Love interest breaks type, uses brain

LONDON — At first the British actor Hugh Dancy seemed to be entirely wrong to play the title character in “Adam,” said Max Mayer, the film’s writer and director. The trouble was that Dancy, 34, seemed too charming, too intuitive, too easy in himself — just right for a movie like “Ella Enchanted” (he played Prince Charmont) but not so perfect for a character who was not so perfect.

 But Dancy managed to convince Mayer in a long and intense meeting that he was right for Adam, a socially inept, emotionally shuttered young man with Asperger’s syndrome, a form of autism. “We talked for a couple of hours, and I finally realized that he had the requisite insecurities and whatnot,” is how Mayer explained it.

 The new, low-key film was shot on a shoestring in less than a month and is a departure from the sort of big-budget, easy-pleasing movies Dancy has specialized in lately. These include “Confessions of a Shopaholic” (he played a handsome magazine editor and love interest) and “The Jane Austen Book Club” (he played a handsome science fiction fan and love interest).

 His delicate features and Byronic curls might scream “romantic comedy” and make him seem like a natural heir to older heartthrobs like Hugh Grant and Colin Firth. But Dancy’s brain yearns for more. He has also taken less visible parts, as an idealistic teacher in Rwanda in “Beyond the Gates,” for instance, and like many British actors who move easily from film to television to stage, he shudders at being typecast or pigeonholed.

 To class-conscious Britons Dancy would be considered posh, meaning that he went at a young age to a fancy boarding school, Winchester, and then to Oxford, and that he speaks with a classic BBC accent. He grew up partly in the Midlands and partly farther south, with a father who is a prominent philosopher and professor, and a mother who works in academic publishing.

 He describes himself as an unhappy, indifferent, rule-breaking student at boarding school. Sentenced to run 5 kilometers each morning as punishment for something or another, he took to doubling back on his tracks as a way to get around it. Caught, he was ordered as further punishment to report to the school theater and make himself useful.

 That was how he fell into acting. “I didn’t want to act,” he said. “It wasn’t like I was waiting in the wings, like ‘All About Eve.’ It was a refuge, and I found to my surprise that I liked these people.”

 He also realized that he was surprisingly good at it. “Years later I found a letter that my dad sent out saying that they had gone to this play in horror, expecting me to slump loafishly around the stage,” Dancy said. “But obviously it worked out, or otherwise I wouldn’t have carried on.”

 He studied literature at Oxford, decided not to go to drama school and began working at a bar in London. He talked his way into a meeting with a casting director, who sent him to an agent, who agreed right then to take him on, after what must have been an early tour de force presentation by Dancy.

 “When you’re starting out as an actor, 50 percent of it is the way you present yourself,” he said.

 Some television work followed, including a part as “an Italian-English sidekick to a brutal murderer,” as he put it, in a violent television thriller. He has played the Earl of Essex and David Copperfield on television, Sir Galahad in a film about King Arthur, and a young man caught up in the world of werewolves in a movie called “Blood and Chocolate.”  “Adam,” in which Dancy’s character embarks on an unlikely romance with a comely neighbor, played by Rose Byrne, presented a different challenge altogether. Dancy had to make the character sympathetic and the situation believable while remaining true to the limits of his condition. In other words, while Adam can learn how other people feel and modify his behavior accordingly, he cannot feel — or be seen to feel — the emotions himself. He can only grow so far.

 “We tried to keep both the integrity of the character and the accuracy with regard to Asperger’s and also maintain him as a viable romantic possibility,” Mayer said. That is where Dancy’s “translucent intelligence” came in, he added, and the actor’s ability to quietly convey thoughts and emotions.

 “He has the confidence to do nothing except think,” Mayer said. “He has a basic but very rare quality in that he doesn’t feel he has to manufacture emotions in front of the camera, he can allow himself to just be.” Mayer has revised his early analysis of Dancy as a smooth, glib golden boy.

 “He’s created a really good social character that he can use, and that’s a face he presents to the world,” Mayer said. “But deeply and internally he’s much more complicated than that. He has dark and light and charm and insecurity all at the same time.”

 Dancy said he had to put aside his normal acting instincts to learn to play a character who lacks empathy. “The nature of the condition is that it’s anti-empathetic,” Dancy said. “So there isn’t something you can empathize your way into. You have to study it and study it and talk to people until it sinks in.”

 At the same time he had to play a real character, not a type, not simply Person With Asperger’s. “Somebody asked me, outside of this condition, who is this person?” he explained. “There was something delicate and strange and mysterious about the character. He was not just some screenwriter’s vague idea of what a man with Asperger’s might be like, but someone with a very specific set of characteristics.”d. That is where Dancy’s “translucent intelligence” came in, he added, and the actor’s ability to quietly convey thoughts and emotions. “He has the confidence to do nothing except think,” Mayer said. “He has a basic but very rare quality in that he doesn’t feel he has to manufacture emotions in front of the camera, he can allow himself to just be.” Mayer has revised his early analysis of Dancy as a smooth, glib golden boy. “He’s created a really good social character that he can use, and that’s a face he presents to the world,” Mayer said. “But deeply and internally he’s much more complicated than that. He has dark and light and charm and insecurity all at the same time.” Dancy said he had to put aside his normal acting instincts to learn to play a character who lacks empathy. “The nature of the condition is that it’s anti-empathetic,” Dancy said. “So there isn’t something you can empathize your way into. You have to study it and study it and talk to people until it sinks in.” At the same time he had to play a real character, not a type, not simply Person With Asperger’s. “Somebody asked me, outside of this condition, who is this person?” he explained. “There was something delicate and strange and mysterious about the character. He was not just some screenwriter’s vague idea of what a man with Asperger’s might be like, but someone with a very specific set of characteristics.”

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