In his Tony-winning 2010 Broadway debut, Douglas Hodge donned women's wigs, gowns and high heels as the flamboyant Albin in La Cage aux Folles. This time around, the English actor has just one tricky costume piece to contend with: a giant prosthetic nose. As the titular poet in Roundabout Theatre Company's revival of Cyrano de Bergerac (opening October 11 at the American Airlines Theatre), Hodge is taking on one of the best-loved heroes of classical theater. Midway through previews, he chatted with Broadway.com about transforming into Cyrano, falling in love with a French girl and explaining his new role to his children.
How have previews been so far? What’s the reaction been like?
The reaction’s fantastic. We did five previews in three days, which is a bit like being hit by a bus for me. [The audience is] standing and cheering, and there’s a sort of quality of silence in the house through the show, which I haven’t really known before. The potential seems great.
What do you hope audiences find unique about this production of Cyrano?
First of all, the translation is phenomenally energetic and witty. It’s the first time it’s ever been done entirely in rhyming couplets, and it is very modern. This is the story of a guy whose mother saw him and loathed him from the day he was born because of his nose. He’s never had any feminine company at all. He either makes the decision to stay in his bedroom and never come out again, or to create this kind of extraordinary character that he is. I think that sense of a man with a disfigurement is much more honest, actually, than some sort of period thing. It’s closer to the original, I suspect, too, in terms of its roughness and readiness.
What are the challenges of taking the stage in a huge prosthetic nose?
The nose has been a whole saga from day one! I was doing a movie, Diana, and I pulled aside the guy who was making the nose for Naomi Watts and said, “I’m about to do Cyrano.” So he did various Photoshops of different looks that might work. I was really against any kind of Pinocchio theater thing. The way that it’s described in the play is this disfigurement. We went for something that really is quite repulsive, the sort of thing that would make you stare or look away or feel embarrassed. But it has to be real. I then had to go through customs with five or six of these rather strange looking things in my bag.
Did anyone stop you at customs?
No! I was praying that they wouldn’t because they look slightly obscene as well. I don’t quite know how to explain any of it.
How does your second Broadway experience compare to making your debut in La Cage aux Folles?
Well, it’s a very, very different role. Of course, this one is not a musical. I have a great feeling of warmth towards the New York audience. I think they’re much more gregarious and more open-hearted in a way than the English audience is. They’re both very, very sophisticated [cities] to play, but there is a gregariousness here that I love. In some ways, it’s another extraordinary, extreme character part, and it is very funny and very moving. I’m quite struck by the similarities—of course, you’d never say the word “similarity” between Cyrano and Albin—but there are some similarities to the actual business of playing the part.
What’s your history with Cyrano? Have you been in it before?
No, never! Never seen it before! Always loved the role. There’s something about it—of this man who is a great, great poet and loves words and uses words of love—that I love. When I was here doing La Cage, Roundabout approached me and asked if I had a project that I’d like to direct or act in. So we went down various routes, with me suggesting plays I could direct, but none seemed quite right. I said there was only one thing I would want to [act in], and that’s Cyrano, but that’s been done so many times. But they read this new translation, I suggested [director] Jamie Lloyd, and suddenly it was "all systems go," and here we are.
Tell me about working with your onstage love interest Clemence Poesy.
She’s a sort of dazzling beam of beautifulness. And it’s rare that you get someone in this role where you think the whole street would stop and stare at this woman. It’s quite hard to cast those parts with someone who can also act.
I imagine you don’t have to dig deep to pretend to be enamored by her.
Oh my goodness, no. You’ll see — she literally shines. The other thing she brings is, of course, the fact that she is genuinely French. There is such a French theme to the play; it is a French play, and we forget that. And it’s crucial! Also, I get to practice my French for five minutes every morning with her. I say, “Parle francais!” and she rolls her eyes and looks very bored, but puts up with me practicing on her.
Are you at all like the character of Cyrano?
I think I’m a bit of a jack-of-all-trades, like he is. He tends to dabble in everything, which I tend to do. I hadn’t realized that until I played the part. There’s a certain confidence he has about who he is [that] I kind of relate to. He’s a pretty huge character.
You’re a writer and director as well as an actor. Which of the three do you prefer?
I tend to long for whichever one I’m not doing [laughs]. The grass is always greener. So whenever I’m acting, I look at the director and think, “Look at him, just sitting there, having a coffee. He doesn’t have to do this eight times a week!” When I’m directing, I sit there and think, “Oh, let me at it, I can’t wait to get up there!”
What's happening with Meantime, the original musical you’ve been working on?
We did a two-week workshop at the Menier Chocolate Factory, and then we decided that because [Meantime] is set at an airport, the Menier Chocolate Factory is too small for it. So we were looking for bigger theaters out of town. One of the songs, “Powercut,” won the Stiles and Drewe Best Song of the Year, so suddenly it sort of lurched forward and everyone got to know about it. But I haven’t done anything about it since I’ve come here.
You've played La Cage's Albin and Cyrano on Broadway. What’s the challenge in taking on a part that is familiar to audiences?
I’ve done that all my career. If you’re a classical actor, every Shakespearean part you play, you then say “McKellen did it this way” and “Jacobi did it this way.” There’s a whole list of Oliviers and people, whether you play Hamlet or Richard II or Richard III, any of those roles. And I found that a bit when I did La Cage. It didn’t bother me one bit. I just think, I’m going to play it as honestly as I can, and I feel that with Cyrano. He’s a man of great heart, and as long as you genuinely mean what you say, it’ll turn out to be very different. I don’t think you can set out trying to do something different. You just have to be as close and as honest with the text as you possibly can.
What do your kids think of your new role?
[My son] thinks the nose is downright disgusting, and my daughter thinks that I don’t even need the nose because I’m ugly enough without it. Those are her words! And I said, “What would I do if the nose fell off?” And she said, “You’d be fine.”
Is that your biggest fear in the show?
No! It can’t happen. It’ll never happen. We can’t even think about it.
See Douglas Hodge in Cyrano de Bergerac at the American Airlines Theatre.