Interview: Peter Dinklage on the fear and complexity of playing Cyrano; “With great risks comes great rewards”

Arrived at the cinema today, Cyrano (you can read our review here) is the director’s gorgeous new drama Joe Wrightwhich reinterpreted the classic play by Edmond Rostand 1897 Cyrano de Bergerac as a painful musical starring the Emmy and Golden Globe Award-winning actor Peter Dinklage (televisions game of throneslisten)) as titular poet.

To coincide with the release of the film, our Peter Gray was invited to speak with Dinklage about his role in the film, his relationship with acting, the fear of singing live and what draws him to being a actor in his roles.

I think comedy is something that you really excel at, especially comedy with subtlety and realism, which is exercised in Cyrano. I look at Death at funeral (Before going off the rails in its finale), Three billboards outside of Ebbing, Missouriand I love you too. Is comedy something you’ve always felt comfortable performing?

I love it. My favorite movies are the Marx Brothers comedies, down to Peter Sellers and Will Ferrell. There are so many different variations on what comedy is and what it means to people. I feel like if it doesn’t make you laugh, you immediately know it doesn’t work. Comedy is a shortcut to doing a good job and knowing if it works or not, which I’ve always appreciated. It is also such an art form. What makes someone funny is an unknown quality that we all try to figure out. I love it. I want to keep exploring it and making people laugh. He’s a great leveler, especially in a time like this when everyone is going through a tough time. We turn to comedy to get out of our heads.

This movie is based on the play your wife wrote. Whose idea was it to remove the character’s nose? Something that has traditionally been associated with the character.

It was 100% unequivocally Erica’s (Schmidt’s) idea. I came to the project later. She was commissioned by a theater company to adapt an original play. She always has a very clever way of doing something classic. What she did was quite risky. She thought about what would happen if you got rid of the nose. It’s something that’s referenced throughout the play. Cyrano refers to it with both confidence and insecurity. And then what if we take those long monologues about love and turn them into love songs? And I thought that was a really modern take. Both choices were very modern and a smart way into the piece.

For me personally, and it is perhaps fair to me because of my size, but I always thought “Oh, this is a fine actor and a false nose” and he complains a lot and use it as a crutch to his advantage and his disadvantage. It can remove the nose after the show and go about their business. For someone who can not take his physical difference, it raises many questions in me as an actor and as a human being. Erica has not written to me, but I thought it opened the door and wanted to play the role.

You played Richard III in 2003 at the Public Theater in New York, and there are a lot of similarities between the characters of Richard III and Cyrano…

Thanks, that’s such a clever (observation). Richard III, like Cyrano, was such a complex character. They have such a contradiction (ongoing) because they are both brave and confident in so many ways, and yet when it comes to love or family, they have such a lack of confidence. I think that’s really rare in hero roles. I know Richard III is sort of an anti-hero, but he’s the protagonist (of this story), it’s his series. I like that with Richard III and Cyrano that they are not heroes on all levels. They have heroic aspects in their life, but they are cowardly in others. This complexity always attracts me as an actor.

It sounds like a story that’s been around longer than it actually is. What was your introduction to Rostand’s piece?

I watched the beautiful version of the film by Gérard Depardieu, which was so beautiful and he’s so good in it, and it’s so beautiful to have it in the original French language as well. After seeing this movie and reading the original play, I saw a recording of a live production starring Kevin Kline and then, of course, Steve Martin in Roxane which is a completely different version (again). I think (it’s a joke) meant that the nose worked better in this area than in the other iterations. Gérard Depardieu’s film was my introduction, however.

Going back to the opening to the role, what about the singing aspect?

(Laughs) I think it’s a good sign when I am afraid of something. I think the actors are, at least for me, too comfortable with their skills. They know what they can do and they stick. You must keep an eye on it. When you encounter a challenge, like singing or something you’ve never done before, it is worth the risk because life is a matter of risk. With great risk comes great reward, as they say, and just surround himself with very talented people.

Did singing live on set add to that fear?

Yes, we sang everything live, and I couldn’t imagine doing it any other way. Because of the nature of these songs, you know there’s no big chorus number, it was really just two or three other people singing, or me alone in a room. If I were to lip-synch to a pre-recorded version of myself, I’d probably crack up laughing. I think that would be so absurd. You can’t help but think of cheesy 80s music videos, and suddenly it would take on that quality. At my age, they were so wonderful then, but they feel so retro now (laughs). I would be too humorous about it trying to sing this moving song.

That said, putting that aside, it really helped me connect with the (song) and the other actors you sing with. And what’s great is that these songs are really just a continuum of the narrative. We don’t stop and sing a song, like so many musicals do, it’s just the dialogue that blends in. The dialogue becomes a song then it ends and you continue. Doing this live with the nature of the storytelling was very beneficial.

Cyrano is out now in Australian theaters.

Sharon D. Cole