Even with roles in disparate projects like “The Station Agent,” “Boardwalk Empire,” “Will & Grace” and “Modern Family” on his resume, Emmy and Tony Award nominated actor Bobby Cannavale admitted that his first foray into the Marvel Cinematic Universe in this summer’s “Ant-Man” threw even him for a loop.
Cannavale will appear in “Ant-Man” as the still mysterious character Paxton, a creation original to the film, opposite his longtime friend Paul Rudd in Marvel’s big-screen interpretation of one of their most venerable characters. But before Cannavale steps into the Marvel Universe, he will appear opposite acting legend — and one of his close personal friends — Al Pacino in the seriocomic film “Danny Collins.” In the film, Pacino plays an aging rock star named Danny Collins whose career has been reduced to cranking out soulless hits. When Collins’ ambition gets reignited by the discovery of a previously unknown letter written to him by John Lennon early his career, reconciling with the angry son (Cannavale) he never knew tops his list of amends to make.
Joining journalists for a roundtable chat, Cannavale revealed the nature of his long friendship with Pacino, offered a glimpse at the upcoming 70s-era rock-and-roll-themed HBO series he’s doing for producers Martin Scorsese and Mick Jagger and explained how he found himself a little in over his head when he first stepped into a Marvel movie.
Spinoff: You’ve worked with some intimidating actors in your career, but Al Pacino must take it to another level.
Bobby Cannavale: But Al’s probably the least intimidating of them. I do think I have a special relationship with Al. We did a play together. That relationship started so much more organically than I ever thought it would. I’ve been obsessed with Al Pacino my whole life and I’ve gone to see him in every play he’s been in. I’ve always wanted to meet him. I was never even in the same room as him, and then we were both nominated for the Tony and we sat next to each other at the Tonys. It was the most natural way to meet him. I turned to him and I said, “I’m such a big fan of yours and I would just love it if you would come and see this play. I think you would really like it.” And he said, [in Pacino voice] “I’m coming.” And he came the next week and he stayed in my dressing room for an hour and a half. Everybody was gone and he stayed in there. I don’t think I got to ask him any questions. He asked me so many questions.
It was that thing, like, don’t meet your idols because they’ll disappoint you. This was the complete opposite. The guy asked me questions about my family and my training and what roles I want and what plays I like. It was just mind-boggling that he was that curious. Two months after that, I got a phone call that said, “Al wants to do ‘Glengarry [Glen Ross]’ with you — are you interested?” I said, “Of course.” We started that play and we got very close.
He’s just the real guy, is really, really curious. He’s on this search and I think that’s what makes him compelling as an artist. Al’s not a guy who has all the answers. He’ll be the first one to tell you that. He sure likes to ask a lot of questions to find out the answers and I think that searching quality that he has is what makes him exciting to watch. Those characters that he plays are desperate in a way that makes him interesting, that we can relate to. That’s what I loved about his performances and that’s what I loved about him on stage and then again in this film.
You must have had so many questions for him. Did you ever get to have that conversation?
It slowly started to dawn on me that this guy was going to be in my life. He asked me for his phone number. I’m the kind of guy that when I’m in the moment with somebody, regardless of who they are, I’m just there. It’s afterwards that I go, “Holy shit I can’t believe it!” I walked home talking to myself that night. “I gave him my number!” And he texted me right away. I knew I’d have a chance to ask him and I have asked him a ton of questions.
Al’s a great, prolific letter writer. He loves to write letters. He’s written me many letters. We’ve had an amazing dialogue back and forth about our families. We talked a lot about our families. It’s funny, this movie… I don’t think he had been thinking about me for this film when we were doing the play. But, then the play closed and very quickly, he called me and said, “You want to play my son?” And I said, “Yeah.” At first I didn’t know if it was in a movie or if it was going to be one of those plays that Al can workshop for two years and never put it up. I know plenty of people who have worked on things with him and no one has ever seen it. “No, it’s for a picture,” he said — he calls it a “picture.”
