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Exclusive Interview with ‘Adam’ Star Hugh Dancy and Writer/Director Max Mayer

Rose Byrne and Hugh Dancy in Adam

Rose Byrne and Hugh Dancy star in ‘Adam.’

© Fox Searchlight

Hugh Dancy stars as a man with Asperger’s syndrome who does his best to fit in socially in Adam, written and directed by Max Mayer. According to’s Guide to Autism, Lisa Jo Rudy, Asperger’s syndrome is mild form of ASD (autism spectrum disorders). People with Asperger’s syndrome have difficulty in social situations, including navigating through the complex world of dating.

In the Fox Searchlight film, Adam (Dancy) finds himself in completely unknown territory when he becomes interested in Beth (Rose Byrne), a pretty young writer who moves into the same apartment building. In order to prepare to play Adam, Dancy studied Aspies (as they like to be called) in order to figure out how to correctly convey his character’s anxiety in dealing with co-workers, acquaintances – and the opposite sex. Romance is hard for everyone, but in the case of Adam, it’s a real minefield.


Exclusive Hugh Dancy and Max Mayer Interview

Why did you choose to do a movie about a character with Asperger’s syndrome?

Writer/Director Max Mayer: “Because I was listening to a radio program and I heard a young man on the radio about six years ago who had Asperger’s Syndrome. He was talking about how life felt to him and the challenges in his life and how he looked at peoples’ behavior and couldn’t figure out how they knew when to talk and when not to talk and when to smile and how close to stand to one another and how to gesture, and all kinds of things. And it was like life was a joke that he wasn’t in on. It moved me a lot so I thought I should research this a little bit and figure out (a) why it moved me and (b) what it was.”

“So I did, and the more I researched it, the better metaphor it felt like to me for human relationships in general. It seemed like a good leaping off point to write a story about love and about intimate connection and all that, in a way that was kind of graphic and meant to be sort of showing and wasn’t entirely internal, actually.”

You listened to this radio interview six years ago, and you never let go of the idea of doing a film about a guy with Asperger’s syndrome?

Max Mayer: “I mean I researched it for about five or six months and then outlined it for another four months or so, and then wrote the first draft in another three or four months. So that’s probably, you know, now four and a half years ago or something like that. And then we rewrote it for a year and a half or so, and then we made the movie.”

Did you know anything about Asperger’s before you started?

Hugh Dancy: “No, nothing at all.”

Did you do your own research or did you rely on everything Max had done with the script?

Hugh Dancy: “No, that would have been just basically to me an insane alliance and hoping that his intent came across, which would’ve not worked. So yes, I did. I did do my own research, although I think inevitably we followed similar lines. In fact, I think anybody would who set out to really learn about Asperger’s and certainly try and understand it in the way that we were. I had a limited time to do that in, but it’s certainly true that the more I learnt and the more I absorbed, the more I realized I could go back to Max’s script and kind of hang what I’d learnt on the framework of his writing. The more detailed my understanding of it became, the more I realized how specific he had been in his writing. And although he had not tried to write everything down about Adam, his writing encouraged me to think about the character as an individual, to be precise in my choices and my thinking of Adam. So, I think, basically what I’m saying is that the further I got into it, the more in tune we became so that when we were eventually on set, we were very much of a mind.”

Did you meet with people with Asperger’s?

Hugh Dancy: “Yes.”

Was there anyone in particular who influenced how you played Adam?

Hugh Dancy: “No.”

Then how did you determine how to play him?

Hugh Dancy: “Some of that was prescribed by the script, some of it wasn’t, certain physicalities, the tone of voice, those kinds of things. I did observe several different people, but there really wasn’t a moment when I looked at one person and thought, ‘Oh, you’ve got it. I’ll have you,’ so to speak. I think that in fact in meeting all the people, all the various Aspies that I did, the main realization and the most important revelation was the differences between all of them and the range of personalities, the variety in expression and humor and different symptoms and so on. And I think I realized it at about the same time that I now knew enough and I’d absorbed enough to kind of trust my own instincts in selecting what I would need without looking for validation in any one other person, without needing a specific example. I was quite assiduous about going back to the script and making sure I wasn’t veering too far from that. So pretty much I showed up on day one and just hoped that my subconscious had made some decent choices.’

