Interview: Actor Bobby Cannavale on Adult Beginners and More



There are few actors as capable as Bobby Cannavale at showing up in something, whether it’s a film or TV show, and automatically making it better. Although he’s been acting since the ‘90s, it was probably his role in Thomas McCarthy’s The Station Agent in 2003 that put him on moviegoers’ radars, and since then, he’s appeared in dozens of movies and television shows including a memorable turn on HBO’s “Boardwalk Empire.” 

This Friday, Cannavale can be seen opposite Nick Kroll and Rose Byrne in Adult Beginners, a comedy set in New Rochelle in which Kroll returns to his childhood home to live with his sister (Byrne) while Cannavale plays Byrne’s husband, who is also trying to deal with some of the issues of being married.

Surprisingly, I’ve never had a chance to speak with Cannavale, maybe because he didn’t seem to do very many interviews even when he had a featured role in a film as was the case with Win Win and others. Fortunately, I finally had my chance back in September, when was at the Toronto International Film Festival where the film premiered and we got to sit down for the following interview where we covered a lot of ground. I’ve known your work for a long time but never had a chance to talk to you before, so I’m glad we’re getting to do this. So, let’s talk about “Adult Beginners” to start with. Did you know Nick or anyone involved with this beforehand?

Bobby Cannavale: No, it was funny the way it happened. Rose and I, we go out and we’re a couple. She read the script and she was like, “Hey, honey, I’m reading this script and it’s really good. I really like it, but there’s this character that’s just like you.” The character’s name was Bobby at the time. It wasn’t Danny. And then the more she read it, she was like, “This is really weird. You should read this script. I’m going to meet Nick Kroll on it.” I was like, “Oh, I know Nick a little bit.” I knew him socially a little bit. So I read it, and I was like, “Oh, I know the writer Liz Flahive. She’s a friend of mine.” Then I was like, “This is weird.” So I called Liz and I said, “What’s going on?” She’s like, “Oh, I was totally going to offer it to you.” She goes, “I wrote it for you. It’s you.” So, I was totally flattered, but they needed to get Rose on board first. So she met with Nick, and then literally like the next day I sat down with Nick and talked to him about it. Ross hadn’t been hired yet, so we were sort of attached to it before Ross came on board. I just loved the script and I love Liz as a writer. I just really like her. I’ve known her for many years. She’s a really wonderful playwright and I really got to know her on “Nurse Jackie,” because she’s the head writer over at “Nurse Jackie,” and I worked over there. So, I liked it a lot. I just thought, like a playwright, she creates an event. You know, she creates like, the story is about like, an event, the most important moment in these characters’ lives, in a sense, and that’s why it makes for a good drama, right? So, this guy’s whole bottom falls out from him. Rose’s character is dealing with the grief of her mother’s death, and the re-entry into her life of this brother of hers. The husband has an affair. So all these things sort of conspire to make sort of dramatic circumstances. I thought it was dealt with really very realistically. I thought that the jokes weren’t jokes at all. I thought they came out of real circumstances and I really like that and appreciated that, and I just laughed a lot. It was very easy for me to say “yes,” plus I wanted to work with Rose.

CS: That’s funny because one of my questions was going to be “How great is Rose Byrne?” but I guess you know that already.

Cannavale: Incredible, so good. She’s so good. She’s just like, I don’t even know if she knows that she even realizes the depth of her performances. I mean, I just saw her in a play. She’s on Broadway right now doing “You Can’t Take it With You,” and we’re talking about a play that’s like, 80 years old. I saw it in the first week of previews, and you just feel it. She comes on stage and you just feel like this nice reaction to her, you know? She’s a really, really comforting presence. She’s just a kind person and very vulnerable and not afraid, just a really sort of fearless actress, fearless in the sense of very, very willing to put her vulnerabilities out front. There’s something really admirable about that, and those are the kind of actors that I respond to, at least. She does it in this. She really carries the history of that family and the history of that relationship with her brother and the loss of that relationship and the loss of their parents, the loss that she continues to carry with her in this house. She just carries it with her. Watching it last night with an audience, you really felt that they were with her. So, I can’t say enough about her.

CS: I’ve interviewed her probably half a dozen times and when I saw her in “Insidious,” I was really impressed. She really upped the game for a horror movie. When I saw her in “Get Him to the Greek” and “Neighbors,” she was hilarious. She’s really surprising.

Cannavale: Yeah, and when you think about all those movies, here she is, she’s paired up with wildly different people – Seth Rogen and Patrick Wilson and all those girls in “Bridesmaids” and Russell Brand. It’s like she can work with anybody and she brings out the best in everybody and she really sort of grounds everything she’s in, in a really nice way. Yeah, I think seriously, she’s the kind of person that if you go and you know she’s in the movie, you’re in really good hands.

CS: A lot of times you don’t know she’s in the movie until you see the movie. But enough about her, let’s get back to you. So is it a compliment when a director or an actor or someone you know thinks of you for a part? I feel like there’s certain roles, like a comedy like this, you can really go into fairly easily because you’ve done other roles that are similar to this. Is that a compliment to be thought of in that way?

