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Catch Bobby Cannavale While You Can

The Nine Perfect Strangers actor shares tales of pandemic parenting and why he's starting to be a lot more choosy about his work.
By Laura Norkin
Aug 17, 2021 @ 9:30 am

Bobby Cannavale cries himself to sleep every night. 

This is the second thing he tells me when we connect on Zoom in late-July. He's in his Brooklyn backyard, a postage stamp-sized plot that looks like he could just about touch two fences. The first thing? Divulging his celebrity crush: Rose Byrne, his partner of nine years and mother to his two young sons, Rocco, 5, and Rafa, 3. In fairness, I asked.

But back to the bedtime tears. Cannavale is upbeat when we speak, quick to joke in an alarmingly disarming way, but I detect a bit of the pandemic-weary parent. "I'm not emotional, but it's a full weep," the 51-year-old laughs, explaining that he likes to squeeze in some reading at the end of a long day, and then his eyeballs pretty much melt. "Rose starts to laugh because my face is just wet. And it looks like what I'm reading is really affecting me, but it's just — that's my body telling me I'm going to run out in a minute. I'm just going to run out of everything." 

Bobby Cannavale
Credit: Justin Wu

It's not surprising to hear Cannavale uses himself up by the end of a day. He emotes and gesticulates as if onstage (which is where he prefers acting, because of the collaboration and completeness of each performance). And maybe it's the Zoom of it all over-emphasizing his hands when they swing toward the laptop, but I can't help but notice the way they swirl near his face like we're doing Hamlet sometimes and bat around like pure Jersey at others. He grew up in Union City, one of those "just through the Lincoln Tunnel" towns near Hoboken, and did a middle school stint in Puerto Rico when his Cuban-born mom followed one of her three husbands down there, then moved to Florida before he made his way to New York alone to act right out of high school. In interviews over the years he's talked about what came next as happenstance, being in the right place at the right time, taking what he could get, and meeting the right guys (including Al Pacino and Martin Scorsese). 

But Cannavale really does leave it all out there in a way that draws audiences to the characters he originates — like Gyp Rosetti on Boardwalk Empire, a most disconcerting combination of charm and terror — and those he brings to life off a page. Currently, he stars among a well-balanced ensemble on Nine Perfect Strangers, a Hulu miniseries out August 18, based on the 2018 novel by Big Little Lies author Liane Moriarty. 

Fans of BLL will feel right at home beginning with this show's sexy-psychedelia opening credits, its luxurious coastal setting, and well-to-do characters crumbling under existential questions (Cannavale's literally says "I don't know why I'm here," at one point, distraught). It also shares David E. Kelly writing credits, a cinematographer, costume designer, and production company in common. There's even at least one instance of a woman hurtling herself toward a cliff's edge. It also stars Nicole Kidman, who plays a mysterious Eastern European wellness guru with Khaleesi hair who brings a small group of suffering strangers together at her compound, where she uses isolation, starvation, and the occasional potato-sack race to heal their traumas. No offense to Hulu, but it watches like an HBO show. Cannavale plays Tony, who is gruff, agitated, dressed in old sweats and shower slides, and not sure he belongs.

"I thought the character was so fucking weird and complicated," he says. "It's like a guy who volunteers to come to this place and then spends most of his time trying to leave, but he can't quite make himself leave and he's so damaged and so on the precipice of doing something dangerous to himself. I thought it would be interesting to see how to get that guy through those 10 days." But what first drew him to the role was a text from his friend and frequent co-star, Melissa McCarthy, saying he had to read the script. 

"I knew Bobby would be amazing as Tony, because he's always great," she says via email. "Selfishly, I wanted to see Bobby play this damaged, complicated, and vulnerable character. Bobby is a super-pro, he's incredibly thought-out and prepared. But what makes him remarkable is that he operates from his gut and his humor and his heart. Extraordinary actors like Bobby make you fall in love with an unlikeable character before you even know why. And that's magic."

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Credit: Justin Wu

Bobby Cannavale's Bobby Cannavale-ness is turned up to an 11 in this role. The big brows are in a permanent furrow. The puppy eyes dare you to dredge up even a drop of disdain when he introduces himself as "a run-of-the-mill asshole" (you won't be able to, though McCarthy's character does). The gravelly voice is somehow made even more so, as if he'd been swallowing sharpened despair for decades. And yet he looks nothing like himself. Where you expect slick — like the Bobby from that Vanity Fair shoot with Rose for example (you know the one) — he is rounded, softened like a body left to its own devices for too much time. There's a bit of a paunch. A straggly, graying beard. A loafing walk and slumped shoulders. A lot of quietness where he usually booms. Watching it before our interview, I wondered if Cannavale had really become some of that, haggard by the last 18 months. I was reassured to find none of it but the suggestion of salt-and-pepper stubble when we speak.  

