In the prudish days of Victorian England, a quarter of London’s female population suffered from hysteria — a misguided catch-all medical diagnosis of female malaise, melancholia, and anxiety. Suffering women of means found treatment from male medical specialists — quacks actually — who offered “pelvic massage.” Fortunately, there was a brilliant doctor willing to roll up his sleeves and get to the heart of the matter. In Hysteria, a romantic comedy that premiered Thursday night at the Toronto Film Festival, Hugh Dancy portrays Mortimer Granville, the buttoned-up but idealistic inventor of the vibrator. Maggie Gyllenhaal plays the progressive daughter of London’s leading hysteria specialist (Jonathan Pryce) who spends her days laboring to improve women’s lives in more conventional ways.
The two actors checked in with Entertainment Weekly before their gala screening in Toronto to discuss their characters, the most memorable faux orgasms, and the real reason film productions have bags of sand lying around the set. There was plenty of blushing, mostly by this reporter.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Hugh, I’d actually like to know how Hysteria was originally pitched to you and you learned that you’d be spending your days performing Mortimer’s duties.
HUGH DANCY: Well, put it this way, the first description of the movie was the one that you would imagine: You will be playing the inventor of the vibrator. So I sat down to read it without any real awareness of what the tone would be. There’s five different movies you could make, some of which would be, I’m sure, very hard-hitting and gritty. But on reading it, what appealed to me was the balance of tone. I thought there were a lot of balls to be kept in the air. And that’s what appealed to me. It’s also what worried me.
Right. I would think you have to take a leap of faith with a director to capture this balance.
HD: It’s true. The first conversation I had with [director] Tanya Wexler was really seeking assurance that it wasn’t just going to be about playing to the humor of the thing. That, on its own, I don’t think would play for an hour and a half. And then subsequently I learned that Maggie had been cast, and that kind of answered that question.
Maggie, I got the impression you really enjoyed playing Charlotte.
MAGGIE GYLLENHAAL: Yeah, it was really fun to be her. I’m kind of always looking for things where I can be free. And this was really that. I wasn’t so concerned with her being historically accurate; I wanted her to be almost out of time. I just wanted to make somebody who was like wildly free and just this beating heart. I don’t know that the Charlotte that I made would have survived in Victorian England, you know? But she is kind of a fantasy. I think a lot of women think, “Well maybe that’s what I would be like if I lived back then.” Probably none of us would have been, you know? But I loved being her.
Do you think you could have lived in that era? Is there anything you would have enjoyed from those days?
MG: Well, it sounds like going to the doctor was kind of fun.
Yes, about that, Hugh. And I’m not intentionally trying to be crude, but ummm…
HD: It’s hard to avoid .
When you were filming and when you put your hands under the patients’ gowns and pretended to treat them…
HD: That’s very delicate of you.
Did the filmmakers have something there for you to massage, whether it was a teddybear or a pillow.
HD: [Laughter] What?
What were you manipulating? Or were you just sort of air-manipulating?
HD: There was a modesty sand-bag.
I’m sorry. A what?
HD: A modesty sand-bag. You know, most films have a lot of sand-bags sitting around, weighing down the lights and making sure they don’t topple over. So there was a sturdy sand-bag placed on the edge of that bench which was acting, (A) as something so you could — I don’t know, how could I put it? — apply a bit of pressure, but (B) acting as a sturdy barrier.
I’m almost sorry I asked. That takes away all the fun.
HD: Well listen, I should have just left you with a teddybear image. I don’t know where that came from.
When Harry Met Sally probably has the most famous solo orgasm in movie history, but this movie has a chorus.
HD: Right, I don’t think anyone can claim to have taken that famous scene and made a whole movie about it.
Now was there one particular orgasm that cracked you up or one that really stands out in your mind?
HD: There was many but the operatic orgasm was quite remarkable because it was so accomplished. But Georgie Glen who plays the rather timid patient who Jonathan demonstrates on when I first take the job, if you know what I mean, and then has a rather rollicking orgasm. I worked with Georgie in Daniel Deronda, which was an adaptation of George Eliot novel several years ago. I think she might even have played my mother. She’s just the most gracious, polite, mischievous, but very respectable accomplished lady, and therefore seeing her devolve in that way was particularly amusing.
Is this the greatest film ever for lazy headline writers: “Let the buzz begin for Hysteria?” “Hysteria really hits the spot?”
MG: My favorite one is “We hope you’ll come again and again.”