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Love Connection: Adam

Charming Brit Hugh Dancy and Damages' Rose Byrne negotiate the exceedingly complicated minefields of a romantic relationship in the Sundance hit Adam, Max Mayer's New York story with a quirky twist.

(the movie) is a different kind of love story, and that’s because Adam (the character, played by a delightful Hugh Dancy: Confessions of a Shopaholic, The Jane Austen Book Club) is a different kind of leading man. We’re not giving anything away by telling you that Adam is special—that is, rather than being “neurotypical,” he’s one of the growing number of Americans with the fairly new diagnosis of Asperger’s Syndrome, a form of high-functioning autism that was only labeled as such in the past few decades.

People with Asperger’s have trouble communicating with other people—even those they know very well—because they can’t always read nonverbal signals and they don’t automatically understand non-literal speech effects such as sarcasm and jokes. On the other hand, they are honest, often brilliant, and typically very, very interested in a wide range of topics. When Adam meets his new neighbor Beth (Rose Byrne: Damages, 28 Weeks Later, Troy), she’s not quite sure what to make of him, and he is equally perplexed. Director Max Mayer—who also wrote the screenplay—found Adam’s condition to be an apt metaphor for the treacherous minefields of miscommunication found in any human relationship. The result is a unique take on a romantic not-quite comedy, devoid of most of the typical rom-com trappings. It is a story sensitively—and realistically—told.

In a recent roundtable, the talented trio of Mayer, Dancy, and Byrne discussed the roots of the story, the research involved, filming in New York City, and the lessons to be learned from the special people in our lives.

How did you get the idea for the story?

Max Mayer: I live in LA, and I was listening to NPR in my car, and there was a young man being interviewed who had Asperger’s Syndrome, and he was talking about what life was like for him: the sense of isolation, of looking at people’s behavior through a clouded glass, and trying to figure out how they knew how to behave with one another. I had this big emotional response, and that doesn’t happen to me that often, so I thought I’d better see what this is about. I started doing some research… The more I learned about it, the better it seemed to me as a metaphor for human relations in general.

Max Mayer

The metaphor of Asperger’s [is that] we all have this incredible paradox: we need to connect with each other; we’re wired that way, we want intimate connection. And we’re also alone in our brains, and I don’t actually know what you’re thinking, no matter how close I am to you. I don’t know what your interior world looks like. So we’re all in this situation where we’re trying to bridge that. We’re always trying to make the strange familiar. Whenever you get into a relationship, everybody thinks it should just be romantic, and easy, and fine, but—maybe someone around here has that, and God bless you, but I don’t know many people who do. [Laughs] And for me, the story is about having a little compassion for that.

Rose Byrne: It's a testament to the project that since seeing the film, I’ve realized that that theme of communication—between men and women, or between women and women—between all of us, is kind of fascinating. We are designed—it’s the human condition—not to know what everyone is thinking. Why is that? It’s a constant struggle to attempt to get better at it. I guess it’s encouraged me to try to get better at it [in my own life].

Hugh, what did you know about Asperger’s?

Hugh Dancy: When I read the script, I knew nothing about Asperger’s. I didn’t even recognize the word. [In doing research,] you are doing two things: first, trying to absorb a lot of information. Partially it’s about sorting that flood [of info on the Internet] out into what will be useful. At the same time, you’re looking for hooks for your imagination—things that are going to take you back to the character, things that will take you back to the script with a deeper understanding.

What was the research process like?

Max Mayer: [After searching the Internet and reading first-person narratives,] I realized I had some experience—in college I worked in a camp for what were then called emotionally disturbed kids, some of whom would undoubtedly be diagnosed with Asperger’s now, but back then there was no such diagnosis. So I knew a little bit more than I thought I knew.

Hugh Dancy: There’s a book called Look Me in the Eye, by John Elder Robison, which I found really enlightening and human, and amusing and moving. And the endpoint of that whole process was to meet people who’ve worked in the world of Asperger’s, and ultimately to sit with people with Asperger’s, and to be able to converse with them from a knowledgeable point of view. A lot of people were so generous in sharing with me their lives, and the difficulties they have had in their lives, and the triumphs they’ve had. And then of course, also in that context, in that room, they are sharing a lot of stuff they don’t know they are sharing, and I was able to observe a lot.

Max Mayer: 
When we went into production, we hooked ourselves up with a group called Adaptations, here in the city, which is a socialization group for people with Asperger’s. We went to meetings of their group, where they get together and talk about the challenges in their lives, with work and romance and whatever. They knew what we were doing, and were very interested in it.

Hugh Dancy: I guess the main lesson I took from that experience, and the thing I would most want to make clear, is the huge range that I saw within people that would be labeled as having Asperger’s—the great range of behavior, of symptoms, if you like, and most importantly, of character, of personality and humor. That freed me up in my job, to realize I could make choices, I could pick and choose, I could even allow my imagination to get into it.

