He might be best known to gay audiences for his Emmy-winning role as Will’s first serious boyfriend, cop Vince D’Angelo, on Will & Grace, but Bobby Cannavale’s résumé is bedazzled with butch yet queer credits, from Robin Williams’s HIV-positive ex in The Night Listener to a flirty bodyguard in Six Feet Under. Currently on-screen in John Turturro’s long-delayed Romance & Cigarettes and making his Broadway debut in Theresa Rebeck’s dark comedy Mauritius, Cannavale explains why he’ll always choose Adam & Steve over Chuck & Larry.
By Brandon Voss
The Advocate: Gays have been very good to you, Bobby. Would you like to thank us by taking us out for a drink?
Bobby Cannavale: All of you? Oh, my God. Well, the thing about gay people is that they like to pick up the check more than straight people, so yes, of course.
Do you remember the first gay person you met growing up?
Well, you’re talking about the late ’70s in Jersey. I didn’t think I knew any gay people when I was a kid, but actually, there was this one person, the pianist in the church choir, and we all knew about his “friend.” But it wasn’t until I went to high school in Florida that the other guy that was in all the plays with me — he was the first gay person I really knew. I’m positive that he was gay, but (a) he wasn’t out and (b) he hadn’t had any relationships yet. To me, he was just annoying, but I don’t know if it had anything to with being gay. [Laughs] Look, you’re either an asshole or you’re not an asshole. If you happen to be gay and an asshole, you’re still just an asshole.
Your TV career was launched after producer John Wells saw you play Steve in Paul Rudnick’s The Most Fabulous Story Ever Told at Williamstown Theatre Festival in 1998. What a gay way to get discovered!
Pretty much, yeah. It opens with me having anal sex with my lover — Adam and Steve doin’ it. You want to hear a funny story? So it’s me and Alan Tudyk, who played Adam — both of us not gay. We rehearse this play for 3 1/2 weeks, and we go three weeks before we even touch that opening scene. [Director] Chris Ashley and Paul decide we’re going to wait on that, so we skip over that every day in rehearsal. We finally get to it, and Chris says, “So how do you guys want to approach this?” And we’re like, “Let us just do our thing, and you tell us how it is.” So we get down there, we’re wearing jockstraps, laughing, doing the whole “This is weird!” thing. Then we start doing the lines and Chris stops us, and he and Paul are both laughing hysterically. We’re like, “What?” And Chris goes, “Well, the thing is, it’s not that painful!” Apparently the both of us had looks on our face like we were being tortured.
Did the sexual content make you hesitate in taking the role?
No, I read the play and laughed my ass off. That was just a story about two people who loved each other, so it wasn’t a big deal. I gotta be honest with you, my whole thing with acting is that I want to do things that I’ve never done before. It’s really my chance to educate myself and try to empathize with people who have different interests than I do. I didn’t go to college, so I do all that through my work. My first gay role was in [Larry Kramer’s] The Normal Heart at La MaMa about 13 years ago opposite an excellent openly gay actor, Tony Quinn, who introduced me to my first wife, actually, and became a really good friend. I played his dying lover, and there was never an issue there. That was a big break for me because Lanford Wilson, a great American playwright, was in the audience, he introduced me to Circle Rep, and that’s how I got into that theater company and met even more gay people!
When you play gay, do you feel a responsibility to represent the community respectfully?
I would normally say no because I don’t ever let my own politics inform the choices I make in terms of roles. But for gay characters, I have turned things down that were just offensive. Like, I don’t think [I Now Pronounce You] Chuck & Larry does a particularly good service to gay people. But I also don’t think it’s very funny. Something like Kiss Me, Guido I think is funny.
You’ve become a go-to guy for butch gay roles, like the closet cases you played in The Guru and Shall We Dance?. Have you ever been asked to fem it up?
Ironically enough, the only time I’ve ever had a director tell me something like that was in The Most Fabulous Story — in the opposite way. I was very nervous — in a Paul Rudnick play, every other character was so over-the-top, so I felt I needed to be in that group, when I really needed to be the opposite. That was a huge lesson for me: You can be perfectly butch, but if the part’s written well — like Vince in Will & Grace — we get it.
But you did get to queen out as a gay drug dealer on Oz.
Well, I came up with that character. I ran into [creator] Tom Fontana, who was like, “Hey, man, you gotta come on Oz before we finish up.” I happened to be reading Disco Bloodbath by James St. James because I had worked at the Tunnel years earlier and was kind of fascinated by [club owner] Peter Gatien, so I was deep into it when I started thinking about this character. I had this idea to combine a Michael Alig/James St. James type with Peter Gatien, so he could come in and run the show — with one eye like Gatien, but I don’t think anybody got that but me.
When you played Vince, did you receive letters from gay cops that you inspired to come out?
I’m going to tell you something that’s going to come off really awful. Hopefully this is going well, and you won’t think I’m a total douche bag. I get a lot of mail, but I don’t read it. I know that’s fucked up, but you know what? I don’t need to read a bunch of letters telling me how great I am, the same way I don’t need to have my Emmy in my apartment. That’s why it’s at my mother’s. I don’t need to wake up and see that shit every day and go, “I’m the best!”
You had to be a cop on Will & Grace, but which member of the Village People would you really want to be?
[Laughs] I would be the Native American, only because everybody in my neighborhood growing up knew him. I think he was Puerto Rican and from Hoboken.
Will and Vince: Who was the top?
Aw, I don't know! Now you're painting a picture for me that I don't paint! Let’s go with Vince. That's probably a smart move. I mean, I got a bad back, anyway.
Did you get any razzing for playing “the guy with funky spunk” on Sex and the City?
I probably get razzed more for that till this day than for anything I've ever done — especially by women.
As the FBI agent in Snakes on a Plane, were you disappointed that you didn't got to be on the motherfuckin’ plane with the motherfuckin’ snakes?
Not at all. I felt like I was in my own movie called The Guy on the Ground, and it was great. The only thing that bummed me out is that I always wanted to do that thing where you have to act like you're in a plane that's being shaken up, but the plane's not actually moving — you know, where you're walking and you're like, “Whoa!”
Do you have a dude-crush?
Hmm, let me think. This isn't a trick question, is it? I don't know — Derek Jeter? I'm a huge Yankees fan. He's just the best. I mean, I guess. What would've been a better answer?
Guys usually say Clooney or Pitt, so yours is fairly refreshing.
Oh, OK, then. Paul Giamatti [laughs].
The Advocate, October 2007; extended online version.