Combustible Celluloid

Interview: Hugh Dancy


By Jeffrey M. Anderson

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Handsome Hugh Dancy, 34, has made a career out of some polite British costume productions as well as a few ensemble pieces like Ridley Scott's Black Hawk Down (2001) and Antoine Fuqua's King Arthur (2004). He tends to brood a lot, as in the teen romantic horror film Blood and Chocolate (2007). But for me he stood out as Anne Hathaway's romantic interest in the clever comedy Ella Enchanted (2004); he was dashing, but self-aware and quite funny. It's in this vein that he has graduated to perhaps his most difficult role to date, in a movie that is going to be a difficult sell. Adam is a romantic comedy, but with a leading man who has Asperger's Syndrome; this causes him to have limited social skills, unable to read anything that is not literal (no irony or double entendres) and to be obsessive over certain favorite topics. In Adam's case, it's astronomy. In the film, Adam's father dies, leaving him alone in their New York apartment. A pretty new neighbor, Beth (Rose Byrne), moves into the building and she finds Adam handsome and quirky before she discovers what his real deal is. Amazingly, writer/director Max Mayer -- who normally works in theater and whose second feature film this is after his 1998 debut -- carefully balances this potentially deadly scenario. He establishes the facts of the syndrome early on and then concentrates on the characters rather than on hospitals. It's a delightful film that will depend almost entirely on word-of-mouth. Mr. Dancy and Mr. Mayer recently visited San Francisco to help spread that word.

The following is an edited transcript of a round-table interview, including myself and several other journalists.

Q: This was a movie that walked a fine line. It could easily have fallen into several disease-of-the-week movie traps, but it doesn't. Did this worry you? Was there ever anything in the script that you objected to?

Hugh Dancy: I think there are different stages in which you address that. Firstly there's the writing. When I re-read the script after understanding something about the subject, I began to appreciate that fine line, and all the different ways I could mess it up. And so when we were performing, we tried to achieve all that balance. And then finally, and probably most importantly, is in the editing. And I don't know how many scrapes Max got us out of. I imagine quite a few.

Max Mayer: I agree. The line I was most concerned about was the audience's response to the relationship, in terms of balancing the possible negatives of someone with Asperger's being the romantic object. I had written it so that scenes were either pluses for the relationship, or minuses for the relationship. I wanted to give an accurate representation of Asperger's but also have the audience root for the relationship. That was the line.

Q: Why did you make Adam so interested in space?

HD: I had to kind of understand the actual sentences I was saying. But I didn't go away and study space and try to get a big overview of it, because I didn't have time. I was thinking more about Adam's delivery when he's talking to Beth, or when he's talking to Beth's family about the theater. That was just tough to learn. I don't have a problem learning lines. For actors, that's just what you do. But in this case it was difficult because of the flow of information. And secondly, when you learn a speech or dialogue, you're helped by the fact that the person is communicating to somebody else. But Adam is really not communicating with Beth at all. For somebody with Asperger's, when they get in on a subject that they're fascinated by or obsessed by, they kind of forget that you're there, almost. It was much harder to learn. I was reciting facts, but disguised as a communication. And also I had to deliver it at speed, and in an accent.

Q: Most people will focus on Adam, but the Beth character is beautifully written as well. In most romantic comedies, the girl pines for some kind of perfect love and hopes for a glorious wedding, as if her entire life revolved around the absence or presence of a man. Beth seems to have her own life, and when she meets Adam, it's a happy surprise, and not necessarily something she was hoping for. Max, can you please talk about writing this character?

MM: You're right in the sense that the Adam character was a springboard for the story, and I'd say that the first draft was very Adam-heavy, in the sense that he felt like the only rounded character to me. I knew that wasn't going to work at all, so I went back and essentially re-wrote the movie from Beth's point of view. So in a way, Beth's story wound up taking up more energy in terms of writing, than Adam. Once I understood the rules and had a certain affinity for Adam, I could write Adam. But writing Beth came with more difficulty, and she needed a little more present-tense backstory. I felt like I needed to explain what she was doing in the story, essentially, and that was difficult. And I needed to figure out where she was in her life, and what she was getting out of this, and have her torn in a real way.

Q: Did the movie turn out the way you intended?

MM: Largely. I have to say, not just because he's here and that it will embarrass him, but Hugh's performance is more than I could have imagined. It's one of those great moments when an actor takes a circumstance that you've given him and he takes it deeper and more personal than you imagined. But we got maybe 80% of what we intended, which is huge.

Q: Hugh, did you bring any of yourself to the character?

HD: If you start thinking about it, you can blur the lines very easily. It's very easy to start: "where does my experience overlap"? So I always thought of the character as someone very different from me, very "other." For me Adam, with his condition, is wired in a way that ultimately I don't think I could ever completely inhabit. It isn't possible to portray anybody without yourself creeping in somehow, even unconsciously. It's something I tried to steer clear of.

Q: How did you get into acting?

HD: I got into acting at school, when I was about 13 or 14. I was sent to the school theater really as a punishment, to keep me busy, to occupy my time, because I was messing around. So I was painting the flats, and then somebody told me I had to be in a play because they needed somebody. And I did what I was told. And then I began to really enjoy it. I started having little dreams of doing it as a living, but it seemed so far off and so unreachable. I really didn't know what form that would take, and I never thought about television or movies. I still don't even think I can envisage the career I have now. It still doesn't seem real.

Q: Max, the New York locations worked so well with the tone of the story. Can you please talk about shooting there?

MM: I had a lot of the same relationship to New York that Adam has. I recognize it as this megalopolis that is intimidating and is this huge icon of a city, and at the same time for me it was home, and it's my comfort zone, which it was for Adam. And that paradox appealed to me. I would have had to do a lot of research to find that somewhere else.

July 24, 2009

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