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Bobby Cannavale

'Vinyl' & The Transcendence of the Stage


Bobby Cannavale is perhaps best known for his television roles in Boardwalk Empire and the new HBO hit Vinyl, created by Martin Scorsese, Mick Jagger, and Terence Winter, in which Cannavale plays a music executive in New York during the 70s. However, Cannavale is a also a seasoned thespian, whose work, like The Motherfucker with the Hat, has earned him a plethora of accolades. In his own words, Cannavale told us about the transcendence of the stage, Louis C.K., and choosing to break free from typecasting.


I’m not really fooled by the action hero we’re being sold on these days. Then again, no one’s coming after me to play leading man roles; but frankly, I find those to be less interesting than they used to be. Usually, it’s the friend who’s more interesting, or the bad guy. That’s what I go for, the character roles. I’m proud of my decisions to be in movies that target a narrower audience. You can’t control what people write about you or what people think about you, so you decide what characters you want to play and which directors you want to work with. I get to work with people like Al Pacino and Woody Allen, people I’ve always wanted to work with—I can’t worry about what people say afterwards.


After Boardwalk Empire ended, I had to decide whether I wanted to typecast myself as “the mafia guy.” Every actor has that choice, and I just didn’t do it. I know actors in this business who get their shot doing something really well, and they spend their careers playing one character, but that’s not for me. I have to be unsure if I can even do it before I can get excited about it. I like to be scared and take on a challenge, and at the end of the day I can say that I love to go to work.


Going on stage is one of those challenges: it’s a different game, and it works for me. I get to play leads in theatre, and those are different from the lead in a rom-com, for example. Beyond that, there’s a methodical nature to theatre that I thrive on. I really like rehearsing. I like coming in, starting from the same place with everybody in the room, and building something. There’s also the thrill of performing eight times a week, with a new audience each night. It’s a totally different high than I get from being in a movie or a TV show. Don’t get me wrong—there are times when I go to the theater and I understand why people hate it. Sometimes it’s just really bad. When it’s great, though, it’s transporting, in the same way a great movie can be.


It makes sense. Plays are what got me into the acting game to begin with. I grew up with a single parent and I wasn’t allowed to go out much, so I went to the library and read a lot. I used to read a couple of chapters of a book and then put on a little performance for my family, based on the story. I’d write down the dialogue and make my sister do the scenes with me. I don’t really know where it came from because I don’t have anyone in my family who has any kind of artistic bent; it was just part of me. I had the bug early on, and it really came from plays.


A few years ago, I was in The Motherfucker with the Hat, with Chris Rock. Louis CK came—he always comes to see my plays—and after the show he said to me, “Man, I just can’t get over the fact that I can throw something at you.” Louis came to see that play three times. He told me that he had to come back to Motherfucker because he felt like he was in the room with us and shouldn’t have been there. When that happens, it’s incredible, because there’s no real logic to it. You’re sitting in the theatre right next to a stranger, and there’s people standing right in front of you, people you could technically throw things at—but instead you’re transported.


Photography: Brigitte Lacombe for NeueJournal

Guest Photo Editor: Janet Johnson