A couple of years back, Bobby Cannavale went to see Mick Jagger about a job. The Emmy-winning actor had been tapped by Martin Scorsese and Terence Winter to play the lead in a show that was being kicked around at HBO, but the project was really Jagger’s idea – conceived two decades ago as a film that pulled the curtain back on the music industry of the 1970s – so Jagger was the man to please. And thus far, he hadn’t been. “I remember being really freaked out about what the lighting should look like in my living room,” Cannavale says now of a Skype call gone wrong. “I was like, ‘I want him to think I’m cool.’ So I wore black, you know? Black’s rock & roll.” The feedback Cannavale got afterward was that maybe he’d come off as too intense, too much like his (pathologically violent) bootlegger character on Boardwalk Empire, and not enough like the complex, drug-fueled but ultimately redeemable music exec Jagger envisioned.
Which was how Cannavale found himself driving to Washington, D.C., with girlfriend Rose Byrne in tow, to see the Stones play and meet Jagger in the flesh. They went to Jagger’s room at the Four Seasons (“I didn’t even know a hotel room that big existed. Like, I couldn’t find a bathroom”), they talked music (“I just tried not to say much”), and eventually Cannavale mentioned a YouTube video of a James Brown concert where both Michael Jackson and Prince came onstage: “Michael does the moonwalk and people go crazy, and then Prince is carried through the crowd on the back of his bodyguard. I showed it to Jagger, and he died. We must have watched it 10 times. I felt like, ‘Oh, we’re good now.'”
In fact, it’s hard to imagine a person who Cannavale, 45, couldn’t win over, as he tells this story from the back booth of the Knickerbocker, a favorite New York haunt where he greets the waitresses by name. Byrne is due to have Cannavale’s baby three days from now, but he’s still got the easygoing vibe of a dude whose team tends to win. “You know,” he says, “I grew up with a bunch of factory workers. It doesn’t make any sense I’m here. When I stop to think about it, I think, ‘Aw, something’s gonna get figured out, and they’re going to realize it’s a fake ID.'”
Cannavale grew up in Union City, New Jersey, with an Italian dad who worked in a chemical plant and a Cuban mom who worried, with reason, that her oldest son was up to no good. “Like, the worst that we did was vandalism,” Cannavale says, laughing. “A lot of throwing things through things and marking up things and knocking over the newspaper machine to get quarters so we can go to the arcade or buy beer.” His mother encouraged him to get involved with their parish, which was how he found himself in the choir, working as an altar boy and playing a gangster in his first acting gig ever, a church production of Guys and Dolls.
After his parents’ divorce and a couple of expulsions (“I was a class clown; the nuns didn’t like that”), Cannavale (barely) got his high school diploma and began trying to get work as an actor across the river in New York, showing up at downtown theaters to ask for odd jobs, cleaning bathrooms in the hopes of having a few lines thrown his way. To get by, he worked as a guy who opened cab doors at Tavern on the Green, a bartender at the T.G.I. Fridays by Grand Central Terminal and as a greeter on the 88th floor of the Empire State Building (“That was only a week, because I was getting nosebleeds”).
When he booked a show, he psyched himself up by pretending that Al Pacino would be coming to see it, and while Pacino didn’t come in those days, Sidney Lumet’s daughter did. They met, married and had a son when Cannavale was 25. They divorced in 2003, but not before Lumet became, as Cannavale puts it, “like a dad to me” – one of many older mentors he credits for his success.
Boardwalk was the breakout role he’d longed for (though he had already gotten that Emmy for playing Will’s boyfriend on Will & Grace). At his first table read, he was seated next to Scorsese. “If you’re an actor from New York and you’re Italian-American,” Cannavale says, “you grow up hoping Marty Scorsese knows your name at some point before you die. And the very first scene, I beat this old guy to death with a wrench, and Marty was laughing hysterically at the violence. He kept hitting me under the table, hitting my knee, going, ‘Ah, you’re gonna be so great!'”
For a guy who grew up with a subscription to this magazine, however, Vinyl hits closer to home. A teenage Cannavale gravitated to many of the New York artists who are featured in Vinyl, from Lou Reed to the New York Dolls (he even got to hang out with Dolls singer David Johansen to prepare for the series). Today, he’s just come from Second Hand Rose, a record shop where the owner chatted about watching Allen Ginsberg read a poem off toilet paper, while Cannavale hunted down the Beatles and Joe Turner. “[My character] runs a massive corporation like an artist, you know?” he says. “It’s just about this guy trying to figure out how to remain an artist.”
Which, as luck would have it, is something Cannavale has discussed with none other than Pacino, who did finally come see him in a show, after which Cannavale was cast to play his son in Danny Collins. The two became fast friends (“He’s the best texter,” Cannavale says. “He loves exclamation points and capital letters”). But as Vinyl attests, having an artist’s soul in a tough’s body isn’t easy: If Cannavale’s recent roles have an underlying current, it’s one of vulnerability, a sense that they might be hard as nails on the outside, but there’s something crumbling within. “A character should always have a secret,” says Cannavale. “I feel like we all do.”