Hugh Dancy’s New Era

by Carrie Wittmer

Hugh Dancy wearing a navy suit
Courtesy of Getty Images. Treatment by Ashley Peña for W.

Despite being English and one of the dozens of cast members in Downton Abbey: A New Era, Hugh Dancy has never seen Downton Abbey. But the actor did not intentionally avoid watching the series. “I remember the borderline hysteria that greeted it when it first came out,” Dancy told W over the phone in early May. “I was in England briefly at the time of the first season and I just remember, you turn on the radio and it's all anybody was talking about. But for whatever reason, it passed me by. Then, you know how it goes when you're three seasons in and you've missed the boat?”

The historical drama follows the lives of the aristocratic Crawley family as well as the domestic servants at the titular estate in early 20th century Yorkshire, England. The series, created by Julian Fellowes and starring Michelle Dockery, Maggie Smith, and Hugh Bonneville, made a splash across the pond and stateside following its series debut in 2010, and ran for six seasons. The first film came out in 2019 and on May 20, Downton Abbey: A New Era, which ushers its characters into the 1930s, hits theaters in the United States.

In A New Era, Dancy plays Jack Barber, a filmmaker who travels to Downton to shoot his silent film. Jack, quite like Dancy himself, is thrown into the controlled chaos of Downton, which is filled with countless colorful characters and intricate decor. Jack instantly develops a natural connection to Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery), giving her a glimpse of the film industry and, by default, a peek at the evolving modern world outside of the estate.

Jack Barber embodies Dancy’s effortless charm (who could ever forget him in Ella Enchanted or Confessions of a Shopaholic). But Dancy, who rose to prominence in the early 2000s following a role in Ridley Scott’s Black Hawk Down, has recently used his presumed warmth to pull audiences into grimmer, occasionally vicious characters. This spring, he appeared in one episode of the Apple TV+ series Roar as a brooding homicide detective who makes a woman’s violent death all about himself (sort of a satirical version of Matthew McConaughey in True Detective, minus the “time is a flat circle” monologue). On NBC’s cult hit Hannibal, Dancy played Will Graham, a detective with a crime kink who, as the series progresses, falls in love with his cannibalistic therapist Hannibal Lecter and pursues a life of crime alongside him. And in the final season of Homeland, Dancy joined the long-running Showtime series alongside his wife, Emmy-winning actor Claire Danes as the brazen, pro-war foreign policy advisor John Zabel.

Although they’re both famous working actors living in New York City with their two children, Dancy and Danes keep their relationship relatively private, with occasional red carpet appearances and paparazzi shots—but the actor does mention that when they first started dating, Danes made him watch the true crime documentary series The Staircase. “When I first met my wife and we just literally just got together, she basically said, look, if we're going to know each other, you sit down and watch this, start to finish,” he told W.

As for upcoming projects, Dancy would be thrilled to return to NBC’s Law & Order revival, in which he plays executive assistant district attorney Nolan Price. “If that happened, then I'd be delighted,” he said. “I hope I get to work with Sam Waterston some more.” (NBC announced that it ordered a 22nd season of Law & Order about a week after this interview). In a (lightly spoiler-y) conversation with W, Dancy spoke about coming into Downton Abbey completely unaware, his sparkling on-screen chemistry with Dockery, playing the bad guy on Roar, and the lasting impact of Hannibal.

Did you watch Downton Abbey, the series, when you landed the role in Downton Abbey: A New Era?

No, I didn't, because I think if I'd been introduced as, I don't know, let's say some long lost cousin, it might have behooved me to know more about it. But I was playing a relative outsider.

How did you get involved, then?

It just landed in my lap, honestly. Maybe they'd already employed every other British actor that fits my description. They've had 12 years to cast a pretty wide net. But no, I was sitting at home, like almost everybody else in late 2020, and got a phone call. And that was that.

What drew you to the role, considering you weren’t familiar with Downton?

Aside from the obvious, which is just the success of what now, I suppose, we have to call a franchise, a couple of things. Just as I started mentioning [the role] to people, I was really surprised by the breadth of interest from people I never thought would have any interest. Yet people's ears were perking up: ‘Oh, Downton! That's exciting.’ Then I read the scripts, and apart from the fact that it took me about eight hours to get through it—because I didn't know who anybody was, I kind of did my research in real time via Google—I was also really aware of how skillfully Julian Fellowes knits these multiple storylines together. The tone seemed to be so artfully balanced.

How did you keep track of the characters?

