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In MGM’s Cyrano, actors Haley Bennett and Kelvin Harrison Jr. rise to the unenviable challenge of breathing fresh life into a tale that has been told to audiences for centuries in various forms since Edmond Rostand’s enduring 1897 play.
In a break from previous tellings, Bennett’s Roxanne, the object of the outwardly noble and poetic but internally insecure Cyrano’s lovestruck yearning, would be fiercely independent, no prize to be won in a courtly contest. And Harrison’s Christian, the inarticulate suitor who woos her with heart-meltingly passionate professions of desire secretly devised by Cyrano himself, would be so earnest and endearing that audiences might just find themselves rooting for the titular hero’s romantic rival.
Oh, and they’d be doing all this while frequently breaking into song in ways both intimate and emotional, grounding the love triangle amid the epic sweep of director Joe Wright’s bravura cinematic vision and holding their own against their magnetic leading man, screen powerhouse Peter Dinklage.
Bennett, who first developed the material with Dinklage in Erica Schmidt’s stage musical — with songs by The National that inspired the cinematic adaptiation by Bennett’s partner, Wright — and Harrison, who found inspiration for his screen take in Peter Sellers’ innocent in Being There, joined THR for a conversation revealing how they approached making over one of the world’s most familiar love stories into something vibrant, unpredictable and overwhelmingly romantic.
Haley, you had lived with Roxanne for some time, having performed the stage production with Peter that evolved into the film. Kelvin, you were the newcomer to the group. Did you use those dynamics to your advantage?
HALEY BENNETT It certainly worked in the sense that Pete and I knew each other and it wasn’t like we were just showing up fresh. Roxanne and Cyrano are very close and they’ve been friends forever, and so that was nice, already having that established between us. Those bonds had already been made. I was actually eight months pregnant onstage with Pete — playing a virgin — and it was just like a family affair. There’s all these things you don’t think of and you don’t see on film that are uncomfortable between actors, that you have to grow past and you can never feel shame or embarrassed about it. We are left so vulnerable, and so it felt really good to be able to feel safe being vulnerable, considering this is a film about love. And in love, we need to be vulnerable. We need to allow ourselves to be seen.
KELVIN HARRISON JR. I was so intimidated.
BENNETT But you were playing an outsider anyway.
HARRISON It became a luxury once I recognized the fact that this prior family existed and I was walking into it. Also, ultimately what was so nice about it is that I got to meet Pete and we started to develop this brotherhood and friendship that really helped us have this nuance that was still fresh, and at the same time still grounded in some type of messing with each other.
BENNETT We shot in sequence, and so that was probably pretty useful: You’re actually seeing it grow as an audience. We got to watch your relationship blossom as it was happening in real time.
HARRISON By the time I got to the end, I was like, “Listen, I really love Pete.” I was like, “Man, imagine if Pete just betrayed me like this — I’d be so angry!”
You’re both reinventing these familiar characters in some ways, and yet you’re also quite true to how they were originally envisioned. How’d you find the freshness that comes through on the screen while also conveying essences that have endured for centuries?
BENNETT We had so much already to work with that was being modernized. There was some inspiration that we took from the past, but ultimately the way we moved, the way we sang, the way we dressed, had a modernity to it. Even though it was still the 1600s, it had a flavor to it that feels very true to and very relevant to now. I was really excited that this adaptation was written by a woman. I had the room to explore [Roxanne] more than we’ve seen onscreen before. I got to make sure that she was a distinctive character with strange idiosyncrasies, and she colors outside the lines. I always wanted to make sure that she appeared to be chaotic, that her hair was falling out of place or her dress was going to fall off. There was a real energy that I wanted to bring to the character.
HARRISON One of the first things Joe and I talked about was Christian’s sincerity and his innocence, and not necessarily judging him for being tongue-tied. I think that’s often the trap of playing Christian: being, like, “Oh, he’s tongue-tied, so he doesn’t know anything; he’s just resting on his good looks.” I don’t even think Christian knows he’s good-looking. If somebody told me I was good-looking, I’d be like, “Hey, who are you talking about?” I looked at him like he was a 7-year-old boy who was just seeing the world for the first time, being a part of a new community. It was leading with sincerity throughout, that we make him likable and make you root for him at the end of the day.
The musical sequences fit very organically in the storytelling. How did you come at the shift between singing and acting?
BENNETT Kelvin had an unfair disadvantage because I had done it onstage, and of course onstage you sing live. But it didn’t have the same intimacy, because you have to project a lot more. Here, I wasn’t performing for an audience — it’s cinema, you don’t need to project. It could be that intimate moment that’s a whisper. You can’t get away with whispers onstage.
HARRISON That’s what I found fascinating. We had those two weeks of rehearsals where we also explored the music, trying different things out and recording different bits and pieces. Also, working with that vocal coach …
BENNETT We worked with legendary vocal coach Mary Hammond, who helped us explore this idea of characterization within the text. In Cyrano, the songs are the beating heart of the film. And they do have a very human quality to them, rather than Broadway style, so we embrace and encourage the flaws because we’re not trying to be amazing singers. And actually, the flaws give an extremely human quality to the tone of the piece.
HARRISON And keeping it conversational. I think that was the biggest thing.
BENNETT Yeah, being able to speak-sing as well. That was a useful tool. You’re not always in song, or you can go from being breathy to more speech-quality to more projecting. And your incredible performance, singing “Someone to Say”! We sing the same song, but in completely different ways — expressing our desires and our needs and our deepest secrets. It was all very character-orientated, but it wasn’t musical theater.
Was there a day, a scene, a moment that stood out for you in your collaboration?
BENNETT I think we share the same feelings toward the bell tower scene.
HARRISON The thing I like about it is that it was just so playful to watch her, and you never know what you were going to get.
BENNETT We really were in the moment, investigating each other in that scene and searching and getting excited or being disappointed — there was a longing, a wanting. And it’s such a pivotal moment in the story. It’s dramatic, but also it tickles me, that scene. What makes it so lovely is how relatable it is, in the sense that I’ve been the one not having enough to say, or wanting to say more but not having the words.
HARRISON Especially in the dating-app age! I would always be on the apps and I would be so scared — I don’t really know what to say. I’d pass my phone to one of my best friends. He would message the people on the phone … and would be like, “I think I got this one.” And then I’d go on the dates and be like, “Well, actually you probably want to talk to my buddy, not me.”
You had a digital Cyrano!
HARRISON Well, I was still the digital Christian. I’m on brand.
Interview edited for length and clarity.
This story first appeared in a December stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
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Santa Barbara International Film Festival