone. But I suppose what I would say is that, yeah, I knew early on that with the workload that we had, and the nature of the character, that I was going to be keeping myself to myself, and specifically the way I tend to do that is have a book to hand. I mean, I think I rather pretentiously lugged around several large tomes during the course of the—and then would lose them and kind of rely on members of the crew to tell me where they'd put them. And y'know—but that was my means of retreat.

G: It's sort of the ultimate "creative if," that acting idea of the imaginative leap you have to make—

HD: Yeah.

G: Would be thinking in a whole different way.

HD: Yeah.

G: There's really no greater imaginative leap than that.

HD: No, I—well, you know, this is, certainly for me, probably the biggest imaginative leap, but at the same time, I've played characters in situations of peril that I've never experienced. I mean, you hope always to be forced basically into places that you have never been yourself, and hope never to go to. But, yeah, there was a particular challenge to this.

G: Did you take to eating All-Bran and mac and cheese?

HD: (Laughs.) No, I did not. You know, I had to eat probably several bits of that mac and cheese just for those shots in the movie—and some of which aren't there—and that was plenty for me. (Laughs.) Nothing against mac and cheese, but that particular brand was not my favorite.

G: One of the quirkiest things about the character is that he has a spacesuit in his closet.

HD: Yes.

(Both laugh.)

HD: Don't you all?

G: (Laughs.) What was the thought behind where that came from?

HD: Well, I think it speaks to—it's his fascination with space.

G: Sure.

/content/interviews/295/5.jpgHD: I mean, Adam has—like many people with Asperger's—a particular personal obsession, and in his case, it is outer space and stars and so forth. And he regales Beth with it very early on. Rather charmingly so. And at other points in the movie has to be told to shut up about it. So, y'know, had he just emerged with a spacesuit (laughs) with no backstory, I think we'd have had to write it off as one of those indie-film quirks, but it just seemed justified to me.

G: In my mind, the single trickiest scene in the film—and therefore the most rewarding, I suppose—is the impulsive kiss.

HD: Yeah, that's interesting. It was tricky, that. Not tricky. I mean, in a way, it was very straightforward. There was none of that kind of long, lingering build-up and smoldering. I mean it was just "I think I'll kiss her, and God help me."

G: Yeah, heroic kind of.

HD: It is a kind of—it is heroic. And it's also heroic because, y'know, touch is a complicated thing for somebody with Asperger's, and different types of touch. A strong grasp is actually more comfortable often than a gentle—what we would perceive as an—almost a more intimate—y'know, if you're stroking somebody on the arm, it would not calm them down, for example. So, yeah, it's really a foray for him, into a world that he doesn't know, on many levels. I don't know that he's ever necessarily kissed a girl, so there's that. I mean, most—we've all been there, at least once only. Yeah, but you just have to assume— (Laughs.) Yeah, it was tough that, but I kind of credit Adam with the bravery to pull it off. It's a really delicate moment.

G: A close second, of course, is the film's climax, in which he says, "I love you."

HD: Yes.

G: Though that seems qualified—

HD: Yeah.

G: To be ambiguous somewhat. What did you decide was his thought process there?

HD: In that whole sequence?

G: Yeah.

/content/interviews/295/9.jpgHD: I mean, for me, when he says, "I love you," it's purely because he's just heard Beth say that he's never said that. And when you introduce the word "love," it comes with a whole set of preconceptions, from most of us, about what that signifies that I think are kind of unhelpful, actually, to bring to bear on Adam. Erm. This is just as a kind of side note: I fully believe that Adam has personal—has feelings for Beth that go beyond need. He has affection for her and interest in her, and he wants to help her. It's not purely selfish, by any means. His thought process in that moment, I think, is that he knows enough to realize that—she's just said it—that he hasn't communicated with her his feelings, but he has to try and imagine—first of all speak in a language with which he's deeply uncomfortable. And secondly, you know, he knows that she wants something from him, and he's trying to perceive what that might be, which is the hardest thing for him to do. So he starts out—you know, he goes out into that—[writer-director] Max [Mayer], actually, was talking last night, and put it in the best way, which is that he goes out into that deep water...it's absolutely true. He puts himself out there. And the first thing he says is that "You are a part of me." And I think he's saying that in a very specific way. And it comes across—and it's a very beautiful thing to say, because he absolute—y'know, he means it. There's a kind of default poetry to it. And then I think he panics. I think that he just can't sustain that level of, kind of, objectivity. And he goes back. Y'know, he reverts back to a kind of a listing of things, and communication fails.

G: I think one of the most satisfying things about the film is that there's no kind of fairy godmother waving a wand and—

HD: Mm. Mm.

G: He evolves, though. He does evolve—

HD: Oh, yeah, yeah.

G: In subtle ways. Rather than, you know, sort of breaking out of his shell and singing a song or something.

HD: Well, and thank God, yeah, he's not kind of suddenly rendered quote-unquote "normal" or, even worse, y'know, cured. That would have been, I think, a hideous joke to have played on an audience.

G: Or even "neuro-typical."

HD: Yeah, yeah.

G: So what play were the characters seeing at the Cherry Lane?

HD: (Laughs.) That's a good question! I'm just wondering if that was ever specified in the script. Um, I don't know. Y'know, it's interesting to me—that people with Asperger's often do have an interest in the theater. And, y'know, there's a point in the movie where you see Adam with a lot of Playbills on his bed. And I think he's probably as interested in collecting the Playbills as he is in the actual plays. Which is kind of strangely true of me, as well!

G: (Laughs.) And he inherited that from his father, the Playbills.

