Fear of being yourself is “a story as old as time,” says Joe Wright, director of the new musical adaptation of Edmond Rostand’s enduring 1897 play Cyrano de Bergerac.
Cyrano stars Game of Thrones actor Peter Dinklage as the title character and Hillbilly Elegy‘s Haley Bennett, who is married to Wright, as Roxanne. Cyrano woos her vicariously via letters he ghost-writes for a more conventionally handsome bachelor. Erica Schmidt wrote the screenplay, and is married to Dinklage.
Wright sees Cyrano as “a flawed hero.”
“He’s not 100 percent hero — he’s someone who is scared of being seen. And I think that’s something we can all relate to,” Wright tells MovieMaker.
One could think of Cyrano as the original catfish. He was a real person who lived in the 1600s, long before the MTV reality show and a slew of Cyrano films, including 1987’s Roxanne. He may have pioneered the art of masquerading behind a false profile.
“I don’t really engage with the internet very much,” says Wright. “I did once make an Instagram profile and I was on it for about six months, and I just found myself comparing myself to others way too much. And so I try to avoid that. I don’t think it’s good for me.”
Wright is no stranger to complicated love stories. His 2005 feature directorial debut, the beloved Jane Austen adaptation Pride & Prejudice, finds the dour Mr. Darcy (Matthew Macfadyen) expressing love for Elizabeth Bennet (Keira Knightley) through his deeds when words fail him.
“I think a lot of us have a fear of being seen, or a fear of intimacy, a fear of a desire to want to connect with other people,” says Wright. “I think those are fairly universal. We find different ways of doing that, or expressing those facets of our character through letter writing or through the internet.”
In Rostand’s play, based loosely on real life, Cyrano is embarrassed by his abnormally large nose. But Wright decided to reimagine the classic character.
“We know Cyrano as being generally played by sort of handsome actors with a rubber nose on their face,” Wright says.
“So to see Peter play the role without the nose, and play him as this extraordinarily proud yet vulnerable character, I thought was fascinating.”
After watching Bennett and Dinklage star in a small stage production of Cyrano adapted by Schmidt, the two couples decided to collaborate on a big-screen version of the classic play and set it to music composed by The National’s Aaron and Bryce Dessner. Wright loves language — and finding cinematic ways to present it. His 2017 film The Darkest Hour finds British Prime Minister Winston Churchill (Gary Oldman, who won a Best
Actor Oscar for the role) finding the words to rally a nation.
But in Cyrano, Wright tried to avoid speeches.
“The original has these very sort of long monologues, and I think musicals are a great opportunity for characters to be able to express their emotions in an alternate form,” Wright says. “I think often if a character expresses their emotions in dialogue or monologue, it feels unnatural. But somehow, through the artificiality of a musical, one is able to express emotions in more dramatic terms.”
He was also interested in telling a love story, plain and simple.
“I wanted to make a film, especially now in the middle of everything that’s going on, that was without cynicism, without irony, and about love, really. I wanted to tell a love story. And then, somehow, the casting of Peter feels very modern and feels like a completely different take on the original material,” Wright says.
“I think it was important for me to remind myself that human connection matters above everything else.”
Cyrano, directed by Joe Wright, opens in theaters on Friday, from MGM.
This story originally appeared in print.