Cannavale: Sure.

CS: Do you feel like you’d rather have someone think of you in something completely different than you normally do?

Cannavale: Well, I have been lucky enough to be… I don’t think the roles I play are all the same, and I have been complimented by having writers write things for me that are totally different from anything I’ve done. I never did anything like I did in “Boardwalk Empire,” and that was a really multidimensional role that was very different for me. You know, for a long time before that, I was just playing nice guys, really sweet, nice, charming guys, then I got cast as this sort of villainous role. So it’s always a compliment when somebody writes something for you. But I’m really conscious about trying to play different things as much as I can. Plus, I have a career in the theater in New York, you know? So, last year, I did two plays back to back, and I did “Glengarry” and then I did this sort of obscure Clifford Odets play that I always wanted to do, and they were very, very different. So, I’m always trying to do as many different things as I can. I’m pretty smart about… I mean, after “Boardwalk Empire,” I must’ve gotten 10 offers to play gangsters, so I’m smart enough not to do that, yeah.

CS: I was lucky enough to have seen “The Motherf*cker with the Hat” and you were almost unrecognizable in that. You even had a different physicality.

Cannavale: Well, thanks. I had to fight really hard for that part, and the writer and I have been friends for 20 years, but he didn’t see it at first. It was originally written for somebody else who couldn’t do it. I said, “I’d like to throw my name in the hat.” He said, “I can’t see you playing that part.” I had to read that play from beginning to end four different times for the director, for him, for the producer, for the other producers, for the cast before I got that role. I knew it was different for me and I knew that nobody had seen me do something like that. But I understood that role on some intrinsic level. At the end of the day, we’re acting, we’re actors, and you know, while I don’t think we can do everything, I’d certainly like to try as much as I can to do as many different things as I can. I used to say, “Well, I’ll never be right for a cowboy,” but you know, why not? I’d love to give it a shot. So it’s just a matter of having a good director, having good direction and having people who have the faith to sort of go with me.

CS: This is not meant as an insult, but you’re fairly seasoned at this point, where I feel like you can walk into roles. Did you have to do a lot of preparation for a role like this? Do you find things that are still challenging about something like this or in “Chef” or some of these other movies?

Cannavale: I mean, yeah, on a certain level, you do kinda have to walk into it, but only in the sense that on the day of shooting, I have to walk into it. For me, people say, “How do you memorize the lines?” That’s the easiest part of all. For me, the hard part is making sure that I do enough work before I show up on set so that I’m set, I can just seemingly walk into it. People will say to me all the time on set, “Man, you’re like the same guy, you could be talking to me, and then just go on set and do it. It’s like you’re just being you.” But it’s not that simple. It’s not what I’m doing. What I’m doing is trying to achieve a level of calmness and relaxedness so that I can do the work that I’ve prepared to do. But I actually do a lot of preparation at home and on my own. I don’t think there’s a single role I’ve ever played where I felt like I just kind of walked on and just did it with my eyes closed at all. You know, again, I learned a lot coming up in the theater, and while the mediums are different, I don’t think they’re any different to how you approach a role. I think that if something is well written and it’s really about an event – and I always say that, but I do, I think it’s an event. I think there’s no reason for you to see it or be excited about it if it’s not about something that’s eventful, whether it’s a psychological event or whether it’s an actual event. It doesn’t have to be somebody’s getting married or somebody’s dying, but it could be my brother showing up on my doorstep for the first time in a year and a half. That’s an event. How does that alter the life of a seemingly normal person? You know, and so, that’s the kind of work that I do, what would I do if that happened? How would that change our life? It does change Danny and Justine’s life, you know, even though he shrugs it off and he’s like, “Yeah, sure, come on over,” it does change their life. It changes the sort of balance of their life. Those are the things that I think about before I show up to work, so that at work, I can just be. 


CS: I remember when I spoke to Willem Dafoe–and I feel you both are similar in some ways–and he said that he would like to have months to prepare beforehand, but then he also might get a role that starts shooting in a week and he has to find that part fast.

Cannavale: Yeah, and I think I have gotten roles like that, where I have to sort of step in and do it. And frankly, I don’t think my work is as good when it’s like that, but the thing of  constantly being used to working, you just figure it out. Again, I just go back to like, “Okay, well, what’s the most important thing that I have to figure out?” even if it’s like a job that I got from the week before. “What does this guy want more than anything?” I really think that what’s compelling to watch is a character who’s desperate for something. I think that’s what compels us to watch. Oh, this person will do anything to get what they want, and that’s what’s compelling, and that’s what I kinda try to go for.

CS: By the way, you completely disproved my theory, because I’ve always felt that British actors are able to talk about their craft far more easily than New York ones (although Willem Dafoe is also good at talking about his craft).

