There are few actors who can show emotion on stage as well as Bobby Cannavale. Despite a deep passion for the Broadway stage, Cannavale’s intensity makes him in demand for a variety of film and television roles, including a season-long stint on HBO’s Boardwalk Empire.
In a conversation with The New York Times on the eve of his next Broadway role in Clifford Odets’s The Big Knife, Cannavale spoke about how he made it despite never being formally trained as an actor and where his intensity comes from.
Cannavale explains that he started his career by doing just about anything to be part of the New York theater scene. He recalls, “I just started showing up everywhere. This was when Eric Bogosian’s shows were at their height at P.S. 122, so I would go there and say, ‘Can I just do anything to get in?’ And they would let me clean the bathrooms. Then I started getting plays that didn’t pay, showcases.”
His big break final came when Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Lanford Wilson saw Cannavale act and was immediately impressed, bringing Cannavale into Wilson’s own Off Broadway theater group, the Circle Repertory Company. Cannavale says, “Lanford took me out that night, and I didn’t leave his side for like the next two years. I had an actual place to go where they didn’t want me to clean up. They had a lab, a production every weekend.” Cannavale’s impressive connections expanded when he married Jenny Lumet, the daughter of famed director Sidney Lumet, who Cannavale regarded as a father figure even after Jenny and he divorced in 2003.
When it comes to Cannavale’s explosive acting, he draws from his background and his belief that people regard him as less than intelligent. He explains, “I don’t know, I’m Latin. I’ve always felt like I’m on the outside. I think certain people judge you right away, and I’ve always been acutely sensitive to that. I’m fighting, whether it’s accurate or not, a perception that I get of people thinking I’m dumb.”
He believes that part of it also comes from his outlook on life. Cannavale admits, “I can also be stubborn. I’m an idealist. I used to say to Sidney, ‘Pop, your movies are always about people fighting against something, the system or corruption,’ and he said, ‘That’s what life is about.’ I loved that. I’m fighting complacency. Most people think good enough is good enough. I go to the theater a lot, and communion doesn’t always happen, but when it does, it’s indescribable. I don’t come from anywhere, man, but I am always on the search for excellence.”