It also reminded me of what I loved about the movie, about this script—it’s a third of the way into the movie before Adam is even labeled in that way. You are introduced to him as a human being, not as a diagnosis, and not as a set of symptoms. And I thought that was a very intelligent and humane way to write a script.

Did you read The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime [a first-person novel told from the point-of-view of a 15-year-old boy with Asperger’s], by Mark Haddon?

Max Mayer: Yes, I did. I loved it.

It’s interesting that Asperger’s has become more acknowledged in popular culture recently.

Max Mayer: Yes, Asperger’s has become sort of zeitgeisty.

Given Adam’s condition, how were you able to create a relatable character?

Hugh Dancy: Part of what’s relatable about Adam is his alienation. To some extent, that’s what causes you to feel for him—it’s not something that any of us haven’t felt. I said before, there is this wide range of behavior, and some people that I met have an almost totally consistent monotone, for example, and a constant flow of talk, and they never look you in the eye. If I had pursued that particular direction, it would not have worked as a story. But we never addressed it overtly. We were quite pure about it, and we never said, “Yeah, okay, I know he’s got Asperger’s, but how are we going to make it work for an audience?” Thank God, that never came up. And I think the reason that I never had to think about that was that Max had written such a careful, feeling script. So that without ever really wondering about it, I was drawn in the right direction. I think that work—kind of dealing with that question—happened in a stage before I got involved. It was in the story, and in the writing.

I do have a particular affection for Adam. The heart of the story is something shared, ironically enough, by all of us, which is the day-to-day challenge in connecting. My personal challenge was to create this character, and that involved shutting down certain parts of me that I rely on day to day—not only as a person, but as an actor—such as communication, eye contact, empathy, reaction. So to be denied those tools was very unusual, really rewarding, but very challenging. But also not to be so cold about it—to try and invest this character with emotion and feeling, but without doing it in a vague and generic way—to be specific about who he really was, this was a constant uphill struggle.

[Mayer, best known for his theater work, enlisted the help of New York theater friends Peter Gallagher, Amy Irving, and Frankie Faison to round out the cast.] How did Max’s theater background come into play?

Rose Byrne: Max likes actors, and he isn’t intimidated by them. And being the writer of the script—he knew every corner of every scene and… any question you had, he had a take on it, and a perspective on it. Actors are sensitive and narcissistic [laughs], and can be childish, and he was very good at dealing with us.

It was also a rough shoot—we didn’t have much time [the shoot was just 25 days], and we were always cold because we were outside and we didn’t have trailers; it was very low-budget, so you had to leave your ego at the door, which was fine! [Laughs] But it was lucky he was so sweet—he was very kind to us throughout the whole thing. And his theater background was great, since theater is all about acting—the rehearsals, nothing technical about it.

Max Mayer: I think [the transition from theater to film] is moving from words to pictures, basically. Theater is language-based. The dialogue is the most important thing in a theatrical production—what people are saying. And it’s fairly important in Adam, too, and I think it shows my roots, but it’s not the primary thing.

Directing a movie is as great a job as everyone thinks it is. As opposed to the theater, you never have to give it over to the actors, essentially. The shooting process is more like rehearsal in the theater, because you are working with the actors the whole time. And then you have the entire editing process, which is a theater director’s dream: you have tireless actors who will do scenes over and over and over again! And you have much more control over what the audience looks at.

Rose Byrne [about the extended cast]: Peter [Gallagher] is a classic. He really brought a chutzpah to the role—he’s larger than life, charming, and funny and he’s got a swagger. Amy [Irving] blew it away. She has that austere kind of quality. I think they are a good match [for my parents]—I kind of look like them combined?

New York plays a role in the film. What was it like filming in the city?

Hugh Dancy: Filming on the streets of New York feels great, but it’s almost impossible, because New Yorkers do not stop: traffic doesn’t like to stop, people don’t like to stop, they own the sidewalk. I love Central Park. It’s a distinction between London and New York—Londoners are some of the more eccentric people in the world, but they do it in the privacy of their own home. New Yorkers wait for spring, and they hit the park. They share their eccentricities with the world. I love that.

Rose Byrne: I feel sorry for the A.D.s [assistant directors], you know, because they are the ones who have to tell all the people not to walk on the street when we’re filming. [soft, cautious voice] “Excuse me, ma’am, we’re filming—” [snappish, American accent] “Don’t touch me, I’m walking!” New Yorkers are so focused on what they are doing. I love that.

There's some controversy about the ending. Without giving anything away, are you happy with the ending?

Hugh Dancy: It’s more important to me that Adam’s real victory—and Beth’s too—is that they go the ways they go. I think that Max wrote a very beautiful but complex story and script, and to tie all [the threads] up into a very neat little ending would not have done the rest of his script justice.

Hmmm. Does Dancy have you intrigued by the ending?

Adam opens on Wednesday. Buy tickets here.
You can also meet Dancy and Mayer on Wednesday at the Angelika.

Watch the trailer.


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