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Win Win - Bobby Cannavale interview

Win Win, Bobby Cannavale

Interview by Rob Carnevale

BOBBY Cannavale talks about reuniting with Tom McCarthy for Win Win and why he felt the character of Terry took him slightly outside of his comfort zone.

He also reflects on his own career and recent Tony nomination for The Motherf**ker With The Hat on Broadway alongside Chris Rock.

Q. Good to speak to an almost namesake…
Bobby Cannavale: Absolutely, you have an R in yours? Mine once had an R in the surname but our name got changed along the way.

Q. I imagine there was a lot to recommend Win Win for you, not least of which was working with Tom McCarthy again after The Station Agent?
Bobby Cannavale: Tom was definitely the main one. I’m good friends with him and so anytime he asks me to read something it’s a no brainer. And this one jumped off the page. I loved how Terry was this guy who seemingly had it all together and who seemed to be a success, yet isn’t… inside he was desperate and somewhere nearing the bottom following his divorce. He’s sort of a classic character for Tom – the type of person who is at the bottom but who is reaching out and trying to find a way out of the darkness.

My character, Joe, in The Station Agent was similar to that in that they both share the same essential quality of looking for help. I mean they’re slightly different, but Terry recognises the opportunity when Alex Shaffer’s character, Kyle, shows up in Win Win. It’s a lot of fun to play around with because I think there’s a lot of comedy to be found in desperation.

Q. And being a New Jersey native yourself must also have been an easy way in to finding him…
Bobby Cannavale: For sure. I’m a New Jersey native like Terry. Plus, I liked that he was different from me in other ways. I never normally get to play a rich person and Tom knew I wanted to do something like that. I love the scenes in his big empty condo… the physicality of the place speaks volumes about his character. There’s hardly any furniture in there – he has this old crystal wedding bowl that’s not being used properly, a huge plasma TV screen with very little furniture around it. It tells a certain story in that he’s trying to surround himself with mod cons and memories and yet is empty inside. I liked the juxtaposition of that.

Q. The friendship between Terry and Mike is one of the film’s great strengths and Tom said he cast you and Paul Giamatti off a gut instinct that you’d get on, even though you’d never worked together previously…
Bobby Cannavale: We had met socially. Tom and Paul went to school together so I’d met him socially but hadn’t spent much time with him before [Win Win]. But Paul and I really got to know each other prior to filming. We went to New Jersey and went to wresting practices and bonded while getting to know the various coaches. So, during that time together we were constantly developing a short-hand we could bring to the set, which was all part of Tom’s master-plan.

Q. Would you say you have a lot in common with Paul as an actor?
Bobby Cannavale: That’s a good question… do we have a lot in common? I don’t know. It sure seemed very natural to work together. Neither one of us needed to be on any kind of lock-down or to have our own space. We liked to be around each other. He does all of his work before he comes in so once we’re there [on set], we could be in conversation and then, ‘boom’, we’d start working once the camera starts rolling. He does a lot of his work away from the set so that he can bring his relaxed self to the set. It meant that we were able to bring our energy and our off-camera behaviour to the shoot. I mean, we’re both very committed but we also got to joke around a lot, and continue to bring that energy into the scenes. And I like working that way.

Q. Conversely, how was working with a first-time actor such as Alex Shaffer, who gives such a convincing performance as Kyle?
Bobby Cannavale: That was interesting. I mean, the kid was with us for all of the rehearsal process so we got to know him during that time. But it was interesting to see Tom get to know him and it was a cool thing for Alex to be able to form the trust that was needed. But this kid is a nationally ranked wrestler who competes at the highest level of competition, so he had a relaxed-ness about him and an assuredness that I’ve not even seen in veteran actors. He never seemed daunted by working with actors. In fact, he’d sometimes fall asleep between take and we’d have to wake him up, or he’d be bobbing his head to the music he was listening to on his speakers.

