Scene stealer

Maybe you don't know his name, but you know Bobby Cannavale's face. And get ready to see a whole lot more of it.

By Kerry Lauerman
Published February 20, 2005 9:46PM (EST)

People say hi to Bobby Cannavale a lot. On our way to Central Park, where he wants to sit under Christo's as-yet unfurled "Gates" for an interview, the guys running his neighborhood bodega give him a wave. A man he knows from the gym says hello when we pass him on the street, and a park worker shouts, "Hey, Bobby!" from about 50 feet away, which prompts him to respond gregariously, "Hey, good to see you!" before turning and laughing, "I've never met that guy."

Of course, it's not uncommon for actors to mingle with the public in New York, where members of every class and clique still pass each other on the way to the subway. But hours after meeting Cannavale, I pass the actor Liev Schreiber walking down Broadway, humming to himself, in what seems like a canny attempt to keep well-wishers at bay. And I've watched Sarah Jessica Parker march down a neighborhood sidewalk with a stare so icy it would send an entire "Sex and the City" tour fleeing in terror.

Cannavale isn't a huge star (yet) but in a short period of time he's made an impression in a series of very different roles, from his first big part (as a firefighter on NBC's "Third Watch") to a string of memorable performances on lauded but short-lived series (a mobster on NBC's "Kingpin," a deal-making junior prosecutor on A&E's "100 Centre Street") to vivid cameos (the guy with "funky spunk" on "Sex and the City"), all of which led to his breakout film role as Joe, the coffee vendor in the 2003 independent hit "The Station Agent." Along the way, he's invested his characters with a bighearted openness, the kind of slightly naive vulnerability that transforms your tough guy, wide-eyed idealist or macho lunk into a much more complex presence. Those visceral qualities not only help to explain Cannavale's success, but also hint at why he seems so approachable to complete strangers.

And it's likely to happen more in 2005. Fresh from a recurring role as Will's boyfriend in "Will & Grace," Cannavale will star in two anticipated independent films this year: Don Roos' "Happy Endings" and John Turturro's musical "Romance and Cigarettes" ("I play a guy who thinks he's James Brown, and my girlfriend is Mandy Moore, and I'm way too old for her"). And currently he's drawing attention as tortured Phil in the much-discussed restaging of David Rabe's study of '80s Hollywood excess, "Hurlyburly"; Cannavale's sensitive depiction of a sociopath on the brink is the standout performance among a stellar cast (Ethan Hawke, Wallace Shawn, Parker Posey, Josh Hamilton). The over-three-hour-long play has been performing to sold-out audiences, and has been buoyed by talk that it would move to Broadway almost immediately after it debuted last month.

I spent a recent morning with a hoarse Cannavale, who was recovering from another marathon performance. He was happy to discuss his upcoming films, the challenge of finding interesting roles, and why even a childhood of knockoff Nikes won't drive him to appear in the next crappy blockbuster.

Cannavale: Do you mind? [pulls out a cigarette].


With this show, we smoke so many cigarettes ...

Onstage you sure smoke a lot.

Cigarettes? My character doesn't smoke cigarettes; I think only Parker [Posey] smokes cigarettes onstage. I meant offstage.

Right, but you're smoking a lot of pot onstage. Or "pot." What is that, by the way? Everyone was muttering about how much it smelled like the real thing.

The weed? It's different spice mixes. I know one of them, that I like, is thyme and parsley. And there's another that they bought from a company that sells fake pot, for things like this, that Josh [Hamilton] claims is easier on his throat.

You're still a fairly new face to a lot of people, since you really didn't break into TV until 1998 with (the short-lived) "Trinity," but you did a lot of stage work before then.

Yeah, I was always working. There was never any real difference between working and not making money and working and making money. I was like a Backstage kid, I was always in something. And I had a job, I worked in clubs, so I wouldn't have to go to work until midnight. It was perfect.

"Trinity" was the first job I got paid on. And it all kind of worked out perfectly, really. That show didn't become a big hit, but it led to "Third Watch." And, you know, I'd never done anything in front of a camera. I don't think I was very good back then, but then I managed to stay under the radar so I could learn from my mistakes, and I didn't stay on any show for too long.

