He nabbed a Tony nomination for Mauritius, scored an Emmy for his lovable guest turn on Will & Grace and has been popping up on big and small screens nearly nonstop since his 1999 debut on the series Third Watch. Now Bobby Cannavale is bullying Sutton Foster, Zach Braff and Ari Graynor off-Broadway, playing a MENSA member more interested in money than scientific breakthroughs in Second Stage’s sexy black comedy Trust. We caught up with Cannavale to toss the leading man a few questions about trust, luck and what he finds sexy.
Some of this show’s content gets a little kinky. Can you hear the difference between a typical laugh and an uncomfortable one?
Oh, yeah. There’s some high comedy in this play—the scene in the café is something right out of the Marx Brothers—and you hear it. But there are sections, like my last scene in the show when I’m getting handcuffed in an S&M parlor, where you can hear the laughter tighten. People pull back, like “HA—ah—oh.” I do that when I see something that connects on a level I didn’t quite know existed. That’s what theater’s supposed to do: Provoke.
What makes you uncomfortable?
Bad smells. Bad feet. And rats. Those are the three things that really get to me.
Your character, Morton, is a MENSA genius. Do you have any nerdy tendencies?
I’m pretty much off book on every Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen song—I know every lyric. And I play this golf video game called Golden Tee at a bar about five nights a week. My whole goal in life is to retain the top score. If I go in and see someone’s beaten me, I’ll go there every day until I beat it. Sometimes I go to the bar, order a Diet Coke and pull out a Ziplock bag of quarters so I can sit and play. God, that’s nerdy, right?
It depends on what your high score is.
2300. I’m the world champion. [Laughs.]
Were you a nerd growing up?
Yeah. I was very small and had a big mouth. I was kind of a clown—quick and with a joke, which the big guys always hated because girls thought I was funny, so I got beat up pretty much all the time until I was around 14.
What happened at 14?
I got tall and could run. Fast.
The show’s all about trust, obviously. What kind of person should you never trust?
People who say they don’t care what other people think of them.
The play also touches on luck and success. Do you believe luck is divine, or that a person makes his or her own luck?
That’s hard. Luck’s such a funny word. I believe that the forces of the universe come together and create situations in which an individual has to make decisions. “Do I go through that door or not?” “Do I recognize that this door is even open?” Some people can do that and some can’t. But to think a person only becomes successful through hard work is incorrect. I know a lot of people who have paid their dues and are extremely talented but haven’t gotten their break. But I don’t want to be presumptuous in even pretending I have the right answer to that question!
Morton is a bully in this show. Do you prefer playing the antagonist or the sweetie pie?
I like playing guys who are desperate as opposed to the guy who has it all. They’re way more interesting.
What’s an all-time favorite role you’ve done?
Phil in Hurlyburly. I’ve wanted to play that part since I was 15. When that show came out, I was already trying like hell to flunk out of school so I could start auditioning, and I just got obsessed with the play. One of my monologues as a young actor was Phil, and I would do it all over town—every audition and open call, I did that Phil monologue. So to be asked to play him in the revival was unbelievable. It’s the only time ever I’ve actually gotten to play a role I always wanted as a kid.
Do you consider that divine luck or hard work?
Both. Unseen forces allowed the film Station Agent to come out just as they were casting Hurlyburly and [director] Scott Elliot saw it, then asked me for a meeting—and then offered me the role. It’s the first time I was offered a part without auditioning. I guess my work begat that offer, but Station Agent was put up by my best friend so the two meet there, you know?
Trust gets kind of sexy. What’s the sexiest thing a woman can do?
Be funny. [Pauses.] Wait, am I going to have women coming up to me telling me jokes now? That’s not what I mean. I mean naturally funny. Like, Chris Sieber’s an example of “naturally funny.” [Trust’s] Sutton Foster is like that. You either have it or you don’t.
Final question: Who’s the person in your cast that’s the least trustworthy?
Oh come on, that’s so unfair. This sucks. But I’ll go with Zach. I never trust anyone whose name begins with “Z.”