Those themes of paternity of family and relationships, those are the conversations we’d been having for months already. Surprisingly we had a lot in common. When it came to do the film, that conversation just expanded and opened up even more. It’s just serendipitous, the timing of making this film in the midst of the conversation that we were having.
Was there anything you noticed that was different about him as a stage actor and him as a film actor?
In the theater, Al loves rehearsals. Al could rehearse for six months. He’d say it every day, “We need three more months of rehearsal.” You only get four weeks. It’s just ongoing and he was never happy with the performances. In film, it’s a medium he’s really comfortable with and he’s done all his work already. It’s just different because he knows there’s a finite-ness to it. He’ll do as many takes as he needs.
I’ve heard that Al does a lot of takes, but I didn’t really experience that with him. He trusts Dan [Fogelman, the writer-director] a lot. He and Dan collaborated for a long time on this. When the three of us were together, the vibe, it moved along. We were really happy with it. I don’t have any preconceived expectations of what is going to happen on any given day with Al. When I see Al, it could be anything and that’s what I love about him.
Danny Collins struggles with commercial success versus artistic satisfaction. How happy have you been in your own personal journey between achieving your artistic aims and also being successful?
It hasn’t been a problem for me. I’ve never lived out here [in L.A.]. I’d hate to be cliché about it, [but] I do equate getting lost to the business with living here. I don’t live here. I’ve never wanted to live here. My family is in New York, my 19-year-old son — those are the things that are important to me. My relationships with people in the business are friends of mine that I’ve had for years that started out the same time. They are very successful, but live in New York and they’re writers, actors and directors. A lot of the work that I’ve done is people calling me on the phone — most of my work, really.
Even “Ant-Man” was [Paul] Rudd calling me up and saying, “Dude, you have to play this part. It’s going to be fun. Marvel’s going to call you tomorrow.” That’s literally how it happened. [Laughs] He literally said, “Marvel is going to call you. [Adam] McKay and I have been working on the script. It’s going to be awesome. I’m not going to fuck you.” I’ve never had a plan. I’ve just done it the way I’ve done it. It’s a bit unorthodox. I just really, really enjoy my life. I enjoy my life in New York City. I enjoy that I don’t have to work in a bar. I’m not a millionaire but I can send my kid to school. I can pay my mom’s rent and pay my rent and I got a pension. What more could you want really?
You can’t talk about particulars of “Ant-Man’s” plot, but can you talk about the experience of making a Marvel movie?
Yeah, totally: it was a trip! I’ve never been in anything like that before. There’s a ton of people on this crew. You could fit the entire “Station Agent” crew in… it was just huge! And there’s blue screen everywhere. I remember one time we were shooting at nights for three weeks. I hadn’t seen anything behind me that wasn’t a blue screen for three nights in a row. I remember one night at four in the morning being frustrated and just saying, “If it’s going to be blue screen all the time, why can’t you just make it be night? Why do we actually have to be here at night?” That part of it was baffling to me.
But, the actual work — the scenes with me and Paul Rudd, and Judy Greer and Michael Pena — felt like an indie film. It felt like fun. [Director] Peyton Reed [and the studio], they weren’t mercurial about the script. They weren’t mercurial about the humor, at all. They let us be in charge of that. We improvised a lot. Judy Greer’s very funny. Paul’s very funny — he’s a great improviser. The rewrite of the script that Paul did with McKay — and I’ve worked with McKay before — lent itself to that.
You could see that there’s a funny scene and we could actually riff off of that, and that felt impressive to me in this big huge blockbuster film. It made me feel kind of good, that it felt like Marvel was going for something different. It didn’t feel like “Thor.” It felt more like “Guardians of the Galaxy,” which I really enjoyed and I thought brought a certain levity to a superhero movie that I had never seen before.
