In his two decades on screen and stage, Bobby Cannavale has racked up an impressive list of credits, including The Station Agent, Chef, Spy, Ant-Man, Oz, Sex and the City and Nurse Jackie, not to mention Emmy-winning turns on Will & Grace and Boardwalk Empire—oh, and Tony-nominated work on Mauritius and The Motherfucker with the Hat.
But in HBO’s Vinyl, the 1970s music biz drama from Martin Scorsese and Mick Jagger (premiering this Sunday at 9/8c), Cannavale has his best role yet as Richie Finestra, a New York City record company mogul whose empire and life are falling apart.
It’s a star-making turn for the Italian-Cuban actor, 45, who became a father for the second time earlier this month when his girlfriend Rose Byrne gave birth to their son Rocco (his older son, Jake, 20, played his son in Nurse Jackie). We asked him about bringing the ’70s to life, his memories of the era, and the advice he took to heart.
“I think the ’70s are the greatest time for American art and culture, really. I think it’s the best time for painting, the best time for movies, the best time for music.”
What drew you to this world and the script?
I love the genre. I love that it’s about New York in the ’70s. I’m in love with New York and I’ll only ever live in New York City. I’ve always loved New York. I love that it’s about rock and roll music at the greatest time. The story picks up at a time in this guy’s life where it is a do or die moment for him and it sort of launches from there, so it gives me something very active to play and really we can go anywhere with the show.
What do you love about Richie?
I like where the story picks up in his life. I like that his circumstances are desperate, that he’s very much on the edge, the precipice of his entire legacy and his whole future and everything. He’s a king about to lose his kingdom, trying to hold onto it, and that feels very urgent to me and it’s an exciting thing to play.
How did you prepare for the role?
This project came around to me almost four years ago now, so it was a long time to be able to do the research that I needed to do. I had a lot of resources, guys like Lenny Kaye and David Johansen and Danny Goldberg and other guys who were around then.
What memories do you have of the ’70s?
I think my earliest memory is ’76. That was the year of the Bicentennial, and I just remember there being a lot going on that summer. I grew up ten minutes outside of the city in a little urban town called Union City, New Jersey, right above the Lincoln Tunnel.
Did you go to Manhattan a lot?
Not really, because my mother was terrified of Manhattan. We weren’t allowed. She thought it was dangerous. I lived in an apartment building with my family and my cousins. I had older cousins that went to the city all the time. So they told me stories. Christmastime was the only time my mom would bring us to the city. We’d just go to see the tree, the Rockettes show and a movie at Radio City, and then hustle back before we got mugged.
What bands from the ’70s do you still listen to?
I listen to Bruce [Springsteen]. I listen to the Stones. I listen to Bob Dylan. I think the ’70s are the greatest time for American art and culture, really. I think it’s the best time for painting, the best time for movies, the best time for music.
“My mother was terrified of Manhattan. She thought it was dangerous. Christmastime was the only time she would bring us to the city. We’d just go to see the tree, the Rockettes show and a movie at Radio City, and then hustle back before we got mugged.”
What about fashion? What did you think about your wardrobe?
I loved my clothes. I really did. The first time I came out of the first fitting Terry [Winter, writer-producer] looked at me and he was like, ‘Goddamn, you were made for those clothes.’ People cared about the way they looked. It was the attitude that people had, the way they wore their clothes, the way they did their hair, the attention to detail. There was a pride in the fashions that I very much appreciate from that time.
What are your passions outside of work?
My family. Music. Sports. I’m passionate about the Yankees and the Jets.
What do you do to stay in shape?
I never liked going to the gym, and then about five years ago I did a play and I needed to be in good shape, and I hired a trainer. It’s the only way I can get into a gym, twice a week. And I eat healthy.
What do you consider your career highlights?
Just getting to work with the icons I grew up watching. Working with Al [Pacino] on Broadway, working with Marty [Scorsese], working with Woody [Allen, in Blue Jasmine], just working on stage on Broadway. I always wanted to do that. Al Pacino was the actor that I really looked up to a lot, and I got to do a play with him [Glengarry Glen Ross] and a movie [Danny Collins] with him. The last five years of my career have been really fruitful, and I’ve gotten to work with people that I never dreamed I’d get to work with but that I always dreamed of working with. Working with Marty on the pilot was beyond amazing. Everywhere we were shooting in New York City, Marty had a story about it, which is really valuable and lends to the authenticity of it all.
What the best advice you got early in your career?
Do everything they offer you. Don’t say no to anything until you have choices.
Photo by Niko Tavernise/HBO