He’s used to performing under high press situations, so he was easy to work with. And he trusted Tom and they talked regularly. But I thought the kid was amazing for his first time ever… truly, I’ve not seen anything like it before. And what’s more, I’ve got a kid who is his age… for my money, the kid doesn’t look like he’s acting. That is the way a 16-year-old acts. It’s a very assured performance: very honest and very realistic emotionally.

Win Win, Bobby Cannavale

Q. How was your working relationship with Tom McCarthy evolved since The Station Agent?
Bobby Cannavale: Well, we’re just good friends. We see each other all the time, we hang out, and we go drinking. We met in the theatre about 15 or 16 years ago, when we were acting together in a play, so we’ve remained close ever since. And we’re very supportive of each other. He doesn’t tell me what he’s working on until it’s done. It was the same situation here – he finished the script and then let me read it. But I rely on Tom’ opinions a lot and his taste. I think he has great taste.

Q. So, when it comes to work what is it that you look for? I mean, you regularly do film, TV and theatre, so is it script first or sometimes the chance to work with a great director?
Bobby Cannavale: It’s not very sexy, but one of the first things I look for is that it works in New York. I don’t like to leave home. My son is 16 and in high school, so I don’t like to leave here. I grew up wanting to be a New York city actor, rather than being drawn to LA, and I’ve managed to do that a lot. I also like to do a play every year and I do want to work with great directors and writers. I’m lucky to be able to do that and sort of cultivate relationships here in the city.

One of the great things about working in this city, and living in this city and even doing theatre here is that there’s always something to do. I can get involved in workshops of plays or movies, or do readings. I’ve done a lot of informal readings of kick-ass, big scripts of things that sometimes do happen and sometimes don’t, but it enables me to meet and work with really exciting people and to meet fellow auteurs – people like John Turturro or Richard Linklater… wonderful indie filmmakers. I’ve done things with them on smaller scales, too, but I like to be involved in the whole process and I’ve been doing that for many years. And that comes directly from being involved in theatre.

Q. You’ve just been Tony nominated for The Motherf*ker With The Hat on Broadway, your second nomination. And you’re working with Chris Rock on that…*
Bobby Cannavale: It’s fantastic. We’ve been working on the play since the beginning of February. Chris had never done a play before and wanted to challenge himself. I mean, he’s at the top of his game at another level, so it’s exciting to see him step outside of his comfort zone. When I read this play I thought immediately that it’s the best play I’ve ever read, so it was very exciting for me to be able to do it. And I’ve had a blast with him. We’re hoping it will run all summer.

Q. So, what takes you out of your comfort zone as an actor? Which roles are furthest from you?
Bobby Cannavale: [Pauses to think] You know, I think this play I’m doing right now is different and Tom’s movie is a little but out of my comfort zone. It’s not like I’m going out of my way to be different with every role I do. I think there must be an element of my personality that people think they’ve got me pegged on. But I can subvert that. I’m not stupid. It might be that they think I do blue collar really well, but it’s not quite that… maybe, I can make things funny that maybe on the page aren’t very funny. It might be the desperation thing or the actions these characters take.

I think I’m cleverer than the people making the decisions about the parts I get to play. But with someone like Terry, for instance, I thought it was a good opportunity to play somebody in a different economic bracket. For me, that was new and I enjoyed being able to play someone who, on the surface has it all, but who underneath is just as desperate as the guy who doesn’t know if he’s going to be able to pay the bills. And in this play, I’m getting to play somebody who is really low on the economic rung, who has just got out of prison and who is struggling to put his life back together. That’s a new experience for me. They [the roles] don’t ever feel like the same thing and I don’t want to feel like I’m just going from one thing to the next. I’m always looking for what makes the character unique.

But saying that, there are only so many characters you can ever play as an actor, so you’re kind of limited in making those decisions. I can only commit to playing a part a certain way and hoping that it works and that they’ll trust me enough to do something different with something that might seem like an obvious choice for me. I enjoy the challenge of being able to do that.

Read our review of Win Win

Amy Ryan interview

Thomas McCarthy interview