Hugh Dancy: Not just another heart-throb Hugh

Hollywood, watch out. There's a new charming, floppy-haired British actor in town. But Hugh Dancy is much more than a conventional rom-com hero. Gaynor Flynn meets him

British actor Hugh Dancy is staring out the window at a small lake of screaming fans. If they weren't yelling out things like "I love you, Hugh" and "you're a hottie, Hugh" he wouldn't believe they were here for him. He looks around nevertheless. Nope. No sign of Jackman, Grant or Laurie – so he must be the Hugh they want.

The 34-year-old had "noticed" things had been a bit different of late. Since Confessions of a Shopaholic to be exact, which was released earlier this year. The fact that he was cast in the shiny romcom was proof that after playing the love interest in dramas like Daniel Deronda, King Arthur and The Jane Austen Book Club, ensembles that were then about bigger names than him, Hollywood decided he was ready to carry a film. In other words, they thought his heart-throb oomph would equal box office dollars. It did – over $45m of them.

Dancy probably hoped his latest film, Adam, might extinguish the heart-throb thing a bit. Unlikely, because even though he's neither dashing nor debonair in this story (Adam has Asperger's syndrome) he is adorable. Best not mention that now though. The man has enough on his plate.

Directed by Max Mayer (Better Living), Adam is a story about a young man who is highly intelligent but emotionally inept because of his condition. When the bubbly Beth (Australian actress Rose Byrne), moves into the apartment above, he begins to build the personal relationship he desperately desires. The only problem is, he has absolutely no idea how to go about it.

It's a lovely little film about the difficulties of making a real connection with another human being. The film won the Alfred P Sloan award at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year.

"I didn't think 'lovely little film'," laughs Dancy when asked what piqued his interest about the role. "I thought 'that is bloody huge'. But my first reaction was to realise how little I knew and how much I would have to learn."

He dutifully read "everything", hung out with people with "Aspys", and "observed, observed, observed". Still, it must have been a daunting task?

"You always worry about whether you can pull something off," he says. "It's part of the process. Unquestioning confidence in yourself is not an advantage in this game, particularly. So I'm fairly self-critical. Having said that, we're not making a documentary, we're telling a love story."

Fans of Extras will no doubt remember Kate Winslet's skit about how "playing a mental" is a ploy for an Oscar. Dancy laughs. He insists it wasn't about showing off his Rain Man skills. "I didn't expect anyone to go see this film," he says. "I did it because it's a way to subvert certain expectations people might have about me. I mean, I'm not running from success but I wasn't thinking 'Oscar'."

It was a smart move because people are beginning to associate Dancy with the romance genre and, while Adam is technically a romantic comedy, it's an unconventional one to say the least.

"I don't sit there and think 'well I did Confessions of a Shopaholic and now I've got to go out and do Chekhov'," he says. "If the next one that comes along happens to be another romantic comedy and I find something in it that appeals to me then great. I operate on almost no system at all."

What appealed here was how we all have a bit of Adam in us. "Adam can see the love, the contact other people have but he doesn't know how to achieve it or express it," says Dancy. "We've all felt those frustrations and those desires to reach across and realise someone fully and most of the time we can't."

Dancy is notoriously guarded about his private life, but a comment like that begs the question, so when was the last time he felt that desire and for whom? His vivid blue eyes flash. "I haven't had that particular experience in a while," he says coolly.

Dancy is engaged to American actress Claire Danes. The pair met in 2007 on the set of Evening, an intense, but rather forgettable drama. Not long after that he ended a 10-year relationship with British artist Annie Morris. Rumour has it that the pair will wed in France this September. Dancy won't confirm or deny those reports.

"Can we change the subject?" he asks.

You wonder how he will cope with the scrutiny in the long term. Being one-half of a Hollywood couple doesn't equal anonymity. They're already papped relentlessly and the interest will only increase with his profile.

"You can choose how much to let that into your life," he says. "And I find that it's peripheral and I don't even like talking about it, because I find it to be a distraction. And it's something that doesn't usually come up in my life until I do these interviews. I mean, I understand the interest. I'm not saying 'holier than thou', but it's not an issue in my life."

Dancy is brilliant in Adam, so it's rather surprising to learn that he wasn't even on Mayer's original wish list. "I didn't think he had the necessary insecurities," says Mayer. You wonder what Dancy makes of that.

"Being rejected is always hard to take," he laughs. "Sometimes it's based on criteria that feels a little shallow, but you have to accept they know best or you'd go crazy. So, generally, I'm more conscious of how lucky I've been rather than the opportunities I haven't had."

Despite the Zen-like spiel, he went after Adam with a "vengeance" and after a two-hour meeting the director decided Dancy did possess the "prerequisite insecurities". Like what? "I'll let Hugh answer that," laughs Mayer.

Dancy smiles wryly. "I don't think I'm any more insecure than the next person. I try not to let myself become too neurotic. To some extent paranoia in this industry is just a realistic outlook, it comes with the territory, but I try not to drive myself totally insane."

Dancy was 17 when he realised he'd already made the decision to become an actor. "Subconsciously that idea was there," he says. "But I didn't immediately want to become a professional actor. I wanted to go to university. So I studied literature at Oxford [he's sort of like the male version of Natalie Portman], but I also knew down the line that's what I'd try and do for a living. I'd been acting at school in a pretty serious way since I was about 13."

Dancy is the son of the British philosopher Jonathan Dancy. His mother, Sarah, is a freelance editor for Oxford University Press. His brother, Jack, owns a travel company in Paris. His sister, Kate, works for Save the Children. Dancy was 10 when he was sent to board at the Dragon School in Oxford. Once puberty hit he became a "bit of a tearaway". Girls, booze and cigarettes all landed him in trouble. One day he was sent to the drama department as penance. He never left.

He waited tables for a time after Oxford and "contemplated" the fact that he might not make it.

"I think anyone with half an ounce of intelligence has to allow for that possibility," he says. "Because the odds are stacked against you. But I got very lucky very quickly, so my commitment was never really tested in that way.

"But at the same time I was very clear about why I wanted to do it." Which is? "I love it and it gives me immense satisfaction. My only goal now is to continue doing it."

'Adam' opens on 7 August

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