Photographer Annie Leibovitz likes to shoot rock bands just after they've walked off stage. She says it's to capture the instant, the thrill and utter exhaustion of the achievement, the crowd still roaring nearby. As I listen to actor Bobby Cannavale speak of his life in theatre, movies and TV, I envision a portrait of him walking home in New York after a two-and-a-half hour stage performance. A full house again, say, Hurly Burly or Mauritius or Glengarry Glen Ross with Al Pacino. It's February in Manhattan so the actor has his collar high as he critiques himself, his gestures, his footing, the way he tried to hide a runny nose. He is so thankful, that tomorrow, he gets to do it all over again.
"Sometimes the walk home is a lot longer than others," he says.
Bobby grew up in Union City, New Jersey and loved to read plays. He, like so many artists from the Garden State, saw the Manhattan skyline as a beacon of all that life could offer. There was depth there and risk and people with like-minded, artistic passions. He loved how bright the marquees glowed on a chilly night and how the subway steam swirled from the manholes. Bobby, the sole lover of books in his family, got himself to the city in the early 90's. He went straight for the stage and worked unpaid in off-Broadway productions to get his feet wet. His big break came when he was cast as an understudy in a production of Georges Feydeau's, A Flea in Her Ear. The lead became his when the previous actor took off for Hollywood, and Bobby's lifelong love of theatre was set in stone.
I'm Not Rappaport in '96 and Night Falls on Manhattan in '97 opened his world to film and within two years he'd be cast as Roberto Caffey in the hit TV series, Third Watch. Two seasons of the best money he'd been paid in the business and Bobby felt Roberto was becoming repetitive, even generic. He asked to see the producer and within minutes it was decided his fictional death would not only be arranged but also drawn out so viewers could mourn and appropriately express their condolences.
"And they did," he says with pride. "It was a big deal. I got shot. I was in a coma for awhile."
I ask about the fear of leaving a well-paying gig in the most capricious of job markets.
"I had to get back to New York."
"To the stage?"
"Yes," he says and lights a cigarette. "And my son."
For the next decade Bobby became a workhorse in the industry, taking jobs in movies, TV and theatre, including an award-winning role as Joe Oramas in the highly acclaimed film, The Station Agent, 2003. It would be a guest role on Will and Grace that earned him an Emmy in 2005. Bobby's first Tony nomination came in 2008 for his role as Dennis in Theresa Rebeck's play, Mauritius. His second came on his 41st birthday for best performance by a featured actor in a play for Mother F*cker With a Hat in 2011. Bobby, a longtime lover of the play, brought the production to fruition.
When I saw Bobby Cannavale in the play Trust at the Second Stage in 2010, I remember his power most. At six two-ish with a wide, muscular frame he was strangling his co-star with both hands and spit-barking his lines into his face. I was afraid of him. It reminded me of many years prior when I saw Stephen Lange as Colonel Nathan Jessup in A Few Good Men on Broadway. Safe in my velvet theatre chair I feared for my well being as the actor roared and moved unpredictably about the stage. Bobby and I discuss this unique occurrence in theatre when the chemistry in the room spills over and into the psyche of the viewer, the visceral magic of such moments. He tells me it's as the creator, collaborator and stirrer of such happenings on stage that he reaps the most reward from his art.
"I love being in those moments," he says. "Creating those moments."
Al Pacino saw Bobby in Mother F*cker With A Hat and months later invited him to join himself and Alan Arkin in a production of Glengarry Glenn Ross for Broadway. Having never missed Mr. Pacino in any stage performance he's done since the 80's, Bobby said, "Um...yes." He would play Ricky Romo.
"He so generous," Bobby says of Al Pacino. "We'd talk shop for hours. He was very kind and open with me. I've taken so much with me from that experience."
And just when you thought it couldn't get any better for this Jersey kid, Woody Allen called, wanting to meet. Bobby had heard dozens of stories about what to expect when face-to-face with this particular legend. Upon arrival he was told to keep his jacket on because the meeting might be, "very quick." Inside the office Bobby watched Woody stand and approach him with a smile. He gripped Bobby by the shoulders and gave him a solid shake.
"Oh, you're big," Woody said, kicking Bobby's tires, circling him. Another shake. "So big."
Bobby got the job, along with Alec Baldwin and Kate Blanchett. Blue Jasmine will be released in theatres in July.
In a 1981 photograph of Meryl Streep by Annie Leibovitz, the actress poses with white mime makeup on her face. Ms. Streep is also stretching her cheeks in opposite directions, as if to say, I am a mime of remarkable malleability. The actor thrives on disappearing into character in order to lift the audience from the reality of their seat. It's what the best of them can do on a stage on any given night. In the well-produced portrait of actor Bobby Cannavale, his deep-set eyes and size will help you understand his range. But with handfuls of characters to bring to life this year, you'll be getting way more than a photograph. For this particular Bobby from the great state of New Jersey will be everywhere you look.