Cannavale: Yeah, well, I know that I’m not comfortable talking about specific specifics, like “What exactly are you thinking about?” But I do think that on an elemental level… look, I didn’t go to acting school and I didn’t go to college, but I had some great teachers in the theater, and the greatest one being Lanford Wilson. Lanford would say to me all the time, “Talk about the event and desperation. There’s nothing more compelling and more interesting than somebody who’s willing to do anything they can to get what they want.” You know, even in the smallest movie or a movie that sort of on the surface doesn’t seem like the stakes are high, well, they have to be high, or otherwise, it’s not a movie. Why would we give a sh*t, you know?

CS: What was Ross Katz like as a director? I know he’s produced a lot of movies over the years. He hasn’t directed very much and I guess this is his first feature?

Cannavale: No, well, he wrote and directed “Taking Chance,” that movie with Kevin Bacon for HBO. He’s about to direct the new Nicholas Sparks movie. (The Choice)

CS: Right, I saw that, and I was wondering if that scene from “The Vow” in this movie helped him get the gig.

Cannavale: No, total coincidence. Yeah, total coincidence.

CS: What’s he like as a director?

Cannavale: Oh, he’s great. He’s a sweetheart and I mean, he’s got a really gentle touch with actors, and probably from his experience as a producer – really, really, really kind and does a lot of work, again, before we get on set, which is a cool thing. I mean, there’s all kinds of directors, but with Ross, I got together a lot with him beforehand to talk about it a lot, because we knew going in that it was a lot of money and there wasn’t going to be a lot of time, and so, there wasn’t going to be a lot of time to sort of deconstruct the scene on the set, you know? So, we did a lot of that beforehand and he’s really smart and he’s a really good listener and really good collaborator, and again, just a gentle, gentle, kind guy, easy to work with.

CS: Did you do a lot of table reads beforehand?

Cannavale: We did a couple of them, yeah. We did a couple of them. We did a few sort of rehearsals with Rose and Nick and I, but not many. It was just really a lot of sort of one on ones, lunches and meetings in the park and that kind of thing because he’s a New Yorker and we’re New Yorkers.

CS: You’re also one of those actors who I also don’t always know in advance that you’re in it until I see it and I’m like, “Oh, there’s Bobby.”

Cannavale: Yeah, I know.

CS: It’s a nice surprise.

Cannavale: Yeah, because I don’t have a publicist. (Laughs) But yeah, they’re very different projects and Annie I’m psyched, because I really wanted to sing and dance, and I have a great song. It’s like one of the best songs in the show, so I really, really, really wanted to get that part. So, I’m excited to see how that came out. I haven’t seen the movie yet.

CS: Is there anything you’re really excited about that you’ve shot and will be out soon?

Cannavale: Well, I’m excited about this movie that I made with Al Pacino called “Danny Collins” that we shot last year that’s going to be coming out in March. Dan Fogelman, his first directorial effort, a really wonderful writer. He also wrote it.

CS: He hasn’t directed anything yet?

Cannavale: This is it. It’s a beautiful story that he really worked for years with Al on. It’s Al and myself and Chris Plummer and Annette Bening, Jennifer Garner, and it’s a beautiful film. That’ll come out in March. I’m really excited about that. I just saw it. Al’s amazing in it. You know, he’s like, one of my idols. This was really cool. He plays like a Neil Diamond type singer, like a really famous singer known for a big one hit, very much like Neil Diamond.

CS: I think Neil Diamond would disagree with that comment. 

Cannavale: No, I don’t mean to say that Neil Diamond’s a one-hit wonder at all, and I love Neil Diamond. I adore him. I just say that because he’s got a song in the movie that’s sort of like “Sweet Caroline,” they only want to hear that song and he, of course, feels like nobody’s listening to him anymore and he feels kinda washed-up and he’s got a drug addiction. He decides to just walk away from it all, and Chris Plummer’s his manager and he decides to go and find his son, who…

CS: Is that you?

Cannavale: That’s me. Yeah, and so, he hasn’t seen his son at all, his whole life. Then, he goes and the son doesn’t want anything to do with him and it’s how they sort of get to know each other. It’s a really beautiful, beautiful performance by Al. So, I’m excited about that, and I’m excited about this thing I just shot with Marty, with Scorsese called “Rock ‘N’ Roll” for HBO. It’s a new series for them and I don’t know when it’s going to air. But, yeah, I’m pretty excited. I’m excited to see “Annie” actually, because that was a lot of fun to work on.

CS: Listen, it was great meeting you finally.

Cannavale: Yeah, likewise.

CS: I just assumed that you’re shy and didn’t like to talk to press…

Cannavale: No, I’ve never had a PR person, so I guess a PR person, they kind of seek that out and they go get it, and I just like to work, man, and just have it come out and you know, simple.

CS: For some reason, I feel that most actors, especially in New York, just want to do the work.

Cannavale: Yes, yeah, I’m not wanting for much, you know? I’ve got my apartment, I’ve got my kid in college and paying the bills and working. What more do you want?

Adult Beginners opens in select cities and On Demand on Friday, April 24. You can read our previous interview with Nick Kroll hereDanny Collins is still playing in select cities as well. 

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