Hugh Dancy on Playing a Cult Leader on The Path and Why He’s Hopeful Hannibal Will Return to TV

By
Photo: J. Countess/Getty Images

In Hulu’s drama The Path, Hugh Dancy plays Cal, the leader of a fringe religious movement (“it’s not a cult,” his character is quick to correct) and a recovering alcoholic who has entered into a sexual relationship with a young recruit (Emma Greenwell). Dancy’s first response to the character? “Cal seems like a pretty happy-go-lucky guy.” To be fair, in comparison to Dancy’s most famous recent role — a turn as the tortured Will Graham, who was somewhere between an adversary and protégée to Hannibal Lecter on Hannibal — that might be true. Plus, as Dancy admits, he has a tendency to underestimate the darkness in his characters as a whole. We caught up to talk about the latest developments in The Path, why Dancy wants to return to Hannibal, and the experience of looking back on scenes and thinking, “What the hell did I just do?”

I was trying to come up with the best way to describe your character Cal to a friend, and I ended up with your character on Hannibal, Will Graham, but at the end of the show. He has this very empathetic side, but it's twisted by this darkness.
I understand the urge to find a through link, but I feel like the only thing that really connects them, which just about connects any interesting character, is that they're in conflict as to who exactly they are. You can actually say the same thing of Aaron [Paul]'s character [Eddie], and, for that matter, Michelle [Monaghan]'s [Sarah]. Everything about the way Cal carries himself, the way he approaches other people, the stuff he's carrying around — I didn't have to slough off Will Graham, if you know what I mean.

You bring in a lot of that darkness, and also that attempt at connection.
For me, the darkness — and this is a truism — but not many people think of themselves as dark. And even though I knew what I was doing, when I watched the first episode, I did have to stop and recognize, "Oh yeah, there's something pretty bleak about this guy."

Because from my perspective, and this becomes more true as you move into the middle of the show, I was thinking about him as somebody who is shouldering this massive burden. For his own sake, and for the sake the movement and the sake of everybody else in it. He's decided that, probably accurately, the only way the thing is going to continue is if he absorbs what he's now learned about Steve [the leader of the Meyerist cult], i.e. the fact that he's mortal, the fact that the rungs [part of a critical text in the movement] aren't going to be completed by Steve. He can't share that with anybody. It's a very solitary and lonely position. For Cal, he himself is built on such shaky foundations, that the preservation of the movement is essential. That's his lifeline. It probably saved his life.

It's self-preservation for him.
And that's both desperate, and it can be genuine. He sees it as something with a very positive message for himself and other people. At the same time, just because of who he is, it so happens that selfless decision dovetails very neatly with everything in him that's also very ambitious and very alpha and very driven and domineering. Those two things are kind of both growing and moving forward hand-in-hand. That's what makes it interesting to me.

On a more comedic note, I loved the little moments where you see Cal in his car listening to inspirational tapes, trying to figure out how to be leader.
I read the first two scripts when we first signed on and got a few more quickly afterwards, and that in a way sealed the deal for me, a.) because it's funny, b.) because you realize this isn't some guy who's been running a cult all his life. He's been a follower and an acolyte and a devotee. And to some extent he was marked and chosen, but he never thought he'd be in this position. He wouldn't want to be, because who wants to think that your savior is actually just a guy? I like that about him, and that he's really trying to quickly learn the lessons he needs to run a cult.

There's so much detail in the structure of the Meyerist movement. Did you talk about the underpinnings of it? To me, there's a bit of Scientology, a bit of New Age EST or Esalen qualities to the cult.
First of all, it's easiest to talk about cults because at this point, we've packed so much into that word. But one thing that I've come away from this is thinking "my cult is your religion is your movement." It's very much in the eye of the beholder. I don't think that's just because I was trying to be fair to the character. I think that everything, from major religions down, at some point has been this unpalatable, unacceptable little offshoot of something. And then either it gains traction or acceptability or it doesn't. Obviously some of them are more sinister, but they've got so much in common. In the '50s, there was this big upshoot of cults, because the apocalypse was coming due to nuclear destruction. Now it makes sense to me that, because of what's in the air, the apocalyptic thinking would be based around the environment.

In one episode, we see this big focus on climate change in the cult.
It's like the worst possible iteration of the farm-to-table movement.

