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Film: Ready to Dance

British actor Hugh Dancy is poised to make a U.S. breakthrough

By Jason Gargano · July 4th, 2007 · Movies
  Hugh Dancy is Buddy Wittenborn, a hard-drinking wiseacre with myriad problems, in Evening.
Magnolia Pictures

Hugh Dancy is Buddy Wittenborn, a hard-drinking wiseacre with myriad problems, in Evening.

Hugh Dancy is not a household name in America. But that's likely to change: The 32-year-old British-born actor has three movies coming out this year. Then there's his burgeoning, tabloid-hounded relationship with Claire Danes, his co-star in the just-released Evening. And, as we all know, tabloid interest is the real gauge of arrival on the U.S. cultural landscape, right?

A native of Stoke-on-Trent, Staffordshire, Dancy studied acting at Oxford, which led to a string of stage and TV work in England throughout the '90s and early '00s. His performance in Tom Hooper's 2005 HBO miniseries Elizabeth I finally introduced him to a wider audience, a breakthrough he used to land roles in recent films Basic Instinct 2 and Blood and Chocolate.

Now comes Lojas Koltai's Evening, which finds Dancy starring alongside a murderer's row of talented, big-named actresses: Glenn Close, Toni Collette, Danes, Vanessa Redgrave, Natasha Richardson and Meryl Streep. Adapted by acclaimed author Michael Cunningham from Susan Minot's Cunningham-esque novel, Evening tells the story of Ann Lord (Redgrave), a frail, bed-ridden woman in the twilight of her life whose deteriorating health triggers memories long suppressed -- she keeps muttering about a mysterious weekend a half-century earlier.

The non-linear, era-hopping narrative then transports us to 1953 as a young Ann (Claire Danes) heads to the lush seaside home of an upscale New England family. Ann's college buddy Lila Wittenborn (Streep's daughter Mamie Gummer) is set to marry -- despite her love for another, less "suitable" man -- in order to carry on the family's blue-blood pedigree.

Dancy plays Buddy, Lila's charismatic but troubled younger brother, a wiseacre who drinks heavily to mask his feelings for Ann as well as to escape the rigid, hierarchical society that is crushing his free spirit.

Evening teeters on the edge of melodramatic oblivion without quite succumbing. Much of the credit goes to Dancy, who brings weight to his character's raw-nerved emoting.

A bit player in Minot's ethereal, dreamlike novel, Buddy was greatly expanded for the film version.

"I never really asked Michael Cunningham this, but I think one of the reasons he chose to invent this character is that he's a catalyst for action," Dancy says during a recent roundtable interview at The Regency Hotel in New York City. "Film requires that. A novel can afford to be more contemplative and kind of stream of consciousness, but a film has to move on, and Buddy does provide that."

Dancy's English accent calls attention to the skill with which he inhabited the quintessentially American Buddy. He answers questions with candor and insight, the sign of an actor comfortable in his own skin, the antithesis of Buddy's tortured existence.

"The source of his pain is very clear and visible and out in force," he says of Buddy's state during the film's pivotal weekend and his role in the Wittenborn family dynamic. "If you are a guy who insists upon emotional honesty, then that's not the place that you want to be brought up. And then you can get into questions of sexuality that, from my point of view, are secondary to that primary source of identity."

Buddy rarely appears onscreen without a drink in hand, a trend Dancy didn't feel compelled to mimic while filming.

"You don't get drunk," he says when asked how to play a drunk. "Well, you do for about 10 years and then you stop drinking and you start acting. It's like anything else: It's unique to that character. I'm currently playing a drunk onstage in this play, which is set in a First World War dugout, in the trenches, and it's a completely different set of circumstances and a different guy. So, without being too literal about it, you think about why this person is drinking, what is it inside that they're trying to push down and, ultimately, how is it going to come out, because it always does. That's the first thing; and the second thing is just trying to restrain yourself, because nobody likes to see an actor flailing around all over the screen and spitting at his fellow cast members."

A longtime veteran of stage work, Dancy has been given his largest, most complex feature film role to date in Evening. Was he ready to flex a more subtle set of muscles?

"I guess, if you did 20 years of acting on stage, then you might go and do a terrible piece of film acting, but I've kind of gone back and forth," he says. "I think the heart of it is identical -- it is about an honest reaction to what's going on, and then there's technique on top of that. So I haven't found it to be a particular problem jumping from one to the other."

While some critics have criticized Cunningham's script for trying to juggle to many characters, Dancy was happy Evening's themes weren't wrapped up in a tidy, audience-friendly bow.

"I was grateful for the fact that it wasn't a message you could put in an easy 10-word sentence," he says. "I recognize the truth that we all need to define ourselves, and I imagine particularly as we get older people need to look back (on their lives) and feel that there's something palpable and distinct there. Evening is universal because it examines that need for meaning that we all have." ©



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