The movie Adam is a sweetly unconventional romance, and a huge part of what makes it work is Hugh Dancy in the leading role. Playing a character with Asperger's syndrome who embarks on a relationship with a "neurotypical" woman named Beth (Rose Byrne), Dancy gives his character a memorable physical presence and a personality that can't be defined by his condition. During press interviews in San Francisco, director Max Mayer told me he once worried Dancy could be too "personable and social and self-confident and . . . charming" to take the role, but in the end, his intelligence and "active listening" won Mayer over. Here's how Dancy talked about the film:What kind of research did you do to figure out how to play Adam?
The bare bones of what you do are the same as what anybody would do. I go on the Internet a lot, trying to follow the right leads, work out what isn't going to be useful and what is going to be useful, reading books and trying to find people's first-hand accounts of having Asperger's, and then talking to people that really knew a lot about it and ultimately meeting people with Asperger's. Then there's the other part of what you're doing, which is trying to process that and bring it back to the script and work towards whatever you're going to do on day one of the shoot. How that works, I almost don't care to examine.
How did you create Adam's physical presence? Even when he's not doing anything in particular, he's always so engaged in the scenes around him.
Although on the surface he can appear almost disengaged or detached, Adam is always present, and he's listening very hard because everything depends on it. Although he's clearly very honest and straightforward and literal, there's another part of him that's engaged in a constant act of translation and even acting. Because he's having to make that adjustment and almost try and pass for a neurotypical. That's the deal. He's got to try to work on the terms that have been set by the rest of us. So there's this ongoing and constant flicker of "What the hell is going on here, and what do they mean, and what do they want from me?" To amplify that too much would be ridiculous, but to miss it would have missed that part of who he is.
To hear what it was like to work with Rose Byrne and whether Dancy thought this movie would succeed, just
Since Rose Byrne couldn't come to San Francisco, I have to ask — what was it like working with her?
It was great. Obviously, we've been together for a while talking about the film, and for both of us it was true that we didn't really get a strong sense of each other during the movie — I felt like I got to know Rose subsequent to making the film. And part of that was reflecting the fact that we only had 25 days to do it, and so it was just a pure terrible rush and you're having to stay very focused, but also obviously it's a lot to do with the character. I was more withdrawn than I would normally be. . . . Even in the work of it before the scenes, we weren't having the same sorts of conversations that you would normally have with a "scene partner." We weren't huddling together and figuring out what the subtext was and how we could all get on the same page and explore the underlying emotions because that's precisely what Adam, anyway, couldn't deal with. . . . That's important, and that served the back-and-forth and miscommunications of the scenes, but it was strange. It was an unusual working experience but a very good one, I think.
We've been following the movie since Sundance, and it's clear it's gotten a lot of buzz. Did you expect it would be a movie that could break out?
No, no — God, I didn't expect anybody would ever see the movie. That's the truth, and that's the fact of making a movie with a budget this small, because the odds are stacked against you. So getting into Sundance was incredible — it didn't surprise me because by that point I'd seen a bit of the film and it seemed like we were a strong candidate, but you also have to be realistic about the competition. Every step beyond that has felt just like an additional gift.
We've seen you in several different kinds of roles recently, from this to Shopaholic. Are there particular sorts of things you look for in a job?
Primarily what I'm looking for, if I have any general criteria, is something different. And that would be true of the scale of the movie — it's always good to remind people you exist just by doing a film that's going to have a large audience, like Shopaholic, but I wouldn't do it just for that reason — the character and the tone . . . but at the same time you just have to be open to good material. And I think I have quite a broad sense of what that is — I just have quite broad tastes.
I saw somewhere that you'd said you took the Adam job because it scared you.
There's nothing wrong with feeling comfortable with what you're doing, but you want to be learning something. If something's going to work, there's got to be a risk of failure. There's nothing interesting about watching somebody coast through — well, maybe there is, but it's not exciting for me, anyway. You wouldn't want necessarily every work experience to be at the same level, or at least I don't think so, because if that became your absolute defining criteria you would probably start making bad decisions. But I think it's good, regularly at least, to push yourself to a point that you're not comfortable.