In ‘Cyrano,’ Haley Bennett’s Roxanne is an ‘outsider in an insider’s body’
Edmond Rostand’s “Cyrano de Bergerac” is a classic outsider tale. Cyrano is brilliant, a poet, a romantic and the greatest swordsman anyone knows — yet because of his abnormally large proboscis, he’s the subject of ridicule (when out of earshot; who would dare insult him in front of his nose?). And he’s doomed to loneliness: He believes the woman he deeply loves, a beauty who fits right in with society, Roxanne, could never love him. Though the two are close friends, and one would think by now he would have come to realize she is at least mildly sapiosexual, she seems too perfect, too much a part of the structure that would never accept him, for them to happen.
The actress playing the role of Roxanne in “Cyrano,” Joe Wright’s new film of the stage musical version by Erica Schmidt, has a different view.
“I saw Roxanne as an outsider in an insider’s body,” says Haley Bennett. “She exists in a world of conformists and small-minded people. That’s expressed in the world created around her. She and Cyrano are cut from the same cloth and both color outside the lines. They’re not afraid to be different, and that’s why they’re friends. That’s expressed in the chaos she brings into every scene she’s in, her manner of dress. She has the same DNA as previous Roxannes, but I feel she’s a bit more chaotic and human and messy.”
Bennett was already an established film performer (“Music and Lyrics,” “The Equalizer,” “The Magnificent Seven”) in her late 20s when she decided she wanted to try her hand at theater. Her agent sent her to a weeklong workshop of Schmidt’s musical, which featured songs by the band the National and starred Schmidt’s husband, the multiple-Emmy-winning Peter Dinklage. Never having been in such a situation, Bennett was blown away.
“It felt so safe and creative; it was a chance to be bold without any consequences,” says Bennett, who marveled at the joys of rehearsal, both onstage and in Wright’s film. She calls her yearslong association with the role on stage and screen her version of “theater school.” “I fell in love with the material and everyone there.”
It was a no-brainer for her when Schmidt invited her to join the fully mounted production. The main problem: Roxanne was a heavy singing role, and Bennett had “no musical background at all! I sang a bit in ‘Music and Lyrics,’ but they were fluffy pop songs,” she says, laughing. The “Cyrano” songs are unquestionably more demanding than that, and they were sung live during filming.
ked with an incredible music teacher named Mary Hammond,” the former head of musical theater at London’s Royal Academy of Music. “I learned so much. What she teaches her students is how to tell a story with a song, rather than just sing it beautifully. That made me love doing the musical, rather than being afraid of it.”
The National’s song score is often characterized by an intimacy Bennett says the medium of cinema allows.
“Onstage, you’re singing out to the house, and you can lose that intimate feeling, making sure everyone in the back hears you. It was nice to reel that in. It’s not what you might hear on the radio, but the audience will experience the nuance and the emotion of the actors. I think that’s what sets this musical apart; it’s a heartbreaking quality. It’s what I love about the National’s music. You feel like you’re beside the performer, rather than behind a glass.”
The music isn’t the only thing that sets “Cyrano” apart from previous versions of the tale (after all, there was a previous stage musical adaptation, with a libretto by Anthony Burgess, no less). In the new film (as onstage), Dinklage plays the role without a prosthetic nose. Yes, the actor’s short stature sets him apart, but the film is really getting at what Schmidt has referred to as an internal version of “the nose,” that seed of inferiority in most people that makes them question whether they’re worthy of love. Bennett says her understanding of the themes has evolved as she has.
“The role of Roxanne has been with me through many stages of my life, from being a single woman to a woman with a partner and a child,” she says. “As you change, your take on the character also changes. My instincts and insights changed and deepened. My love has deepened. My needs as a woman have deepened. My understanding of love has profoundly changed. That has to do a lot with self-love; you have to love yourself before you can love anyone else — my partner [Wright], my daughter. You can’t be 100% available to another person if you haven’t figured out to yourself that you are lovable, that you are worthy of love.”
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