Storytelling school

With ‘Cyrano’, James McAvoy relishes a ‘purer form of storytelling’

In a cozy upstairs bar of the Harold Pinter Theatre, actor James McAvoy was talking about ritual sacrifice. The offering in question was him.

Night after night, on the austere set of Jamie Lloyd’s Olivier Award-winning production of “Cyrano de Bergerac,” McAvoy has no period plumes or prosthetics to hide behind as he plays the part. -title. He even shaved his soft hair, buzzing close to the scalp in a sculptural fade – a look sleeker than the sleek, balding skull of his “X-Men” character Charles Xavier, and far more military.

“I always felt like acting was a bit sacrificial,” McAvoy, 42, said in his Scottish slur. “I think the early plays were probably a kind of sacrifice, whether animal, food or even human. The community that comes together to watch someone give of themselves – I feel like theater has its roots in there somewhere.

Such ferocity might not seem to apply to playing Edmond Rostand’s gargantuan-nosed, amorous poet, a role long imprisoned in the stale amber of theatrical tradition. But in Lloyd’s lucid, funny and intimate modern clothing production from a new Martin Crimp adaptation, McAvoy’s worm-spewing Cyrano is unlike any Cyrano you’ve ever seen, pugnacious and sweet and explosive and motionless. , with a deep well of tenderness just under her skin.

It’s a surprisingly counter-intuitive performance, and when the audience falls into a rapturous, stunned silence during the balcony scene – as happened on the crowded show I saw this month, and as McAvoy told me, without obvious conceit, this usually happens – it’s the kind of thing that can only happen when an actor has an entire play perched in the palm of their hand.

If, a few days after the West End opened, he looked tired around the edges when he sat down for an interview, well, ritual sacrifice will do that to you, apparently. The fact is, however, that he believes in its necessity.

“That’s when I think acting is really, really exciting,” he said. “You can do it physically; you can do it emotionally. But you have to leave something on stage and never get it back.

This “Cyrano de Bergerac,” whose original West End tour ended in February 2020, was scheduled to arrive at the Brooklyn Academy of Music that spring. Deemed “delightful” by critic Ben Brantley, and long delayed by the pandemic, he will finally arrive there on April 5 for a seven-week tour, after more than a month in London and more than a week in Glasgow, the city birthplace of McAvoy. BAM Harvey’s engagement will be his New York stage debut.

Captured on film for National Theater Live before the industry shutdown, “Cyrano” is the fourth play in McAvoy’s long collaboration with Lloyd, which began with Richard Greenberg’s “Three Days of Rain” in 2009, followed from “Macbeth” in 2013 and Peter from “The Ruling Class” from Barnes in 2015.

After the many months of the pandemic where McAvoy has remained near his home in London, starring in the BBC’s lockdown comedy-drama “Together” and the Audible audio adaptation of “The Sandman” (“We made about a thousand episodes, it was like, from my room”), going back to “Cyrano” is what he wants right now.

“I think I’m a storyteller at heart,” he said, “and I think I can tell stories better on stage. The work I do in film and TV is more about to capturing moments of truthfulness that another storyteller then comes together and puts some music on and changes the story, or doesn’t, or chooses how I tell the story, cuts my part of that story out. I still love film and TV, don’t get me wrong, but on stage, it’s just a purer form of storytelling.

And in Lloyd’s “Cyrano” – stripped down to center the actors, their voices, Crimp’s text – it’s even purer. Things like props have been dropped, so the savagery happens with words, not swords, while costumes are based on what the actors wear in their normal lives.

Well, not Cyrano’s jeans, which McAvoy called “far too weird and designed for me.” But the shiny puffer jacket is a tighter version of his, the T-shirt is like the one he wore to rehearsals, and the brown biker boots are duplicates of the pair he wore while he spoke, extending his left boot for inspection. . Thus, the border between the actor and the character becomes blurred.

“We’re kind of bringing each other on,” he said, and in a nearly hour-long interview, that was the only time his assertive posture got a little recessive, with a touch subsidence. “I bring a much lonelier, sad and violently angry version of myself, but that’s me.”

This body language could have been a glimmer of shyness. Or maybe he just felt good about himself.

McAvoy and Lloyd had already agreed to do the play, and the Jamie Lloyd Company had already commissioned Crimp to write the new version, when Lloyd – who directed a conventional “Cyrano de Bergerac” on Broadway in 2012 – had a stir- brains that he passed in front of McAvoy.

“I remember it very well because it was actually on the set of ‘His Dark Materials,'” said Lloyd, whose son Lewin played missing child Roger Parslow on the HBO fantasy series opposite. McAvoy as Lord Asriel. “We were in this freezing, very, very dark TV studio, in a tent – ​​one of those sort of pop-up tents that they put people in when you’re waiting. I say, ‘By the way, I have this idea of ​​”Cyrano de Bergerac”. We have to scratch our noses. I can’t stand the thought of you being in a big prosthetic nose. And he understood everything.