You said ‘humor’…

Hugh Dancy: “Yes. There’s a humorous appreciation of many things, including themselves. In fact, watching the movie with people with Asperger’s, there’s a lot of laughter and recognition of some of it. That doesn’t mean to say that they’re going to tell a joke brilliantly. There’s not necessarily the perfect timing or anything, but that’s far from being humorless.”

This must have been a difficult role for you because of having to play someone who doesn’t react or express himself the way most people do.

Hugh Dancy: “I think he absolutely is reacting but he’s not always catching on. He’s not always getting it, but he’s certainly making huge attempts to get it. Far more than the rest of us who can kind of zone out and zone in, Adam does not zone out, at least not in that way. And so the thing for me was to try and capture that nuance, the nuance that is there of his attempts to kind of ride the wave of all the different information that’s coming to him.”

Max Mayer: “It’s sort of horrifying that it is, in some ways it’s like always being in crisis.”

Hugh Dancy in Adam

Hugh Dancy in ‘Adam.’

© Fox Searchlight

Hugh Dancy: “You’re always in crisis management mode in a way, or he is a little bit.”

Max Mayer: “You’re always very close to feeling like, ‘I could be entirely humiliated here if I don’t pay attention.'”

Hugh Dancy: “Yes. And the difficulty is that Adam is really a very trusting soul, I think, who’s learnt to be guarded. But, you know, he would never knowingly mock somebody. He would say if he felt something was stupid, but he would never set out to make somebody feel bad. He would be blunt, but he would be honest. And he’s come to realize that the terms of the world that he’s operating in are not necessarily the terms that he knows.”

It’s almost as if he doesn’t have a filter to stop him from saying what’s inappropriate.

Hugh Dancy: “Well I think that Adam has got the filter of not wanting to say the wrong thing. In passing comments, he can’t help himself and If something seems incomprehensible and irrational to him, he will say so. But, as Max was saying, he has the filter of constantly trying to fit in and is running everything through his mind. ‘Okay, what has just been said to me? How have I heard it and have I heard it right? What is this person actually trying to say and how should I respond?’ You know, that’s a complicated process that most of us don’t have to make conscious.”

I can kind of see in the movie why Adam falls for Beth, but why is she attracted to him? Why do you think that is?

Hugh Dancy: “I think ultimately it’s not something she takes lightly and he has to not only win her over, but be completely oblivious to the fact that she’s really not that interested. At a certain point she’s trying to gently give him the message that she’s not interested and, of course, he doesn’t pick up on it. So that’s the first thing to say. I mean I don’t think she falls for him in that way. She doesn’t actually fall for him – it’s a very gentle, slow process.”

Max Mayer: “She slides for him.”

Hugh Dancy: “She slides for him. But I think watching the movie, I think there are certain external truths about her life that make it better relevant. She’s been in a couple of crappy relationships with people that have lied to her. She’s got a kind of domineering father who, as it’s revealed, is also maybe not the most honest or upright person. And then she’s faced with this guy who is the antithesis of those things. You know, those are the kind of abstract truths. The real truth is though that above and beyond all, that when you see them together I think at a certain point in the movie you realize, when they’ve kind of overcome a lot of the obstacles to understanding each other, that they just are happy together. I think they share some kind of a quality, simplicity, that is very hard to define. And to be honest with you, I think it’s hard to define how any two people really, you know, ultimately what makes them work together. So all those things are true.”

They just seem to fit together.

Hugh Dancy: “They do fit, yes. And it’s been partially like, as it always is for all of us, kind of where their lives have brought them up to that point, and it’s partially just the essence of their characters.”

How was it connecting with Rose Byrne?

Hugh Dancy: “I didn’t. Well it wasn’t that kind of movie.”

Max Mayer: “Well they did onscreen.”

Exactly. You do onscreen.

Hugh Dancy: “No, no, that’s exactly right, and I’ve got to say watching the movie for the first time at Sundance, really, I was taken aback by how much it was about connection. Obviously we had a shared experience in some way there physically. But I think particularly for me – and therefore by default for Rose – I was concentrating so hard on getting the details of the nuances of the character right and specifically, I suppose, thinking about, and I hate to just call it thinking about Asperger’s, but thinking about Adam’s specific condition which I did have to kind of constantly work at to make sure I was getting it right – not overstepping, not underselling. And that was just my primary focus. It’s also true that a lot of the relationship, a lot of the time with Rose, that there is a disconnect or there’s a miscommunication, you know? So it didn’t lend itself to the kind of coming out of the end of the film feeling like soul mates. It was later on, actually again at Sundance, when we were all there together and able to really celebrate the film and the fact that it started to have this success, that I really got to know her. It’s been a strange and unusual experience.”

