There's a small, grotesque thing sitting on Douglas Hodge's makeup table at the American Airlines Theatre.
It's fleshy, lopsided and rather obscene, like a candle left in a hot oven. And yet, eight times a week, Hodge sticks it on the edge of his nose.
Such is the burden of playing Cyrano de Bergerac.
"It's pretty gross," he admits. "But it has to be horrific."
The English actor has a box of noses in his dressing room — each performance requires a fresh foam sniffer once all the sweat and makeup has made the already unappealing item even more so.
Unlike other actors whose vanity has affected the size of the prosthetic schnoz, Hodge insisted his be big and nasty as he prepares his Cyrano for its 14th Broadway revival.
"I've got to go down to Times Square in one at some point," he says, but then thinks better of the idea. "Although it's probably the only place in the world where no one would bat an eye."
The play, which Hodge calls a "roller-coasting, swashbuckling love story," centers on the long-nosed Cyrano, who is in love with the beautiful Roxane. But she only has eyes for the handsome, if dunderheaded, Christian, so Cyrano decides to instruct his rival on how to woo the fair maiden.
Hodge, who won a Tony Award as a drag queen in the 2010 revival of "La Cage aux Folles," says Edmond Rostand's florid tale seems to strike a chord in America, the land of fad diets and glossy magazines.
"I think there is a huge interest in looks in this country and what they mean. I mean, Cyrano now would have rhinoplasty," says the actor, laughing. "How you look and how you come over is a huge thing in this play."
The current translation of the play by Ranjit Bolt is intriguing in that it's been done completely in rhyming couplets, which Hodge says is "like doing something in hip-hop."
He then proves it by a quoting a line: "Thanks to this nose, which, everywhere I go/Precedes me, kindly letting people know/Cyrano's on his way and will be here/In 15 minutes."
Hodge is enjoying a new chapter in his career since he played Nathan Detroit in "Guys and Dolls" in London in 2005. For about a decade before, he'd been more or less exclusively working with the great playwright Harold Pinter.
So at a time when fellow Brits like Colin Firth and Clive Owen were making it in Hollywood, Hodge was wrestling with moments of quiet terror onstage. The change to big plays and musicals was surreal.
"I had spent 10 years in a sort of dark black box, swearing under my breath and being generally psychotic," he says. "And there I was, with all these dancing girls, having the time of my life."
His next step may be just as bold, although Hodge politely refuses to discuss rumors that he will play Willy Wonka in a musical adaptation of Roald Dahl's "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory" in London. It would be another memorable turn in a broad career.
Jamie Lloyd, who directed Hodge in "Inadmissible Evidence" at the Donmar Warehouse in London and is directing him in "Cyrano," says Hodge's versatility is no accident. "Whatever the role is, he just means what he says. He finds some kind of psychological truth, some kind of instinct from within that makes it true for him."
Hodge, who lives outside Oxford in England, was playing ex-royal butler Paul Burrell in the film "Diana" opposite Naomi Watts when he got the call that "Cyrano" was waiting, courtesy of the Roundabout Theatre Company.
Hodge, ever the researcher, quickly began looking at noses online and also real deformities, both accidents of birth and actual accidents. He read a forum for the disfigured and learned that strangers often unconsciously touch their faces when meeting scarred people, all fodder for his art.
"I suspect that everyone has a part of themselves that they hide, whether it's that they sit with their arms folded because of their belly or they're bald or a woman with her bum," he says. "We might say to them, 'It's fine. You look great,' but for them it isn't."
Hodge had his first prosthetic noses made in Britain and brought five over to America, becoming petrified when he walked by customs officials with what are "essentially obscene objects."
"I was going, 'Please, please, not me,'" he recalls. "Can you imagine, 'Come over here, Mr. Hodge. Just what is that for? This bottle of glue, what's that for?'" He says he feared being labeled "the nose bomber."
Once he got onstage, the nose looked too circular and clownish. Hodge went back to the Internet to look up photos of folks like the actors Karl Malden and Jimmy Durante — "people with great snozzles." A cleft was put into the prosthetic and it was made more lopsided.
Hodge, who follows in some big nose-steps playing Cyrano including Kevin Klein, Gerard Depardieu, Derek Jacobi, Christopher Plummer and Steve Martin, says putting on the prosthetic helps the process. The creative team even says he seems sadder when it goes on.
"It does kind of make you feel, 'Oh God,'" he says. "It sort of saddens your face, somehow. You have to hold your face in a different way, even your body, because you're spatially different from the other person. You can't be that close. You see people backing off."
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