I wanted to ask if he embodied all that pain and sadness while filming, even though he was going home to his adorable, curly-haired kids and Rose Byrne on the Australian coast every night. He said not really. 

"I do think that two things can coexist. I could be an attentive, good parent and still have some darkness inside or things that I know I may be insecure about or that I'm afraid to reveal that I'm vulnerable about, let's say. And what I really like about acting is that I can exploit those things," he says. He references this character and Boardwalk's Rosetti as similar examples of times he had to harness internal darkness. "It doesn't mean I want to kill anybody, but there are definitely some darker aspects of my psyche that I can go into and exploit." He does this mostly in preparation for a project rather than settling in there during production. Without the benefit of having seen him onset, I get the sense it's like watching theater: He hits his mark, goes there all the way, and then it's done. 

"Bobby brought out Tony's humanity," McCarthy adds. "He could have played him as merely angry and acerbic, but Bobby bent that character to also show Tony's emotional side, his humor and his pain. Bobby's work reminds me of origami; he can take a plain sheet of paper and twist it into a crane or lotus flower."

All that twisting must leave him sore sometimes, and Cannavale recalls one "physically and emotionally exhausting" job in 2011, portraying an addict alongside Chris Rock on Broadway for eight shows a week. "I had to take a walk for an hour after that every night because I was pretty banged up inside," he says. But he's quick to add that's not usually the case. 

"When I was shooting Boardwalk Empire it was in the beginning of my relationship with Rose, so I couldn't have been in two [more] different places on a daily basis. We'd shoot these really dark scenes all day, and then I'd go out with my new girlfriend, who I was, you know — in the beginning … you know how that goes." It would be a reach to say he was blushing, but I can see a fond remembrance of early love swell for a second before he comes back to the point. "So, no, I don't really ascribe to having to experience the darkness in order to portray it. That's just never been my way of working, and I guess it keeps me somewhat healthier for myself."

Bobby Cannavale Polaroids
Credit: Bobby Cannavale

Health and family are clearly his priorities right now, and he and Byrne navigate the same divisions-of-labor discussions many pairs of working parents know too well. Only, it doesn't seem to be a fight for them. "It's just a conversation. It's just an ongoing conversation," he says. "We're constantly going, 'Right. Okay. So what's the plan for the next [few months]?' We take it in chunks. We were lucky, we've managed to plan [our projects] pretty good. I'll do something, she'll do something, maybe we'll do something together. So, so far so good, touch wood." They closed a play in Brooklyn together just before the pandemic closed everything, and Rose's latest project, Physical, is streaming now on Apple TV+, so the timing of late has been falling in place. "We just take it as it comes, but we always say we just got to keep the band together. Like we try not to break up. We try to all go together, wherever we gotta go. We're like U2. It's like, everybody plays or nobody plays." 

The band sometimes includes Cannavale's 26-year-old son, Jake, from a previous marriage, whom he refers to as his doppelgänger and who's an actor as well. "I'm not even his acting coach anymore. He's asked me to step aside, and Rose is his acting coach now; she's really good at getting Jake to relax. I'll be like, 'Dude, whatever happens, never be late. Please don't ever be late,'" he says, feigning stress. He goes on to praise his son's "good, solid work ethic," which he saw firsthand when they played father and son on Nurse Jackie.

I take the 'keep the band together' moment as an opportunity to ask if he and Rose are going to get married, and it doesn't work. He just laughs an "I don't know," and ribs me for trying. "I hate when you find out that it's being written about as a headline, it's just…" He was not angry, just disappointed. "I don't know. I don't know why people care. Why do people give a shit?" This was rhetorical. "The only people that should care are her parents and my parents. You know what I mean? They don't care, so why would anyone else care?" 

It's because he and Byrne are the rare celebrity couple that's equal in their hotness, talent, and likability. They seem like good parents and cool people so we (you know, us in general) want good things for them, but also we'd really like to see them all dressed up. Of course, they already have good things, and there's a decent chance they'll both have reason to stun at next year's Emmys. 

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Credit: Justin Wu

Nine Perfect Strangers was filmed on location at a real wellness spa in Byron Bay ("paradise"), starting with the ensemble scenes that punctuate the drama with slapstick and sweetness. We meet Michael Shannon's Ned Flanders-like school teacher, McCarthy's bougie romance novelist, Regina Hall's skittish mom, and Samara Weaving's hyper-contoured influencer over shared meals, as they were getting to know each other, too. Tiffany Boone and Manny Jacinto play wellness counselors who practically float around the campus, well-matched in their eeriness and empathy to the others.

