Bobby Cannavale on ‘Annie,’ ‘Ant-Man,’ and Why No One Tells Him What to Do
“Nobody tells me what I should do.” Bobby Cannavale says this with conviction. And it’s understandable coming from a guy like Cannavale, who admittedly uses gut reactions to decide his career. Put it this way: Here’s an actor who has been working for 18 years and just now hired a publicist.
There’s a workmanlike arc to Cannavale’s career that seems rare: Small roles on television, stage, and film kept getting bigger and bigger. A Tony nomination and two Emmy Awards followed—not to mention the critical accolades for his appearances in films like ‘Win Win’ and Woody Allen’s ‘Blue Jasmine.’
When you meet Bobby Cannavale in person, he’s very friendly, but you quickly get the sense that he doesn’t put up with nonsense. Not that Cannavale doesn’t have a sense of humor—he uses this humor to great effect in the upcoming ‘Annie’ remake, playing a political strategist named Guy who is in charge of William Stacks’ (Jamie Foxx) New York City mayoral campaign (spoiler alert: they meet a little girl named Annie (Quvenzhané Wallis))—it’s more that he doesn’t really like to do the things that actors have to do when they are not acting … like putting up with someone like me while I ask him questions.
I’ve been told that you don’t use a publicist?
I just signed one.
I kind of have to now.
What did you do before? Did you set up your own interviews?
Well, before, I hadn’t really been in that many big movies. Like, maybe, two or three.
‘Blue Jasmine’ got a lot of attention.
Yeah, but ‘Blue Jasmine,’ it’s a Woody Allen movie, by the virtue of that, it’s a big film. But it wasn’t like this. So, I figured with ‘Annie’ coming out and I’ve got this Marvel movie [‘Ant-Man’] coming out, and I’ve got the HBO thing—honestly, I did it to take the pressure off my manager who was handling everything. If I don’t have to do it, I don’t tend to want to do them.
But, it’s a reality.
It’s a strange concept. We are strangers, but here we are.
Yeah, it’s not really what my job description is. My work is showing up to set and working on the project itself.
One of the biggest laughs in ‘Annie,’ your character is trying to create a distraction and suggests “doing something whimsical.”
Then you start a “leaf fight.”
[Laughs] Yeah, that’s funny. That was just off the cuff.
That was improvised?
Yeah. [Director] Will [Gluck] had these leaves...
“Had these leaves.” Aren’t there just leaves everywhere?
They had fake, sort of set-dressing leaves down.
What is a leaf fight? When does that happen?
When you’re a little kid, right?
Okay, that’s true. I’ve just never heard the term “leaf fight” out loud. It usually just happened.
It just sort of came up and it was in the moment.
This makes sense now because in the movie, no one else on screen quite knew how to react to it.
[Laughs] That’s right!
There was no exposition added, “Man, you and your leaf fights.”
I have a funny sense of humor and I like things that are out of nowhere. I did this movie a few years ago with Will Ferrell called ‘The Other Guys.’ I didn’t have a very big part in it and I was just amazed watching Will. He leaves you kind of speechless with the things that come out of his mouth.
You mention that you feel ‘Annie’ is your first big role in a big movie. Why ‘Annie’?
This one, for me, was really about the singing and dancing. It’s just something I’ve always wanted to do. It’s something I haven’t done before and it was terrifying and that’s why I wanted to do it. In my career, I’ve had a tendency, whatever the last thing I’ve done seems to be what they want to then just offer me over and over. After ‘Boardwalk Empire,’ I must have read 25 mob scripts.
A lot of actors say that happens.
But some people are into that. Some people want to ride that horse until that horse dies.
That horse never seems to last very long.
Well, same here. That’s how I feel, too. I feel like this is a long race and I don’t really want to be known for doing one thing. I think the industry, as a whole, isn’t very creative with how they use actors, frankly.
From the outside looking in, your career feels like someone who had a corporate job in the 1950s: Put in your time, work hard, move up the ladder, great things will eventually happen. You went from small television parts to bigger television parts to movies and now you had to hire a publicist.
