Long limbs stretched out on a floral sofa in the library of SoHo's Crosby Street Hotel, Bobby Cannavale looks like a bull in a china shop. Slim at 6'2", in a navy Rag & Bone sweater and J Brand jeans, he's a handsome, stylish bull, not so much changed since he broke out on Third Watch back in 1999 as Bobby Caffey, the puppy dog-eyed paramedic with a heart of gold. But a bull nonetheless.
Cannavale, who stars in next month's summer blockbuster Ant-Man with Paul Rudd, has made a career of playing the heavy: the heavy-handed sweetheart in The Station Agent, the heavy-fisted hood Gyp Rosetti in Boardwalk Empire, the hard-charging litigator in Broadway's Glengarry Glen Ross. But as often as not, he's played against type too. "I always had the same idea, even when I was young," he says in his charming Jersey bellow, tucking lustily into a cheeseburger. "I want to play everything." And he has. He won one of his two Emmys for his portrayal of Will's long-term boyfriend Vince in Will & Grace, sang and danced in Annie, and, in the recent comedy Adult Beginners, brought nuance and depth to the role of Danny, the supportive husband of Justine, played by Rose Byrne. On that one, though, he's had practice. The two have been dating for the past three years.
Shattering the hush of a few tea-sipping guests, Cannavale holds forth on his unlikely journey and living life to the fullest.
At 45, a time when many men are resigning themselves to slowly growing wider and softer, you're starting to do action films. Why?
During my whole career, friends have been calling me, asking, "Can you do this? Can you do that?" I've known Paul [Rudd] for a long time. We're drinking buddies. When he was working on Ant-Man, Paul called me up and said, "Dude, Marvel is going to call you tomorrow. Take the part. Trust me. It's going to be great." So I did.
You began acting seriously at a tender age, yet you didn't grow up in a theater household. How did you get started?
My dad worked at a mechanical factory for 35 years. I grew up in Union City, N.J. My mother is a social worker. My sister runs a 7-Eleven, and my brother is a detox counselor. They had no predilection for the arts. But from a very young age, I really, really loved theater. When I was around 13, I used to tag along with my cousins when they came into the city. They'd go off to do their own thing, and I'd go see plays.
Who inspired you at the time?
When I saw John Turturro in Danny and the Deep Blue Sea, I realized that was the kind of actor I wanted to be. He scared the bejesus out of everybody in the theater. I was terrified.
Turturro has a very specific look, but he, like you, resists typecasting.
I noticed very quickly I was being asked to play the same kinds of roles, a sort of Italian-American chooch or a Latin street thug. But I'm just not interested in doing the same thing again and again. Some actors want to keep riding the horse that made them famous, but it's not interesting to me. I like to turn an archetype on its head. That's what I loved about my character Chili in Blue Jasmine. One, it's Woody Allen. Two, he's a great writer, so even though my character is a grease monkey who wears True Religion jeans with a white belt, his language is very against type. He's clearly been to therapy.
There's always an element of Woody Allen in the characters he creates. In the same way, there seems to be a little Cannavale in every character you portray.
I learned a long time ago that what worked best for me is to bring some part of me to the character. Even in someone like Rosetti on Boardwalk Empire, who is about as far from me in real life as he can be, there's a part of me in there, a part I keep to myself. Somebody told me a long time ago that your character should always have a secret, and it's true. What makes someone compelling is what he or she hides.
Ant-Man is the closest you've gotten to the big-budget Hollywood blockbuster. But generally, you've stayed away from the meat grinder of Los Angeles.
I love New York. It's not like in Los Angeles; my friends and I don't go to parties together. We just hang out. I do readings with them. I do workshops with them. I still hang out with the same people since I worked as a bouncer at places like Café Society and the M.K. club and doing plays for no money. I didn't start work until 11 p.m. every night, so there was plenty I could do before then.
Were you a good bouncer?
I was playing the part, 100 percent. But I never told anyone I was an actor. Everybody's an actor, right? I didn't want to be that guy. So I played the part of someone who excels at being security. Do you know this guy Brian Atwood?
The shoe designer?
Yes. I don't know anything about women's shoes, but a couple of years ago I was at the CFDA Awards with Rose and all of a sudden I hear, "Hey, Bobby! Bobby!" I turn around, and it is Brian Atwood. We used to work the door together at M.K. club in the early '90s. I was like, "Holy sh—, dude! What are you doing here?" I had no idea he designed shoes. Rose said to me later, "How do you know Brian Atwood?"
So far you've done three movies with Rose. What's it like working with your steady?
It's great. She's one of those people who are just really good at acting. Like me, she doesn't spend a lot of time talking about it. She does her work quietly, but she makes choices nobody else would make.
For more handsome photos of Bobby Cannvale and to read his full feature, pick up the June issue of InStyle, available now on newsstands and for digital download.