“A Cult Is Totally in the Eye of the Beholder”: Hugh Dancy on Religion, ‘Hannibal’s’ Future, and Starring in Hulu’s ‘The Path’

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After the cancellation of his last TV show, Hannibal — news the actor says he got on his birthday — Hugh Dancy is returning to the small screen in the new Hulu original series The Path.

For fans of Will Graham, Dancy’s new show, debuting March 30, definitely packs the same dramatic punch, but instead of a cannibalistic serial killer, he’s now taking on a cult-like religious movement. Dancy plays Cal Roberts, the unofficial leader of the Meyerist Movement, a controversial religion not unlike Scientology, in upstate New York. David Miscavige, though, Cal definitely ain’t. Dancy’s complicated, charismatic leader isn’t palling around with Tom Cruise; he’s putting boots to the ground, trying to spread his religion’s message while battling his own demons — ambition being one of them.

Over the phone from Los Angeles, weeks before the show’s premiere, Dancy spoke to Flavorwire about becoming a different kind of religious leader, how all religions are ultimately cults, and why he definitely would have watched The Path if Idris Elba starred in it.

Flavorwire: You signed on to The Path weeks after it was announced that Hannibal wasn’t coming back. Were you originally planning on coming back to TV so soon?

Hugh Dancy: Well, I wasn’t thinking about that at the moment. We struggled to have enough people to tune in to NBC, even though they supported the show valiantly. But I knew that it was out there, it was relevant, and I didn’t want to let that go and slide away. At the same time, I was really proud of it and obviously wanted to do something that felt like it was a worthwhile thing to follow it up with. Just for myself. I probably didn’t formulate that thought yet, you know, I was just feeling sad that the show wasn’t coming back. I had just started thinking, “OK, what might another job look like? What might I want to do?” And then this popped up, and in a way it stopped me from having that conversation.

What made you want to sign on to this show?

I thought there was an opportunity. Obviously, it’s a pretty bold character, and that seemed daunting but really intriguing. But I thought they were doing more than paying lip service to the fact he was complex. I thought, “Yeah, he’s a driven guy. He’s an intense guy.” He had charisma, but he’s more than quote-unquote charismatic or manipulative. He has a very, very rich series of personality traits that were driving him.

On a bigger scale, more than just Cal, what I felt about the script as a whole was — and I couldn’t put my finger on it until I spoke with Jessica [Goldberg, The Path creator] and [The Path executive producer] Jason Katims — the sense that they put a lot of time and thought into what it meant to these characters to have that faith or put that need in faith. And secondly, what that belief system was [resonated with me]. You need that, that underpinning in the whole show, because if you’re not taking that seriously, it’s not going to stand up.

A lot has been made of the religious movement in the show, with many comparing it to Scientology. But, after seeing The Path, I think the family aspect of the show is a much stronger selling point than the religion.

Totally. I think the religious movement on its own is nothing. It has to be about the individuals within that. Why they’ve chosen to make it their lives and how they live it. And then how it became their mundane reality. So that’s what keeps the show thriving.

Jessica Goldberg mentioned to me that she originally wanted Idris Elba to play Cal. But once it was announced that you were free, she never thought of anyone else to play this character. Did you know that?

[Laughs] I didn’t know that, but I’m a huge Idris Elba fan. I would have definitely been tuning in to watch the show if he’d done it. I can see why she would think that, because he’s pretty remarkable. He’s a pretty great actor.

She also said that you brought something different to this role, something unexpected. How much of this character was on the page before you signed on, and how much did you bring to it?

That’s a really difficult one to answer. I think that [the character] has to be on the page. As an actor focusing on one character, you’re obliged to and expected to have thoughts about that character in more detail than anybody else — including the person that wrote it. You’re hopefully bringing some complexity to it that they hadn’t necessarily [developed] themselves. But it has to be there; it has to be imprinted in the thing. It’s your job to find it and bring it out.

To bring the character of Cal out, what kind of research did you do? How did you learn to be a cult leader?

First of all, let me say this: I now think that the idea of a cult is totally in the eye of the beholder. Anything can be a cult, and certainly any religion, big or small, started out that way, being on the outside, stigmatized, feared. The ones that survived stopped being cults.

So I was reading about that moment when anything, from bigger religions or smaller groups, managed to survive past their [initial] lifespan, past their first leader, and how that happened. And you know, it takes a specific set of circumstances. It takes somebody to come along who’s maybe more pragmatic, who’s got quite an ambitious vision but is also an absolute believer. That’s the thing that happened again and again.

And that’s really helpful, but for me, you have to get yourself in the right mindset. This is a guy who never would have wanted to step up in the leader position because he’s a believer, and for him, like anybody else, to believe it would mean he’s replacing the man he reveres as his savior, and no one wants to replace the messiah. But having to make the decision to do that, to save himself, to save the thing he believes in, in a sense for everyone else’s sake, there’s something very selfless and lonely about that. That felt like a much more interesting place to start then a Svengali twirling his mustache.

Cal definitely feels like the character that could be identified as the show’s villain, the mustache twirler. Is that something you worry about, or, as an actor, do you feel it’s out of your hands?

No, it’s not out of your hands exactly. But in this case, I really was thinking from the point of view of, he’s very isolated, and I was just focusing on that and trying to identify with whatever’s motivating him, what’s consciously motivating him. So, yes, he’s lying, and so on, but he has very solid reasons to do that. I don’t usually have this experience, but I watched the first episode and he’s a really dark guy. He may be dark, and he’s definitely very broken in some ways, but I hope particularly as the season goes on, you’ll almost have more sympathy for him. Some people I’ve spoken to who’ve seen more episodes of the season have been realizing his faith is challenged like everybody’s, but it’s completely real.

