Dancy is appearing in his first Broadway play, starring as the tortured Capt. Stanhope in the British classic "Journey's End." He also has a slew of films coming out this year, including "Evening," with Meryl Streep, Glenn Close and Vanessa Redgrave, and "Beyond the Gates," a riveting story set during the Rwandan genocide.
Film critics and cinephiles mention Dancy in the same breath as Orlando Bloom and Hugh Grant. Fan sites are popping up all over the Internet, including one that promises it has "soooooo many new pictures to add."
New York magazine called him a "male ingenue" and "boy toy" in a recent interview. And he's reportedly dating an A-list actress, Claire Danes, another co-star in "Evening."
"I don't pay much attention to it," the slight, 31-year-old says recently over an almond croissant and cappuccino in a quiet West Village cafe.
Fortunately for Dancy, he has enough talent to warrant some attention. An Oxford graduate and son of a publisher and philosopher, Dancy has an intelligence that is palpable on stage and allows him to take on such difficult and nontraditional roles as the alcoholic army captain in "Journey's End." His measured, sorrowful performance suggests a maturity level far beyond his years.
"He's got tremendous intensity and life," said David Grindley, who directed Dancy in the play. "He really pulled out all the stops to get this character right. It absolutely tests your range. The fact he's just turned 31 is really amazing."
David Belton, a former BBC journalist who covered the Rwandan genocide and was a producer on "Beyond the Gates," said he got a sense for Dancy's capabilities very soon after they started shooting in the Rwandan capital, Kigali.
"I felt watching him that I was in his shoes," said Belton, who also helped write the film's story inspired by his own experiences in 1994. "The feelings he was able to portray on the screen were ones that I instantly recognized."
Dancy says he came to acting as a punishment for misbehaving when he was a teenager at his boarding school. But rather than resent being sent to the school theater "as a way to occupy my time," he took to acting almost right away.
"I liked the fact there were girls involved, not because I was rampantly hormonal or anything. It was just nice having girls around," he says.
Having parents in nontraditional vocations helped. "They were very supportive," he says, although he hints it might have been different had he chosen a drama school over Oxford.
Dancy's early work shows he had an interest in pursuing roles beyond the usual teenage sex and gross-out comedy fare. He played the lead in the TV movie version of "David Copperfield" in 2000, then starred in BBC's 2002 TV production of "Daniel Deronda," based on George Eliot's novel.
Film roles began to come around this time, most notably 2001's "Blackhawk Down" and 2004's "King Arthur." But it wasn't until his critically acclaimed turn as the Earl of Essex in the 2005 British TV miniseries "Elizabeth I" that Dancy really became noticed.
The production, which starred Helen Mirren as Queen Elizabeth I, swept the Emmys the following year, and Dancy received a nomination, although he didn't win.
Working with Mirren, who just won an Academy Award for "The Queen," was as instructional as it was humbling at that stage in his career, Dancy says. "When you watch someone that brilliant doing their work, it doesn't necessarily mean you can do it yourself," he jokes.
Offers came rapidly after the miniseries, including the lead role in "Journey's End," which was making the leap to Broadway after an 18-month run in London.
"It was such an amazing part to have a go at, especially being off Broadway," Dancy says, leaning back against a red velvet couch, dressed casually in jeans, a blue blazer and a striped yellow and blue shirt. "I thought about it for about two and a half seconds, which is about my attention span anyway."
Dancy says he was attracted to the play partly because of its legacy in Britain. Based on the experiences of British soldiers in the trenches during World War I, the play was an enormous success when it was first staged starring Laurence Olivier in 1929, and it has since become required reading for most British students although ironically not Dancy, who never studied it.
Part of the challenge, he says, was trying to portray his character, Stanhope, as verging on collapse after several brutalizing years in the trenches, while also allowing vestiges of his former life as a vulnerable young man to come through.
"It's like trying to suggest two extremes at the same time," he explains, adding the play clearly still resonates today with audiences weary after four years of war in Iraq.
"It's about young men going off to war convinced it's for the right reasons but getting lost in the day to day realities of what they're up against. I think, in fact, the moments of futility are so clear, it's hard not to read into it a bit."
Grindley, the director, gives Dancy credit for carrying the emotional weight of the play as his character makes his excruciating descent into self-destructive drinking, paranoia and rage.
"It's an extremely demanding character. He doesn't leave the stage after coming on 20 minutes into the action, and he needs to drive the show from moment to moment," Grindley said. "Hugh has really done that well."
Dancy also portrays the heart of the breathtaking "Beyond the Gates," which depicts the efforts of a small group of Europeans to save the lives of hundreds of Tutsis hiding at a school at the outset of the Rwandan genocide. As an idealistic young teacher who eventually flees the school and abandons his students and friends, Dancy has to exhibit an array of emotions: fear, helplessness, grief, guilt and eventually forgiveness of himself.
The film affected Dancy more than he expected. "After I got back to Britain, I realized that even if we'd just been there for nine weeks, the reality is we can leave. ... I felt bizarrely empty, but at the same time I was aware of how close that was to a patronizing emotion."
A scene at the end of the film epitomizes these feelings. Dancy's character gets a visit back in England by one of his former Rwandan students who had managed to escape the carnage. She asks him why he left, and he looks away out of shame and says, "I don't know."
"I thought he played that beautifully," Belton, the producer, said of the scene. "Hugh did just what young people would do in that situation, and he held it together as best as he possibly could. I thought it was a very mature piece of acting."
Belton said director Michael Caton-Jones thought Dancy reminded him of a young Leonardo DiCaprio, whom he directed in the 1993 film, "This Boy's Life." He believed Dancy had the same potential to be a major star, something he seems well on his way to achieving.
"He saw in Hugh the same thing a guy on the cusp of his career with a huge amount of talent," Belton said. "And he wanted to work with that again."