Broadway's Glengarry Glen Ross Star Bobby Cannavale Talks Process, Past and Pacino

By Stuart Miller
October 16, 2012

Bobby Cannavale plays Glengarry Glen Ross' ultimate badass, Ricky Roma, a character who acts out. Cannavale can relate.



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Some actors will go on at length (or even longer) about their process and how they approach a role. Not Bobby Cannavale.

This fall the two-time Tony nominee stars as sleazy real estate agent Ricky Roma in David Mamet's Glengarry Glen Ross, but ask about his preparation, and he says, "I'm not comfortable talking about what I do," allowing only that he is reading the script every day and reading about the era.

"It's not that long ago, but there was no Internet and no cell phones, so when you were dealing with someone you had to do it face to face," Cannavale says. "There's an art to that."

But don't think for a second that Cannavale, 42, is a reticent interviewee. Far from it. He's gregarious and funny and while not as full of four-letter words as a Mamet character, he certainly isn't censored. That shouldn't be surprising, considering that one of his Tony nods was for The Motherf**ker with the Hat. (The other was for Mauritius.)

He talks about what made him a self-described "sensitive" kid — his parents divorcing, the move to Florida, where his complexion (his mother is Cuban-American, his father Italian-American) got him bullied and called "Dorito" by the very white students he was suddenly surrounded by. "I never felt I was in the right place at the right time," he says. As a result, he adds, "I practically invented the term 'acting out' — I was a dramatic kid and was always getting kicked out of school for performing a skit or printing a 'zine that made fun of the faculty."

It's amazing that Cannavale can find the time to chat. In the last 18 months, in addition to Motherf**ker, he has appeared briefly but memorably on "Modern Family," "Nurse Jackie" (earning a Guest Actor Emmy nomination, an award he previously won on "Will & Grace") and "Boardwalk Empire." And he just finished filming a Woody Allen movie in San Francisco.

Bobby Cannavale and Al Pacino
photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN

"I'm a bit overwhelmed when I'm doing three things at once," he says, "but I'm an in-the-moment person, so when I'm done with one of these roles I'm done and ready to move on."

Still, he's busy. This fall he's carving out time to take his son Jake to look at colleges. And after Glengarry he's back on Broadway in Clifford Odets' The Big Knife, which he has spent 15 years trying to bring to life since he saw Joanne Woodward direct it in Williamstown. "I've been obsessed with it and showed it to everyone," he says, "but couldn't even get a reading of it to save my life" — until director Doug Hughes got Todd Haimes of Roundabout Theatre Company interested.

But first comes Glengarry.

This is a dream come true for Cannavale. For years, he'd motivate himself backstage by saying that Al Pacino was going to be in the audience that night. (He idolized Pacino. "He's a beast," he says.) During an Off-Broadway run of David Rabe's Hurlyburly, his co-stars would tease him because celebrities came every night, but never Pacino. Then, on the last night of Motherf**ker, Pacino not only showed, he came backstage. Soon after, Pacino, who starred as Roma in the 1992 Glengarry film, took on the role of Shelly Levene for Broadway. "And he played a big part in my getting this role," Cannavale says.

That's quite a long way from Cannavale's early days as a raw, untrained hopeful, who would move furniture or do any other task at small theatres hoping for a break. Since then his career on stage and screen has taken off. "I don't think I can give career advice," he says. "My journey has been unusual. I feel lucky. I couldn't have written it any better."

(This feature appears in the October 2012 issue of Playbill magazine.)

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Al Pacino and Bobby Cannavale
Photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN