It’s quite an entrance. Haley Bennett walks into the Soho hotel room flanked by publicists, then breaks theatrically into song, filling the air with lyrics from her new adaptation of Cyrano de Bergerac. The film is directed by her partner, Joe Wright; she plays Roxanne opposite Game of Thrones’ Peter Dinklage as Cyrano. It’s a fresh, modern and giddily romantic movie, and will probably do for Edmond Rostand’s classic play what Wright’s Pride & Prejudice did for Austen.
Bennett sits down and places a framed photograph on the coffee table between us, of a sunny little girl with pigtails. Having become slightly obsessed with Bennett’s Instagram account (more later), I assume this is her three-year-old, Virginia. But no, the photo is of Bennett herself, aged four. “I was just visiting my family in Ohio,” she says brightly. “I think it’s important that we nurture the four-year-old in all of us, so I brought her with me.”
It’s the kind of opener to throw you. Afterwards, I wonder if she staged it to mask her nerves. Bennett, now 34, once suffered suchcrippling anxiety and shyness that it almost ended her career. Sitting down, she pulls a cushion protectively on to her lap, and absent-mindedly fidgets with the tassels for most of the 45 minutes we talk. In the flesh, she is exquisitely pretty, with porcelain skin she says lets her down when she blushes on talkshows: “I’m an open book. I have translucent skin.”
Bennett seems dreamy, kooky, but sincerely and earnestly so, despite the incongruous uniform of black blazer and jeans. In Cyrano, she sports gorgeous bosom-bursting corsets in the style of Alexander McQueen; in her Instagram feed of life with Wright and their daughter in rural Somerset, her style is Hackney-cool-meets-Land-Girl – lots of wide-legged slacks and pretty headscarves.
Cyrano marks a belated breakthrough. The movie gives us the classic love triangle: two men falling at Roxanne’s feet. But this is Cyrano without a big nose. Instead, Peter Dinklage’s size is what makes him feel like an outsider, and unworthy of Roxanne’s love – a treatment that feels 100 times more authentic than a hot actor wearing a colossal schnoz.
Bennett and Dinklage appeared together in the original US stage version in summer 2018. Bennett was eight months pregnant; she’d been terrified to tell writer-director Erica Schmidt (who’s married to Dinklage), fearing she’d be fired. “Honestly, I think any other director probably would’ve recast me.” On stage she wore an empire-line dress to cover her bump; physically it got more challenging, harder to hit the notes.
On opening night Wright sat in the audience, and he kept coming back, night after night. “I was like: You want to see it again?” Bennett is wide-eyed. “Joe just fell in love with it.” In the end he decided to turn the play into a movie.
The funny thing is that, even with her other half directing, Bennett wasn’t a dead cert to play Roxanne in the film. “I never expected to be cast,” she says. “There’s a lot of boxes that need to be ticked when a studio makes a film. I knew Peter would be [in it]. I just wasn’t sure about my fate.” Because she wasn’t a bankable Hollywood name? Bennett nods wearily.
She spent her 20s making the most of supporting parts. In The Girl on the Train she played the woman stalked by Emily Blunt; a vengeful widow in The Magnificent Seven. But she always seemed to miss out on leading roles. “I always felt like: what’s wrong with me?” She shrugs philosophically. “I guess the point is to do work you believe in. I may not ever be an A-list movie star, but I’ve kind of come to terms with that.”
Bennett was born in Florida and raised in Ohio. Her parents divorced when she was six, and she lived with her father, Ron, a mechanic. They moved a lot when she was a kid. “It was a nomadic childhood; I never went to the same school for longer than two years. I was incredibly reserved and shy.”
So, she wasn’t the kid in all the school plays? “No!” Bennett gasps. “Oh God, no. When I first started acting, I would just be covered in hives.” But on stage she could flick a switch, become someone else.
When she was 19, Bennett moved from Ohio to Los Angeles. She enrolled in acting classes and gave herself three months. Was she ambitious? “No. I felt like an artist. But I’d been raised very working-class. No one in my family has left Ohio.” (There is talk of a wedding next summer – she and Wright getting hitched in Somerset. The problem is that no one on her side of the family has a passport.)
Before her three months in LA were up, Bennett landed the role of a teen pop diva in Music and Lyrics opposite Hugh Grant and Drew Barrymore. At the screen test, performing a dance routine, she begged the casting director not to hire her. “I stopped mid-dance and started crying. I was so humiliated. I said: ‘You don’t want to cast me. I shouldn’t be here.’”
But after Music and Lyrics, Bennett’s career stalled. In 2011, it looked like she caught a break when Terrence Malick cast her in Song to Song; she filmed off and on for a year, mostly with Christian Bale. But when Bale pulled out of the film, her part was cut. “That’s the way the cookie crumbles,” she shrugs with the air of a woman who has taken a knock or five. Still, being hired by Malick boosted her confidence. “It was validating. By that point I was feeling: maybe this isn’t what I was meant to do?” Malick reassured her: “He said, ‘Never give up.’ I needed that.”
Bennett’s breakthrough finally came in the feminist indie drama Swallow. Bennett plays Hunter, a woman in full Stepford wife mode: beautiful house, rich husband. When she gets pregnant, she develops a freakish craving to eat objects that are not food (the condition is known as pica). For Hunter it begins when she pops a marble into her mouth. The film is pitch perfect: funny and subversive with a shiver of body horror.
Producing and acting in Swallow was transformative, says Bennett. “I don’t think, before Swallow, I would have been able to have this conversation with you. I found my voice through the process of telling that story. Hunter didn’t have a voice and I felt that way in my life, I felt that way in my career. Like my voice didn’t matter.”
Partly, she credits Wright with the change; they worked together on her character (he served as executive producer on the film). “It was a very significant collaboration with a creative partner, with Joe. How supportive he was and how different that relationship was to any relationship I’ve ever had in my life.” Listening back to the recording, I can hear the click-click of her nervously opening and shutting her gold locket.
In 2018, the pair found themselves in the tabloid spotlight: papped at an airport together not long after Wright announced the end of his marriage to the musician Anoushka Shankar, with whom he shares two sons.
The couple were at home in Somerset at the beginning of the first lockdown. Bennett’s face melts into a blissful smile at the mention of it. “I’ve fallen in love with the English countryside. We moved to Somerset a year before the pandemic, right in the nick of time.” Her lockdown Instagram feed is idyllic (Virginia in corduroy and bonnets, daffodils, dogs, countryside sunsets, puppet shows). “I’ve taken up gardening, growing our own food, chickens. I’ve really leaned into that slow pace of life.”
Wright had been working on Cyrano for two years at the start of the pandemic; the producers were thinking that filming would be kicked back to 2022 or 2023. But in June 2020, Wright decided it was now or never. The cast and crew formed a production bubble in Noto, Sicily, in October 2020, constantly anxious about a Covid outbreak. “At one point it was proposed that Pete and I sing to each other with Plexiglass between us,” she giggles. Not very romantic.
Bennett says that “dream work” helped her overcome anxiety at the prospect of playing Roxanne. This is the acting method that’s all the rage in Hollywood: picking apart dreams to unlock creativity. Bennett worked with the acting coach Greta Seacat (who helped Kirsten Dunst on The Power of the Dog). “I didn’t go to film school, I didn’t study theatre. So [it’s] being able to deep-dive into a technique rather than thinking about my own fear and feelings of inadequacy.” She looks up a little warily, conscious this can easily be mocked as actorly pretentiousness.
The dream work helped her to silence the critical voice in her head on Cyrano, she says. What was it telling her? “Oh: You’re not worthy. You don’t have what it takes to portray a strong, powerful, bold and brave character.”
Our time is nearly up. I look at the photo on the table: four-year-old Haley looks very happy, I say. Bennett nods. “She looks very happy and innocent and sweet. And then things get troublesome as you get older and need validation and love. It’s all about love. We all just want to be loved and seen.”
• Cyrano is in cinemas on 25 February