I'd read somewhere that you said "Third Watch" was a rough experience because [creator/director] John Wells asked you to basically play yourself.

Well, I'd just had my son, and suddenly I've got this huge job. I'd never been paid anything like that. I was in shock, and I just really wanted to keep that job, and so I did everything they wanted me to do. And I was young and, you know, it worked out for them for a while, too. But for me, just as an actor, I didn't know what else to play. I was constantly scrutinizing myself, and looking at myself and becoming this thing that wasn't an actor.

Because you were playing yourself?

No, because I was constantly on the outside looking at the character, which is death.

Which is the beauty of doing this play. We always talk about it afterward. When we're out there, we're really doing it; we're really fucking partying and fighting with each other. I gotta hug Josh for like 10 minutes after the show, because he's the sweetest guy in the planet but I fucking hate him for three hours. With "Third Watch" I was extremely green. It was a fantastic lesson for me.

Then you sort of did a tour of premium TV: a role on A&E's "100 Centre Street," a memorable cameo on "Sex and the City," a role on "Oz" -- which was probably the most menacing character we've seen you play before Phil ("Hurlyburly").

Well, I also was in [NBC's] "Kingpin" where I played this pretty nasty character. But they're so different.

Yes. But I think the parts we're most familiar with -- "Station Agent," "Will & Grace," "Third Watch" -- are pretty friendly, likable characters. Phil is sort of likable ... for a sociopath. How hard was he to play?

Well, the play is like one of my all-time favorite plays, and I very much always wanted to play that part. You know, when I first started auditioning in the city and didn't have an agent, and I'd go on [auditions], Phil was my monologue. I'd have Phil and Marc Antony of "Julius Caesar" -- and, you know, Phil was the money. [laughs]

But I also never saw him as a bad guy; I always saw him as this tortured person.

Was that something you and [director] Scott Elliott discussed, about making sure he seemed human? Because I'm not sure he's always seemed that way, either onstage or on-screen.

I know that from the very beginning we talked about making it an emotional "Hurlyburly." These were characters who were vulnerable with each other because they were so close, and to think about that. And I sort of just ran with that in every positive aspect I could with the character. He loves Eddie, and he loves his wife, and he knows exactly what the problems are. He even can express them. He knows exactly what he's doing. The circumstances prevail against him. But I think he thinks he can make it, and I love that about the guy. To play someone who is trying that hard is a heroic character to me.

You certainly play him that way. Was there anyone who inspired your portrayal? Anyone you used as a model?

Um, hmm. [Laughs ] I'm not going to answer that. I got to have a secret.

Interesting ... OK. Well, I wanted to ask you about how diverse your roles have been. Obviously, you've played gay a lot, and I wonder if you ever worried about getting typecast?

Nah, because you know, even with the gay roles, the fact that they're gay is like the last thing that's interesting about them. They're so different. The guy in "Oz" is so different from the guy in "Will & Grace"; then the guy on "Six Feet Under" -- who is like, you don't know what the fuck he is. And it's a testament to the industry, at least, that those roles are so common.

They're a lot more common, suddenly. But still, no one ever warned you that they could hurt your career?

Did anybody? Yeah, I mean people in the streets [assumes gruff voice], "Hey, Bobby, I saw you on 'Will & Grace,' you better watch it!" You get stuff like that. But not people who know me. And I don't think about it. I want to play good parts; that's the important thing.

And cops, you've played your fair share of cops.

Have I played a lot of cops?

Well it sounds like you're about to. And, well, Vince from "Will & Grace." You were a firefighter in "Third Watch" -- close! And the character from "Six Feet" is sort of . . .

Yeah, he's not a cop. He's a goon. But in "NY-70" I play a character based on Sonny Grosso, and what's interesting about this is his job is part of his being. In "Third Watch" -- well, forget "Third Watch." But in "Will & Grace," Vince is a cop, is a good cop, but he really just wants to be a personal shopper for someone.

Ha! But Vince is not a good cop . . .

No, he's not a good cop! [Laughs] He's been fired from the force. He gets written up 54 times for trying on gloves. But, you know, it's a different role.

What role, at this point, do you get noticed most for?

One of the nice results, from having a very fortunate career, is that it's always different. It's always different now. Now people will say, "I saw 'Hurlyburly' the other day," and that really shocks me.