Nicole Kidman's character, Masha, is an enigma. She welcomes her clientele by saying, "There can be birth in death. Tragedy can be a blessing," and promises to change their lives in unimaginable ways. It feels prescient. "I read this at the very beginning of the pandemic and I remember even back then thinking, 'Interesting, it's about a bunch of people who are living through a trauma they just can't get through and a grief that they can't seem to move through at all. And I bet we're going to be going through that, however long this thing takes,'" Cannavale says. "I had a feeling, like a lot of people, that it was going to take a long time. I'm 51 and, for sure, I will never forget the moment-to-moment of this." His hands get going again, in theater-teacher mode, to say he imagines the great art about this pandemic won't come for years, but "you could draw some parallels to the subject matter on this show, for sure." The subject matter includes fear and anxiety as it pertains to isolation; the universal and also hidden aspects of grief; addiction, heartbreak, career insecurity, and trauma — if any of that rings a bell for 2020-2021.

Part of Tony's arc is lamenting that his career was over in a flash because of something beyond his control, and it's clear he has struggled to create an identity for himself after. I use this to ask Cannavale if he — having seen success in film, onstage, on television — is ambitious to maintain this level of output, or if he envisions hanging it up to continue romping around Upstate farmer's markets. In January, he told Twiggy that's how he was passing his pandemic time.

"Funny you would ask that," he says. "The latter, like moreso the latter. I'm one of those people that's definitely short on ambition, always have been. I've always wanted to be an actor, I feel very lucky that I got the breaks that allowed me to move onto the next chapter. And I'm lucky to have had those moments come together to let me do this for a living. I'm always super aware of that, but I've never thought in terms of, 'How do I maintain this,' so much as, 'Oh, good. I'm getting offered this, great.' I've really just followed my instincts, like truly, truly, truly. And my instincts now are telling me that I don't want to work as much as I have been all these years. The older I am now with these two little guys, I don't want to spend as much time on sets. I don't really love being on the set all day. I used to ... I thought I did ... But it's just a lot of time away from your family."

Bobby Cannavale Polaroids
Credit: Bobby Cannavale

He gets winsome again thinking about his farmer's market days and what he likes to make for his kids — Missy Robbins' 30 Clove Sauce and a sausage ragú from the New York Times. He starts telling me how when he roasts a chicken, he mixes rosemary, garlic and butter and rubs it under the skin, and it's like I'm watching a Bobby Cannavale cooking show. If we really are facing another round of lockdowns, I hope he makes this happen on Instagram at least. He's already doing all the family cooking. 

"Rose makes one thing really, really good, which is a spinach pie. But it's a once every two or three weeks kind of thing, maybe. I do all the cooking," he laughs. And then the Brooklyn parent really comes out. "It's satisfying to see [the kids] really enjoy their food and knowing I know everything that's on their plate. I'm not grabbing it out of a box — that's just my taste." 

Cannavale's comfortable in this slower pace and not eager to get back to the hustle. "After this last year and a half? Yeah, I do like going to the farmer's market. I like going to the different shops every day: to the fruit guy, and to the butcher lady, and the bakery, and coming home and being like, 'Guess what I'm making, guys!' I don't know, there's something I've gotten used to with that, that I'm going to be very, very careful about how I choose — maybe for the first time in my life, more so than ever — because of the experience I've had with the kids. So, that's the plan. Let's see if I can stick to it."

Hope the boys love roast chicken, because he doesn't seem like a guy who gives up.

Below, Cannavale reveals his favorite villain, the last time he cried (for real), and the story behind one regrettable leather suit.

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Credit: Justin Wu

Who is your celebrity crush?

Rose Byrne.

Correct answer.

I don't know what to tell you. I mean, I'm compromised here. Let's go with Rose. Let's go with Rose.

What's the last thing you do before you fall asleep?

I cry my eyes out, because I have a weird thing where I read in bed, like a lot of people. I read in bed at the end of a long day, kids, blah, blah, blah. I go to bed very early because of the kids. I like to have at least a half an hour to read and the only time I have in the day is then and at 6:00 when I wake up, and when I start to get really tired, I start to cry, uncontrollably. My eyes, they burn. And they just cry.

Are you saying your eyes are tearing? Like, not emotional sobs?

I'm not emotional but it's a full weep. Rose starts to laugh because my face is just wet. And it looks like what I'm reading is really affecting me, but it's just — that's my body telling me I'm going to run out in a minute. I'm just going to run out of everything. And usually, I fall asleep with moist eyes every night.

As a fellow pandemic parent, I can relate to ending my day weeping.

At like 9:40.

Favorite villain?

Javert from Les Misérables, from the book. I never saw the movie or the musical, but I remember very vividly reading that book. It's huge. It's like 800 pages. My oldest son, who's 26 now, was in a stroller and I was understudying this show on Broadway all these years ago. And I just remember specifically being at a point in my life where I could read that during rehearsal and I became really obsessive with that book. It's just a beautiful, beautiful story. And I just thought that Javert character is... God, what a son of a bitch he is. What a great, great, great, great villain.

