In the offbeat comedy-drama Adam, the 34-year-old Brit plays a lonely New Yorker with Asperger Syndrome, a form of autism. Adam’s lack of social skills make his courtship of neighbour Beth (Rose Byrne) comically awkward, and their resulting relationship a testing one.
Hugh Dancy: You know what, I don’t even know if I had. The most I could possibly have said is, “I think I have heard of that,” like most people. The script landed on my lap without any basic description. I read my way a third of the way in, to the point where Adam the character announces that he has this condition. At that point my interest was really piqued: the decision to hold off on that diagnosis in the movie was very unusual and much more interesting. So what I got out of the script was close to the enjoyment I hope people get out of it when they sit and watch it. People who know nothing about Asperger’s – they don’t feel like they’re watching a movie of the week. You’re not having an Asperger’s information video forced down your throat.
HD: I realised it would be quite a challenge for me. When I went to meet Max Mayer, the writer and director, we talked through it all and he offered me a little bit of his knowledge of Asperger’s. I think if he’d really thrown the door wide open I would have totally freaked out and run a mile, but he gave me just enough, like a good director would, to make me hungry. I didn’t even occur to me as a glory project or something.
HD: [laughs] I realise it’s very easy to see this kind of movie in that light – I’ve now answered enough questions about the movie to know that! But fortunately, I think that the movie offers more than that.
Dancy with Rose Byrne in Adam.
HD: Because of the nature of Adam’s condition, it specifically denied me most of the things you rely on as an actor; communication, empathy and reaction. That quick, spontaneous reaction to somebody else in a room usually gets captured on camera, and that makes it feel real. But you can over-rely on those things to cover a slight lack of understanding of the scene that you’re playing, thinking, “It doesn’t matter because I can act it up, I’ll be really present if I haven’t really considered the ramifications.” Well I literally did not have that vocabulary available to me. I couldn’t really look into Rose’s eyes.
That really intrigued me because it’s the polar opposite of what you’re supposed to do as an actor, which is to emote wildly and be a human sponge.
HD: Or did I just turn up on day one and hope for the best? [laughs]. Actually, all of the above. There was a lot of information that I had to absorb. I read a lot of different stories, talked to a lot of different people. But there is also a truth to the idea that you still turn up on day one and think, “What the hell’s going to happen here?” We only had 20 odd days to film this so the truth is I was in a state of constant shock from start to finish. It’s not like I spent hours in a rehearsal room with Max going, “Should I walk like this? Should I walk like that?”. The first scene we shot was the first scene of the movie and I remember turning round and walking from the grave of my father’s funeral and thinking, “Oh, it’s gonna be like this!”.
HD: I don’t hope, I know that they will take away a sense that it has spoken to them, even if they have never met anyone with Asperger’s. They will recognise the very human story of one individual, any of us, trying to properly make contact with another one. That’s what I think is at the heart of this film.
Adam is out in the UK on August 7th.