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Splitting the Adam

Hugh Dancy, Rose Byrne, Peter Gallagher, Frankie Faison, and Max Mayer discuss their new romantic comedy.

Rose Byrne and Hugh Dancy in Adam
Smack dab in the middle of the usual slate of summer blockbusters are a number of smaller films fueled by a bevy of dedicated stage stars, such as Adam, which features theater veterans Hugh Dancy, Peter Gallagher, Amy Irving, and Frankie Faison, along with leading lady Rose Byrne (a 2009 Emmy Award nominee for her work on FX's Damages). Directed and written by Max Mayer -- a co-founder of New York Stage and Film -- the romantic comedy was a huge hit at this year's Sundance Festival, where it not only won the prestigious Alfred P. Sloan Feature Film Prize, but was immediately snapped up by Fox Searchlight, which is releasing the movie on July 29.

The film -- which is more serious than your standard "rom-com" -- focuses on the socially inept Adam (Dancy), who suffers from Asperger's syndrome, a high functioning form of Autism. Romance beckons when he meets Beth (Byrne), who relates to him simply as a man with some heavy duty quirks. Meanwhile, Beth's parents (Gallagher and Irving) have some reservations about their daughter's growing relationship with Adam, while Harlan (Faison), Adam's friend and father figure, offers him sage advice on life and love.

"I was in my car in L.A. and I heard this really moving interview on an NPR radio program featuring a man who had Asperger's Syndrome," recalls Mayer of the film's genesis. "I was fascinated as he talked about his deep sense of isolation and his social phobias; and I thought, here's a story that's real grist for the mill, so to speak. I mean what a perfect metaphor for all of our difficulties with human relationships. And how wonderful that I got to shoot New York as a major character."

Dancy, a British native, is no stranger to New York; he starred here in the Broadway production of Journey's End and now spends time n the city with his fiancee, actress Claire Danes (although the pair will wed in London). But given the many high-profile opportunities offered him, why did he choose this film? "There was no obvious upside to doing Adam other than a great admiration for the story and for Max -- plus, I finally got to make a real New York film!" he says. "Max had written the most beautiful and complex script, and I was so captivated by this character that the sense of challenge just grew and grew. Adam is introduced to us as a human being, not a diagnosis, but I found playing him to be one of the more difficult roles I've had. For instance, 'Aspies' (the term many people with the disease call themselves) rarely look anyone in the eye, yet actors constantly use eye contact to communicate both with each other and the audience. There is also little, if any, outward show of emotion with others, so it was a day-to-day struggle just to connect with everyone."

As the actor admits, research was the foundation of his portrayal. "I knew nothing about Asperger's going into the film -- not even the word -- but I found so much information on the Internet. It's possible that such artists and geniuses as Mozart, Einstein, and James Joyce may have been 'Aspies.' I was also able to meet people with Asperger's, who were very generous in allowing me to observe them. There's a huge range among people described as 'Aspies' and I was free to pick and choose in order to create a believable Adam. For example, when it came to the long speeches about space and the universe [which are Adam's area of expertise], he just doesn't breathe between sentences and he doesn't stop to listen. To practice them, I'd rattle them off in the shower or at dinner."

So beautiful was the script, says Byrne, that she returned early from her long-awaited trip to India to work on the incredibly short 25-day shoot. "My boyfriend [actor/writer/director Brendan Cowell] and I read the script over there and I had this amazing urge to say these lines aloud. So he said, 'You have to go!' Beth is such an unconventional role. And working with Max as both the writer and director was great; he always had the answer to any question."

While playing CPA Marty Buchwald meant Gallagher would play yet another Jewish father role, he admits this one is a definite contrast to lovable Sandy Cohen on the W.B.'s The O.C.. "I haven't gotten to play that many nice guys over the years," remarks Gallagher, who last appeared on Broadway in The Country Girl. "And even if Marty is never going to be the poster boy for the World's Best Dad, he really does love his daughter."

Faison, another stage veteran, had great success on HBO's now-canceled The Wire, but was thrilled by the chance to return to the big screen. "I was so flattered to be asked by Max to do this film," he says. "And his process was so collaborative that the film had a real theatrical feel. I was actually in two films that were shown at Sundance this year -- I am also in Brief Interviews with Hideous Men -- but the Sundance response to Adam was a real surprise. Audiences were so genuinely moved."