Interview: Hugh Dancy

Vicki Power 27 May 2022

British actor Hugh Dancy on living in New York, wife Claire Danes and the nostalgia of playing a quintessential Englishman in the new Downton Abbey film

In a career spanning two decades, Hugh Dancy has largely flown under the radar, carving out a solid career as a versatile actor who chooses weighty roles. After catching our eye as Daniel Deronda (2002) and the arm-candy of goofy heroines in movies like Ella Enchanted (2004), Dancy moved toward meatier roles like that of FBI profiler Will Graham in the cult psychological thriller Hannibal (2013-15) opposite Mads Mikkelson, and of a charismatic spiritual leader in The Path (2016-18) with Breaking Bad’s Aaron Paul.  

Half of a reluctant showbiz couple—Dancy’s wife is Homeland powerhouse Claire Danes—Dancy will have to start getting used to the spotlight. He’s just joined two of the world’s biggest franchises, landing a role in the second Downton Abbey movie, A New Era, and in the revival of the US warhorse TV drama Law & Order. Being stopped for selfies on the school run in Manhattan’s West Village will soon become a daily event.  

Hugh Dancy and Claire Danes

Dancy with wife Claire Danes. Abaca Press / Alamy Stock Photo

As Dancy explains his approach to accepting roles, it sounds rather unconventional. "What I tend to do is look for reasons not to do something," muses the actor, 46. "Not in a not an ego kind of away, but, What is it about this that I should recognise is going to make it a bad experience? And if those things fall away, then even if I don't quite have a handle on something, I think, Okay, I should do that thing.

"And I think that means you go down interesting paths, and it sometimes involves maybe not taking yourself too seriously. Then just show up and do the work and see what comes with it."

On Downton Abbey

We’re meeting over Zoom, where Dancy, well-spoken, Oxford-educated and raised in the Potteries, is sitting in his bright New York lounge with bookshelves lining the walls. His answers are well thought out, but he’s amusingly self-deprecating and talks eloquently about the surprise of finding himself in two such high-profile dramas.  

Scene in Downton Abbey

Scene from Downton Abbey. Landmark Media / Alamy Stock Photo

"I don't know: how do I end up doing Downton Abbey, which just popped out of the blue, like a blast from the past? On a personal level I felt that way, but a glorious beautiful one. And then Law & Order, which couldn't be more quintessentially New York. My feeling there was a pretty common feeling among actors, but amplified, which was: I think you've got the wrong person."

In Downton, Dancy plays Jack Barber, an English director who takes over the Granthams’ estate to make a movie called The Gambler; above stairs, it’s considered a scandalous event that causes much clutching of pearls, while below there’s much excitement. It’s also suggested that Barber might be a love interest for Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery) in the absence of her husband, Henry Talbot (Matthew Goode, whom it appears is not returning for the movie). Dancy is sworn to secrecy on specific plot points but does lob us a crumb. "What I'm probably going to say is that her husband is still away," says Dancy. "He is off doing something. And she does become involved in the movie, and we become partners in that respect. I mean, yes, please continue to speculate."

"It was very nostalgic to be back in England playing the Englishman"

He jokes that when the role was offered, his agent rang him with a level of urgency that was almost frightening. "I got a message from my agent, who, I understood subsequently, to feel, rightly, that this was good and exciting news," explains Dancy with a laugh. "But from his voice message, I thought something terrible had happened! 

"It was wonderful to get the role on many levels, not least because there's a lot of nostalgia around the project. It trades in nostalgia to a certain degree, but there was a kind of personal level of nostalgia for me as well, to come back to England to make a proper costume drama."

Balancing acting and family life 

Downton Abbey A New Era

Downton Abbey: A New Era (2022). Landmark Media / Alamy Stock Photo

It turns out that Dancy’s job on Downton dovetailed nicely with Danes’ work. The couple were in the UK with their young sons, Cyrus, nine, and Rowan, three, while Danes filmed The Essex Serpent opposite Tom Hiddleston, due for release in May on Apple TV+. "We were in Essex and then Suffolk, and when I was filming, we were in London," says Dancy. "So I was hopping in the car and tootling down to Highclere every once in a while."

