Hugh Dancy wears many hats. He is a strapping English thespian, an up-and-coming sex-symbol, and the recent husband of Claire Danes. He is also the son of an esteemed philosophy professor, the acclaimed star of the S&M play Venus in Fur, and the unwitting gigolo cum love-interest of Hysteria, the talked-about Edwardian comedy about the invention of the vibrator that recently had its North American premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival. With so many roles to inhabit, both on-screen and off, I was eager to catch up with Mr. Dancy, who turns out also to be an expert conversationalist. Over the phone we got to talking about Manhattan living, female onanism, and the impeccability of Maggie Gyllenhaal’s British accent.
When you got sent a script about vibrators were you like ‘Yes I have to do this!’ or more like ‘Not in a million years!’
I’d like to think I wouldn’t sign up for or throw away a script particularly just because it was about vibrators. I was vaguely aware of the story that women were being treated for what they called hysteria at the time, that was all I knew. But the more I read, the more I found it interesting. I especially liked the mix of tone. They treat the subject seriously, but they’re also not afraid to go for the laughs.
Did you and the other cast members spend a lot of time on set debating the philosophy of the vibrator?
The philosophy of the vibrator! That’s my next self-help book! Truthfully, no, I wouldn’t say that we did. We talked more before we made the movie about trying to unify the various tones of the film. Because you’ve got this knockabout comedy, but you’ve also got this more serious, socially realistic stuff. And what you try to do is make sure they’re all in the same movie. But that was prior to shooting. Once we started shooting the agenda was to enjoy ourselves.
Your character is a lot of things at once. He’s a brilliant doctor surrounded by nitwits, a medicalized Don Juan of sorts, someone torn between luxury and his conscience, and finally a devoted lover and husband. Do you see yourself more in one of these sides to the character than another?
No, I don’t think so. How can I put it? As somebody who’s often taken very seriously, and yet who thinks of myself as being more absurd, I suppose identified with that. Because one of the interesting things about the character I played was that was that he is not completely straight-laced, you realize there’s a bit of eccentricity in him, and I identified with that.
Your father is a famous philosopher. Did he give you big doses of philosophy growing up?
Not in the way you might be imagining. He’s a teacher, and I guess philosophy is all about asking questions and encouraging people to ask questions. So he encouraged us to think for ourselves, and be intellectually curious. In that way we were very lucky. But no, we weren’t getting weekly seminars on Kant.
Did you always know you wanted to be an actor?
Not at all. When I was about thirteen I got sent to the school of theater. There was no choice on my part. I was getting into the kind of trouble you can get into when you’re thirteen at a boarding school. So they sent me to theater school to keep me occupied. Once I got there I found out I liked the people, I liked the environment. Then somebody told me I should be in a play. And I agreed, and I found I quite liked that too. So that’s how I got going.
I read you live in New York mainly.
I have a home in London and I get back there. But yes, I spend most of my time here in New York.
How has the move across the Atlantic been for you?
You know, it’s not been an enormous change. I had visited New York before and there’s nowhere else like it. But I was already used to living in one of the great cities of the world for ten years. And I’ve always found I could land anywhere and be alright. I’m not hugely attached to places. But also I’ve always thought to myself casually, wouldn’t it be great to live in New York? When it fell out this way I was delighted.
What did you think of Maggie Gyllenhaal’s accent in the film?
Maggie’s accent was impeccable. I can’t remember if there was even a moment where her American voice broke through. I’ve done the American accent now a few times and there’s always been a word here and there. That’s not how you pronounce ‘Carnegie’, you know. In her case I don’t even recall if there was one word. She went at it a hundred and fifty percent.
She also lives here. Did you guys know each other before the film?
We didn’t know each other before we made this movie. So in fact we met in London where we shot the first half of the movie before moving to Luxembourg. We had a great time, but you know it was hard work. It’s a cliché but these lighthearted movies are really quite a slog to shoot. So there wasn’t a lot of time for extracurricular activities.
Are you worried about being typecast as this sort of Mr. Darcy charming, strapping Englishman?
I guess I’ve played characters that could be squeezed into that bracket, but I think its bit of a construct and doesn’t really fit. I’ve been both lucky and also careful to try to vary what I do as much as possible.
How is your Broadway experience? You are in the play Venus in Fur now, which has gotten great reviews. Do you like working in the theater?
Yeah, the great thing about the theater in general but particularly this play is that it covers a huge amount of ground in an hour and half. My character spins through so many permutations, so it’s a workout. It really is. He’s definitely not that kind of two-dimensional, charming gentleman. He’s not two dimensional anything. He’s a shifting personality.
And after the play? What’s next?
When I finish the play which will probably be in June, I’m going to be making a series called Hannibal, which is an adaptation of the Thomas Harris novels involving Hannibal Lector.
Are you playing Hannibal himself?
I’m not playing Hannibal. I will be playing Graham. He’s the lead investigator whose forte is entering into the mindset of the serial killer he pursues. It’s his strength and his weakness, really. I find I can empathize with that.
Are there any actors along the way who have particularly inspired you?
Almost too many to name, really. Just off the top of my head, John Hurt, Helen Mirren, Ian McDermott. But that is just a random selection. And it’s only a coincidence that they’re all British by the way!