How Hugh Dancy became a Hollywood hero

With leading roles and a film-star girlfriend, the boy from Stoke seems to have it all. Liz Hoggard meets him
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Five years ago Hugh Dancy was being touted as the new Hugh Grant: same floppy fringe, same self-deprecating Englishness and ability to charm the ladies. With acclaimed performances in costume dramas, Daniel Deronda, David Copperfield and Madame Bovary, he was never out of a frock coat. He even modelled for a Burberry "country house" campaign shot by Mario Testino.

Critics predicted that he'd end up as the new Hollywood romantic hero. But, Dancy, 32, has done something rather more interesting with his career. By choosing to play a series of left-field roles, he has proved that he can do characters as well as the more showy leads.

True, he has the requisite film-star girlfriend (Claire Danes, whom he met on the set of his latest film, Evening). And he has just shot a Hollywood rom-com, The Jane Austen Book Club, which is destined to be a huge hit when it opens here in November. But he has actively courted a different type of role."I like escapism as much as the next person, and I pay good money for it quite often," he tells me, "but the real heroes of cinema are basically all anti-heroes."

Dancy is interested in ambiguous characters who don't necessarily command your full sympathy. Last year his role as a fresh-faced English teacher in the Rwandan-genocide film, Shooting Dogs, was a revelation. And now he has two more left-field roles, first as an alcoholic in Evening, and then as a geeky computer expert in The Jane Austen Book Club.

"Obviously they're wildly different characters but they both share weakness in a sense," he acknowledges. "There are so many scripts where they don't allow the male lead any kind of flaw, which renders it very boring."

We meet in the library of a London boutique hotel. Slender, athletic, with that fashionable tousled look, Dancy has exquisite manners. He's bright with a subversive wit. At times you feel this could be an Oxford tutorial rather than a film junket.

A family drama set in Rhode Island in the 1950s, and modern-day New York, Evening did not have an easy time with the US critics, who found the script by Michael Cunningham (The Hours) slow and meandering. But Dancy got universally good reviews. His portrayal of the 1950s New England socialite Buddy is heartbreaking.

Buddy believes he is in love with his college friend Ann (played by Danes), but we sense that he is sexually ambiguous – falling for anyone who seems more secure in life.

"He has no self-control and really no self. My understanding of him is that all these people he is lunging at throughout the film, basically he wants to absorb. He wants to be them, you know that form of attraction."

Dancy admits it was hard playing a drunk convincingly without overdoing it. Apart from the tricks of the trade – like people blowing menthol into your eyeballs – the key is to speak like a sober person. "It's interesting because as people get drunker they try and assert control just as they lose control." Alcohol both conceals and amplifies a person, he explains. "The very thing they're trying to repress, aggression, for example, starts to bubble up."

Evening is full of strong women – Meryl Streep, Vanessa Redgrave, Toni Collette, Glenn Close and Streep's daughter Mamie Gummer. "This list of actresses kept growing and becoming even more daunting," he laughs. "I remember saying to my dad: 'I'm nervous, this is an amazing group of people. It's a great role and I'm aware of how much I could screw it up.' And he said: 'Well, that sounds like the ideal way to be in life: nervous because of all the opportunity you've got.'"

He met Danes on Evening. When they first got together, the American press had a field day. Dancy had split up with his long-term girlfriend, artist Annie Morris (who illustrated Sophie Dahl's fairy tale The Man with the Dancing Eyes). Meanwhile Danes ended her relationship with actor Billy Crudup (who had originally left his pregnant wife, Weeds's Mary-Louise Parker, to be with Danes). He is quick to point they didn't actually become a couple until filming on Evening had ended.

"My experience of working with Claire was exactly that... it was working. Not least because we were not together. It was hard work, and she made it harder, and I mean that in the best possible way, because her reactions to what I was doing were powerful. It's not enough knowing the lines, you have to raise your game. You certainly don't want to let down the people you want to admire you."

