In MGM’s Cyrano, actors Haley Bennett and Kelvin Harrison Jr have overcome the insurmountable challenge of breathing fresh life into a story that has been told to audiences for centuries in various forms since the play 1897 by Edmond Rostand.
Unlike previous stories, Bennett’s Roxanne, the object of Cyrano’s lofty and poetic outward desire but insecure inner self, will be fiercely independent, winning no prizes in a contest of the court. And Harrison’s Christian, the anarchist suitor who has captivated her with heart-melting desires secretly devised by Cyrano herself, will be as earnest and lovable as the audience can see. I am infatuated with the romantic rival of a famous hero.
Oh, and they’ll do all of this while regularly engaging with the song in ways that are both intimate and emotional, laying the groundwork for a love triangle between epic visions of brave cinematic vision. directed by Joe Wright and against their magnetic leading man, screen powerhouse Peter Dinklage.
Bennett, who first developed the material with Dinklage in Erica Schmidt’s stage musical – whose songs The National inspired a cinematic adaptation by Bennett’s partner, Wright – and Harrison, who found his screen inspiration as the innocent Peter Sellers in Being there, joined CHEAP for a conversation that reveals how they approached turning one of the world’s most familiar love stories into something vibrant, unpredictable, and incredibly romantic.
Haley, you’ve lived with Roxanne for a while, did the stage production with Peter, which turned into the movie. Kelvin, you are new to the group. Have you used those motivations to your advantage?
HALEY BENNETT It definitely works when Pete and I know each other and it’s not like we just showed up. Roxanne and Cyrano are very close and they’ve been friends forever, and that’s great, it’s established between us. Those bonds were exercised. I was actually 8 months pregnant on stage with Pete – playing a virgin – and it was like a family affair. There are all the things you don’t think about and you don’t see on film that are offensive between the actors, that you have to grow up in the past and you can never feel ashamed or embarrassed about it. We are all very vulnerable, and so it feels great to be able to feel safe when we are hurt, because this is a movie about love. And in love, we need to be vulnerable. We need to allow ourselves to be seen.
KELVIN HARRISON JR. I was really scared.
BENNETT But you’re playing the role of an outsider anyway.
HARRISON It became a luxury when I realized the fact that the family used to exist and I was entering it. Also, in the end, what was so great was that I got to meet Pete and we started to develop this brotherhood and friendship, which really helped us get to this still-fresh shade, and at the same time still there is a basis for some kind of mutual confusion.
BENNETT We shoot in sequence, and so that’s probably pretty helpful: You really see it grow as an audience. We have to watch your relationship blossom as it happens in real time.
HARRISON At the end, I said, “Listen, I really love Pete.” I was like, “God, imagine if Pete betrayed me like this – I’d be so mad!”
You’re both reinventing these familiar characters in some ways, but you’re also pretty much true to their original vision. How do you find freshness appearing on screen while at the same time conveying the essence of centuries old?
BENNETT We had to work with a lot of things that were being modernized. There was some inspiration that we took from the past, but ultimately the way we move, the way we sing, the way we dress, all have a modern touch. Even though it’s still the 1600s, it has a taste that feels very authentic and is very relevant today. I’m really excited that this adaptation is written by a woman. I’ve got room to explore [Roxanne] more than we’ve seen on screen before. I have to make sure she’s a special character with weird features, and she’s coloring outside of the outline. I always want to make sure she looks chaotic, that her hair falls out or her skirt falls out. There is a real energy that I want 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 by tongue-in-cheek reasons. I think that’s often the trap when playing Christian: like, “Oh, he’s got his tongue out, so he doesn’t know anything; he’s just relying on his good looks. ” I don’t even think Christian knows he’s handsome. If someone told me I’m handsome, I’d say, “Hey, who are you talking about?” I look at him like he’s a boy. 7 year old baby seeing the world for the first time, being part of a new community It leads to sincerity throughout, that we make him lovable and make you a root for him it at the end of the day.
The musical segments fit very organically in the storytelling. How did you come to switch between singing and acting?
BENNETT Kelvin is at an unfair disadvantage because I did that on stage, and of course on stage you sing live. But it doesn’t have that kind of intimacy, because you have to project more. I’m not performing for an audience here – it’s cinema, you don’t have to show it. It can be that intimate moment that is a whisper. You can’t escape the whispers on stage.
HARRISON That’s what I find fascinating. We had two weeks of rehearsals where we also explored music, tried different things, and recorded different pieces and pieces of music. Also, working with that vocal coach…
BENNETT We worked with legendary vocal coach Mary Hammond, who helped us explore the idea of this trait in the text. In Cyrano, the songs are the beating heart of the movie. And they have a very human quality to them, rather than a Broadway style, so we embrace and encourage imperfections because we’re not trying to be great singers. And in fact, the flaws give an extremely human quality to the piece’s tone.
HARRISON And keep it conversational. I think that’s the biggest thing.
BENNETT Yes, can speak and sing. It’s a useful tool. You don’t always know the song, or you can go from an easy tune to a better voice quality to a better project. And your incredible performance, singing “Someone to Talk”! We sing the same song, but in completely different ways – expressing our wants and needs and our deepest secrets. It’s all very character-driven, but it’s not musical theater.
Is there a certain day, scene, or moment that stands out to you in your collaboration?
BENNETT I think we have the same feelings about the bell tower scene.
HARRISON What I like about it is that it’s fun to watch her, and you never know what you’re going to get.
BENNETT We were really in the moment, investigating each other in that scene and looking and either excited or frustrated – there was a longing, a desire. And that’s a pivotal moment in the story. It was dramatic, but it also tickled me, that scene. What makes it so endearing is how easy it is to listen, in the sense that I am someone who either doesn’t have enough to say, or wants to say more but has no words.
HARRISON Especially in the age of dating apps! I’m always on the apps and I’m scared – I really don’t know what to say. I want to pass my phone on to one of my best friends. He would text people on his phone… and be like, “I think I got this.” And then I started dating and said, “Well, actually, you might want to talk to my friend, not me.”
You’ve got a digital Cyrano!
HARRISON Well, I’m still a digital Christian. I am using brand.
The edited interview is long and clear.
This story first appeared in a December issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.