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A Conversation with Actor: Douglas Hodge

A Conversation with Actor: Douglas Hodge

Ted Sod, Education Dramaturg, sat down with Douglas Hodge to talk to him about his title role in Cyrano de Bergerac.

Ted Sod: How did this project come together?

Douglas Hodge: I started talking to Roundabout when I was on Broadway doing La Cage aux Folles because I wanted to work with them. We talked about me acting and directing in something. I came back six months ago and did a reading of Larry Gelbart’s play, Sly Fox. I didn’t feel it was quite right. I had just done Osborne’s Inadmissible Evidence in London with Jamie Lloyd directing, and we did a reading of that here, too. But Inadmissible Evidence is one of the bleakest, darkest plays I have ever been involved in. It’s literally like swallowing a thimble of poison every night. So, we all sat down and I said, “The plays I want to perform in are Cyrano de Bergerac, or maybe the Scottish play, but that’s it. I’m not interested in acting in any other things.” There was a slight hiatus and Todd Haimes called and said, “We are going to do Cyrano, who do you want to direct?” I said, “Jamie Lloyd is our man.” And suddenly we were hurtling towards this production of Cyrano.

TS: Jamie referenced on the first day of rehearsal that this is the fourteenth time, not counting the musical versions, that Cyrano been done on Broadway. Why do you think it is important to present it again?

DH: The first reason is that the translation by Ranjit Bolt is very, very different from what’s been seen here. It’s very visceral, it’s very energized, and I think truer to the guts of the piece. There’s a famous review that was written which said, “Cyrano is not a great play. It’s a perfect play.” It really has tremendous opportunities for me as an actor, which is something I love. There are also moments of real darkness, because he detests the way he looks and his self- esteem is zero. The whole idea of beauty and how we think about ourselves and whether or not we think we’re good enough–that seems to be quite modern to me. Everybody has their “nose.” If we get it right, I think people will see themselves in it, they’ll laugh till they beg us to stop, and they’ll be heartbroken. I think it’s an almost perfect evening in the theatre.

TS: I find it fascinating that Cyrano is so confident on some levels and yet can’t tell Roxane that he loves her.

DH: On the one hand, Cyrano says, “This is what I look like. Take it or leave it.” Zaza, the character I played in La Cage, didn’t like who she was, so she created this tremendous drag character, this suit of armor, to protect the fragile person underneath. There are some similarities with Cyrano, this person who’s made a construct of himself but privately thinks he’s unlovable. In terms of Roxane, I think she civilizes him. She tenderizes him. He says, “My mother loathed me from the minute I was born and she saw my face. I didn’t have a sister. I never dared have a Mistress Because she would only laugh at me. There’s this one woman who brings this gentleness into my life and a femininity that is entirely lacking.” I think it’s very easy to play the card that he’s some sort of romantic hero. He isn’t. I think he’s a virgin, for a start. He’s deemed to be hideous. He can’t hope to ever be seen by Roxane as someone to love romantically, but he loves her to the core of his being and that is very moving.

TS: How do you define panache?

DH: This is a question I ask myself every day. Panache is essentially the white plume that was worn in the hat of a king. Rostand, when he talks about panache, talks about it as being a sense of humor, being able to laugh at yourself and being able to find things funny in the moments of deepest tragedy. Of course, there’s swagger and style, élan. There are deeper elements to the whole way of life that is panache. We’ve just done the scene where Cyrano gets a glass of water and a macaroon as a meal. He’s given all his money away and clearly hasn’t eaten in three days and he says, “This is the greatest meal I’ve ever tasted.” He puts his napkin on and eats the macaroon and has a nice time. He says, “I want no more.” It’s making the most of it. That’s panache.

TS: Will you talk about process? How do you approach a character?

DH: I work and work and work. You should see my script. Jamie always goes on about my script. You can see that when I should be learning the lines, I’m doodling or drawing anything that comes to me that might be useful. Here’s a man (shows a photo of Elton John) who hates the way he looks. That gives you an example. I take images and put them in my script all the time. I’ve been filming cockerels and watching the way they walk. I learn the lines backwards, forwards and inside out. I collect people who I think have elements of the character. What Jamie’s used to me doing is playing a scene twenty different ways and testing each one out. I cherry pick from all of that until I have some sense of who the person is. And then there’s all sorts of superstitions and rituals that happen as I get closer to performing.

TS: Did you read about the real Cyrano de Bergerac?

DH: Not much. I tend to just go entirely from the text. It’s not that useful for me to know historically what the actual Cyrano was like. What you’re dealing with is the story you’re telling. I’m guided entirely by what the text says. Having said that, I love the fact that there was a real Cyrano de Bergerac who apparently had a nose that people came from miles around to see and that he was also killed by a block of wood falling on his head.

TS: What do you look for in a director? Obviously, you have a connection with Jamie.

DH: I love Jamie’s sense of humor. It’s important to me that there’s a sense of play in the rehearsal room, where I feel like I can muck about and try things without feeling vulnerable. That’s crucial to me. Jamie understands that I’m constantly excavating things that we might want. I also need someone who lets me fly a bit. I don’t like to be told what to do. I direct now almost as much as I act. It’s quite interesting going between the jobs. Directing has made me a better actor. I’m much more aware of when a scene needs to be about a particular character and how it affects the narrative.

TS: What about the language in the play? Few people seem to relish language and poetry these days. Do you think of our times as being poetic?

DH: I do. I think language is evolving all the time. I love texting and all that. I think it’s a growing organism, language. It’s constantly changing because of the different demographics of where we live and the speed with which we communicate. As far as the language in Cyrano is concerned, I think there’s a lot of hip hop in this play, no doubt about it. The idea of standing and rhyming in rhythm, extemporizing off the top of your head, is exactly what hip hop is. It’s dazzling when they get the great rhymes right. I love the fact that the play’s written in couplets. I think Rostand was perhaps one of the first writers to break the line. He would have half a line and the other person would come in, and then somebody else. It was revolutionary. The language in the play is just sumptuous. It soars. All those words are full of love and romantic poetry and life. And I think there’s just as much poetry around today.

TS: What do you recognize as the differences between American and British audiences?

DH: It’s the same difference as the difference in the national characteristics. Essentially, I think people in America are happier than the English. I think most English people would agree with that for all sorts of reasons. What that means is that there’s a greater generosity of spirit in the audience. They’re a more gregarious race than the English. The English are more guarded. Both are highly sophisticated and educated in terms of theatre and highly supportive of it, but the British are perhaps a little more reticent about showing their true feelings. You find the laughs may be louder, the applause may be bigger, in America. You’d hardly ever get a standing ovation in Great Britain. People would be too embarrassed. I, myself, have thought, “I should stand!” But then I thought, “No, everyone will look at me if I stand.” That’s how most people think in Britain. You get a greater sense of encouragement from an American audience.

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