Hugh Dancy plays the inventor of the vibrator in the period sex comedy Hysteria, also a term that harks back to the catch-all diagnosis that used to be given to women for whatever ailed them. The treatment often prescribed was manual stimulation, to induce a “paroxysm” — which wasn’t seen as sexual, since the medical community didn’t recognize the female orgasm as being possible from anything other than penetration. But in the film, poor Mortimer Granville’s hand is getting sore from all this hands-on massage work, and he comes up with an electronic solution. Dancy, who is currently on Broadway in the Tony-nominated S&M-themed Venus in Fur, took a break to chat with Vulture about the film, his next role as a serial-killer profiler on the upcoming NBC series Hannibal, and, oh, female orgasms, vibrators, and his favorite sex museum in China.
Doctors were still diagnosing hysteria and prescribing “paroxysm” even up until the fifties. Psychiatrists Edmund Bergler and William Kroger actually tried to say that 90 percent of women were hysterical and frigid …
Oh, I see! That old chestnut. [Laughs.] When we made the film, less than two years ago, we talked to some extent about having something for my character and Maggie’s character to work through. We all know it’s going to work out, that’s not giving anything away, but it seemed to me that the danger was if she’s just showing me the error of my ways, if she’s just lecturing me about women’s orgasms and women’s rights, and I go, “Oh, God!” and I come around — that seemed very boring to me. Maybe admirable, but very boring. I wanted more spice, more spark, more argument. We said, “Yes, she’s right, but the things she’s right about, we all buy into it, we accept that,” so we put that to one side. And cut to 2012, and it’s literally part of the national debate, women’s sexual rights, and you think, How is that possible? How is it possible that this movie, which is light and flippant and fun, is now relevant? It surprises me, and not necessarily in a good way. Didn’t we settle all this years ago? Apparently not. [Laughs.] Although I’m pretty sure someone figured out how women could have orgasms before 1880. I’ve got to assume somebody got lucky at some point, you know?
Have you ever been to the Museum of Sex?
I’ve not been to the one in New York, but I’ve been to the Museum of Sex Culture in China, which is a real experience. [Laughs.] It wasn’t a field trip for the movie — sadly, they didn’t stretch to that. But the first time I went to Shanghai, I visited it. And then I went back a couple of years ago, and it’s such a trip that I thought we had to go back. Sorry, this is a complete diversion, but the ancient artifacts that they’ve gathered together are so fascinating — some kind of rudimentary dildos, and kind of sex fetishes, I suppose you’d call them. You know, statues with great phalluses, all the stuff you’d imagine. A really very impressive collection. And then you get nearer and nearer to the contemporary period, and their collection becomes more and more patchy, more and more kind of bizarre, culminating in a poster of two guys — very eighties, jeans and no shirt, muscular — and a caption that says, “The gays.” [Laughs.] I mean, it’s a very weird and slightly offensive explanation of what the gays are, but it was clearly considered forward-thinking for them, so they take you full circle.
Your director gave vibrators to everyone in the cast and crew.
Yes, when we did the read-through. One of the guys from the crew said, “I don’t need that!” And another guy said, “You’re getting it wrong. Don’t think of it as competition. Think of it as part of your team.” I thought that was progressive. There you go! Good swag.
You’re not likely to get as good of swag on Hannibal.
No, probably not. [Chuckles.] I’m going to start shooting that in Toronto in early August. And I’ve got to say that all the names that they’ve thrown out there [to play Hannibal Lector] have been quite imaginative, so I’m encouraged by that. I haven’t seen the film versions [Manhunter and Red Dragon] with my character [Will Graham], and I probably won’t. We’re starting with the backstory before Red Dragon, so I won’t need them. It’ll be much more psychological — not serial-killer-of-the-week. It’s going to be really experimental and out of left field. I’m excited about it.
Do you feel more comfortable talking about sex than you used to be, after Hysteria and Venus in Fur?
Yeah, because they both clearly impinge on the sexual arena, and I’ve had to think about whatever’s underlying Venus in Fur in ways that’s more than just about tying somebody up or leather or whatever it might be. And when you take the play apart, it’s not about those things, or fetishism. People aren’t running around naked onstage. But it’s not so much that I wasn’t comfortable talking about it before — it’s just that I wouldn’t have had a reason to. If it had come up, I would have been taken aback. And who has those kinds of conversations with their friends, anyway?
Maybe if people had talked more openly about sex, the Victorian medical community would have realized that their “treatment” was sexual in nature!
If you don’t believe in the Victorian gentlemen and the world they’re living in, then yeah, the whole joke of them not seeing what’s right in front of their eyes just dies. Jonathan Pryce and I watched the movie together, at Toronto, at Tribeca, and even on set, when we were standing there with goggles on our eyes, and we’d stare at each other and ask, “How did we get here in our careers?” On the one hand, I’m working with Jonathan and Rupert Everett, wonderful actors. On the other hand, it’s this! [Laughs.]
Did you know the real life Mortimer Granville didn’t want his vibrator used on women?
No! So rather than embracing that, he just thought, Take it away from them? So he had the mental revelation, but his conclusion was, “Lock it up”? [Laughs heartily.] So not the pioneer necessarily. Well, that doesn’t surprise me. We took enormous liberties, obviously. There’s physical comedy in the movie, there’s some very silly jokes, and without giving away too much, there’s that line in the end when she’s going off to jail, and I’m worried, and she says, “Don’t worry. I know lots of people in jail!” It’s a great line, it’s very funny, but it clearly doesn’t reflect any reality of Victorian prisons, you know? Or the way women were treated in them. But the point is, underneath all of that frivolity and fictionalization, there’s that one nugget of truth, which is preposterous, but true: These men were very well educated, very well meaning, and utterly oblivious to what they were doing.