Quick, what's the difference between Hugh Dancy and Hugh Grant, aside from 15 years and a high-profile hooker bust? Yes, both actors are handsome and British, and both possess self-deprecating charm and turn up in playful romantic comedies and period dramas. But in the past few years, Dancy, 36, has channeled the innate likability that made him jump off the screen in King Arthur and Confessions of a Shopaholic into increasingly bold projects. "I don't have enough control over my face to stick through the less-interesting formulas and not give away that I'm embarrassed," he says. Which shouldn't be taken to mean he loves only obscure art films. "I've certainly no problem with people earning a living—or me!" he adds. "I want to be in big, broad, fun movies that entertain."
He gets that in Hysteria, based on the true story of the invention of the vibrator in late-19th-century England. The film has elements of rom-coms and costume pieces but adds up to something much more. Dancy plays a young bourgeois doctor who makes his living palpating women's private parts in the name of curing their "hysteria," until his relationship with a proto-feminist activist (played by Maggie Gyllenhaal) makes him reevaluate his attitude toward women and sex. He can currently be seen undergoing a similar kind of evolution (though it leads to a darker ending) as an arrogant playwright in the steamy two-person Broadway play Venus in Fur. During an electrifying psychosexual cat-and-mouse game with an aspiring actress (Nina Arianda) who turns out to be more than she seems, Dancy's character comes to realize that he's not auditioning her—it's the other way around. Dancy has also stood out lately in a slew of indelible supporting roles, including the tight-assed yuppie architect in Martha Marcy May Marlene and Laura Linney's gay, Buddhist, oenophilic, marathon-running cancer buddy on Showtime's The Big C.
A lot of Dancy's recent characters have something in common: They're forced to grow up fast when they discover they know less about the world than they thought they did. "I've never trusted total certainty," he says. "There's nothing wrong with being decisive, and I don't mean you should spend your life in a fog of insecurity. But people can confuse just being a dick with 'old-fashioned masculinity.' There's nothing weak about reconsidering a position."
It's also probably no coincidence that Dancy—who married Claire Danes in 2009 and lives with her in Manhattan's SoHo neighborhood—has lately been playing characters shaped by their relationships with strong women. "She's probably reinforced my pickiness," he says about Danes' influence on his choice of work. (Meanwhile, he confesses that he's caused tension by asking her to quit spilling Homeland plot points and promises to let it go when the second season airs this fall: "I really need to put our relationship over an hour of good television a week.")
For now, he continues to appear on stage eight times a week but will end the run this summer to focus on a deliciously juicy new role: an FBI agent mentored by Hannibal Lecter in NBC's upcoming series Hannibal. "I don't want to be like Yul Brynner," he jokes, "you know, doing the same play when I'm 57."