Bobby Cannavale Has Always Been a Sensitive Guy

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What do we mean by naked charm? It requires a certain offhanded casualness, and now that I think about it, maybe a full head of hair and a nearness to six feet. It implies a level of engagement with the listener. It’s not the kind of charm you pull out when you meet the in-laws, but rather for pretty waitresses or DMV employees—the tough customers, whose job it is to pretend men are charismatic. It’s Rusty Ryan chewing gum in Ocean’s Eleven, or Brad Pitt pretending not to have a publicist in real life. It’s less about being clever than being self-contained, which isn’t to say it isn’t sly. It’s certainly not about jokes with punchlines. It’s a very actorly quality—in that it’s nearly impossible to tell if a good actor really likes you—best worn on actors who eschew over-grooming and being handled and packaged.

Although his characters tend to mine the macho, Bobby Cannavale’s preternatural charm is overwhelming. At 6’2’’, with a five-o’clock shadow, Cannavale’s chiseled good looks code more as an actor in-person than on my laptop. He deadpans that he’s only famous in Italian restaurants. “I’m in a lot of pizzerias. If I go to eat on Staten Island, forget about it. They’ll be like, ‘Get his picture on the wall.’ And then they’ll ask what my name is.” He says this with a grin edging over his face, leaning back, his feet propped up on a desk. “Well, I’m not a movie star. I’m just an actor,” he explains. He doesn’t need or want a publicist, a fact confirmed when he shepherds me from the stage door to his tiny dressing room for The Lifespan of a Fact, the hit Broadway play where he plays a “swaggering” magazine writer and charlatan, with a studious, suffering Daniel Radcliffe as his foil and fact-checker. (“He is a mosquito to Mr. Cannavale’s lion,” crowed The New York Times.) I’m more surprised than I should be to find that nine weeks of stage acting have shaded his voice with a hoarseness that one could objectively categorize as sexy. His status as a sex symbol is only coming into focus now. (Hard-partying actors like Norman Reedus, 50, begin to pancake in the jowls.)

At 48, Cannavale is the same age as Ethan Hawke, but unburdened by parts that call for cloying sincerity or intellectual airs. He doesn’t bottom out in one-note action roles either, despite looks that invite typecasting as, say, a blue-collar cop. He’s a classic scene stealer, on the level of fellow New Jerseyan Bebe Neuwirth. “I get offered the same kinds of roles all the time. I have a deep voice, I’m big, my last name ends in a vowel. Mob guys, working-class guys,” he says. His first major movie role was as the cop boyfriend of Angelina Jolie in The Bone Collector, and his first shot at nationwide recognition was as a gay NYPD officer in Will & Grace. When I ask him the sort of parts he’s told his agent to watch for, he doesn’t hesitate: “Desperation. That’s one of my favorite things to play. I’m looking to see how desperate the character is. It’s just funny to me, the things people will do to get what they want.” He was practically winsome in Blue Jasmine as a working-class foil meant to expose Cate Blanchett’s callous snobbishness and class anxiety. But Cannavale managed to raise the stakes by refusing to let even a hint of parody creep into his voice—a feat, considering he wore True Religion jeans throughout the movie. (It was so much harder to play a Stanley Kowalski–type of guy in the aughts!)

Long before director Tom McCarthy swept the Oscars for Spotlight (2015), he established his preferences for an ensemble cast and an intelligent script. His movies tend to center around white guys with heart and often focus on small, accidental family units, like a group of underpaid beat reporters at The Boston Globe. Of his six feature films, two have parts McCarthy wrote specifically for Cannavale. Both showcase the range we’ve now come to expect from him. McCarthy understood first that Cannavale plays people without boundaries exceptionally well: not heartthrobs or cowboys, but well-meaning, needy, fast-talking dudes with too much free time who just want to be friends. It’s hard to explain how a persistent, hyper-masculine guy can also be the only funny person in a movie, but Cannavale’s pulled it off twice. The Station Agent (2003) traces a reluctant friendship between Patricia Clarkson (a hapless, depressed painter whose young son has died), Peter Dinklage (a depressed dwarf whose only friend and mentor has died), and Bobby (a bored hot dog vendor with a dying father). It’s a slow burn to say the least—and one of the best films of its decade, and the first film McCarthy directed. Where Clarkson and Dinklage played their cards close to the chest, Bobby was touchingly, even goofily, gregarious. Almost against the will of the other two, his character becomes the glue that binds the shaky friendship between the three, forcing them to hang out sometimes by literally delivering free coffee.

