Douglas Hodge, From Z to C: His Zaza and Now—God Nose—His Cyrano Are Packed With Panache

But betray not a pinch of Pinter

Hodge in ‘Cyrano de Bergerac.’ (Courtesy Joan Marcus)

Broadway buffs who know Douglas Hodge only from his Tony-winning turn as Zaza, the drag-queen diva of Saint-Tropez in La Cage aux Folles, may be startled by his Spartan British past in Shakespeare, and by the decade he spent at the feet of, and in the works of, Harold Pinter. True classical training is slow to show through layers of Max Factor and flamboyant flourishes—not to mention the prosthetic schnoz he’ll adorn to play the lead role in Cyrano de Bergerac starting Oct. 11 at Roundabout’s American Airlines Theater—but it’s there.

His is a very different career back home, just as he is a very different person offstage. The chameleon occupying the theater’s second-floor star dressing room opened his door a crack at first knock, smiled tentatively and politely endured that awkward moment during which his visitor determined if he was indeed the star-in-residence.

Nice-looking in an almost nondescript way, his face is ripe for radical transformation via prosthetics, pancake makeup or pure acting. His operative word in the States is the last word in Cyrano—panache. Back in 1897, it suddenly became a good thing when playwright Edmond Rostand applied it to his nobly self-sacrificing Cyrano—he, with that bulbous impasse of a nose, who lends his words of woo to a hunky stand-in lothario, Christian, to win the woman both love, Roxanne.

Mr. Hodge was looking for a part that would contrast sharply with his other New York effort, but has come to discover that the plumage in Cyrano’s hat is not so different from the boa Zaza snapped at her clientele. Fine feathers!

“There’s the French connection, of course,” he said. “Both are on the outside of society, both are alone, both have huge hearts, both create their own personalities because of who they are. They both choose to live their lives in a certain way, regardless of what people say about them. There’s a thing about both of them that sets them apart. I was just fascinated with Cyrano. You have two choices: you either stay in your bedroom and never come out, if you look like that, or you come out big, bold, never apologizing.”

Another thing the two characters have in common is that both have already been given what are generally conceded to be their Definitive Performances. But George Hearn’s original Tony-winning Zaza didn’t keep Mr. Hodge out of the 2010 winner’s circle; so, with Cyrano, he may rattle the pedestal of José Ferrer, who won a Tony and an Oscar for his Cyrano—or even Christopher Plummer, who got a Tony for his sung one. Cyrano has been on Broadway 14 times before as a play, twice as a musical, and once each as an opera and a parody (Cyranose de Bric-a-Brac).

The fearless Mr. Hodge isn’t letting the Broadway dust settle on these roles. His Cyrano is only five seasons removed from Kevin Kline’s, his Zaza six from Gary Beach’s. He took boa in hand in 2008 in a cheered production at London’s Menier Chocolate Factory, and his Olivier Award-winning work was the incentive for its Broadway transfer.

But the girdles, falsies and leg-shavings Mr. Hodge endured for three years of La Cage pale beside his recent War of the Noses. “I wish I’d written a diary of it,” he lamented. “This translation talks openly about the growth on his face, so I was adamant it be real and right—that it look like something that would have happened, a kind of warty thing where people look twice or look away or get embarrassed.”

His nose quest began earlier this year, while he was filming Diana, in which he played Paul Burrell, Di’s butler. Between takes, he would discuss his Cyrano situation with the makeup guy, who had created a petite Princess Di nose for Naomi Watts. He Photoshopped all sorts of nose sizes and shapes onto an image of Mr. Hodge, and made a prototype. The actor then sweated his way through U.S. Customs carrying five obscene-looking prosthetics.

Those noses proved too heavy to allow for proper breathing through all three hours of the play, so they went back to England, where they were remade in foam. Lost in transit by FedEx, the foam noses acquired a mysterious toxin that made them impossible to wear, so the order was canceled, and stylist Christal Schanes whipped up a new set stateside.

“She built it from the original English copy, modeled it on my nose and just added clay and putty where needed,” Mr. Hodge recalled. The result could pass for Karl Malden, whose photo adorns Mr. Hodge’s play script, along with those of Jimmy Durante, Gérard Depardieu and W. C. Fields. “At first, I was forever misjudging the nose when I talked to people,” but, after a shaky start, it’s learned to play with the other actors.

Mr. Hodge’s only musical-theater role B.Z. (Before Zaza) was one that was originally written for the decidedly unmusical Sam Levene—Nathan Detroit, opposite Jane Krakowski’s Adelaide in Donmar Warehouse’s West End revival of Guys and Dolls.

“Which really isn’t singing,” he conceded. “It’s [he went guttural] ‘Sue Me! Sue Me!’ so I was fine, although they did add a song.” That would be “Adelaide,” which Frank Loesser wrote so Frank Sinatra would do the film version. “You’re not allowed to do it in the stage version, but, because I could sing, Mrs. Loesser agreed to let me do it.”

Mr. Hodge’s first calling was writing music. EMI had him on contract to write songs at age 18. Around the time he turned 25, he said, “I started secretly singing in little jazz clubs—in a pop way, not in a musical-theater way at all.”

It was in one such club in London, post-Guys and Dolls, that director Terry Johnson coaxed him into La Cage. His second full-on musical, it has been reported, starts previewing at London’s Theatre Royal Drury Lane May 18 for a June opening: he’ll follow the leads of Gene Wilder and Johnny Depp as the eccentric sweets-maker in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (a k a Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory) by Matilda author Roald Dahl. The $16 million musical, boasting a book by David Greig and songs by Hairspray’s Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman, will be directed by Cabaret’s Sam Mendes.

Returning to a musical track so much later on—he is now 52—has surprised him. “When I came to do La Cage, I remember the producer said, ‘Where’ve you been hiding? Why haven’t you done musicals?’ I said, ‘Well, I had this 10-year Harold Pinter fest’—probably to the detriment of my career—but it was such a fruitful, nourishing period in my life.”

His decade-long “Pinter bender” started when he was 30. He’d been doing a lot of television—Middlemarch and other things—when he was offered a part in Pinter’s play No Man’s Land at London’s Almeida Theatre. Pinter acted in the play, along with Gawn Grainger and Paul Eddington. “The four of us shared this dressing room. That was when I first met Harold, and he was quite extraordinary. Instead of being this forbidding, walking monument of a writer, he was just as nervous as we all were. It was wonderful.”

During that production, Pinter started writing again, after having not done so for 15 years. “One night, he said, ‘Doug, I’ve written another play, with a part for you. Take it home and have a look.’ I got on the tube—with this brand-new Harold Pinter play!—terrified I’d not like it, thinking ‘What’ll I do?’ But it was marvelous.”

The play was Moonlight, and Mr. Hodge threw himself into it. “I stopped everything and just worked with him. He became a sort of father figure. I worked with him almost exclusively—I would direct one of his plays or do a reading of his or be in a play of his—for 10 years. I miss him so much. He was tremendously loyal, tremendously certain, tremendously clear.”

His favorite Pinter play was Betrayal, which he did at the National for director Trevor Nunn. “I think that’s his most accessible, most moving play, but I also love The Caretaker, which I did with Michael Gambon and Rupert Graves. It was an absolute riot! Everyone said, ‘Let’s go to Broadway with it,’ and then Michael had some film commitment and it never happened, which was a real shame.”

The Caretaker could have presented to Broadway a Douglas Hodge truer to his London rep and training. Cyrano may be a way of reconnecting with his serious acting roots.

Douglas Hodge, From Z to C: His Zaza and Now—God Nose—His Cyrano Are Packed With Panache