Joe Wright has directed movies that have led to Academy Award nominations for Keira Knightley in Pride & Prejudice, Saoirse Ronan in Atonement, then Gary Oldman, who won for Darkest Hour. (A case can be made for quite a few more.) Wright’s movies have a way of putting the actor at the forefront, clearing the way for accolades. Which is certainly what should have happened for Peter Dinklage playing the title role of Cyrano de Bergerac in Cyrano. Dinklage gives one of the best performances of the past year (can anyone emote quite like Peter Dinklage?), yet, when Oscar nominations were announced, it wasn’t to be.
But that doesn’t stop Wright from still giving Dinklage a heap of praise for this performance. And with Cyrano … finally hitting theaters in wide release (the date had been pushed more than once due to various Covid surges), hopefully audiences, now, will also get to see one of the best performances of the last year.
But then there’s Wright, too, who is on a kind of redemption tour after the poor response to his prior film, The Woman in the Window. His film before that, Darkest Hour, was nominated for Best Picture and, as said, garnered Gary Oldman an Oscar. How does one get himself in a situation like The Woman in the Window? As Wright says, even directors of Oscar-nominated films don’t always have the power to go against test audiences. Thankfully, as Wright explains, he had a lot more control over Cyrano. And, because of circumstances due to the pandemic, has a terrific story about Ben Mendelsohn’s audition.
I didn’t want to start with something negative, but I was stunned when Peter didn’t get nominated because I think he gives one of the best performances of the last year. And I don’t understand what happened.
No, neither do I. But it’s okay. We made these films for the cinema-going public. And I’m excited for people to get to experience his performance because I think it’s an exquisite and extraordinary performance.
You obviously we have directed people who have been nominated for awards. Can you tell? Can you tell when a performance is going this well?
I know it’s good when I start leaning in.
If I’m there and I sit beside the camera, the camera’s there and if I’m there and I start leaning in like that. Then I know there’s something going on that’s really good. And I just want to know what happens next and I’m almost an audience member myself. If I sit there and I’m not leaning in, then I know that I’ve got a problem.
But I would assume on most of your movies you’re leaning in? I can maybe think of a couple where you weren’t.
No, I’m lucky. I am. Most of my movies I’m moving in. Yeah.
Now, I imagine with this one, you’re leaning in most of the movie?
I mean, it was a joy to work with Pete and Hailey and Kelvin who really blew me away and get back together with Ben Mendelsohn. It was a real pleasure.
I love Ben Mendelsohn. I just think he’s one of the best people.
He is one of the best.
From my side of things, I remember when I saw Captain Marvel and he wasn’t doing press because he was filming a movie. I emailed his publicist and told her I’d love to talk to him. Ben calls literally ten minutes later. Just, “Hey, I’m free right now. You want to talk?” Nobody does that.
A good story about Ben is, well, everyone was in lockdown when we were casting. And I thought, I wonder if Ben can sing? So I texted him, I had his number from Darkest Hour. I texted him and I said, “Ben, can you sing?” And he texted back, “Can I sing?” Question mark. And then there was nothing else. Then, ten minutes later, I got texted a video that he shot of himself on his iPhone, singing this big-voiced Tom Jones number. But completely improvised, not a real song or anything.
So Tom Jones style?
Yeah. His own lyrics, his own melody. Whatever it was, it was extraordinary. And so I just texted back. “Yep. You can sing.” And that was the casting process with Ben.
So that was his audition? Just a text that said, “Can you sing?”
Nothing before? Just out of the blue?
Yeah, just that, literally just that.
You didn’t tell him what the movie was, anything?
No, no. Can you sing?
That’s fantastic. And he can.
This movie kept getting pushed back. It’s no one’s fault, but that had to be frustrating…
It’s been interesting, but I’m really impressed by MGM and UAR the way they have kept faith with the movie and kept faith with the theatrical experience, frankly. And positioned it, believing that when the time is ripe, people will go back to the cinemas. And I think they were proved right with the Bond movie, and hopefully they’ll be proved right with this.
So what are your expectations of what people are bringing into Cyrano before they see this version? The average person? Also, I am the average person. The thing I knew the most was the Steve Martin movie, Roxanne.
Oh yeah. I think that’s probably true. I think that’s probably what most people know. But I think I’m always amazed, impressed by how people know about this stuff, this classic literature. And so they do come with a high level of knowledge of the material. And I think, hopefully, this will bring, give them a new experience of the material and has an authenticity and a modernity to it. And so that’s what I’m hoping for.
Was it a tough sell? Because it feels like these kinds of movies are really hard to get made right now.
Especially when you add in it’s going to be a musical.
I know. It’s crazy. I mean, I really do think MGM might be the only people crazy enough to make this kind of movie at the moment. And their belief in adult cinema – that’s not to say that kids won’t enjoy the movie, too – but their belief in an adult audience and original material is really impressive, I have to say. They’re betting on a future of theatrical cinema, because if they don’t, if you don’t bet for a future of cinema, then you’re betting against it. And then you’re part of the problem.
You’ve mentioned Lady in the Window wasn’t the movie you wanted. But right before you just had a movie get nominated for Best Picture. How did you wind up in a position where you don’t have a say? That’s what I don’t understand.
Neither do I. No, listen…
I feel like people are going to give you a say? That’s what you do.
Yeah, the problem is that they have this thing called test screening. And that becomes the empirical truth. And it’s very hard to argue against focus grouping and test screenings.
This one, I feel you had more control over.
This one I had a lot more control over, absolutely.
And it comes out in the movie.
Well, it’s certainly one from the heart.
You can contact Mike Ryan directly on Twitter.