Screen actor Hugh Dancy:  ‘How I prepared to play man with Asperger’s syndrome’

From Volume 5 Number 2 (print edition only)

ADAM - a quirky variation on the traditional romcom, starring the British actor, Hugh Dancy, - proved a big hit at the 2009 Sundance festival and the subsequent Edinburgh film festival. Set in New York, it tells the story of a  primary school teacher, Beth (Rose Byrne), who finds herself attracted to the fragile, handsome, “odd” chap downstairs. Awkward socially, a staunch avoider of eye contact and obsessed with astronomy, Adam also seems devoid of the intuitive faculties required to handle the subtleties of flirtation.
            “The first thing I really appreciated when I read the script is that it doesn’t immediately open with ‘Here’s a guy who’s got Asperger’s’, diagnosing him from the word go,” Dancy  told The Times of London. “You wonder about him, but you get to see him as an individual, as a human being, before you get to box him off.”
            By a curious coincidence, Dancy recently became engaged in real life to the actress Clare Danes, who plays the world’s most famous woman with autism, Temple Grandin, in the new movie named after her (see Looking Up, Volume 5 Number 1).
            “I did think of it as the ‘anti-acting' role,”  Dancy - last seen opposite Isla Fisher in Confessions of a Shopaholic - told another British paper, the Belfast Telegraph. “Everything you usually bring to a role, like empathy and connection and communication and reaction, were denied me ...There’s no agenda to Adam, no dishonesty, no duplicity and he consistently says the things that we all wish we could say, but are barred by social conventions.”
            Knowing nothing about Asperger’s syndrome, Hugh realised he had a lot of work ahead of him if he was to do justice to the role. “I was nervous, daunted and rightly so,” he says, adding that his concerns were eased after meeting the film’s director, Max Mayer.
            Dancy told The Los Angeles Times: “There is something paradoxical about trying to empathise your way into somebody” who has a hard time demonstrating empathy because of his condition.
            As part of his research, Dancy visited people who live with Asperger’s. “The ones who agreed to sit and talk to me were incredibly generous and open and frank about their lives and their own obstacles. One of the first things I realised was that the range of behaviour and symptoms is vast, and that freed me up in a way because I thought, well, I’m not trying to play every person with Asperger’s.”
            Max Mayer, who directed the film in just 22 days in New York - and was also its writer (his other credits include The West Wing and Alias) - told The Times: “What fascinated me about Asperger’s is that one of the big deficits was that it made it difficult to put yourself in another person’s shoes. As opposed to more profoundly autistic syndromes, people with Asperger’s desire the same connection to other people that all ‘neurotypicals’ do. That was the thing that struck me and made it feel personal - having the desire for a relationship without the talent for it, which is something all of us feel at one time or another.”     
There is still much to be learnt about the syndrome, which is named after tthe Austrian scientist, Hans Asperger, but did not appear in the American Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders until the 1994 edition, DSM-IV. The committee working on the autism section of DSM-V are now considering removing Asperger’s syndrome as a separate condition from autism (much more on this in the next edition of Looking Up).
            So, how accurate is the film’s depiction of Asperger’s syndrome? Very, according to the relationship counsellor, Maxine Aston, who specialises in treating couples with the disorder. Speaking to The Times, she cited Dancy’s skill in his diminished interaction with Byrne, his lack of eye contact and all the other physical manifestations she has come to recognise. (“I was just acting in a bubble,” Dancy says.) She highlights one scene in particular, when, after a disagreement, Beth’s reflexive “I’m sorry” is not met with a reciprocal, peace-making apology. “The difference is that someone with Asperger’s uses logic.”
            Max Meyer recalled: “After screenings, there were people who had Asperger’s who would come and say, ‘You really got it right . But what was most moving to me was the reaction of parents [of Asperger children]. It was a really important thing for them because it expressed their hopes and their fears for their children going past childhood. So that’s been extremely gratifying - people saying it gave them hope about an independent life for people they love.”

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