But still, it was a trip because I’ve known Paul for so long, since before he was famous like this, and it’s just a trip to see one of your best friends in ridiculous leather suit with dots all over him and you’re not supposed to laugh. We just laughed. He’s supposed to be this big [pinches fingers together]. Then I’m supposed to see him growing in front of me. But what I’m really seeing is Paul off-camera standing on an apple box. Then he jumps off the apple box. And I’m supposed to act like he’s growing in front of me and then lands with this really heroic pose, but he’s jumping of a box with green dots on him.
He’s supposed to have a mask that they CGI in. so I’ve never seen the mask. Every time I see him to talk, he goes like this [hits a pretend button] because there’s a button there that isn’t really there. I wasn’t used to that. He’d start to talk and he’d be like, [pretends to push button]. I’d ask ridiculous questions all the time. Peyton Reed, he just kept saying, “Dude, just do it.” But I’d say, “I don’t understand. Does the mask go up this way or this way?” And there’s a visual effects guy there and I want an answer.
They got so tired of my questions: “So I don’t understand — If I was just over there, how did I get over here so quick?” Reed would be like, “Cannavale, it’s a superhero movie, dude. Just do it!” But I’d say, “Yeah, but do I have superhuman speed, because I was just three blocks away and now I’m here and I’m not even out of breath. Should I be out of breath?” He’d be like, “Dude, it’s not the ‘Unbearable Lightness of Being.’ It’s just fucking ‘Ant-Man.’ Just say the line.” Then it just became a joke. I had a blast. We laughed so much on that thing.
It sounds like it was difficult to wrap your head around, in some ways.
Yeah, except that the actors that were in it were, like, really good actors. Guys like Corey Stoll and Rudd, Judy Greer and Michael Pena, Martin Donovan — really, really good actors. And so I looked around and thought, “You know, if these guys are doing it, I’m okay.” There were no wrestlers or anything. We had [rapper] T.I., but T.I. was great. But definitely very different from the movies that I’m used to making, for sure.
Did you do a little palette-cleanser project right after, to go back to the zone you’re used to working in?
It was actually the reverse. I literally wrapped with [Martin] Scorsese — I worked with Scorsese all summer on the rock and roll pilot, and it was literally the longest pilot ever. It was like a 38-day pilot, so we shot all summer. I literally wrapped with Marty at like one o’clock in the morning, an intense scene, this intense, dark scene, and wrapped with him, big hug. And then I got onto a plane in Atlanta for a blue screen test of me fighting with a 50-foot ant. And I wrote Marty right away — I was like, “This business is weird.” [Laughs] “I can’t believe I was just with you, and now I’m reacting to an ant I can’t see.”
That was the TV series that Scorsese’s doing with Mick Jagger? What was that experience like?
That was…intense. Yeah, it was great. It’s a great idea, and we start shooting the ten episodes in May. It’ll air in January of 2016 on HBO, and it’s a project that Mick has had for 15 years, I think — that he originally planned as a movie with Marty. And then about five years ago, I guess Marty worked with Terry [Winter] on “Boardwalk [Empire]” and had a good experience there, and with HBO there’s a good relationship there, and Marty decided to turn it into a series with Terry writing it. And then they approached me when I was shooting “Boardwalk” about it. So I’ve had the material now since 2012, and it’s pretty intense, it’s pretty great. It’s 1973, New York City, in the rock and roll music business, so it’s a time period that Marty…it’s just his time, you know? It was just incredible to spend three months on him with that.
And because of Mick, the resources we have in terms of the music is out of control. Anybody that I need to talk to, they get ’em for me like that [snaps his fingers]. I had to learn how to play guitar and he got Patti Smith’s guitarist Lenny Kaye to come to my house every day and teach me how to play the guitar. “I want to meet Patti Smith.” “Okay.” And I go see Patti Smith. David Johansen is involved, so that world and the access you get to have when you work with people like Marty and Terry and Mick Jagger is just boundless, you know? It’s great for an actor.