While back in the UK he realised the thing he’d missed most, along with pubs, was public footpaths. "The first thing I did once we were out of quarantine was download the Ordnance Survey map and I took my kids out against their protests, dragging them through fields, like the quintessential boring dad, going: 'You don’t know how lucky you are to have this right! If you did this in America, you'd be shot!' It’s an incredible thing."

Scene from Downton Abbey

Scene from Downton Abbey. Landmark Media / Alamy Stock Photo

Back to Downton chat. Dancy says turning up for filming "was like joining that well-established moving train, jumping on and hoping that you'll get a good handhold and hoping that you'll be helped aboard," he says, stretching the metaphor. "I found that it was very easy. People were very welcoming, and it was lovely to see a group of people that hadn't seen each other – or anybody – for 18 months. They're all thrilled to be back together. But they were also maybe, maybe happy to have some fresh meat.  

"The challenge of the job is to just try and fit into the tone of the piece," continues Dancy. "I spent a lot of time sitting around in very stiff clothing, surrounded by Gainsborough paintings, drinking tea, and exchanging small talk with recognisable British actors. I’ve missed that. 

"I’m not going to say it was freeing, but it was very nostalgic, in a sense, to be back in England playing the Englishman in about as English or British a scenario as you can get."

Back across the pond for Law & Order 

Dancy’s other big break came last autumn when he was cast as Senior Assistant District Attorney Nolan Price in Law & Order, a rebooted version of the cops-and-lawyers drama series that ran from 1990-2010 and gave rise to numerous spin-offs. Its reboot is a primetime event on NBC and a vehicle likely to propel Dancy to household name status.  

He admits he was nervous joining the franchise. "You don't want to be the person that comes along and finally gives it the kiss of death," he laughs. "It’s like, 'We've resuscitated it! It’s back! Oh, no, it’s dead.' I will do my best not to feel personally responsible for it, whatever happens."

When his debut episode aired in February, it was a family occasion—he and Danes watched it together. "The tone and the format is so specific, and I feel like I'm just figuring that out, so I wanted to watch it. And Claire wanted to watch it, because her first job was on Law & Order. She was a 12-year-old murderer!"

"You don't want to be the person that comes along and finally gives it the kiss of death"

"So we watched it. She liked it, I think. And we watched it with another friend who's maybe more objective, who's a Brit who's come over here and is a diehard Law & Order fan, and he seem to enjoy it as well. So that was enough for me. I got good feedback from home base."

The bonus of the role is that Law & Order is filmed in Dancy’s adopted home of New York City. "That’s very meaningful. Especially because our eldest has spent a good portion of his life on the road with us, mostly because of Homeland, but also because of Hannibal. Homeland in particular just took us all over and for years that was fine.  

"So the opportunity to be here with that is big. It's really a great job in the sense that I will go off and have long, long days and be very involved and engaged. But then the next day, I'm going to be home with the kids and take them to school and pick them up a few hours later."

Hugh Dancy in Hannibal with Mads Mikkelson

Starring opposite Mads Mikkelsen in Hannibal. Landmark Media / Alamy Stock Photo

The gear shift, career-wise, will likely lead to Dancy getting recognised as much as his other half. Dancy describes himself as "maybe a little bit reticent" about fame. "I’ve always been lucky," he says, referring to being able to live a normal life. "I've always been able to kind of have my cake and eat it to certain degree. But clearly, fame as an actor is currency. It's a really important currency. You basically get to do the things you want to do because you have a foot in the other camp [doing] the bigger broader things. It's important."

Danes’ experience of mega-fame hasn’t put him off, he says. "People are basically very pleasant, so it's generally okay. One of the mostly wonderful outcomes of this job on Law & Order is that fairly frequently you get perfect strangers coming up to you and telling you that they like your work, or even that they like you on some level. Not to read too much into that. That's clearly strange on one level, but it's also a boon."

It's an attitude that will serve Dancy well as his star continues to rise.  

Downton Abbey: A New Era will be released in UK cinemas on April 29, 2022

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