When filmmaker Joe Wright was first invited to see a workshop of Cyrano, a new musical adaptation of the Edmond Rostand play, he thought he already knew the material. He grew up reading and relishing the original Cyrano de Bergerac, and still admits with a faint smile that the first thing he thinks of when he hears that name is the character’s big nose—that nose, plus the character’s even bigger mind and sense of pride.
Yet when actress Haley Bennett (The Magnificent Seven, The Girl on the Train) invited him to her theatrical debut in a little workshop production in Connecticut, Wright saw something new: a Cyrano who really lived the character’s encumbrances. A Cyrano played by Peter Dinklage.
“I went along and was shocked to find myself somewhere around the end of Act III weeping my eyes out, and I still had two acts to go,” Wright tells us years later and on the eve of the wide release of his filmic adaptation of that musical play. “I had a very strong emotional reaction to that first encounter with this iteration, and I kept on going back. I kept on wanting to see it again to try and unpick it, really. And, in the end, I said, ‘Okay, let’s make a movie of this.’”
That film, which is adapted by screenwriter Erica Schmidt from her own play, is a melancholic examination of the Cyrano tale—and one which she penned expressly for her real-life husband, Dinklage. The character is of course still the boisterous and swashbuckling hero of the original Rostand play; a poet with a quill and sword, who can slay 10 men in a single night while writing a sonnet for the woman he loves. But in Dinklage’s hands, Cyrano’s inability to tell the object of that love, the fair Roxanne (Bennett), comes with an added texture of self-loathing and anger. It’s an awareness of the destructive path he is on, yet refuses to abandon.
“It just made his sense of otherness so much more vital and immediate, and authentic,” Wright says of Dinklage’s original performance on the stage. “There’s almost a sense in the traditional portrayal of Cyrano that the actor is kind of winking at the audience. ‘You all know that this is a fake nose, right? It’s a gag, we’re playing this together. And we all know at the end of the night, I can take that nose off and go to the bar.’ So without the nose, and Peter being who Peter is, though that’s obviously not all Peter is, there was a kind of shocking immediacy and heartbreak, and truth to it.”
Indeed, when we sit down over Zoom with Wright, there is some discussion over whether Cyrano, either in Wright’s film or the original play, is a comedy or not. Modern audiences typically think of the tale as a laugher, perhaps due in large part to Steve Martin wearing an especially elongated prop nose in the ‘80s rom-com modernization, Roxanne (1987). But while Wright is quick to note there are heightened romantic comedy elements in his Cyrano too, there still remains that immediacy, that truth, which Dinklage brings to the character’s pain.
Indeed, one of the major changes we noted between Schmidt’s stage play, which was performed Off-Broadway in 2019, and Wright’s adaptation is that all elements of bigotry and slander faced by Dinklage’s protagonist are no longer inferred by allusion. In the play, when a particularly nasty character named Valvert chooses to insult Cyrano’s honor, he does it by still mocking his “big nose.” It is the same line from the original play, but with Dinklage in the role (and absent any nose prosthetic), the term is meant to be a euphemism.
In Wright’s movie, Valvert’s (Joshua James) venom is more direct and couched in a hatred of little people.
Says Wright, “One of the things I really love about theater is there’s a lot more space for the participation of the audience’s imagination, whereas with film… we expect a level of reality to be given to us. Therefore euphemisms about noses when there’s no nose may not work so well on film, because we’re not participating in the same way.”
He continues, “So I worked with Erica on developing at the beginning of the film in the theater [scene] a number of jibes from Valvert, the guy Cyrano kills, that do refer specifically to his height. And then having established that concretely, I was able to go ‘Okay, we’ve done that, let’s not refer to it ever again.’ Because now what we’re interested in is his internal sense of unworthiness rather than any external expression of it.”
When it came to developing that internal conflict, Wright came into the material from a curious position. He was directing Dinklage in a role the Emmy winning actor had played hundreds of times before on the stage—but in a new medium which would ask an actor often celebrated for his introspective performances to burrow deeper within.
“The ‘already done it on stage’ is interesting,” Wright considers, “because what we had to do, I think, was during rehearsals… kind of deconstruct that stage performance and then rebuild it so he wasn’t relying on muscle memory or habits that had worked brilliantly on the stage production but might not work so on film. I think Pete talked to me a lot about trust and about Cyrano’s inability to trust others to be able to see him for more than his stature. And that I found to be a really interesting differentiation. In other words, it’s not necessarily, although it might also be, his own feelings of unworthiness. But it’s also about his refusal to believe that others could see beyond his physical otherness.”
Of course another significant aspect about Schmidt and Wright’s Cyrano which differentiates it from other adaptations is that it is a musical. Wright has flirted with that classical genre before, be it in the elaborate dance sequences of Anna Karenina or Hugh Jackman curiously singing Nirvana in Pan. However, Cyrano is the first time in which he’s mounted massive musical sequences in which character motivation and conflict are expressed through songs (here provided by the American rock band and famed Game of Thrones contributors, The National). Yet for Wright, a director who is still relatively fresh off the highly sophisticated editing and storytelling structure in movies like the Oscar winning Darkest Hour, the prospect of embracing one of the oldest forms of filmic storytelling felt like a respite. It was a chance to do less, but say more.
“I feel like my work in recent years has become more complex, more presentational,” Wright says. “With this I wanted to try and do something very simple and more observational. So it’s really about allowing the music to speak to me and reach me emotionally, and just expressing that in the most economic terms possible.”
It pays off in dividends, particularly in one musical sequence written specifically for the film version: Cyrano as well as the rival of his love for Roxanne, Christian (Luce’s terrific Kelvin Harrison Jr.), have been sent to the frontlines. And now their French battalion have been given the grim orders that come the morning they’ll be asked to march—and likely die. Wright films the men’s preemptive wake for their own deaths, the song “Wherever I Fall,” with simplicity and brutal directness. The actors, all on location in snowy conditions, are framed in a cloud of cold weather and colder thoughts. Wright suggests the poignancy of the scene was informed by the specific moment it was filmed in.
Says Wright, “Limitations are quite liberating, often, but there’s also the result of making a film during the pandemic. So equipment was scarce. We couldn’t bring equipment in and out. We had to have one set of equipment and that’s all we had. The budget was quite small on the movie, and so we were dealing with a lot of limitations, which were in a sense, while quite difficult at the time, quite exciting as well.”
Cyrano opens exclusively in theaters in the U.S. and UK on Feb. 25.