He insists chemistry isn't necessarily about romance. "Yes, it's easier to act with somebody you respond to and get on with and if you like the way they think. But I've acted with people I didn't particularly get along with and produced perfectly good chemistry on screen. And there are plenty of examples of people getting together on a movie and becoming a couple and producing crap."

It would be a shame if interest in his love life overshadowed his work. Dancy has had a remarkable year. He was nominated for an Emmy for his role as the Earl of Essex in Elizabeth I, alongside Jeremy Irons and Helen Mirren. And he made his American theatre debut in the Broadway production of Journey's End, directed by David Grindley. His role as Captain Stanhope, a broken-down soldier fighting in the trenches who resorts to the whisky bottle to blot it out, won rave reviews.

Dancy was born in Stoke on Trent in 1975, the eldest of three. His father is a philosophy lecturer. He attended prep school in Oxford at eight and Winchester at 13, but says he didn't settle into either well. Acting gave him new confidence. "I found a small group, within this larger environment, that I was comfortable with and I stuck with it."

Instead of going straight to drama school, which he worried would narrow his options down, he studied English at Oxford.

He moved to London and got an agent almost as soon as he graduated. One day sitting in a café he overheard a conversation between two people who worked in the film world. The man put Hugh in touch with Ros Hubbard (the casting director on The Mummy and Tomb Raider) who in turn sent him to see the uber-agent Dallas Smith. Smith signed him without seeing him act, blown away, she says by his matinée-idol good looks and his intelligence.

He first came to our attention in 2002 when he played George Eliot"s eponymous hero in BBC1's Daniel Deronda. Andrew Davies's script of repressed passion – where Daniel has to chose between a flighty married woman and a young Jewish girl – made him the thinking woman's pin-up. He even got a wet-shirt scene to rival Colin Firth. Germaine Greer called him "gorgeous".

He played Helen Baxendale's toyboy in Cold Feet, then came the role of a medic in Ridley Scott's Black Hawk Down. And Sam Mendes cast him as a young scientist in the First World War drama, To the Green Fields Beyond, at the Donmar. Hollywood took note, and he was offered the role of Prince Char opposite Anne Hathaway in the teen flick, Ella Enchanted, and Galahad in King Arthur with Keira Knightley.

The Jane Austen Book Club should put him in another league. Co-starring Emily Blunt, Maria Bello and Kathy Baker, it is based on the New York Times bestseller by Karen Joy Fowler, where six lonely Californians start a book club to analyse Austen's novels.

"You get proper ensemble scenes where six characters, all fully realised, engage in cross-conversation, and that's so rare these days," he enthuses. "It's written by a person who understands and appreciates Austen, but at the same time for someone like me who's not fully aware of all the things she's referencing."

As the nerdy Grigg, Dancy is the token male of the film. "It was a little oestrogen-heavy," he laughs. But he fitted well into a matriarchy. "I have real affection for Grigg because he's so well-meaning," says Dancy.

"Yes, his light is seriously hidden under a bushel but he's very happy in his own skin. He's absolutely comfortable with the eclectic series of interests he's garnered. He doesn't mind if people make fun of him or if he looks stupid because he knows he's on the right track."

And it's daring to have a klutzy romantic hero. "I can't imagine Mr Darcy ever tripping up, and it's certainly hard to imagine him cycling in Lycra. I did worry after I'd committed that particular moment to camera," he says wryly. When the film comes out, I predict Dancy will become a heartthrob in the US.

In the flesh he doesn't quite have that magnetism. You sense that he lacks the vulgar-publicity gene.

"I don't think of myself as someone who has one artfully polished persona to the extent that Hugh Grant does. I just don't have that particular skill-set. So I need to be able to step outside of myself."

But then versatility is his trump card. "I've always said if you waited for the next Shooting Dogs, you'd just be out of work for a decade. As an actor your mission is to entertain.

"Even with genre films, the story still has to be well told."

'Evening' is released on 21 September. 'The Jane Austen Book Club' opens on 16 November