According to Hugh Dancy, the age of the repressed British man is over. “There’s this idea that we’re all people who are buttoned up and then underneath there’s a whole cauldron of complexity and neuroses,” he says when we meet for breakfast not far from where he and his wife, Claire Danes, live in Soho. “A generation ago, it was definitely true. Now that’s not the case. I mean, in essence we’ve all been Americanized, you know?” But that doesn’t mean he thinks it’s appropriate to talk about certain matters in public.
Which is difficult not to do, given that he’s starring in an S&M play-within-a-play called Venus in Fur on Broadway. His character, Thomas Novachek, is a somewhat priggish playwright who willingly but fitfully sheds his inhibitions for a force-of-nature unknown actress, played by Nina Arianda. In the play, she’s auditioning for Novachek’s adaptation of the scandalous 1870 novel Venus in Furs, by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch. The term masochism is derived from Sacher-Masoch’s name, and the book is about a man who persuades a woman to take him as her slave. Yes, in the play version, Dancy-as-Novachek ends up with a dog collar on. But the power dynamics between director and actress shift, and not always in tandem with the slave-and-“goddess” relationship on the page. As Dancy puts it, “I feel like I’m having multiple personality breakdowns at the same time.”
Trying to get Dancy to open up about his own relationship to this fetishistic subject matter without retreating into talking about the play—written by David Ives and transferring from an Off Broadway run starring Arianda and Wes Bentley—becomes our own power game. He describes the play as “a series of surrenders,” and is politely encouraging of my domineering line of questioning: “What kinky predilections have you discovered through the play?” “Does part of you enjoy being abused onstage?” “Have you felt whipped in a relationship?” “What turns you on?” Each time, he demurs. “Wow. I wish I could tell you that in the space of five weeks, I’ve grown into a, you know, connoisseur of dungeons, but it’s just not true”; “I think what you’re asking is basically, ‘Do I like being whipped?’ I think the answer is that the play has not taken me there yet.”
Dancy, 36, has bawdy moments, but his quick wit tends more toward the bumbling evasiveness of the U.K.’s other, more famous Hugh. The Oxford-educated son of an editor of academic books and the philosopher Jonathan Dancy, who specializes in moral particularism—or the idea that right and wrong is context-dependent—he’s prone to say things like acting is “an odd form of exhibitionism, which involves hiding yourself.” His father’s work may explain why he’s drawn to characters whose identities are in flux: “We’re different people depending on who we’re with.”
He met Danes while playing her sexually confused best friend in Evening. Since she’s in Charlotte starring as a bipolar CIA agent on Showtime’s Homeland, he likes to unwind after curtain at home with a single-malt Scotch, watching her on TV. (He’s also addicted to The Only Way Is Essex,England’s version of The Hills.)
Well-groomed and pretty, Dancy is often a carnal target. He diddreamy-Brit duty in Confessions of a Shopaholic and as Prince Charmont in Ella Enchanted. In Martha Marcy May Marlene, he’s the uptight, and tight-bodied, brother-in-law to Elizabeth Olsen’s cult escapee; she climbs into bed while he and his wife (Sarah Paulson) are in the midst of grunting coitis. YouTube his name and the first clips that come up are montages set to easy listening of him getting naked and sensual in movies you probably missed with Rachael Leigh Cook and Jessica Alba. Last year, he played handsome and gay Off Broadway in The Pride; he started off this year as a New Agey artist in Our Idiot Brother, seducing a lesbian Zooey Deschanel.
Coming soon is his women-have-a-right-to-orgasm movie Hysteria (or “hiss-steer-ia,” as Dancy pronounces it), in which he plays the inventor of the vibrator. The true story of hapless Victorian doctors pleasuring women as a means of curing their “hysteria”—and then creating an electrical device to do the job when their hands cramped up—the film has a far cheekier vibe than Venus. When the Rabbit, an effective sex toy featured in Sex and the City,appeared in the end credits atHysteria’s Toronto Film Festival premiere, the audience burst into applause. “People were remarkably excited,” Dancy says. “I use that word … consciously.” Vibrators were handed out at the after-party. “It was a nice gesture,” he says, “but if I were going to apply a piece of machinery to myself, I wouldn’t do it with something I got free at a party. What about you?” So he didn’t take any home? “Wow. This is not a question you ever anticipate being asked. I didn’t see my career going in this direction.”
When we spoke in September about the ins and outs of making the movie, we did so atop Toronto’s prodigious CN Tower. The tourists around us, possibly listening in, made him nervous discussing things like the handwork in the movie. “Um, for the sake of having some … some way to convincingly apply pressure, there was a sandbag that sat … that sat behind the little modesty curtains. So that’s what we were kind of grinding our hands against, you know. I think Jonathan [Pryce, his co-star] actually took the skin off the end of a finger. Ha-ha-ha.” Was the technique purely clitoral or vaginal as well? “Well, uh, you saw what they ended up inventing, which was just that little rotating nubbin. So it … it is historically accurate to say that it was non-penetrative. There’s a very, very crucial distinction between the vibrator and the dildo”—he started rubbing his beard and grinning a little maniacally—“and I can’t believe I’m having this conversation like a thousand meters above sea level.”
There is a line audiences love to laugh at in Venus that compares the theater to S&M. And though Dancy seems to find being onstage less punishing than being interviewed, the comparison makes some sense to him. “For it to work, you’ve got to abandon yourself to it,” he says. “That’s true of all plays, but this play makes it overt. Once the play starts, there’s nowhere to go. It just picks you up and carries you along and ejects you at the end. And in a way that is the heart of what I like in general about being onstage, that sense of totally letting yourself go and at the same time you’re still the boss.”