He can be loving, angry, dangerous, volatile, and vulnerable—all of which come into play in his latest supporting role in writer Dan Fogelman’s directorial debut “Danny Collins” (March 20) in which he plays the estranged son of an aging pop star played with his usual brio by Al Pacino.
Read: Early reviews are mixed.
As Collins reaches a dead end with his career as well as his philandering younger girlfriend, he goes in search of his adult son (Cannavale), who’s living in New Jersey with his wife (Jennifer Garner) and little girl (Giselle Eisenberg). The son, who’s in construction, wants nothing to do with his father, but when he’s threatened with the same illness that killed his mother, his father tries to help. While a strong cast also including Annette Bening help to save this MOR drama from becoming an MOW, it does comes perilously close.
Cannavale and I talked last week at the Beverly Hilton. “Danny Collins” is the first release of new distributor Bleecker Street, founded by ex-Focus Features exec Andrew Karpen, who’s banking that the film will reach many of the same crowd that flocked to “Last Vegas” ($134 million), written by Fogelman.
Anne Thompson: I saw you on Broadway in “The Motherfucker with the Hat” on a particular night — when there was an accident.
Bobby Cannavale: You did? I busted my head open. I have eleven stitches right here [points at a scar on his forehead].
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Oh, God, yes. I do see it. What happened?
I was making an entrance. I’d done it the exact same way every night. There’s a cue light, and as soon as that light goes off, I exit really fast onto the stage, and I usually have my hand on a post there, and I know that, if I let go of it, I”ll go straight. But I had my hand on the wrong post this time; I had my hand on, like, the inside post, so it just shifted my body about six inches downstage too much. And so, when I turned around to go, I walked right into a metal post. It just knocked me out. I only blacked out for a second, and, when I came to, I was bleeding — just squirting. My dresser caught me, and, yeah, you saw what happened: they stopped the show, they asked for a doctor, an optometrist came back.
And there was a guy running down the aisle!
He just applied pressure on it. The show wasn’t supposed to have an intermission; they stopped the show, then they continued the show. They tried to get me to go to the hospital, and I wouldn’t do it, because there wasn’t that much show left and I just really wanted to finish it. And I loved that show so much. I don’t know if you remember, but I spent the rest of the show bleeding. It was such an open cut that I had to go, that night, to a plastic surgeon and have him sew it up at, like, 11 o’clock. I only had two scenes left, but I was bleeding the rest of the show.
“Danny Collins” surprised me. Al Pacino is on a tear. He’s in one movie after the other, and a lot of them are about artists struggling to remain vital. This is the best of them. As his son, you manage to make your character not turn into the sick person of the week.
The whole project was just a product of serendipitous timing. Al and I did “Glengarry Glenn Ross” on Broadway for about four months, and we just got really close. We became really good friends. We figured out that we have a lot in common. The first time I met Al… Al’s, like, my hero. I’d always wanted to meet Al, I always wanted him to come meet me onstage, and I’ve seen everything he’s done on stage, ever.
Do you admire his stage work more?
I wouldn’t say more. I admire it just as much. I just think he’s the greatest living actor we have. We were both nominated for a Tony award the same year as “Motherfucker”; he was nominated for “Merchant of Venice.” We sat next to each other at the Tonys, and that was my shot, and I just introduced myself. I said, “It would mean everything if you’d come to see the show.” He said, “I’m coming next week.” He came, and then he stayed in my dressing room for about an hour-and-a-half after the show.
Everybody had left, people kept popping, in hoping to meet him, but he was the only one talking to me, so they didn’t want to interrupt us. We were the only ones left in the theater. That guy asked me so many questions. I never got to ask him anything. He just asked me all these questions about my family, about my work, about where I studied, what I like to read — he asked me so many questions. I was so impressed by that.
You wouldn’t expect him to be not narcissistic and so curious.
That’s the thing about Al: he’s curious. He’s tormented by life. He doesn’t really want an answer. He just wants to talk about the questions. And I think that’s what makes him so interesting to watch: there’s just a torment about everything. And so, when we were doing “Glengarry,” he came and saw the show, and I got a call saying, “Al wants to do the show with you. Would you be interested?” And I said, “Of course.”
We did it. We got very, very close, and then we closed “Glengarry,” and he said, “Do you want to play my son in this movie?” At that point, we’d shared so much about our families, and I read it, and I was like, “Wow this is perfect. The timing of this is perfect.” And the dialogue continued about our families and our fathers, and that was instrumental in this being such an easy experience. It didn’t feel like acting. It just felt like a continuation of the conversation.
