When last we tuned into the TV career of U.K.-born Hugh Dancy, he was playing FBI profiler Will Graham, who developed a strange personality meld with his subject, Hannibal Lecter, in "Hannibal." In the finale, the two of them tumbled off a cliff in a death embrace. These days, Dancy is again looking into the abyss as Cal Roberts, the would-be-leader of a spiritual/religious cult known as Meyerism in Hulu's "The Path" – a man who will do whatever it takes to ensure that his faith goes unquestioned. Dancy (who is married to "Homeland's" Claire Danes) sat down with The Envelope at Doma Na Rohu in New York City, and they dove right in.
I couldn't help watching Cal in "The Path" without thinking that, in some way, Will survived his fall and resurfaced as this Machiavellian leader of a spiritual cult – with all of Hannibal's lessons intact. How far off is that?
Perhaps, but Will survived some version of that cliff fall at the end of every season. That first season he's incarcerated, the second he's gutted and – we don't know what happened at the end of the third season. I always wondered when he would come out gleaming and whole and deadly, but the bubble of his empathy always rose to the surface. Not that Cal isn't conflicted, but everything about them and the style of the series are so different.
We were trying to ground "Hannibal" psychologically and give it depth but we weren't trying to pretend that this was actually happening in Baltimore. ["The Path"] lives or dies by the belief that it could be real. It's preposterous, very heightened in many ways, but we're looking for naturalism at all times. Both Will and Cal are in deep conflict over who they really are, though, and that's true of any character worth being dramatized.
In "The Path," Meyerism doesn't initially seem bad or scary on the surface, as far as cults go. There's a real self-help feel.
I realized when I was getting ready for [the show] that if you're going to start a religion you have to go big. If I was going to do it tomorrow, I wouldn't start with "Everyone's going to be nice to each other and you'll probably be OK in the end." It's got to be something so extreme and hard to believe that people have to go on faith. If you tell everyone that in fact everything they can see is made of cheese, a certain number will say, "Cheese, I can go with that."
I would sign up for that faith, but it's terrible for the lactose-intolerant.
Heretics! Anyway, I think that's what the show does very well: Balancing up the belief system. It's recognizable, it's sympathetic and based around the desire for community and simplicity and transparency. Those are all things we can get behind.
Are you particularly curious about religion or theology?
Belief interests me. The idea of conviction is something that's pretty intrinsic to acting. When I think about the character as a whole, I tend to think about the beliefs that we have or we think we have or that we're trying out, the things we offer up in discussion or argument, how in a way we're debating ourselves. Then the beliefs that are so deeply grounded in us we take them as a given – that all seems tied into the idea of religious belief.
You've had a run of pretty intense roles. Think you'll be up for a wacky screwball comedy sometime soon?
I've done my fair share of comedies. But you ride the waves of things that are coming to you as long as they're interesting. It's not like, "At last I'm being taken seriously!" – I don't have that feeling. It's just, "Oh, you think I can do that? I'll try that." I've got the usual roster of anxieties and insecurities, but it's not like I have to be desperately taken seriously.
So what are you most insecure about?
It's like a fear that I have not done enough, not thought hard enough about something to do justice to it, and when the thing is complete it will be apparent. I used to feel more that way – that's a quintessential actor's feeling – but I still feel the challenge of wanting to do justice to richly thought-out material.