Award-winning British actor Douglas Hodge clearly has a nose for a good part. But his own nose was never going to be enough for his latest role: the lead in a Broadway revival of French playwright Edmond Rostand’s Cyrano de Bergerac.
Hodge is the latest in a long line of actors to play the 17th-century Frenchman with the legendary honker – a swashbuckling soldier‑poet secretly smitten with the beautiful Roxane.
When we meet, during previews, Hodge explains that he was hooked by the “whole business of disfigurement – the idea that you could stay in your bedroom and never come out or, like Cyrano, create an extraordinary character for yourself. He has tremendous heart.”
Hodge has little time for the previous noses of stage and screen. “They are really quite good-looking. I’ve done my research and I don’t think you can grow these incredible things that are rather dashing. That’s not the point. It’s this elephantine thing – Karl Malden gone mad.”
The bulbous, almost penile prosthesis that Hodge sports as he dashes about the stage as the multitasking Cyrano, sword‑fighting while reciting poetry, is in keeping with British writer Ranjit Bolt’s verse translation – earthy, funny and expletive-filled – and the anarchic tone of Jamie Lloyd’s production. There’s no period-drama fustiness here.
This is the third time Hodge, 52, has worked with hotshot younger director Lloyd, who is also a Brit. In 2005, Lloyd was assistant director when Hodge played Nathan Detroit in the West End (“He was about 16 then,” jokes Hodge) and, last year, directed him as the mesmerisingly awful Bill Maitland in John Osborne’s Inadmissible Evidence at the Donmar Warehouse.
Hodge enjoys playing Cyrano more than Maitland – “it was like swallowing a thimble of poison every night, he was so toxic” – but the energy and pace of the productions they belong to unites these characters. It’s clear that what Hodge calls his and Lloyd’s “great vocabulary” has survived the journey from London to Broadway.
That doesn’t mean a few things haven’t been lost in translation. Hodge laughs as he tells me how the silence that followed a line he thought was funny prompted his discovery that Americans never use the word “nought”. And he is delighted that I spotted a Blue Peter joke. “It really is – what’s the expression? – two nations divided by a common language.”
When Hodge played Broadway in 2010 he won a Tony Award for his portrayal of Albin in La Cage aux Folles. He concedes this has been “tremendous in unlocking all sorts of doors”, including making Cyrano possible. But he’s surprised that people keep mentioning it. “I’m always being introduced as ‘Tony Award-winning Douglas Hodge’. It’s extraordinary.”
This could sound disingenuous, but from Hodge it rings true. Sitting cross-legged on the bed in his dressing-room, nursing a mug of tea, he’s down-to-earth and self-deprecating. In particular, being in a foreign country has resurrected fears that he speaks his lines too fast, “because that’s normally the case with me”.
Before becoming an actor, and “long before my voice broke”, Hodge discovered a talent for mimicry. As a teenager, he toured variety clubs and Nato bases, doing impersonations. He still adopts a variety of accents as he talks about his experiences, and it’s this ability to transform himself physically and vocally that helps to make him so fascinating on stage.
Hodge is also a director and a singer-songwriter (he’s written a song for Cyrano), performing as “Doug” Hodge, as if to draw a line between his worlds. The last time he was in New York he spent a “wonderful evening” playing his music with a live band. “Someone came up to me afterwards and said, ‘I don’t think I’ve seen you so happy.’ ”
It’s not that Hodge prefers singing to acting or directing, it’s that he loves making things from scratch. “When you sit down and there’s nothing, and then you write a song and there’s something, that’s the most extraordinary feeling,” he enthuses.
Hodge’s dream would be to establish a company of actors and find a venue in New York. “It’s an idea that’s been growing for some time,” he reveals. “I could act, direct or write music from scratch. Having a place where I could go, ‘Right, we’re going to play jazz tonight’, would be delicious.”
I’m reluctant to dampen his enthusiasm, but isn’t New York a long way from his Oxfordshire home and wife and two children? He laughs. “I don’t know, I think you could come and go, maybe make a film. But, as you say, it would be a big move.”
In the meantime, Hodge is looking forward to the creative freedom afforded by what follows Cyrano: playing Willy Wonka in a new West End musical version of Roald Dahl’s much-loved Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, directed by Sam Mendes and opening in 2013.
“Part of the thrill for me is that it’s brand new,” Hodge explains. “No one’s ever heard the songs before. Shows like Guys and Dolls are brilliant, but you’re doing stuff that’s already been done. So to have something that’s a clean slate is great.” The book is a childhood institution and Wonka has been memorably represented on film by Gene Wilder and, more recently, Johnny Depp. Things are likely to change once rehearsals start, but Hodge’s initial take on the chocolate-loving factory owner as “a cross between Charlie Chaplin and Dalí” is intriguing.
“There’s a kind of Dalíesque feel to the world of it all. But there’s also this innocence – something pure, simple and very appealing,” he explains.
Hodge can also be seen next year as Paul Burrell in the Diana, Princess of Wales biopic Diana, starring Naomi Watts and directed by Oliver Hirschbiegel (Downfall). For someone who likes to originate characters, playing a living person was “spooky”. But what most alarmed Hodge during filming was how much he resembled the former royal butler. “When I’d got the polo shirt on and the glasses, curled my hair, put on some weight and stuck my ears out, I turned into Paul Burrell,” he laughs.
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory opens at Theatre Royal, Drury Lane (0844 858 8877) on May 18 2013. Tickets are on sale now. Cyrano de Bergerac opened at the American Airlines Theatre, New York, last night.
First published by The Telegraph