You are playing a great character. He’s angry. He’s wounded. He’s deeply, deeply disturbed, and pissed — for every good reason — and yet he wants this guy to help him.
He needs this guy.
And he’s almost like the sugar daddy fantasy, coming in, but you keep it real.
The one tricky part is the fact that he’s sick.
That’s where it could go awry.
Yeah, but I just thought Dan did a really good job of staying away from a maudlin tone. The mother had the same disease, so we’ll believe that, and then it just becomes about if this guy is going to open the door. And he does — just a little bit. I think, by the end of the movie, it’s not really wrapped-up in a bow. He just holds his hand. He feels his hand on him, he holds it, he grabs it. It’s instinctual. I mean, I think we only shot that once.
Actually, I liked the ending. It worked for me.
I’m not one for cheap sentiment, and I was a bit concerned about it. I got to say: I thought it avoided the clichés pretty well. I think Al is excellent in it; I think Annette Bening is incredible. And Jennifer Garner, and Chris Plummer.
Garner always has to play that sort of saintly-woman role, which makes me crazy. But she brought some grit to it.
I think that part is harder than it looks on the page, because she’s playing a mom and she’s keeping the family together, and yet, at the same time, she’s fiercely protective of the family, yet she provides the bridge. That’s a tough thing to negotiate, and I think she does really fine work in the film. I’d never met Jen before, and we really united over being parents. That woman just loves being a mom. She’s very protective of her family, and so there was a lot of conversation on the set about family. It was just ongoing, between Jen and Al and I, about family all the time. Never once did we connect it to the story. It’s just this atmosphere of talking about the thing, and then it comes out.
You’re a child of the theater, but I remember you breaking out in “The Station Agent.” That’s when I discovered you. But you did work before that on television. You’re what, 44? You’re not a little boy.
Yeah, but, you know what? For my contemporaries, I was a little late. I missed the boat on guys like Ethan Hawke, Frank Whaley, Josh Hamilton — these guys who were working when they were 20, 21 years old. I hit kind of late for that.
I have another theory, which is that sometimes you put in those years of experience and it serves you well.
It definitely did. I didn’t stop working in a bar until Jake was about three years old, so I was about 27, 28 when I got “Third Watch.” I was working in the theater until then — just not making enough to support my family. But before “The Station Agent” I hadn’t done that much. I’d done “Third Watch,” “Oz,” about half a season of “Ally McBeal.” But “The Station Agent” got me “Will & Grace,” and really just got me working steady after that.
You know what role you would’ve been good for at a younger age? Louie Zamperini in “Unbroken.” He had this crazy drive and the ability to withstand anything, and he was always doing things that surprised people. He wasn’t a disciplined, I-do-it-this-way type, and I think you have that. There’s an edge to you, a rebellion, emotions that can serve you well.
I do think that’s true. I was always just allergic to any structured way of learning, and that’s why… I tried acting class and I just hated it, you know? I didn’t pursue any agents. I didn’t get a headshot for forever. It’s still in me: I just don’t like doing things the way that everybody does it. Everybody was taking audition classes and acting-on-camera classes, using the same photographer, and I was like, “No, I don’t want to do that.” So I would do things sort of unconventionally, you know? I found a job as an audition reader, and that turned into work for me, because I’m a good reader.
What’s an audition reader?
Somebody goes in and they need someone to say the other lines. That’s actually an important job. A lot of times I’ve gone in, and the casting director is watching you and trying to read at the same time. I had a friend who was a casting director and she was like, “Do you want to be the reader?” And I was like, “Yeah.” For me, I just always, in the back of my head, thought, “Maybe one of these casting directors will ask me to be in the movie.” And I got two jobs that way. So I did that. I didn’t have an agent while I was doing all of this. I went to open calls, and I got a job as an understudy that way. It’s sort of unconventional, but it worked for me. I just like doing it in my own way.
You pop in things again and again, and of course you see that as Gyp in “Boardwalk Empire.” You were terrifying!
Oh, thanks. Yeah, well, that was just a great role, and anytime you get to play a part where the writer is really excited about it, you want to jump onto that. I wouldn’t have done that if it wasn’t for “Motherfucker with the Hat.” Terry Winter and Marty Scorsese came and saw that play, and that’s how I got that role. I went in and talked to Terry, and I took that job without reading anything.
But I was with Terry, and he was so excited. He was jumping up and down about this character, and I thought, “Wow, he’s such a great writer, and if he’s that excited about this character, I’m in.” And he told me: “I promise: you never will be bored on set. You never will have a boring scene.” And I never was sitting around. Gyp was never in the background of those scenes; he was driving all those scenes.