Interesting. Did you know it would work onscreen between the two? It doesn’t sound like on set necessarily, you could see it.

Hugh Dancy: “Well I think I would say that my viewpoint on set was very specific and very subjective.”

Max Mayer: “No, I felt it was sort of a perfect match in a certain way in the sense that because of the Asperger thing, Hugh’s focus was on himself essentially, and that’s Adam’s focus, you know? But I remember we had two days before Rose started working actually, and the first day was we did the scene on the stoop where she’s bringing her bags up there. I knew that I basically wanted to do that scene in a two-shot so that I could see both of them. By looking at the monitor in that moment it was sort of magical. I thought, ‘Oh boy, I think this could be really good.’ It was ‘chemistry’, but it was sort of anti-chemistry in the sense that Hugh was sort of doing his thing and it was entirely charming and truthful, and Rose was responding to him in a totally spontaneous, impulsive kind of, ‘Who is his guy?’ kind of way that was in fact Rose dealing with an actor who wouldn’t look at her and wasn’t responding to all the pretty girl stuff. All of a sudden it was like, ‘Oh, this is what I meant. This is it. We have a chance here.’ So off we went.”

Did Rose ever talk to you about that?

Hugh Dancy: “No. We talked subsequently about it, yes, and both agreed that we both felt that we got to know each other after the movie.”

Adam is described as a romantic comedy. Why go that route to tell the story?

Adam poster

Poster for ‘Adam.’

© Fox Searchlight

Max Mayer: “I didn’t really know I was going the romantic comedy route.”

Hugh Dancy: “Neither did I. I think until we were way in to making the film.”

Max Mayer: “Yes.”

Hugh Dancy: “We didn’t set out to make a genre picture.”

Max Mayer: “No. I always thought that there was humor in the movie and that there was romance in the movie. You know, the thing that romantic comedy, I guess, ‘romantic comedy’ has a sort of great, hoary tradition and that’s of really great movies. But right now it feels like it has been whored out as more to mean that these are characters you don’t have to worry about and everything’s going to be fine for them in the end, and you can just sort of make fun of them. And so that part of it, I knew I wasn’t interested in at all.”

And you didn’t go that route at all. This is very different with an un-Hollywood-ish ending.

Max Mayer: “Yes, I guess that’s true. Honestly it didn’t feel very iconoclastic or anything like that. To me it was mostly a question of just sort of… I mean actually when people made that objection about the ending to me, innocently I thought, ‘Well, the journey’s the most important thing and I’ll write it the other way…’ So I wrote the Garden State ending, which I thought was a very good movie. But in this particular story, once I had done that I really didn’t like it at all. It felt like I was just saying, ‘Just kidding about the rest of the movie.’ And then there were key decisions that the characters made that all of a sudden had no consequence on each when I tried to do that, so I knew I couldn’t do that. But in that process of working with the ending, like the book came out of that – the book that Beth [Rose Byrne’s character] wrote came out of that sort of process because I didn’t have that originally. But I think that the ending is better for that process of having sort of taken in peoples’ objections or feelings about it.”

I think if you would have done it any other way, it would have been cheating at the end.

Hugh Dancy: “Yes, I agree.”

Max Mayer: “You actually got, by mistake, that ending.”

Hugh Dancy: “I did. I got both versions of the ending when I first got involved.”

How did you react to them, without giving any spoilers away?

Max Mayer: “Nobody was supposed to [get that other ending].”

Hugh Dancy: “I was bemused, to say the least, to see multiple option endings.”

Max Mayer: “I was horrified.”

Hugh Dancy: “It broke the ice quite well.”

Max, you come from a theatre background. How difficult was it making the transition to a feature film?

Max Mayer: “Well it had been sort of a gradual process. I made one other feature film that was based on a play about 10 years ago. And then about eight years ago, I kind of landed in Los Angeles by mistake and have been there ever since.”

By mistake?

Max Mayer: “I came for three months and I’m still there, basically, which is an old story about Los Angeles. I’ve done a fair amount of television work in that time, which put me on sets a lot more than I’d experienced before. I took some classes, UCLA extension and all that stuff, because I’d had a great time doing the first movie but I didn’t feel like I understood the meaning well enough and that like I wanted to be better prepared this time.”


August 14, 2009 - Posted by | 1

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