“Great Performances” brings Broadway to television with a straight-from-the-stage version of Edmond Rostand’s 1897 classic “Cyrano de Bergerac.”
The play, which ended a sold-out New York run last January, is the story of a swashbuckling philosopher, Cyrano, who adores his beautiful cousin Roxane but is too embarrassed by his large nose to declare his love. Instead, he writes letters, expressing his own feelings under the name of another suitor, Christian.
Kevin Kline, who plays Cyrano opposite Jennifer Garner’s Roxane and Daniel Sunjata’s Christian, sat down with TV critics last summer to talk about the role and his eclectic career. Here are excerpts from the chat, with both questions and answers edited for length and clarity.
Q. When you were growing up, did any TV performance excite you to be an actor?
A. When I decided to become an actor when I was in college, it wasn’t after a childhood of a lot of theatergoing. I grew up in St. Louis, where there was some theater, but I didn’t go that often. My parents were more into music. We went to the Symphony frequently, but not the theater. So I grew up watching movies and television ... I remember seeing Laurence Olivier’s “Richard III,” which was a film, but I saw it on television. Christopher Plummer’s “Hamlet” on television was a stunning performance.
Q. Do you think your versatility and the fact that people say they can’t label you has worked in favor of your career?
A. My career has been shaped by the choices I’ve made, and some of those choices have excluded what is typically considered a movie-star career. But it’s the career I’ve wanted.
Q. Do you have a hit list of roles you want to do?
A. Having done “Cyrano” and “King Lear” last year, the list is getting shorter. I may actually start doing some contemporary plays because most of the great Shakespeare, the great classic roles, I’ve gotten a fairly good taste of at this point. There’s one or two others. There’s “Othello,” “Romeo.” An elderly Romeo would be a change.
Q. As you get older, does that change your approach to your craft?
A. Yes, it’s somewhat circumscribed by the limits of the body at a certain age, but, knock wood, the old body’s holding together pretty well, and the Cyrano, aside from a fractured shoulder, it held up ... I think each role I learn from having played a previous role, and I think I’m improving. I hope I’m improving.
Q. You have very few TV credits. Do you avoid TV? Have you been asked to do a series?
A. I’ve been asked to do TV. I was offered several series when I did “On the 20th Century,” a musical comedy, in 1978 ... I thought, “You mean, play the same role week after week after week?” The tedium of doing the same character for seven years didn’t appeal to me.
Q. Was this a special performance shot for the cameras, or were the cameras kind of surreptitiously sneaking around?
A. There were half a dozen or so cameras unobtrusively placed in the audience. I never noticed them. I think I asked, “Are they going to be in our faces, or can we sort of ignore them?” because there’s something antithetical to the whole theatrical experience. We were encouraged not to think about the cameras, and it was just a performance.
Q. Certainly an older audience that appreciates the classics will be tuning in (to “Cyrano”). But what can you say to encourage (younger audiences)?
A. It’s a good date movie or date play. It’s very romantic, and one hopes that it will find its way to an audience of all ages. (But encouragement) sort of behooves the parents. The sadness would be if parents are not guiding their children to certain cultural events that the children won’t take as painful medicine but actually enjoy.
Q. Can you talk about the importance of putting Broadway on television?
A. The importance of it depends what Broadway you put on, I think. If there’s a good Broadway or off-Broadway show that’s televised, it introduces audiences to material that is different. It opens a door, and one would hope it would inspire them when given the opportunity to actually go to see live theater.