Q&A: Hugh Dancy on 'Evening', Clare Danes

Is Hugh Dancy the next Hugh Grant? The 32-year-old British actor has been pegged as the next big thing in Hollywood. He just completed a successful run on Broadway in "Journey's End," as the lead, Capt. Stanhope (a role that Laurence Olivier originated). He has four movies out this year, including "The Jane Austen Book Club," based on the recent book. In his latest drama, "Evening," Dancy plays Buddy Wittenborn, a rich New Englander who is dating the film's heroine, Ann. In real life, Dancy is now dating the actress who played Ann, Claire Danes. He spoke to NEWSWEEK's Ramin Setoodeh.

NEWSWEEK: I liked the movie. But I don't understand why the critics have been so terrible to it.
Hugh Dancy:
You make an intelligent, thought-provoking movie, and you're going to get a range of responses. All I'm aware of is the people I've personally watched it with, and I've enjoyed that.

Have you read the book?
I read the book sometime after I read the script. I read it really with the view to see if there were any pointers for my character and I discovered my character didn't exist in the novel. There's a character by my name. But he's literally mentioned in passing. His role in the story was [scriptwriter] Michael Cunningham's biggest contribution to the story.

So how did you create the character?
It was in the writing. It was all down to Michael's dialogue. The way I feel about it, is that it's really rare to read dialogue that's heightened and intelligent and funny and witty--in other words, literary--but really sounds like it can come out of someone's mouth. You don't feel like you have to make a line believable when speaking Michael's lines, but you do have to live up to it. That's what you want as an actor.

When I saw the movie, I was impressed by the chemistry between you and Claire Danes. Then I read all the reports about the two of you dating. Is that where the chemistry came from?
Chemistry is the result of acting. Obviously, it's easier to act with somebody you respond to and get on with and you like the way they think. But I've acted with people I didn't particularly get along with. And nonetheless, I've produced perfectly good chemistry on screen. And I know there are plenty of examples of people working together and falling madly in love and producing complete rubbish.

Like "Gigli"?
It would be far from me to mention any examples.

I read that you and Claire took a vacation together, scuba diving.
Scuba diving isn't something I'd dream of doing. But I highly recommend it. I'd done it once in Australia, completely illegally.

How do you scuba dive illegally?
I was on a boat. It was one of those [deals where] you pay $40 (Australian) to go out in the barrier reef. Once we got out there, they let us try it. It was them being illegal.

Did you see Claire on "Letterman" last night. She was quite funny.
She was very funny.

I was trying to sound more British by using the word "quite," but I think used it the wrong way. To Brits, quite doesn't mean "a lot," it means "a little"?
In Britain, it can mean both. You'd say, “She was quite wonderful.” You wouldn't say, “She was quite funny.” I don't know why, but for some reason, it can be a qualifying thing. If you're using the superlative, like “wonderful” or “delicious,” that means you're amplifying the superlative. But if you're using a word that can be on a range of things, like “hairy” or “funny”--you can be extremely funny or a little bit funny. You'd say, “You're quite hairy.” That means “a little bit.” The other way to use the word “quite” is if you agree with someone. If you say something to me that I'm not entirely sure that I agree with, like "The presidency has never been at a higher pitch that it’s been right now," I can say, "quite." It's a way of responding without committing to either side. This is so boring. But I love this word. It's such an English thing.

How do you do an American accent?
I don't think about it. But I always ask the actor to stop me if I screw up. There are some words with particularly different pronunciation. Hovering (huuvering) in England which is spelled with an "o" is somehow pronounced "hovering." Carnegie Hall in this movie, I pronounced Car-ney-gee.

I read somewhere that you're watching one of my favorite TV shows of all time.
"The Wire”?

"My So-Called Life."
Ooh. "My So-Called Life." I'm obsessed with “The Wire." It's amazing. I ended up watching the box season, I've now watched one, two and three. But I did recently sit down and watch the pilot for "My So-Called Life."

You haven't seen the whole series?

You need to!
It's a treat in store. I love the way good television doesn't date.

I think that because a lot of people in my generation grew up with that show, we feel a little protective of Claire.
I've become aware of that in the last few months, in the way people approach and refer to that. They grew up with it, and it's about growing up. But you can imagine what it would be like actually being somebody who grew up through that character, and being associated with it.

What did you study at Oxford?
English literature. I was at St. Peter's College. I wanted to be an actor prior to that, from when I was 13. But I also knew that I wanted to go into future education. I didn't know what it would be like. I might not have stuck it out. But I enjoyed it. As it turned out, it felt like I was doing something useful and valuable for whatever I was going to go to. I was pragmatic in the sense that I wanted to finish a degree before I tried my luck.

Where do you live now?
My apartment is in London. But I haven't been there since Christmas. So it's basically empty.

You could sublet it.
Believe me, when you have an empty apartment in London, it's not empty that much. My sister is getting married in the fall. I talked about maybe her and her husband moving in there. That way, I know I can at least stay on the sofa if I need to.