Win Win (2011) is an offhandedly touching tale about a small-town wrestling coach (Paul Giamatti) embezzling from one of his wrestler’s grandfathers. Cannavale played a chatty unemployed banker who spends his time cursing out his estranged wife in front of the mansion “that he bought,” until he forces Giamatti to let him join the wrestling coaching staff, where he is a laughingly enthusiastic participant. In each film, Cannavale’s sheer joy far exceeds the parameters outlined by the characters’ mundane circumstances. It’s impossible not to love this ridiculous person is the reaction of the other characters…and the audience. He bowls you over and carries the movies. His whoops and yells in each film are contagious. Cannavale says his “two McCarthy films” are closest to his personality. This catches me by surprise. I ask whether he isn’t in fact cooler than them. He explains that he has a lot of energy.

It isn’t until after we meet that I fully recognize these characters as typifying desperate men, hungering for human connection despite their good looks and social skills. This has not gone unnoticed by theater critics: Hilton Als has noted that “compassion for male pain is a specialty of Cannavale’s acting,” and Alexandra Schwartz wrote that “few actors do wounded masculinity better.” Cannavale captures a rare thing: that person no one knows is depressed. “I was never really a tough guy. I was always a sensitive guy,” Cannavale explains. “I’m touchy. I can wound easily, and I think that’s not something that, on the page, people expect to see in the character in the end.” Actors talk often about “bringing a sensitivity to the page” and playing their hard-edged characters with a light touch. Cannavale leans in where others might pull back. His characters are lit up, infused with energy. He allows his mania to spread thin in order to betray weakness, need, ambition. He knows what his characters want from other people.

Ambition is a very quotidian sensation for Cannavale. At first, his use of the term is surprising, but I find myself endeared to this idea of ambition divorced from status signifiers. To him, it’s obvious that the guy with the hot dog stand is ambitious because he’s going to stop at nothing to make friends. “I think ambition is something that’s really playable. It’s really active,” he reasons. Cannavale, of course, can play ambition in the purest sense, which he’s done most recently on television, in Scorsese’s disappointing Vinyl (cancelled in 2016), Boardwalk Empire, and Amazon’s Homecoming, an entrancing portrait of corporate malfeasance. In Homecoming, he plays a disgruntled big pharma businessman who misleads American soldiers with PTSD into participating in his drug trial. For this character, Cannavale had to scream into a phone until the veins popped in his neck. His attraction to roles such as this, I think, has something to do with their innate theatricality. He tells me a playwright once told him there’s no point in a play unless it feels to an audience that this “is the most important day of their lives.” It’s not surprising, given his particular style, that he continues to block off five months a year to go back to the stage.

Until recently, Cannavale was shooting The Irishman with Martin Scorsese. He says he works well with “Marty” because “everything is conflict for him.” I ask him how the best directors get him back on track. He does a Marty Scorsese impression: “Bob [De Niro] is not listening to you. He’s not listening to you. You’ve got to make him listen to you because he doesn’t realize how important you are and how dangerous you are, so he’s not giving you the respect you deserve, so you’ve got to make him know.” De Niro is but one costar in a galaxy of heavy hitters like Al Pacino, Joe Pesci, and Harvey Keitel. Not bad company for a former bartender who got his first film role at age 28. “I was hot shit in my high school and in my church,” Cannavale laughs. “Everybody said, ‘This kid, there’s nothing else he could possibly be but an actor,’ and then reality hit and I was in New York. I never went to college. I didn’t go to acting school.” But film people noticed him. They thought he was special, not just some “latchkey kid” from Jersey raised by a single mother. One could argue his first big break was marrying Sidney Lumet’s daughter, a Dalton graduate who went on to write the original screenplay for Rachel Getting Married. Lumet ended up casting him in 1999’s Sharon Stone-starring Gloria. “My ex-wife had means,” Cannavale explains. “She’s, like, a Manhattan girl who had support from her parents, so I didn’t have that much pressure. It wasn’t my favorite thing in the world, that my wife was getting money from her dad, but nobody ever gave me any shit about it. I’d worked in bars for so many years.

Despite Cannavale’s naked charm—a boon in bars—he’s found naked ambition hard to justify offscreen. “I had a manager who told me that this director was playing basketball at this gym. He had a regular game there, and she knew I played basketball [too]. She was like, ‘Look, if you show up there at Thursdays at five o’clock…,’ and I was like, ‘I ain’t fucking doing that!’” The directors would have to come to him. And they have. Bobby Cannavale’s the guy for whom no part is too small, who is willing to be typecast a bit, who will play the guido or the mobster or the New Jersey dude or the cop, but only if it’s for the best of the best (Allen, Scorsese, Turturro, McCarthy). Otherwise, you can find him onstage yelling and screaming and being super vulnerable, a lion keeping mosquitos at bay. Or on the subway, where he recently woke up to find people taking videos of him, which he finds very funny.

In fact, Cannavale, titan of stage and sex symbol of late, genuinely feels bad that Daniel Radcliffe can’t take the train to their Broadway play without incident, the way that he still manages to do (naps aside). Just the other night he turned to his wife, the actress Rose Byrne, as they were lying together in bed. He said, “I’m so glad that we’re not super famous. I’m so glad.”

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