I was looking at the poster the other day while we were doing press and I counted 24 or 25 actors. That's a lot of people when you're looking at it on the page and you don't have a picture of a face. Then occasionally, there'll be an allusion to some dark past they've had, or a previous romance. That's another quick Google on my part. It was a lot to hold in one's mind. But that's a testament to [Fellowes’s] writing. Other than my need to educate myself, it was all surprisingly clear.

Something that really struck me was your on-screen chemistry with Michelle Dockery. It felt very natural and easy, which is now even more interesting given the context that you weren't familiar with the show or her character. What was it like working with her?

It was pretty easy. I quickly had an understanding of how buttoned up her character [Lady Mary] can be. Then I saw the wiggle room that she found to express certain little slivers of emotion in that English way, or slivers of humor. The script did so much of the work. It felt to me more like a burgeoning friendship [than a romance].

I did want them to kiss though. I was kind of sad that they didn’t.

Yeah. I think there are preexisting reasons why that probably can't happen, right?

What do you think drew Jack and Mary to each other?

Pragmatism? And it was probably in her case, in a slightly veiled way, somewhat adventurous. She has a line at some point like, ‘I don't know why I find myself in these situations’ or something, but she clearly does [know]. That's what happens when you're in a TV show for six seasons, and a movie. I think she's game. What I liked about Jack was that...I think it's probably true of people making movies at that time, that they had to move really fast on their feet. They worked all the time. They made multiple films a year, and they were entrepreneurs, artists, cameramen—they were doing all of it. They were hustlers in a way, except without the sense of cheating anybody necessarily. It's still a bit like that, but I think in those days, more could be done by just one person. He sees somebody else who is no nonsense and she's going to help him out.

There was a period when talkies suddenly became popular, which is depicted in A New Era. It made me think about where the industry is right now. It’s not as dramatic of a change, but there’s been a significant pivot to streaming in the film industry since the pandemic. How have you approached this changing industry as an actor?

Well, honestly, I haven't felt it dramatically. I think the biggest change I’ve observed over the last few years is the opportunities in TV. This was before streaming really, but as of about 10 years ago. It wasn't immediately obvious that it was a tectonic shift, but it was. And just from a personal perspective, in terms of the opportunities that are there—not just for employment, but for rewarding and engaging complex jobs—that was a huge shift.

Are you noticing more opportunities for deeper work, just because there's more out there?

Yeah. And now that there are so many opportunities, there are the complicated algorithms that we're not privy to—these opportunities are there and you can do the work, but it can feel like you're just being thrown out into the ether and you have no sense of if anybody's watching it. Even if they are watching it, it might not tick the correct boxes and then it will just vanish. It's so complicated. Clearly things can slip through the gaps, and then you do get the pleasure of feeling like you've discovered something, but maybe some of them don't even get discovered. So that's the downside of what we're talking about.

Let’s talk about Roar. You've played dark characters before, certainly, but sometimes the audience expects you to play the charming Brit. What interested you in this role?

I thought it was funny, subversive, and a really good observation about an entire genre. Not even one genre, actually, just the way that male antiheroes get painted and let off the hook. The point was really well made, but also very entertaining for me. I thought it would be fun to play, and that was it. We had just got back from England, from filming Downton and I had to get up and leave four days later to go to L.A. It's like, ‘Bye, family!,’ but it was too good of an opportunity.

Another popular show of yours is Hannibal. People are very passionate about it online. Have you noticed that?

The audience, the hardcore audience, the fans who refer to themselves as fannibals, had this astonishing presence online, but I'm not really online. I don't have social media, so I'm not particularly exposed to that. I did a reading a few weeks ago in New York. I went and read a short story at like 2:30 in the afternoon, as part of an all-day thing. The front row of the audience was all fannibals, which I know because they were all wearing flower crowns. The funny thing is I'm not even in a position to exactly tell you why. I know less about the culture surrounding the show, I know far less than they do.

Why do you think Hannibal means so much to people?

It's really, really hard to say. It's about identity. It's about the feeling of being seen in a world where you don't feel seen, maybe, and I think that resonates with a lot of people. There is something profoundly romantic about it, but in a way that kind of defies your average representations of romance. It's really twisted, and there's nothing wrong with that.

That's such a good way to describe it. People love the relationship between Will and Hannibal, and just love you both as actors. You and Mads Mikkelsen are just such easy actors to get behind.

It's funny because Bryan [Fuller, Hannibal creator] ] always said that, ‘I wanted to cast somebody as Will who I thought basically could make him somewhat likable,’ because the character is maybe not that likable. It was a great thing to work on for three years.