Dinklage swaps Game of Thrones for a first musical role in the classic tale of Cyrano de Bergerac

It’s 125 years since Edmond Rostand wrote his famous play, Cyrano de Bergerac, and yet it still resonates just as much today.

Peter Dinklage in Cyrano de Bergerac
Peter Dinklage in Cyrano de Bergerac

No-one knows that better than New Jersey native Peter Dinklage, who plays the titular character in the exciting – and, at times, heart-wrenching – new film adaptation, Cyrano.

“It’s that understanding how we all feel in the face of love and feeling unworthy of love,” notes the much-loved 52-year-old, who is best known for playing Tyrion Lannister in HBO’s Game Of Thrones.

“Cyrano is such a contradiction; he has so many other aspects of his life in which he is so confident. I love the complexity of the fact that he’s now suddenly in [love] with this woman that he’s known for a long time – he’s kept this secret from her out of sheer terror, really, of how she might feel in return.

Haley Bennett as Roxanne in Cyrano. Picture : PA Photo/©2021 Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures Inc

“So, I just thought that was really interesting – that he wasn’t brave across the board, or cowardly across the board; he was a mix of a couple of different things.”

Scripted by Dinklage’s wife Erica Schmidt – who previously wrote off-Broadway stage musical Cyrano, in which Dinklage also starred – and directed by Joe Wright, at the heart of this film is a devastating love triangle.

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Dinklage is captivating as Cyrano de Bergerac, a man ahead of his time, who is not just impressive in a duel but also with his ferocious wordplay.

What Cyrano is missing is someone to love. However, we learn he has feelings for the enchanting Roxanne (Haley Bennett), a fellow lover of poetry and literature with whom he has been friends for years.

Peter Dinklage and Erica Schmidt attending the UK Premiere of Cyrano

When Roxanne falls for Christian (Kelvin Harrison Jr) – one of Cyrano’s fellow soldiers in the King’s Guard – he starts wooing her with heartfelt love letters. The catch is, it’s actually Cyrano writing them; it was his idea, a way of expressing his love for Roxanne but through someone else. But war is on the way, threatening all of the characters’ futures and happiness.

What makes Cyrano a particularly memorable watch is the musical numbers – complete with striking costumes and Italian locales – intertwined with the hugely romantic and colourful story.

The score and songs are from The National’s Bryce and Aaron Dessner, and Matt Berninger and Carin Besser, and the cast were recorded singing live on set, something Dinklage found helpful.

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“I’d never done a musical before but lip-synching or anything like that would have really taken away from everything, for me at least,” suggests Dinklage, who has two children with Schmidt.

Director Joe Wright on the set of Cyrano

“It’s not really a musical, it’s more of a movie with songs because when people think musicals, they think of like big numbers and choruses, and we don’t have any of that. There are duets, there are solos. So, it’s very personal, it’s very intimate.”

Dinklage is 4ft 5in, having been born with achondroplasia, a condition that is caused by a genetic mutation, and affects how some of the bones develop, according to the NHS. It is the most common type of short-limbed dwarfism (or disproportionately short stature).

In Rostand’s play, Cyrano believes he is unlovable because he has a very large, ugly nose, and in past adaptations – such as the Oscar-winning 1990 film starring Gerard Depardieu – actors in the lead role have worn fake rubber noses.

In this new retelling, no prosthetics are needed, as, instead, his small stature is the physical attribute he is conscious of (there are scenes where we see the character teased for it).

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“Pete brings a level of authenticity to the role that you would not find with other actors,” says Londoner Wright, 49, whose partner is Dinklage’s co-star, 33-year-old Bennett.

“He brings a deep, emotional reservoir. He also innately brings a kind of defensiveness, perhaps even a lack of trust in others’ ability to see past his height and to see him as similar rather than different.

“He’s certainly one of the finest actors of his generation. He has amazing technique, but also, as I say, this deep well of emotion that he’s able to really bring to the fore.”

What was it about Dinklage that made Schmidt think he was right for the role?

“When he read it, I had originally conceived of doing the Rostand without the nose, and without talking about the nose,” recalls the theatre director, who has collaborated on five stage productions with her husband.

“Just the idea of the character never saying what it was about himself that made him feel insecure and unlovable, that was kind of my way in – I really was interested in that.

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“And then when Peter read it, there’s something about his wit, his kind of deflective humour, his abrasive, lightning intellect, that was exactly suited for the character – it was sort of the same.

“It was really amazing to watch him read it, and he opened up in a way that I hadn’t seen him do in a first reading. It was sort of magic in the room. We all felt it.”

It was in June 2020, after months in lockdown thanks to the Covid-19 pandemic, that Wright finally got the script to a place he was happy with.

“I felt it was important to make it now because it’s essentially a story about human connection, and the importance of human connection, and our, often, failure to connect as people.

“We got to make the film during the pandemic, which was amazing, and the process of making the film meant that it created this defiant atmosphere in the face of such bleak circumstances. And then, hopefully, audiences will connect with each other watching the movie in the cinema.”

Making Cyrano with the backdrop of Covid was challenging, admits Wright, who previously directed Atonement and Darkest Hour. But it also meant they found “new and creative solutions”.

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“My mum, who’s a prop maker and puppet maker, made 160 leather masks that could be worn by background extras on the screen, so we could have more people.”

He continues: “I think, though, probably the biggest challenge was filming up a live volcano.

“We shot the war sequences up Mount Etna, and, on the final day of shooting, the volcano chose to erupt and spit lava at us as we ran off the mountain with our cameras under our arms, in fear of our lives.

“That was probably about the silliest directorial choice of my career.”

Cyrano is released in cinemas today

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