But different people must know you from your different appearances. You did a lot of HBO for a while . . .

Yeah, young girls think "Sex and the City."

The funky spunk guy. While I would think if you were wandering around in a red state, I don't know, in the South, maybe you'd get recognized more for "Third Watch."

Yeah. [Pause] I don't do a lot of wandering around in the South. [Laughs] I'm a New Yorker. Sorry.

When "The Station Agent" came out, there was such praise, for the film and the stars. Did it change your life substantially?

It was really good. But most of [the offers] I didn't want to do. The movies I wanted to do were John's movie ["Romance and Cigarettes"] and Don's movie ["Happy Endings"], these movies you really roll the dice with, but you're so into it and rooting for it the whole time. It's different from, I think, doing a big movie ...

Like "Shall We Dance"...

Like "Shall We Dance," yeah. But I had a great time with that because we had to learn how to dance for that for three months. It was like doing a play. Every day, five days a week, learning to dance. I had a good time.

But you haven't gone for any big-budget films since?

I haven't really found anything. A couple things, maybe. I'm looking for Jim Jarmusch's next film, you know?

And I don't think you get to -- unless you're really, really, really famous -- pick exactly what you want to do all the time as an actor. And then you have that whole movie star thing that goes along with it where anonymity is, like, impossible. As much as I can, after this little role in "The Station Agent," I want to [take advantage] of that [anonymity]. Because I think it's just as legitimate for an actor to choose to tell stories in different ways as it is for a writer to tell stories in a different way. Actors can do that, too. And I want the story to be so confusing that they can't pin me down in any way, shape or form.

So you'd be worried a certain level of celebrity would inhibit you from playing different parts?

I can't think about that. It's one of those things, you can't control it, it's like whether or not you're going to get hit by a car tomorrow. The only thing I can control is whether I take a part that I really love. Because you don't get to do that all the time. I want to take advantage of those opportunities, rather than, you know, sell out and go do "Armageddon 12."

Though that would be a lot of money ...

It would, and you know what? I've got a 10-year-old kid. And tomorrow? I might not be getting the phone call, and go, Fuck, I should've taken that movie. No doubt, that's the hustle of this business. But the gypsy-ness of it I sort of love. I like not knowing exactly what I'm going to do next. It keeps me on my toes.

Have there been roles you desperately wanted, but couldn't get?

I remember reading Reinaldo Arenas' book "Before Night Falls." And it was before "Trinity" and "Third Watch," or around then, and I'm going, oh my god, how do I buy this to do it? And then it came out and I thought, fuck, I'm never going to play that part.

You know what movie I wanted to get -- and this is going to contradict everything I just said about selling out: My son is 9-and-a-half, he is obsessed with superheroes, and I came within a fucking hair of "Fantastic Four," to play the Thing, and I just thought, I would be the coolest person on the planet.

Who got it?

Michael Chiklis.

Ha! That's odd. [Cannavale is a slender 6-foot-2; the bald Chiklis is a squatter 5-foot-9.]

I don't know, but it was probably the first and only time I'll lose a part to Michael Chiklis. [Laughs] I wanted to get it as the ultimate present for my kid. Forget about it. It would have blown his mind.

It sounds, though, like you've come a long way; I read an interview you once gave where you alluded to your "criminal past."

[Sighs.] I got in trouble a lot. My mother tried like hell to keep me inside when I was really young, but I became a teenager and, you know, would hang out with my friends and break into newspaper machines so we could have some money, and throw baseballs through windows, and stupid shit like that. And we would always get caught. Stealing clothes from the mall. But it was always to have. Because I didn't have money, man. I didn't have anything. We didn't have the cool sneakers, we had the backward Nikes. You remember those?

Yes, totally.

The ones with the [swoosh] that went the other way? Which now are, like, popular again! But back then they sold them with the shoestrings tied together.

And now you're living in a world of swag.

Yeah, but that's why when you get any success in this business you cannot take it for granted, or think it's solely because you deserve it. You're fucking lucky. That's why it's amazing to me that I get to make a living, raise my son in a different way, and do what I want to do.

Kerry Lauerman

Kerry Lauerman is Salon's Editor in Chief. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.

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