Illustration by Tom Bachtell Article by Tad Friend For the April 18, 2016 Issue.
As he shed his tweed jacket, Hugh Dancy looked around Sushi Azabu, a basement nook in Tribeca, and said, “It feels like a railway car—if you can imagine Humphrey Bogart eating sushi, it’d be here.” He laughed. “I actually can’t imagine him eating sushi, though. Maybe he’d use some for a black eye: ‘If there’s no steak available, give me the halibut.’ ”
Dancy, the lithe and elfin forty-year-old English actor, is particularly keen on uni, the sea urchin’s gonads. Dabbing chopsticks into a pink curl of them, Dancy said, “My three-year-old son”—from his marriage to Claire Danes—“has a fascination with germs, because, he says, ‘they’re disgusting and beautiful.’ I suppose the same is true of me and uni.” He held up a morsel of the unctuous goo. “They look like the tongues of dehydrated infants. So eating them is a faith-based decision.”
In “The Path,” a drama that débuted on Hulu last month, Dancy plays Cal Roberts, the leader of a cult called the Meyerist Movement. Its devotees are vegetarians who drive blue Priuses, use ayahuasca, and plan to live on as pure light after the coming apocalypse. “Cal is someone you side with against your better judgment,” Dancy explained. “An alcoholic who’s probably been essentially celibate for a decade, someone with serious control issues, an awful black hole of a person. He is not ‘Netflix and chill’—or, I should say, ‘Hulu and chill.’ ” Seething, lustful, and lonely, Cal lies and schemes to foster the movement, because, since he was five, it’s fostered him.
Meyerists reprogram themselves using electrical devices and advance through increasingly secretive levels of initiation. They shun apostates, even their own children. Cal’s global ambitions for Meyerism, which he took over from its founder, Steven Meyer, make it further reminiscent of Scientology, which David Miscavige transformed after he inherited it from L. Ron Hubbard. Dancy resists the comparison, saying, “One person’s cult is another person’s religion.” He observed that “every religion that expanded from a niche movement grew because its founder was followed by a leader who was pragmatic and understood how to spread the word. In Christianity, it was St. Paul; in Mormonism, it was Brigham Young.”
After the actor had polished off an assembly line of mackerel, tuna, and shad, praising their various mouthfeels, the waiter suggested a few exotic specialties, including conger eel. “Conger eel!” Dancy cried. “My granddad once caught a conger eel in a lobster pot, and we ate it. It was disgusting.”
“You have to boil it, because the blood is actually poisonous.”
“That would explain it.” When the eel appeared, the actor admired its presentation: “We just had great wagon-wheel chunks of it, which we gave to the cat.” He nimbly whisked wasabi into his soy sauce. “Who lived.”
Dancy had recently returned from the show’s première, in Los Angeles, where he was treated rather like a cult leader. “People seemed to expect me to be commanding, but I distrust certainty, and I don’t particularly want anyone to follow me,” he said. “It was challenging that the very first line I had to speak on camera was”—his voice thrummed with assurance—“ ‘Ma’am, we’re going to take care of your baby.’ ” When he read the pilot script and saw that Cal was “written as quote-unquote charismatic, that made the flags go up,” he went on. “Because it’s one of the ways writers signal executives that the leading man will fit their definition of a star. With a woman, it’s ‘She’s this and this and that—and she’s really rockin’ that dress.’ With a man, it’s charisma. Or he has ‘a wry grin’—he can’t be too open, he can’t have a wide grin, but he’s seen it all—or there’s a squint involved, which evokes a heroic cynicism. The idea is actually to blunt reactions, to say, ‘Don’t worry, this guy will be fairly comatose—a blank canvas that people can project their ideas of cool onto.’ ”
Dancy ordered more nigiri. “But,” he continued, “it was clear that Cal actually thinks about what it means to be a charismatic leader—he listens to self-help tapes, he’s taking Charisma 101—and that, because he has internalized Meyerism, he speaks with natural conviction. Jessica Goldberg, the show’s creator, wrote me a letter making it plain that she wanted to do the good version of the show. For her, more important than all the television meshugaas that’s in there—the F.B.I. investigation, the power struggle, the love triangle—is the fascinating question of faith. So you can go with that, rather than feeling you have to lather on a layer of personal charisma you’ve had in reserve.”
The baby yellowtail arrived, and Dancy raised his chopsticks in delight: “Carrying on the theme of eating children! Source