Photography by Peter Ash Lee
"Boyish" and "dashing" may be the first words that spring to mind when Hugh Dancy enters a room, but they don't tell the whole story. Maybe Walter Bobbie, who is directing the actor in the dark comedy Venus in Fur on Broadway this fall, nails it when he says, "The two sexiest things a person can have are intelligence and spontaneity. And Hugh definitely has those." Of course, Bobbie adds, "He happens to be gorgeous."
It's been nearly four years since Dancy last appeared on Broadway, in the Tony-winning revival of Journey's End, but audiences have had plenty of chances to admire the busy Brit. In addition to playing dual roles (both gay characters) in the 2009 off-Broadway show The Pride, Dancy just completed a season-long stint on Showtime's The Big C, playing, in his words, a "Buddhist, wine bar–owning, marathon-running gay cancer patient." He's also clocked in roles in films like Our Idiot Brother, the much buzzed-about Martha Marcy May Marlene, and Stephen Dyer's upcoming comedy Hysteria, about the invention of the vibrator. For his 10-week run in the equally ribald Venus in Fur, Dancy stars as a writer-director named Thomas, playing opposite critical darling Nina Arianda, who originated her role in the play's off-Broadway premiere last year.
"Other than the thrill of working with Nina, and that everyone I knew had seen the play and loved it, the writing manages to be classical in a sense," Dancy says over black coffee in the lobby of New York City’s Soho Grand Hotel. "There is a beautiful, rich quality to it. It's so well shaped and so muscular, but it's also funny as hell. I figured it would be like a workout." He pauses and considers what he's just said. "Somehow, I've just used muscles and working out. But it’s true!"
David Ives's twisty puzzle of a script finds Thomas auditioning a mysterious actress named Vanda (Arianda) for his adaptation of the titular erotic 19th-century Austrian novel (which also inspired the Velvet Underground's song "Venus in Furs"). Ives's work shifts from the power games between the director and actress to the play within the play, tackling everything from the writing to sexual politics and the hell of being a thespian. "There are so many different flavors floating around, it would almost be a mistake to pick it apart," Dancy says. "But there's a line Vanda has -- something like, 'You don't have to tell me about sadomasochism, I work in the theater.' And there's a truth to that."
Over the show's 90 minutes, the characters' S&M-laced tension continues to mount, a development that wasn't immediately apparent to Dancy when he read the script. "Clearly, that's the topic," he says. "But that's not what came across to me. So it kind of shocked me when people said, 'Oh, you're doing that? It's so hot!' But what the hell, that's great. I'll roll with it." (For his part, Bobbie remembers set designer John Lee Beatty turning to him after a run-through and saying, "Shouldn't you be a little ashamed of yourself?")
Dancy has never coasted on his good looks and charisma (if you can see past his leading-man turn in the 2009 bubbly rom-com Confessions of a Shopaholic), particularly in his stage work. And his eagerness to travel to uneasy places was what struck Bobbie the most in his audition for Venus. "He went from being a brutal, fierce intellectual to being a submissive wife begging to be killed," Bobbie recalls. "He's fearless. I think his sexuality is so clear to him that he's not intimidated to examine every aspect of the role."
Despite a history of playing gay characters, Dancy's main requirement when it comes to choosing his projects is the script. "[A character’s sexuality isn't] a factor in whether I'll do a role or not," he says. "If something like this comes up and it's a great character, I'll want to do it. Basically, I'll ask myself, What are the reasons I shouldn't do this? And when you look around and you realize you can't really find any, then you have to do it." He pauses and grins. "Or when the only reasons are I'm having a nice time and I'd like to just sit around."
Venus in Fur opens November 8 at New York City’s Samuel J. Friedman Theatre.