In fact Gyp was so powerful that he was missed. I don’t think they could come up with anybody quite at his level.
But it was a smart move. Right after they killed-off Michael [Pitt], they needed somebody to sort of distract away — a “big bad,” essentially. I was happy to do it, and I’d never gotten to play that sort of role. But, for me, that character was like a comedy. I just thought he was so funny. Terry and I would laugh about him all the time. Marty thought that character was hysterical, and we would laugh about it.
There was a scene on a beach…
My first scene and last scene were on a beach. Do you mean the one where I hit the guy with a shovel? Yeah. But even like the things he’s saying, he’s got this monologue while he’s twirling the shovel. It’s just ridiculous. It’s so funny, and the guy loves to talk, put on a show, and he’s so insecure. His insecurity just made me laugh so hard — his sensitivity.
You also had a significant supporting role in “Win Win,” which came from Tom McCarthy. He’s had a big part in supporting you.
Oh, absolutely. Tom and I met on a Lanford Wilson play more than fifteen years ago. He was always writing, but I knew him, mostly, as an actor. He started writing this piece, and then we met Pete Dinklage one night, and we really liked him, and he wrote this play for Pete. He was like, “I’ve got to write a movie for you guys.” Around this time we met Patty Clarkson. He wrote that for the three of us.
We workshopped that thing for four years. We would do readings in living rooms for backers and just couldn’t get anything going. That script was a really hot property. Tom could’ve sold that script and got it made with other people, but he just refused to do it with anybody else. And then this guy, Robert May, gave us $400,000. We made that movie in, like, sixteen days.
And then “Win Win” was done the way he wanted to do it. Fox Searchlight was behind it.
It wasn’t much of a budget, but it was a small film. Tom wrestled in high school, and he wrote it with his oldest friend, who’s a lawyer for the elderly — like, an estate planner in his hometown in New Jersey — and this guy, Joe Tiboni, had these great stories about these clients of his, and he and Tom used to wrestle together, and they came up with this story together. And then he found this kid — this kid who’d never acted before, and was an amazing wrestler. An undefeated wrestler.
You were getting most of the laughs.
Oh, that character’s funny. That character’s tremendously insecure, at a real crossroads in his life, and he needs something in his life. That kid represents, like, life to him. All he’s doing is wallowing in despair over his divorce, parked outside a house he can no longer go into, watching the contractor have sex with his wife. The kid’s just an amazing opportunity for him, and he’ll use the kid as much as he can. I loved that part.
On Woody Allen’s “Blue Jasmine,” you were with some of the best actors in the world. Was that one of your best experiences?
Oh, completely. I got to shoot that while I was shooting “Boardwalk.” They gave me two weeks off, and I got to shoot that 13 days in a row. I was supposed to have a day off, but we did reshoots on the day off, so I shot 13 days, in order, and it was like its own movie.
Woody wouldn’t usually do that.
But he did it. We shot it in order. I’ve never done that. And I think it just worked out that way. Locations worked out, so we just did that in sequence. The arc was really… I got to play that whole arc out in real time.
Everybody makes a big fuss about how great Cate Blanchett was, and she won the Oscar, but Sally Hawkins is really terrific, too. And you’re fighting for her. You’re the big guy, and she’s the little, tiny woman.
When I met Woody, I had no idea what I was going in there for. They don’t tell you anything, just that “Woody Allen wants to meet you.” He hardly told me anything. He just started touching me, grabbing my shoulders and going, “Oh, you’re big! You’re big! Oh, you’re really big! That’s good. That’s good.” And he’s sort of thinking to himself, whispering to himself, I think, about what I might look like next to Sally. “Hey, you’re big enough, yeah. Can you give me a couple of weeks in August?” And I said, “Yeah.”
And you have no contact with Woody. Zero. Then you show up on set, and he just sort of expects you to know what to do, and I have to say: I got it. I read it and I got it, and I created my own thing. I was like, “This guy’s got a problem with his anger, and he loves her so much. Maybe he’s trying therapy, and not telling her.” Because he uses language, in the movie, that a guy like that you wouldn’t expect to use — how he wants to say something, but then he counts to ten. He uses all this sort of “therapy talk,” and I thought that was just a really good spin on an archetypal character.
You’re doing the HBO-Scorsese-Jagger-Winter project. How is that?
It’s rock ’n’ roll, 1973, set in the music business in New York City, and I play a guy who owns a rock ’n’ roll label. We shot the pilot in the summer, and we shoot ten episodes starting in May in New York.
So you’ve got some steady employment at home.
How many kids do you have?
My son, Jake, is 19. Making his Broadway debut on Friday with Larry David.
It runs in the family!