There's this tension with Emma Greenwell's character, Mary, where Cal has saved her, but he also preys on her to an extent. You can see a very dark aspect of the power hierarchy of a cult.
It's interesting with this character of Mary. In some very basic way, she's this perfect fit for Cal. There's something inside each of them that they recognize, and she is more honest about it than he is. Maybe he's got too much else on his plate. But he can't keep himself away. I don't think it's that he's decided, "Oh, great, here's this vulnerable young woman I can take advantage of." When he's under pressure and the cracks start to show, that's where his compulsion drives him.

I think that also comes out in his relationship with Sarah, in that she's so devoutly invested in this movement, while he's still an outsider.
My feeling about Cal, and some of it is my best guess and some of it is from talking to Jessica [Goldberg, the show's creator], is that he's been very much head down, working for the movement for years now. We know he's a recovering alcoholic, and he's had these lapses. He had a relationship as a young man with Sarah. But he put all that to one side. He's probably been borderline celibate for the better part of a decade, or longer. He doesn't really engage in extracurricular activities. He doesn't hang out. He puts the more human part of himself on ice. What that means is his first love was really his only love, and we've all had our first love and it's significant, but for him, Sarah is still on that pedestal. He's got this very idealistic attraction to her, which as much as it's real, also represents something for him. And he's got this other thing going for Mary, which he can't possibly allow to be real, but is in fact, very real, and keeps seeping over into his life.

It becomes his catharsis.
I mean, hey, we've all been there. [Laughs.] No, no. There were a lot of moments, actually, shooting this where I thought, "What the hell did I just do?" But it was interesting because it was only after doing them. On the page, and I hope on the screen as well, they all seemed to follow quite naturally. It was only in the act of actually doing them that you felt a little concerned.

One of the things that happens in The Path going forward is that it starts to reckon with the mythology of the cult, with the images of vision, and things that seem supernatural. Things that I thought would be proven false start to become part of a magical-realist aspect of the show.
I like that a lot, and you can take it however you want to take it. You can take it as happening within the subjective experience of the characters, or go one step further. I remember talking to Jessica about a scene at the beginning of episode five. I asked her, "Hey, what's up here? [Eddie’s] having a vision." I was being very literal about it. The response was, "Well, maybe 7R [the program Eddie has started] works." I thought that was a much more enlightened way to think about telling the story.

This project was brought together by Jason Katims, of Friday Night Lights and Parenthood, and Jessica Goldberg, also of Parenthood. Had you watched their stuff before? What brought you to the script?
I knew of Jason, and actually Jason worked on My So-Called Life, which my wife [Claire Danes] worked on when she was a kid. But really it was that Hannibal had just ended, kind of abruptly. Maybe the writing was on the wall, but I completely didn't see it. I was just casting around to get a sense of what's out there, more for me to [figure] out how I felt than to look for something. This was literally the first thing I read. And so I stopped looking because it became more and more intriguing.

Because you couldn't put it down?
You try to find faults in something. You think, "What's the problem with this? What's the risk?" The risk seemed to me that you take this thing at too superficial a level so that you just play the Svengali-like nature of the cult leader and you amp up the sinister nature of it. It seemed to me that, rather than doing that, Jessica and Jason were really invested in the belief of all the characters, or the desire of their belief, at least. That's very interesting to me. I find that very universal.

Speaking of Hannibal, I know that lots of people, myself included, would love to see more of it. Do you have any hope for the future?
I do. I've spoken to Bryan [Fuller, creator of Hannibal] about it. I know that everybody involved would like it to have some sort of a future. I've actually spoken to Bryan in more detail about what that would look like. It's complicated, it's about getting everybody back together, and it's also about the rights to the novels [Fuller has discussed the difficulty of acquiring the rights to The Silence of the Lambs]. Ten years ago, it probably would have been a pipe dream, but for me, I would very much hope so.

There are so many different places, like Hulu, that are producing things now.
And maybe it doesn't have to look exactly like it did before. It doesn't have to be in the same place. It doesn't have to be 13 episodes, or whatever. And given where we left off, and given what Bryan had described to me, if there's a few years in between, I think that makes perfect.

After they've returned from swimming across the ocean and jumping off that cliff.
After they've done a very, very big swim.

After Will Graham, followed by Cal, do you imagine yourself playing a happy-go-lucky character as a change of pace?
You know, it's always bit of a surprise to me. I think, "Cal seems like a pretty happy kind of guy." A change of pace is always nice, but for me the differences far outweigh the similarities. We're trying to do something very heightened, but set in the real world. These people could move in next door to you. In Hannibal, it was much more of a dream state, and there was a challenge every day of trying to enter into that. I'm really enjoying playing someone who is totally off his rocker, but who is existing here and now and with other humans.