HD: Right, right. But here it is fascinating that somebody whose primary difficult is empathizing or putting themselves in somebody else's shoes should want to go to the theatre, which is basically exactly—that's what that is about. But it's not uncommon. Erm, what play did they see? I don't know, what do you think? Uhhh. (Laughs.) I think—Macbeth.

G: (Laughs.) Good answer.

HD: Yeah.

G: You starred in a revival of Journey's End on Broadway that was critically acclaimed, and unfortunately not—probably because of its subject matter [war], Americans—

HD: Yeeahhh

G: Probably didn't support it as much as they should have.

/content/interviews/295/2.jpgHD: I don't know if it was the subject matter. I mean, you know what, we lasted—the run went on for four months, which is, for me—I mean, that's a good, long run. And in part that was because of the fact that the producers just believed in it and supported it probably at cost to them. But, erm, y'know, while we didn't—it never became that kind of runaway commercial hit, at the same time, we were there long enough for anybody that wanted to see it to see it. Except of course people still come up and say, "Oh, why didn't you—I would've loved—" "Well, tough luck, pal. I think you should've come earlier. We might have—"

G: I missed it by a couple weeks myself, actually. I was intending to see it, and hoped it would last a bit longer.

HD: It was—anyway, whatever. It was a great, a great experience. For me, it wasn't the subject matter. There was a lot of speculation that it was because the country is at war, and was at war, and that therefore a play about war was not going to attract people. I don't buy into that theory. I think actually there's enough of an audience that are open to that that, if anything, it probably—it would actually work to the advantage of the play. I mean, that's a ghoulish thing to say but, I think, truthful. However, more kind of pragmatically, there was a lot of strong drama on Broadway that season, with bigger names. And that does make a difference. Because, frankly, when people are coming into town, they're going to see one play—certainly they're only going to see one kind of straight drama. And if you've got, y'know, x, y, or z in it, then that kind can swing the balance. [Editor's (little-known trivia) note: Dancy's nickname among his Journey's End cast and crewmates was "Dirty Dancy."]

G: You've done lots of West End shows—what, if anything, did you find unique about the Broadway experience and the Broadway traditions?

HD: I think they have much, much more in common than they have that divides them. I mean, ultimately (laughs) you're in a theatre. You're in an old theatre. So there was no, for me, distinct difference. What really marks them out is the pride—I mean, I think more than the West End, actually—the sense of pride in Broadway. In the fact that I got asked that question a lot spoke more about people in America's perception of Broadway, and certainly people who work on Broadway. And I came to enjoy that; I really liked being momentarily a part of that community. And I'd like to do it again, for that reason. And I think that's something that isn't quite as strong in London.

G: Your degree is in English Literature.

HD: Yes.

G: You were talking about the comfort of carrying a book about. Who are your favorite authors?

/content/interviews/295/7.jpgHD: Philip Roth, I think. Certainly my favorite living author. Errrmmm, you know, it's funny, I roll out this answer because it certainly was true, but I haven't read any of his work in years now, but D.H. Laurence is somebody who—one of those authors that you kind of fell into and read everything. So, yeah, that's probably—it still holds true.

G: And, of course, you've played a few legendary literary characters.

HD: (Smiles.) Right. I have, I'm on the cover of two Penguin Classics.

G: (Laughs.)

HD: Not one, but two.

G: Wow.

(Both laugh.)

G: You're drawn to roles that scare you, which I think always speaks well for an actor, and a person—

HD: Mm.

G: The idea of challenging oneself. To put you a bit on the spot, what types of roles that you haven't yet played do you think could be especially challenging or do you wish you had the opportunity to play?

HD: You know, I mean, I almost think I can't speak to that because I think that a role is the sum of all of its tiny parts, i.e. a good role is something that's very, very well written, and that if I can do it, I would—and if I could sum it up in five words, then it wouldn't be good, by definition. And also, if I knew how to describe it, I'd just write the damn thing. But, you know, it's true that I—and then you end up talking in terms of villain and, you know, good guy, and that doesn't really help me very much. So I just—I don't know. I do think that, to some extent, I try specifically to aim to something that I haven't done before. What exactly that might be I don't worry myself too much about.

G: You know it when you see it.

HD: You know it when you see it, yeah. And that's the one thing I think that I do recognize is good writing when it comes my way. And it's few and far between.

G: A good, dense script.

HD: (Laughs.) Makes it sound like a kind of hard-to-digest meal. But, you know, what I mean by that is writing in which more than one thing is happening at any given time.

G: Your last film was a commercial success, [Confessions of a] Shopaholic

HD: Mm.

G: But it's no secret that the script was in flux during shooting—

/content/interviews/295/10.jpgHD: Yeah, but that's the nature of a comedy like that. I mean, it's also the nature of working on a really—a big studio movie; there's a lot of cooks. But the real driving force behind that flux was Isla, because that's the way Isla Fisher works. You know, she was bringing different versions to every scene: specifically jokes. And P.J., who directed it, also works the same way. And having two people that work exactly like that, I think, can be, erm—

G: It's incumbent on you to sort of stay out of the way a bit?

HD: Slightly, yeah. Absolutely. And certainly if I had jumped in and tried to do exactly the same thing, I think it would have really tipped the balance. But, you know, that's the nature of it. And, you know, you try out all this stuff—Isla would bring in all these options—and eighty percent of them not only don't end up in the movie but just fall flat, right then and there. And there's a bravery to carrying on with that. Because you know that those are the odds. Yeah, it was a real eye-opening experience for me.

G: I have to let you go. Thank you very much.

HD: Okay, nice to meet you. Thank you.

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