I can't believe you've never seen any of the musical versions. I mean, the movie...

I've never seen the musical. I just missed it. And then I read the book and thought, "I don't have to see a movie." I mean, it's like the greatest novel I've ever read. It's historical, it's romantic, it's political, it's incredible.

You are in a show right now that's based on a book.

Oh yeah, right.

And then there was Motherless Brooklyn.

Most of the time, the book is better than the movie, but I could argue that not always. The Godfather, I think, is a really wonderful book, but I think the movie is better, for my taste.

I think Goodfellas — I loved Wise Guys. They're different, but the movie's incredible. But I'm a big reader, and Les Misérables, that's just one of the great, great... It's an old story and it's one of the greatest villains and greatest characterization of a villain I've ever read.

Bobby Cannavale Polaroids
Credit: Bobby Cannavale

First album you've ever owned.

The first album I ever owned was Belly Up! by Dr. Hook. My dad had it and he would listen to it all the time when I would go over there on Sundays. My dad liked them because they were from Union City, Jersey, the only real famous act to ever come out of there. And they were this huge band and they were just always wasted. I really shouldn't have been listening to them, but all the songs on this album were written by the great Shel Silverstein, but they were his adult compositions. [Songs like] "Acapulco Goldie," about a woman they meet in Acapulco who sells them some weed, and I was like 5 and I was just singing along.

Favorite cheesy pickup line?

I don't know. I mean, I've been together with Rose for so long now. I was going to make a joke and say I'm not interested in picking anybody up, but I'm always interested in a good babysitter. So maybe it would be, "Hey, do you babysit?"

If you ran for office, what would your slogan be?

It would just be my face and just, "Why not?" I guess.

Perfect. That would work.

Why not?

Is there an outfit you regret wearing?

Yeah. I'll tell you a funny story. Back when I was in the earlier part of my career, I think I was doing Third Watch and my life was like — one night I was bartending and the next I was on a TV show. I was, like, feeling myself and I was getting clothes sent to me, and I got sent a leather suit, a black leather suit, that I shouldn't have opened it, much less worn it. I was going out to do something that I thought was important, which of course, wasn't, but it had something to do with Third Watch and making an appearance, the opening of an envelope or something. I put this leather suit on. It was like July, and my wife at the time, Jake's mom, Jenny [Lumet], she was like, "Where are you going, Chris Rock?" And I looked at myself and thankfully that was a good enough joke that I turned around and took it off and never put it on again.

Have you seen that iconic episode of Friends where Ross, David Schwimmer, puts on leather pants and then he can't get them off?

No.

It's too hot, and then he can't get them off because he's sweaty inside. It's a very slapstick, ridiculous thing. I'm guessing that wasn't what happened. 

That did not happen because I took it off before it was too late. 

Describe your first kiss.

I remember it so well. I'm not going to say her name, but this girl that lived in my neighborhood in Union City. I was 11 and she was 13, Italian girl, and she lived in the neighborhood, but I didn't really hang out with her. I didn't really know her at all.  

My mother used to scream out my name, come home, on the block and I could hear her screaming my name, getting angrier and angrier. Anna had me pinned. We lived next to the high school that my mother and father went to, Emerson High School, and she had me pinned in a doorway. I didn't know what was going on, but she was so cute. And then she pinned me up against the wall and kissed me, put a tongue in my mouth. It was the first time that had ever happened to me. I'd never kissed a girl and I'll never forget it.

And then I ran home feeling, like, hot, like that shouldn't have happened. It felt both incredible and incredibly dangerous at the same time. It's my most visceral early moment that I can remember physically. 

Favorite Chris: Pine, Pratt, Evans, or Hemsworth?

You can't ask about three white guys. Chris Rock is my favorite Chris. There's so many good other Chris's — Chris Tucker, Chris Wallace, Chris Cross...

Favorite bagel?

Everything bagel from Ess-a-Bagel on 1st ave.

Last time you cried?

Last night right before bed.

What about actual emotional tears?

The other day, watching Soul. You've seen Soul?

We tried to watch it. I ended up having to take care of the baby in another room, so my husband and 5-year-old watched it. He loved it; I think it was over her head.

I mean, there's no question. It's over my head, but Rocco cannot stop asking questions. What a provocative movie and what an interesting movie to think about. It really does make you think about so many things; it's a beautiful movie, and it's emotional.

Photographs by Justin Wu. Polaroid Photos by Bobby Cannavale. Special thanks to Polaroid. Booking by Isabel Jones. Production by Kelly Chiello, assisted by Erin Glover.