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

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

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

Night after night, on the stark 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 title role. He’s even shaved off his floppy hair, buzzed close to the scalp in a sculptural fade – a sleeker look than the smooth bald pate of his “X-Men” character Charles Xavier, and a lot more military.

“I’ve always felt like theater is slightly sacrificial,” McAvoy, 42, said in his Scottish burr. “I think the first plays were probably some kind of sacrifice, be it animal or food-based or human even. The community coming together to watch somebody give of themselves – I feel like theater has its roots in that somewhere.”

Such ferocity might not seem to apply to playing Edmond Rostand’s gargantuan-nosed, love-struck poet, a role long trapped in the fusty amber of theatrical tradition. But in Lloyd’s lucid, funny, intimate modern-dress production, from a new adaptation by Martin Crimp, McAvoy’s verse-spitting Cyrano is like no Cyrano you’ve ever seen, pugnacious and gentle and explosive and still, with a profound well of tenderness just beneath his skin.

It’s an astonishingly counterintuitive performance, and when the audience falls into rapt, pin-drop silence during the balcony scene – as happened at the packed show I saw this month, and as McAvoy told me, without evident vanity, happens generally – it is the kind of thing that can occur only when an actor has an entire room perched in the palm of his hand.

If, a few days after the West End opening, he looked fatigued around the edges when he sat for an interview, well, ritual sacrifice will do that to you, apparently. The thing is, though, he believes in its necessity.

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

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

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

After the many pandemic months when McAvoy stuck close to home in London, acting in the BBC lockdown dramedy “Together” and the Audible audio adaptation of “The Sandman” (“We did about a thousand episodes, it felt like, from my bedroom”), returning to “Cyrano” is what he wants right now.

“I do think I am at heart a storyteller,” he said, “and I think I get to tell stories better onstage. The work I do in film and TV is more interested in capturing moments of truthfulness that some other storyteller then edits together and puts music on and changes the story, or doesn’t, or chooses how I tell the story, cuts my bit of that story out. I still love film and television acting; don’t get me wrong. But onstage, it’s just a purer form of storytelling.”

And in Lloyd’s “Cyrano” – stripped back to center the actors, their voices, Crimp’s text – it’s purer still. Elements like props have been jettisoned, so that savagery happens with words, not swords, while the costumes are based on what the actors wear in their regular lives.

Well, not Cyrano’s jeans, which McAvoy called “way too weird and engineered for me.” But the shiny down jacket is a tighter version of his own, the T-shirt is like one he used to wear to rehearsals, and the brown biker boots are duplicates of the pair he had on as he spoke, extending his left boot for inspection. So the line between actor and character blurs.

“We’re sort of bringing ourselves,” he said, and in a nearly hourlong interview, it was the only time when his assertive posture turned a little recessive, with a touch of a slouch. “I’m bringing a much lonelier, sorrowful and violently angry version of myself, but it is myself.”

That body language might have been a flicker of shyness. Or maybe he was just feeling comfortable in 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 brainstorm that he ran past McAvoy.

“I remember it very vividly 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 cold, very, very dark TV studio, in a tent – one of those kind of pop-up tents they put people in when you’re waiting. I go, ‘By the way, I have this idea about “Cyrano de Bergerac.” We have to scrap the nose. I can’t bear the thought of you being in a big prosthetic nose.’ And he just totally got it.”

As McAvoy recalls, his initial response was puzzlement, because isn’t the play about a nose? But once Lloyd explained his take, that it is truly about people who are objectified for their appearance and isolated as a result, McAvoy was all in – even if fake Cyrano noses had never much bothered him, and even if it had never completely made sense to him that an outsize nose would be an obstacle to love.

“The truth is, I think even if he did have some big old conk like it’s described in the play, there would be somebody out there that would find it desperately attractive,” he said. “Man, there’s kink for everything.”

Still, McAvoy hadn’t been interested in doing a standard-issue “Cyrano.”

“One of the things that I really like about this version,” he said, “is that it’s less about the flamboyancy of these gallivanting, panache-crazed musketeer poets, and it’s more of a study of masculinity and at times toxic masculinity, a soldiering culture almost, and it’s still about a poet. It’s still about somebody who’s obsessed with words. I loved that I was finally seeing a production that was examining people who are beautiful and light and whimsical with words, and they kill people.”

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

The movie 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 it would get in his head.

“No. No, no, no. Not at all,” he said.

McAvoy by now is so seemingly secure in his performance that he wasn’t even thrown by getting mild COVID-19 in January and missing the whole second week of rehearsals.

“If we hadn’t done the show two years previously, I think I’d be [expletive] panicking,” he said. “But as it was, it was OK.”

He does have an understudy, Joseph Langdon – “[expletive] brilliant,” according to McAvoy, who is casually sweary. But having had the virus so recently, McAvoy may be less likely to get reinfected in the near future.

“I’m triple-shotted,” he said. “So yeah, there is a sense of relief almost that, at least for the run of the show anyway, I think I might be all right. But you never know.”

He is the main box office draw, the primary reason people unfamiliar with Lloyd’s work, including his chic 2019 revival of Harold Pinter’s “Betrayal” in the West End and on Broadway, would take a chance on the production. And in a large company, McAvoy is the sole star.

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

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

“I think sometimes they’re super aware of the gap that they’ve created in their own mind between us and them,” Figueiredo said. “It’s harder to, I guess, bridge what seems like an air of superiority, and that has never, ever come into play with James.”

Giving interviews is another part of an actor’s job, and McAvoy dispatched that duty agreeably enough. But he has a global film star’s wariness of the media and hyperawareness that the slightest personal detail given away for public consumption could come back to bite him.

That happened this month when he confirmed to The Guardian the fact of his recent marriage to Lisa Liberati, an American he met while filming M. Night Shyamalan’s 2017 horror movie “Split.” (Liberati was an assistant to Shyamalan.) Numerous other outlets then picked up the news and spun it into headlines about McAvoy’s “secret” nuptials – a distortion that he sardonically batted down.

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

On the professional front, McAvoy did let one worry bubble up – that this “Cyrano,” with its range of British accents, his included, won’t be legible to audiences in Brooklyn.

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

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

“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 isn’t a barrier, do you know what I mean?”

For what it’s worth, I did. Onstage and off, I understood him just fine.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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