Meryl Streep was looking for a husband, and Charles Dance wanted the job. But when he went to meet Streep in London last year, the proper Englishman didn’t want a proper drink. After all, the two-time Oscar winner would make the final decision on whether Dance got the part of her husband in the film Plenty, and Dance saw it as the most nerve-racking interview of his life. “We were to meet at the Savoy [Hotel] for a drink,” he says. “I got into Covent Garden early and wandered around. I worked myself into a sweat—a lather actually.” So when the waiter asked for Dance’s order, “I went straight for a margarita.”
Dance won Streep’s approval—and more recently that of critics as well—for the part of Raymond Brock, a clench-jawed diplomat saddled with an unhappy wife. But the role responsible for Dance’s good fortune gets a bad review from the actor. “There’s little about Raymond Brock that’s similar to my personality,” says Dance, 38. “He is the most annoying character I have ever played. I would have seen all that trouble and gotten the hell out.”
Ironically, that strong will brought Dance the role in the first place. Although he looks like a Yorkshire vet, complete with a thatch of strawberry blond hair and a dappling of sandy freckles, Dance projects a strapping, masculine presence. That appealed to Plenty director Fred Schepisi. “What I didn’t want for the role was a wally, or I guess what you would call in this country a big wimp.”
Offscreen as well as on, Dance and Streep found their professional conduct conflicting. “Dame Meryl,” as he jokingly calls her, mystified him. Not long after the 11-week shoot, he told one reporter, “I did not find her easy to work with, but then it’s not her job to make it easy for me.” These days he hedges—a bit. “I didn’t have the rapport with her that I’m used to having with English actors,” he says. “On days that our characters got on, so did we. The days they didn’t, we didn’t either.” In the film, the latter far outnumber the former. There were times, he says, “I would think, ‘Christ, is it me? Do I have bad breath today? Or am I turning in an appalling performance?’ ”
Unlike the chap in Plenty, there was more than a dash of Dance in Guy Perron, the good guy he played in last season’s Emmy-winning PBS miniseries The Jewel in the Crown. “I am very like Guy Perron, which was the principal attraction,” says Dance. “He’s an ‘up-yours’ kind of guy.” But Perron didn’t totally please Dance. He wanted the role of the villain, Merrick. “No actor in his right mind wouldn’t want that part. Lose your arm, get a big scar and be a sadomasochistic homosexual. What more could you want?”
Dance’s flair for the dramatic may be a reaction to the quiet, rural childhood he led in Devon. His father, an engineer, died when Charles was 4. But his mother, who worked in a restaurant outside of London, and civil servant stepfather provided “just about comfortable circumstances,” he says. “We took one family holiday. Ever.” A stammer during adolescence repressed his interest in acting, so he attended art school, where he met his wife, Joanna. When the stammer suddenly disappeared, so did his lack of enthusiasm for acting. Given his disdain for the orthodox, Dance didn’t train at a prestigious academy. Instead he worked for two years with two eccentric and elderly male acting coaches who lived in a Devon cottage. Three days a week, in the back of a pub, one of the men introduced him to Shakespeare. On Sundays at the cottage, the other taught him stage technique. “They were very sparing with the praise,” recalls Dance. “They’d say, ‘You don’t realize how bad you are, do you, boy?’ ” In 1975 Dance joined the Royal Shakespeare Company and in 1980 left to do films.
In his search for movie roles Dance has temporarily left his wife and two children, Oliver, 11, and Rebecca, 5, at their Victorian family home in North London. Touring the U.S. to promote Plenty, he has made the obligatory party stops. But it’s on the street that he is most recognized as a public TV sex symbol. When complimented about his burgeoning female fans, Dance answers with a characteristic quip: “I’ll put you on the Christmas card list this year.” But don’t get your hopes up, girls. Says Plenty director Schepisi: “There were a few hopefuls hanging on while we were shooting, but Charles is very well married.”