That’s something about the show that stood out to me. The Meyerist Movement feels very genuine, as if you could defend it. Even using the word “cult” seems a bit wrong, and I’ve noticed that you use the word “movement” while talking about it.

Look, when I’m trying to tell people about the show very briefly, it turns out, it’s just easier to use the word “cult.” [Laughs] But at the same time, I feel that the word does a disservice to the complexity of what Jessica wrote. It’s not so much that I feel the need to defend these movements — it’s made up, I get that. But, I think that Jessica and also Mike Cahill, who directed the first couple of episodes, really did a lot of beautiful work trying to make this completely what you’re saying: make it seem believable, like the real world, and also make it seem, at times, very appealing. That’s Jessica and Mike basically, and that’s probably why [the actors], say, “It’s a movement.” We’re just repeating.

The creators behind the show have, in a very real sense, created an actual religious movement. There’s a Bible that is featured in the show. The pamphlets that appear in some scenes look very real. I even read that while filming in New York, you’ve had people come off the street asking about the Meyerist Movement.

Yeah, that happened a couple of times. And that’s testament to the real depth of thought [that went into developing] exactly what the structure of the organization is. There’s a lot of material that we had access to, and secondarily, the design and set dressing team really took such pride in every scene. You find little Meyerist pamphlets and articles around that they’ve just written because they take pride in it. And they’re really convincing. So we shot a scene in a park in Brooklyn, and we shot another scene, later on in the season, where there’s an outpost, a little Meyerist outpost that has its own little office and these posters on the front window, and the designs kind of draw you in. By the time I had got there, several people had stopped in and expressed interest in joining. [Laughs]

Did anyone on set say, “Hey this isn’t real,” or did they just go along with it and let these people learn more about the Meyerist Movement?

I think most people probably would have worked out pretty quickly it was a film set, but not to take this too seriously, I think the people that are drawn to that kind of material are people that are actively seeking. Like, more than you or I might be. So it doesn’t surprise me that if you do it thoughtfully, you may pick up some interest.

Has the show made you think differently about these kinds of fringe religious movements?

Yeah, for sure, I’ve thought about it more. The main thing I’ve come away with is, regardless of the pros and cons, the rights and wrongs of any individual belief system, to begin with they’re all small outsider groups struggling to survive — and, essentially, they’re all cults. And it doesn’t matter if your cult is completely benevolent, you’re still a tiny organization — until you’re not. Then you’re suddenly accepted. But if you can get past that tipping point, it’s just a rush to keep up because there’s a huge reservoir of desire for belief in people. We’ve all got that in us, that curiosity for something bigger.

I would imagine getting to know these characters would make you less judgmental of how or why people follow.

That’s the thing: I’m pretty cynical, and it doesn’t make me any quicker to sign up for something. But I’m also not under any illusions [about] my capacity to be a follower. Even if I think I’m not, I’m just as open to something, if someone catches me at the right moment in my life. Like, bang, I’d be right there.

Have you ever felt like a blind follower of something?

[Laughs] I think the closest I’ve come is in individual friendship or relationships, where you feel like you’ve really ceded your own power to somebody else. And, you know, sure, I’ve definitely experienced that, but never any major belief system.

Throughout the first season, you have a few very big sermons you must give to your followers. How do you get yourself ready for scenes like that?

This is something that I learned years ago, actually from John Hurt. He told me, “I don’t prepare anything.” I’m not saying that I adhere to this entirely, but what he did say was: with any project, take one of those scenes and start learning the minute you sign on for it, and run them everyday. That’s what I did. And actually, because of Cal and who he is, he’s so performative, they kept writing those scenes for me. [Laughs] The more I did them, the more they wrote, so I just think to do that with conviction but without the shouting, you have to have completely digested it. As much as anything else, that means learning it and then learning it again and again and again and again, right up until the last moment.

After watching the show, it seems like the biggest question about the Meyerist Movement is: does it matter? Does it matter if this movement is real, if the story is real, or does it only matter that people really believe it is?

You know, I was reading a column just this morning from, I think it was Kurt Vonnegut, saying something along the lines of [that] his grandfather used to say, “If what Jesus said was so very special and true, does it really matter if he was the son of God?” I guess that’s a more inflammatory way of asking the same question. I think it really matters for these people in the show.

Obviously, I don’t adhere to this belief system, but I think that a lot of these people, especially Cal, just needed, in the right moment of [their lives], comfort and safety. A system and structure. And someone came along and provided it for him. And it’s probably true that it could have been a number of different things. It just happened to be this.

I could not get off the phone with you without asking if there is any hope for some sort of Hannibal revival — a movie, a short series, anything?

I saw Bryan Fuller just the other day, and I think he has a very specific idea. And he’s obviously a very busy man, but I think he has a very specific idea of how he’d like to go about doing it. I think definitely the hope is alive.

A lot of people are asking you about Hannibal coming back. Do you even want to get back to that character, or do you feel like you’ve already said your goodbyes?

No, no, no, I wouldn’t say the thing about hope sarcastically… And I think, if anything, maybe everyone would benefit from a few years away. In terms of the storyline, from what Bryan has shared with me about what he might have done in a fourth season — he might even do a fourth season, actually — the idea of dropping out for a few years wouldn’t be a bad thing. I mean, who knows? But it would be nice.