I think about it, for sure. I certainly reflect on it. Look, I always say, “God, I shouldn’t be here”—because I don’t have any history in my family of anybody being in the arts at all. Everybody in my family has a job.
You have a job.
Yeah, but you know what I mean. Like a job job, where they punch in. I had a son at 24 and I didn’t do my first part on camera until 28. At that point, I had maybe done about 15 plays for no money that nobody came to see. I was an understudy. I got my break by going on for somebody, I got a TV show that way. Then I quit a TV show; I quit my first TV show, ‘Third Watch.’ I just felt sort of hemmed in, acting-wise. I wasn’t growing.
Other actors would have killed for that role.
I’ve got a gig and I’ve got a kid and two years earlier I was working in a bar, but I just wasn’t enjoying myself at work. And it worked out. It was the right move for me. From that, I went on and did ‘Oz,’ I played a really weird character on ‘Oz.’ And I was conscious of that. I was like, “I just don’t want to play a nice guy.”
You jump from highbrow roles in ‘Blue Jasmine’ to middlebrow in something like ‘Paul Blart.’ You seem to be able to be in anything.
Those are the actors that I like to go see. In the end of the day, I’m the one who makes the choice whether I want to do it or not. So, I’ve said “no” to many things.
Anything you regret?
No. Honestly, no. I mean, I’m here. I remember one time saying yes to a play, my first Broadway play. And I got offered a big movie and I won’t tell you what it is, but I got offered a big movie that went on to be very successful.
When was this?
Eight years ago. So, this movie came along right before I was supposed to go to rehearsals, so I could have gotten out of the play. And I said, “No, I’ve already said I’m going to do this play and I really want to be on Broadway.” Anyway, that wound up being great for me because I got nominated for a Tony Award and it started a whole other career for me on Broadway.
Was the role in the movie a big part?
[Laughs] It was a pretty good part.
Can you tell me off the record?
What was the genre?
Comedy. But I had no regrets about it because I did a really good play and there I was at the Tony Awards, you know? If I hadn’t done ‘Mauritius,’ I probably wouldn’t have gotten ‘The Motherfucker with the Hat.’
The Chris Rock play.
Yeah, Chris Rock. If I hadn’t done ‘The Motherfucker with the Hat,’ I definitely wouldn’t have done ‘Boardwalk Empire,’ because that was the first time Marty [Scorsese] and Terry Winter saw me, in that play. So, I just trust my gut. And I pretty much don’t listen to what people tell me about making the right decisions based on business.
And your gut told you to do ‘Ant-Man.’
Well, that was cool. And that was, again, another personal situation for me. Paul Rudd and I, you know, he’s one of my best friends—and he’s playing Ant-Man! It’s the weirdest thing in the world. We used to play cards for 50 cents a hand when we had no money at the same time, and here he is playing Ant-Man. He called me up and he’s like, “Dude, they want you to play this part. You should come out. It’s just me and you in all of the scenes.” It was kind of easy for me to do.
You play Scott Lang’s buddy, right?
Yeah. And I had just come off working with Marty all summer on this rock and roll thing, and that was grueling and intense.
I saw a picture of your hair.
[Laughs] Yeah. It was really intense and really dark. And, so, to go do ‘Ant-Man’ just made a lot of sense.
I assume you heard a lot about the Kansas City Royals from Paul Rudd?
The Royals. He didn’t shut up about the Royals.
That seems right.
I think the most consistent thing about me, I always wanted to be a New York actor. I grew up in New Jersey and all of my favorite actors are from New York. That’s really the best part of this whole gig, that I get to stay here and I’m really considered the way that I used to think about my favorite actors. That, I’m most proud of.
Have you ever been given advice to move to L.A.?
They wouldn’t even dare. I’m 44 years old. Nobody tells me what I should do.
Mike Ryan has written for The Huffington Post, Wired, Vanity Fair and GQ. He is the senior editor of ScreenCrush. You can contact him directly on Twitter.