Actor Bobby Cannavale has done it all — film, stage, television — except that he’s never really been the lead. He’s been the best part of many of the things he’s done, but he’s rarely been the first name listed in the cast. All that has changed with Vinyl, the HBO series about a New York City record executive facing a career crossroads in 1973 played by Cannavale. Cannavale reunited with his Boardwalk Empire collaborators Terrence Winter and Martin Scorsese (joined by producer Mick Jagger) for the series, which has received very positive reviews so far. Speaking with the Wall Street Journal, Cannavale talks about how his role on Boardwalk Empire led to Vinyl, what it’s like to work with Scorsese, and how he manages to survive snorting so much fake cocaine.
Cannavale reveals that he was offered the Vinyl role during his storyarc on the third season of Boardwalk Empire. He recalls, “I was kind of humming in the role on Boardwalk, and that relationship [with the creators] was really working. I got a call from Terry Winter and I totally thought he was going to murder me, because that’s what happens–Terry calls you, and the next day your character is dead. That’s when he brought up the project. People ask me how long I thought about it before taking the part. What? What better thing is going to come along? The nice thing was that I had a script, unlike Boardwalk, which was just an idea that Terry pitched me.”
After working on Scorsese’s projects before, Cannavale has developed a familiarity with how the iconic director works. He reveals, “Marty takes care of his actors unlike any other director I’ve worked with. He knows who he is–he’s Martin Scorsese and every actor wants to work with him—but rather than using that power to just tell an actor what to do, he cultivates a relationship. Which is what he did with me for a few months before shooting: having me over to the house just to talk about music and movies and have pizza. He invited me to see [New York Dolls frontman] David Johansen perform and have a couple bottles of wine. There’s something about how down to earth Marty can get and at the same time speak very esoterically about the artform itself. He would mention four movies in a three-hour conversation, and by the time I get home those four movies are at my apartment with a little note from him. So when it came time to shoot, I didn’t have those first week jitters. I felt like the guy who owned the record company, which is what he wanted me to feel like–the boss, from day one.”
Cannavale can relate to his character by comparing it to his years as a struggling actor when he had to take parts that he didn’t want to earn money to provide for his family. He remembers, “When [my son] Jake was first born, I was working in different bars and feeling a lot of pressure to make decisions, artistically, that would help provide for my family. Then little by little, I started to give in and do some things that artistically I’m not very proud of. The one thing I stuck to was not going out to Los Angeles to do shitty TV shows. I was quite happy to keep doing these shows at [experimental theater] La MaMa that nobody was going to see. I wasn’t anybody yet, but the stakes felt high for me.”
Interestingly, although Cannavale has appeared on Broadway several times and in the past has expressed his desire to do a musical, he now thinks he doesn’t have the time or energy to pull it off. He explains, “For years I’ve been wanting to do a musical. I know enough now to stop saying that. I can’t commit to the time, and besides that it’s other muscles that I’m not used to using. I’ve seen Hamilton four times, and every time I say ‘F—, I’d like to play George Washington.’ But nobody up there is huffing and puffing and holding onto the set to catch their breath. That would be me up there panting. Those guys, the triple threats who can do that, are a whole other breed.”
One of the hallmarks of Vinyl is the copious cocaine use of the show’s character. Cannavale admits that he is a bit concerned about how much fake cocaine he would have to do since he has a history with stage cocaine. He remarks, “I was like, ‘Do I have to do coke in every episode?’ [Winter] was like ‘Yeah! You’ll be like the spokesperson for cocaine!’ … I don’t have that much real experience with blow. But I did a play 10 years ago called Hurlyburly and I had to do so much coke in that show. Eight shows a week for six months. That really prepared me. You have to have those saline solution pumps readily available because it just gets caked up in there, this milk powder they use. Though I’m pitching for vitamin B on Vinyl so I can get at least a little rush out of it next season.”