Bobby Cannavale is an anomaly: a handsome, accomplished actor who honestly doesn’t seem to care about movie or TV stardom. In interviews, his love of the theater is a recurring theme, along with his devotion to ensemble acting. Although he refuses to say so, Cannavale is the star of the Broadway black comedy The Motherf**ker With the Hat, commanding the stage as a recovering addict and ex-con named Jackie and sharing individual scenes with the other four actors (his real-life ex Annabella Sciorra, Broadway newcomer Chris Rock and Tony nominees Elizabeth Rodriguez and Yul Vasquez). Just after receiving a 2011 Best Actor Tony nomination, the 41-year-old star chatted with Broadway.com about his career, the joys of fatherhood (his son, Jake, with ex-wife Jenny Lumet, just turned 16) and his romance with Broadway queen Sutton Foster.
You must be so excited about Motherf**ker’s six Tony nominations, especially since the play endured some nasty pre-opening press.
It sure did! We believed in this play, but right before any opening is such a vulnerable time. You don’t want negative publicity to affect you, but of course it did. Chris [Rock], who had never been through this before and felt a big responsibility being in the show, was really concerned—so much so that on opening night, when we gathered at five minutes [to curtain], he said, “Let’s have a great time tonight because we might not be doing this tomorrow.” I was like, “Hey man, it’s opening night!”
Well, you and Chris got a happy ending. What’s been the mood backstage since the Tony nominations were announced, with three of the five cast members being honored?
The mood is great. The first phone calls I got were from Chris and Annabella [Sciorra] congratulating me, and that’s a testament to their professionalism and their compassion. From day one, we’ve been like a family. We’re truly an ensemble, which is why there are no single bows at the end of the play.
That’s nice of you to say, but you are the engine of this play. You’re the star, in a very difficult part.
I think the play is the star, I really do. I’ve never felt that I was the engine of any project, including in this play. I do love being onstage the whole time—I’ve never done that before, and it’s an exciting opportunity in a great role. But it’s the writing that makes the play feel like a locomotive. I go onstage, and the whole thing feels like it’s over in 10 minutes.
How does it feel to have gotten one of five Best Actor nominations in the season’s most competitive Tony category? [Cannavale is nominated with Brian Bedford, Joe Mantello, Al Pacino and Mark Rylance.]
I’m really proud to be in that group, especially since I’ve gotten to see those four actors give such great performances. You could easily have had Robin [Williams] and James Earl Jones in there, any number of actors, so it’s an honor to be included. This is the god’s honest truth: It doesn’t matter to me whether I win or not. Just being nominated is the big honor.
You and Annabella Sciorra dated several years ago. Were you able to avoid any weird feelings about working together?
Yeah, it’s totally professional. There’s no story. I guess it could be [weird], but both of us really wanted to be here. Annabella recognized how great the play was, and the part was; we’re here for the common good.
Camaraderie at the theater is obviously very important to you.
I seem to be able to get along with anybody when I work because I really enjoy being there. Growing up, I wasn’t an athlete or anything like that. The only place I felt like I belonged was in the theater. There’s something about going to work in the theater that makes me feel, “I know how to do this. I can be a leader here.” I hope my enthusiasm rubs off on people!
Speaking of ensembles, what about the fantastic group in the movie Win Win? [Cannavale co-stars with Paul Giamatti, Amy Ryan and Jeffrey Tambor in the hit indie comedy.]
There’s another connection that was made in the theater: [writer/director] Tom McCarthy and I met 16 years ago, doing Lanford Wilson’s play Virgil Is Still the Frog Boy, and started a long and fruitful friendship that turned into a great working relationship. We’ve gotten to work together twice [The Station Agent and Win Win] on movies I’m proud of.
In Win Win and in many other roles, you don’t seem to have any vanity. Where did that willingness to look foolish come from?
It has a lot to do with my taste. I don’t go see big, silly movies. I like small things about regular folks, you know? I always wanted to have a career that would keep me at home in New York so I can work in the theater all the time and be involved in the creative process from the ground up. I don’t think there’s a lot of room for vanity when you’re developing things.
You told a reporter three years ago that you’d like to play Nathan Detroit [in Guys and Dolls]. Are you interested in doing a musical?
I would just like to play Nathan Detroit! They always cast that role with funny looking people. The last time they did a revival, they wanted me to read for Sky Masterson. I didn’t want to, so they were kind enough to let me read for Nathan but I don’t think they took me very seriously. I don’t really care what I look like, and I think I can be funny enough that you forget about that. I’d really like to give that part a shot. You don’t have to be a great singer to play Nathan, and I like his songs better. Sky is like the ingenue.
Switching gears, your son, Jake, just turned 16. What have you enjoyed about being a young dad?
Oh, wow, everything! I never thought I would get married and have kids. I thought I was going to be a gypsy actor, traveling all over the world playing the great roles. I ended up having a kid very young, and it put things in perspective. He became the most important person in my life, and everything else seemed to fall into place. I’ve made decisions that perhaps have not let me go as far in my career, but I’m totally fine with that because it’s kept me close to my son. That kid is an exceptional kid. Anybody who talks to him can’t get over how grown up and confident he is. We spend a lot of time together. He tells me a lot, and I’m honored that I have that kind of relationship with him.
Will he become an actor?
He’s the lead singer in his own rock band, and they’re very good. He loves music and he loves to write, and I’m very supportive of that. He’s an artist, for sure.
Your family had a pretty rough week before Motherf**ker opened, right? Jake lost his grandfather [movie director Sidney Lumet].
It was a tough week for both of us. I lost my mentor, Lanford Wilson, two weeks before we opened, which was a huge blow, and Sidney was like a father to me, even after the divorce. I was so proud of Jake on opening night. He came and really shone, and he was proud of me. I only say that because those were the exact words he used: “I’m so proud of you, Dad.” This past week, he brought his sophomore drama class, 15 kids, to see the show, and his drama teacher sent me an e-mail about how Jake led the discussion afterward. That makes me really, really happy. I wasn’t very close with my dad growing up and I love that my son is excited about what I do and sees how much I enjoy my work.
Would you agree that you’ve gotten more open about your personal life since you started dating [Anything Goes star] Sutton Foster?
You mean publicly? I don’t know. The only thing I don’t love to talk about is my romantic relationships because that shit is hard, and it takes a lot of work. Everybody who has been in a relationship knows that. Weirdly, parenting is easier to me than working on a relationship. So why would I want to talk about it to the press when I’m figuring it out as I go in private? It doesn’t make any sense to therapize—that’s not even a word, is it? [Laughs.] Sutton is definitely a huge part of my life and an inspirational part of my life. My life has changed since I met her, and I couldn’t be happier.
Fair enough. So, who’s getting the extra pair of tickets you and Sutton will have on Tony night?
It will be Sutton and Jake and I. I have so much to celebrate. Every night when I come out of that theater, I think how glad I am to be working on 45th Street. There are so many great plays right now—Jerusalem, Bengal Tiger, Normal Heart—but I feel like I’m in the coolest play of all. And I was never the cool kid!
See Bobby Cannavale in The Motherf**ker With the Hat at the Schoenfeld Theatre.