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Bobby Cannavale of 'The Big Knife' on working with Al Pacino, Woody Allen

Marin Ireland and Bobby Cannavale in the Roundabout

Marin Ireland and Bobby Cannavale in the Roundabout Theatre Company revival of Clifford Odets' "The Big Knife" at the American Airline Theatre in Manhattan through June 2, 2013. Credit: Joan Marcus

Bobby Cannavale, in a wool cap, reclines on a couch in his dressing room. He apologizes -- he's just trying to save energy before curtain, he explains.

Cannavale, who turns 43 next month, stars in "The Big Knife," by Clifford Odets, a Roundabout Theatre Company production at American Airlines Theatre, opening Tuesday. It's the play's first Broadway revival since its 1949 premiere. Cannavale plays Charlie Castle, a star in the seductive clutches of 1940s Hollywood, juggling a wife, amorous dames, a Machiavellian studio head ("Mad About You's" Richard Kind) and a few choice secrets that could ruin him.

Cannavale has never really "gone Hollywood," though he's always working -- in TV ("Boardwalk Empire," "Nurse Jackie," "Third Watch," an Emmy-winning run on "Will & Grace"), theater (opposite Al Pacino in "Glengarry Glen Ross") and the occasional film (Woody Allen's upcoming "Blue Jasmine").


You seem eerily suited for "The Big Knife." You've acted onstage and on-screen, like your character, Charlie. You left TV's "Third Watch" to pursue artistic projects, like Charlie wants to do. You've faced some of the same issues.

Yeah, I guess so. I love Clifford Odets -- he's a quintessential American playwright. But I remember seeing this play years ago and being freaked out by it. Thinking, yeah ... that could happen in Hollywood. But I didn't wind up there. I had a kid here to raise. I've been lucky. I've worked in theater, TV, movies -- in New York. Not everybody gets to do that.


You haven't felt tempted by Hollywood?

No. For what?


Well...  the weather isn't bad.

My family lives in Miami. I go down there if I want sun.


Power? Money?

Ehhh ... I dunno, man, I love my life here. I have friends, family, a community of artists I hang out with. I'm not looking for anything more.


And now you're in a play you've always dreamed of doing.

I brought up this play to many people over the years. Nobody A) cared or B) did anything about it. Then, I mentioned it to [director] Doug Hughes... He said, let's do a reading. It started there. I couldn't believe it. I got very emotional. I'm not like that.... I'm not a goal-oriented person. This is the only thing I've been soooo passionate about and said, "I'm gonna make this happen."


It's quite a year -- two shows on Broadway. Working with legends like... Al Pacino. What surprised you about him?

How open he was. We talked about everything. I'd just wanted to meet him. And there we were, talking about women. That was fun. Man, he'll do anything in rehearsals.


You mean improvising?

Totally. Al takes it to the nth degree. In one rehearsal, he started miming driving a car midscene. I didn't know what he was doing. But I went with it. "HEY, I'M DRIVING THE CAR!" He's physical, too. He's what -- 74? But there'd be moments where he'd react quickly onstage, like he was Sonny in "Dog Day [Afternoon]" -- in the bank, trying to get the gun. That blew my mind, seeing young Pacino.


And how was Woody Allen? Some find him intimidating.

Actors can be insecure. Woody's just... Woody. I think he's allergic to neediness. I got a call from my agent saying Woody Allen wants to meet you. I've known actors who've gone [in], and Woody's come into the room, looked at them, then walked out. So I didn't expect much. But when I met him... he was a mensch. "Ohhh, I-I-I'm a big fan, and y-y-you're very good. My sources tell me you're always very good." I said, "Your sources?" He goes, "I've been around a long time -- I have lots of sources." He looked me up and down, then said, "So, can you give me three weeks in August?" I was like, "Yeah... but what are we talking about?" He said, "Oh, sorry -- I'm makin' a pitchuh."



About three weeks later, he sent over my scenes in a manila envelope. I had an hour to read them, then give them back. He sent a note saying, "Take a look -- if you don't like it, you can pass. But I'd love for you to do it." It was amazing watching him work. I just wanted to remember it.


Does your son share your love for acting?

He's definitely an artist. A high school senior. Writes a blog, poetry. Sings in a band. He's doing his first play at the Cherry Lane Theatre in a few weeks. He'll be studying creative writing at a liberal arts college up in Boston this fall... so... I'm sure he'll do something artistic. You know... I'm proud to be an actor. I definitely wouldn't discourage my son from the arts. It's noble work.

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