There’s no denying that Bobby Cannavale is an actor who isn’t just worthy of the spotlight, but one who’s deserved it for quite some time. While the gifted actor has spread his talents across film, television and theater, his work on TV stretches back to the ’90s, including prominent runs on series including “Third Watch,” “Oz,” “Will & Grace” and “Nurse Jackie.”
But it was perhaps Cannavale’s guest star run on the Martin Scorsese and Terence Winter drama “Boardwalk Empire” that set the stage for his new chance at the big time. As rock executive Richie Finestra, Cannavale is a captivating source of chaos whose love of great music is as pure as the cocaine he snorts. Below, Cannavale lays out the path that lead him to “Vinyl,” what it was like to step into a recreation of 1970s New York and what he learned from hanging out with executive producer Mick Jagger.
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I think all the lead up to “Vinyl” has been really exciting, if only to hear people talk about how, “Oh good, Bobby Cannavale is finally getting a really big role.”
Ah, that’s nice.
From your perspective, this isn’t your first lead role, but is this something you’ve been waiting for for a while?
I guess so. I haven’t been consciously waiting. I’ve just been doing whatever jobs I’ve been doing. I feel like I’ve been preparing for this the whole time, without thinking about it too much. I always said, “Lead roles, they’ve kind of eluded me a bit on television and in film.” I just haven’t been that guy.
I’ve done lead roles on stage — a lot of them. So I have experience with playing guys who have a lot of colors, or are multidimensional, because usually your lead characters are more well-rounded. But then it wasn’t until I really worked on “Boardwalk Empire” that I really got to work with a different caliber of talent writing for me in this medium. I hadn’t been able to work with anyone quite like Terry [Winter] and Marty [Scorsese] until “Boardwalk.” That really prepared me for this role, and by the time it came, it just felt very natural to me that I would go from one to the other.
Talk to me about how it came to you. What was the first conversation?
I was working on “Boardwalk,” and Terry gave me a call and he said, “I have something I want you to read. Marty and I have been working with Mick Jagger for the last eight years.” And I said, “Oh! Um, Okay.” That’s really how it happened. He just gave me a call, and then he sent me the script. And it was cool because the first time I really sat down with Terry for “Boardwalk,” there was no script for that role — for Gyp. But just the way he was describing him to me, I could just see how excited he was, and I just went on blind faith that I was going to have a good time doing this role, and I did. Terry didn’t really have to show me a script. He could have done the same thing, and I would have done it. But I read it and it just made sense.
Was this an era of music you were familiar with already?
Totally. I mean, I was young. I was born in 1970, but I remember the ’70s really well — the late ’70s, but I was in New Jersey and very close to the city — about 10 minutes away from the city — so New York rock music was on the radio a lot, and I had older cousins that lived in the building so that music was around all the time. It was something I was very interested in reading about when I was a teenager. I remember reading “Hammer of the Gods” [Stephen Davis’s unauthorized biography of Led Zeppelin] when I was like 13 years old, and that got me obsessed with reading all about the era.
I had a couple of years before we shot the pilot because Terry brought this up to me four years ago now, and we shot the pilot last year. So I had a good three years to really, really research a lot, and I really stepped up the reading. I got hooked up with a lot of guys from that time to really help me a lot, like Danny Goldberg and Lenny Kaye.
Was there anything from your research that surprised you?
I didn’t really know the machinations of the business historically — how it worked. I always just assumed, and I always heard from people, “Look, I’ve been in this business for a long time and it’s the entertainment business. It’s fucking dirty. There’s some dirt in it.” And I always remember hearing the cliche, “You think the movie business is dirty? The fucking music business is really dirty,” and I didn’t really know what that meant. That’s a prevailing theme when you read about the actual business itself so some of that surprised me, but then again not really.
I’m a New Yorker, so I just always assumed that anything having to do with making money off of people who have real talent is going to have some dirty people involved. I’m reading a lot. There’s a very good book called “Hitmen” that’s really helpful for me, to understand the history of the vinyl business. But really, the best stories come from the horse’s mouth themselves — guys like Lenny and David Johansson. These guys will tell you the real-deal stories. Getting to hear those stories were great. It’s amazing to hear Lenny tell you, “You know, Patti [Smith] and I were working in a record store and somebody put up a flyer for the New York Dolls and I remember thinking ‘Wow that’s a cool fucking name. I’m going to go check them out.'”
That’s a different kind of inside way to hear a story. That’s helpful to me. Getting to hang around Mick Jagger, people ask, “How much did he help you?” Really, the way Mick helps me the most is letting me hang around him, because I get to see how people are around him and that to me is helpful for me, playing the guy who deals with people like that everyday; to see how people act around him. So it’s really behavioral.
How do people act around him?
Oh, they’re funny. People are funny. Depends on what they want. It’s that light. It’s like hanging around with the sun. [laughs] No, literally, like hanging out with the sun. It’s just really interesting, to see how people approach him, how they ask him for things, how they get what they want to get from him.
I was reading about how they went all out in terms of recreating key elements of the rock scene from that time period. What was it like stepping into that?
It was cool. I mean, for one thing, New York is pretty clean now. I think they spent a lot of money importing garbage.
You know, to make the city look disgusting again. I think that’s really funny. [laughs] I remember one day we were shooting on this little park — a little playground on 46th Street in Hell’s Kitchen — and I know that playground really well because I have friends who live on that block. And you know there’s a really nice jungle gym, and there’s the rubber matting on the floor and they just tore all that shit up and they really made it look disgusting. [laughs] I remember being there working, and the old-timers who still live on the block come out and they’d go, “Yeah! We’re back!” and all the new people who had just moved in from wherever the hell they moved from being panicked, really panicked: “Are those prostitutes?!”
Of course it was us, but recreating it and dirtying it up, that to me is the funniest part. But I remember that. I remember being a kid in Union City and seeing the city across the river and hearing my mother say, “We’re not going to the city. It’s dangerous” and, “You’ll get killed if you go into the city.” It was really fun to portray that time in the city.
What most excites you about what’s coming next in terms of the show?
I can’t wait to see what people think about it. I’ve just been attached to it so long, and I’m really proud to have gotten to work with Marty. I want to see what my friends think and what other creative people who I admire, what they think of it.
“Vinyl” airs Sundays at 9pm on HBO.