As McAvoy recalls, his first response was bewilderment, because isn’t the piece about a nose? But once Lloyd explained his point, that these are really people who are objectified for their looks and isolated as a result, McAvoy was all for it – even if Cyrano’s fake noses didn’t tell him that. never really bothered, and even if it never quite made sense. for him that an oversized nose would be an obstacle to love.

“The truth is, I think even if he had a big prick like he’s portrayed in the play, there would be someone out there who would find him hopelessly attractive,” he said. “Man, there’s kink to everything.”

Still, McAvoy hadn’t been interested in making a standard “Cyrano.”

“One of the things I really like about this version,” he said, “is that it’s less about the flamboyance of those gallant, panache-crazed musketeer poets, and it’s is more a study of masculinity and sometimes toxic masculinity, a military culture almost, and it’s still about a poet. It’s still about someone who is obsessed with words. I loved it finally seeing a production that examined beautiful, light-hearted, whimsical people with words, and they kill people.

In an unintentional overlap of star productions, the Lloyd-McAvoy version first opened in the West End in the fall of 2019 during the off-Broadway run of the musical “Cyrano,” starring Peter Dinklage. Lloyd’s production return coincides with the release of the big-screen version featuring Dinklage, who trades a large nose for a short stature as Cyrano’s marginalizing physical feature.

The film is directed by Joe Wright, who directed McAvoy in his breakthrough role in the 2007 film “Atonement.” When McAvoy said he planned to see Wright’s “Cyrano” soon, I asked if he would mind. in mind.

“No. No no No. Not at all,” he said.

McAvoy is now so seemingly safe in his performance that he wasn’t even thrown off catching mild COVID-19 in January and missing the entire second week of rehearsals.

“If we hadn’t done the show two years before, I think I would be [expletive] freaked out,” he said. “But as it was, it was OK.”

He has a stunt double, Joseph Langdon – “[expletive] brilliant,” according to McAvoy, who casually swears. But having had the virus so recently, McAvoy may be less likely to be re-infected in the near future.

“I’m triple-shot,” he said. “So yeah, there’s a sense of relief almost, at least for how the show is going anyway, I think I might be fine. But you never know.”

He’s the main box office draw, the main reason people unfamiliar with Lloyd’s work, including his swanky 2019 revival of Harold Pinter’s “Betrayal” in the West End and on Broadway, would give them a shot. luck with the production. And in a big company, McAvoy is the only star.

“I was pretty interested to see how it would turn out,” said Evelyn Miller, a new cast member who plays Roxane, the bookish beauty Cyrano loves unrequitedly. “He’s so famous, and you sort of think that must affect him to some degree. But honestly, he’s just so normal, kind and down-to-earth, and I’m fully aware that he has so much more. pressure on his shoulders. You know, a lot of people buy tickets to see him.

Eben Figueiredo, who plays Roxane’s handsome but ineloquent beloved Christian, said that by doing things as simple as asking about their lives and, pre-pandemic, going to the pub with them, McAvoy stood out from the other big name actors he worked with. with.

“I think sometimes they’re very aware of the gap they’ve created in their own minds between us and them,” Figueiredo said. “It’s harder, I suppose, to bridge what seems like an air of superiority, and that never, ever played out with James.”

Giving interviews is another part of an actor’s job, and McAvoy handled this task quite pleasantly. But he has a global movie star’s distrust of the media and a hyper-awareness that the smallest personal detail given to public consumption could come back to bite him.

It happened this month when he confirmed to The Guardian the fact of his recent marriage to Lisa Liberati, an American whom he met while filming M. Night Shyamalan’s horror film ‘Split’. in 2017. (Liberati was an aide to Shyamalan.) Many other outlets later picked up the news and spun it into headlines about McAvoy’s “secret” nuptials — a distortion he sardonically fought against.

“We didn’t get married in secret,” he said. “We just didn’t rush to tell the papers as soon as we got married. I feel like everyone is getting married in secret, isn’t it? Because they don’t tell the newspapers. If that’s what secret means.

On a professional level, McAvoy let a concern well up – that this “Cyrano”, with its range of British accents, his own included, will not be legible to Brooklyn audiences.

“My accent is quite strong,” he said. “Go ahead, I hope they can hear through this – and not say, ‘What’s that weird noise coming out of that man’s mouth? “”

So he also hopes that the rhythms of the piece and the rhymes of its verses will help unaccustomed ears to adapt.

“Because it would be a shame,” he said. “It’s the clearest storytelling I’ve ever been involved in, bar none – film, TV, theater, whatever. I just hope that’s not a hindrance, you know what I mean. ?

For what it’s worth, I did. On stage and off, I understood him very well.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.