Bobby Cannavale on 'The Irishman': "No One's Ever Made a Mob Movie Like This"

The character actor on working alongside Marty and De Niro, as well as his 'Boardwalk Empire' fan favorite Gyp Rosetti.

Bobby Cannavale attends the "Motherless Brooklyn" red carpet

Image via Vittorio Zunino Celotto/Getty Images for RFF

Bobby Cannavale attends the "Motherless Brooklyn" red carpet

"So, let me ask you this." Bobby Cannavale starts our interview with a question posed to me. It's Saturday in midtown Manhattan, the morning after The IrishmanMartin Scorsese's long-gestating mob opus—had its long-awaited world premiere with two screenings: one in the morning for the press and a star-studded red carpet event at night for Scorsese, the cast and celebrity guests. Cannavale, of course, attended the evening premiere—he plays mid-level crime boss Felix DiTullio in the film, the man responsible for both getting Robert De Niro's Frank Sheeran into The Life and introducing him to Joe Pesci's Russell Bufalino of the Bufalino crime family. But at the moment, Bobby is more interested in my screening experience. "That's all press, right?" he asks of the morning showing in which Lincoln Center's gargantuan theater at Alice Tully Hall was filled to the brim with media. "How did that feel, that many press people because press people are like, they're a little jaded, they're a little cynical. Could you feel the love in the room for the movie?" 

The morning after screening a three-and-a-half hour movie and the ensuing after-party, if Cannavale is tired, he doesn't show it. In fact, were it not for publicists keeping him on track about timing and schedules, he seems like he could wax poetic about Scorsese's latest for as long as the movie's runtime. Cannavale, one of our most prolific character actors right now, is no stranger to the Marty Cinematic Universe: he played one of the most colorful, memorable villains on the underrated Scorsese-produced HBO series Boardwalk Empire. That then led to a leading man turn in the ill-fated but still intriguing HBO rock period-piece Vinyl. Since then, you've seen him fill crucial roles in everything from Mr. Robot and Master of None to the Ant-Man movies and I, Tonya.

He's seemingly everywhere, but for him, The Irishman feels different. It feels, as he'll tell me, like "the end of movies." Seated in a large floor-to-ceiling window conference room in Columbus Circle's Mandarin Oriental hotel, Cannavale gushes about the intricacies that make Scorsese and De Niro masters of their craft, what it was like on-set factoring in the de-aging process, and what this movie means for Marty and cinema overall. But back to his first question:

[Mild spoilers for The Irishman, a movie loosely based on historical events, follow:]

Could you feel the love in the room for the movie?

I did, man. And it was actually my first New York film Festival. So it was exciting, being near that energy, and I think it definitely confirmed for me that you have to see this in theaters if you can. You know...
Yes, it's so true. Yes. Especially this one right? Then the scope of it is so big. And there's something about seeing it in a movie theater, I think, particularly, because of the running time, that just feels good. I find it would be harder in a way to watch it, to sit through the three-and-a-half hours in front of your TV. There's too many opportunities for you to get lazy, [go to the] bathroom, fucking look at your phone, go get something to eat, drink. In a movie theater, I found myself both times that I saw it—and I can pee every hour easily—[but] both times I saw it in the theater, I didn't. I was riveted. I just couldn't move. But, like the movie in a movie theater's where it should be seen. It's like cinema.

But, I mean also kudos to Netflix for backing, otherwise it probably wouldn't exist.
Of course. 

So how did your participation in this come about? Scorsese, back on his mob shit, I'm sure that was exciting.
Yeah, well I was lucky because I had already worked with him a couple of times on Boardwalk Empire, and then we did Vinyl together. And when we were shooting Vinyl, he talked about this movie. You know, he's got so many things going. So, he's been trying to make a movie about this, and a movie about that, and tried to make Silence for 15 years, and he's been trying to make [Irishman] for 15 years. And so like when you're working with him a lot, you talk about everything. And he would talk about this movie, and say [I Heard You Paint Houses] is a very good book you should read. So I did. And I was like, that's an amazing story.

And then about six years ago I was doing a play on Broadway with Al Pacino called Glengarry Glen Ross. And I got a call from Marty saying, "Hey, come down here, and do a little reading of that story I was telling you about. Just small. Just for me, and Steve, and Bob, and Joe, and your friend Dao." And I did. And I was just, me and Stephanie cartoon were riddled with women's roles. She's in the movie, and we just sat around and read it. That was six years ago and so it was already like a good seven, eight years in the making at that point. And it still took us six years from then to make it. And I feel very lucky that I've gotten, I feel like in with Marty, it's a good feeling, like if there's a part, he's going to call. And one I never dreamed I'd be in.

I love that you brought up Boardwalk Empire, because, you know, anytime I see you in a mob thing now, it's going to give me Gyp Rosetti flashbacks.
Yeah. Good. Yeah, I think Marty's not unaware of that. I think that was like one of Marty's favorite things. Like he loved that character. The very first time I met Marty was that at the table read for Boardwalk Empire. So you know that season, the very first scene in that season is Gyp Rosetti's. When the car breaks down, and the old man stops to help them. And he helps me change the tire, and then he kind of makes fun of me, even though, he doesn't really make fun of me, just that he just sort of, takes the piss out of me. And I fucking beat him to death with a tire iron. And when we were doing the table read, I had never met Marty before, but he had me, I sat next to him.

And as that scene progressed, and as Gyp Rosetti gets more and more offended by the guy being amused, and I don't know what three in one oil is. I started, I feel his hand on my leg, it's Marty, and he's squeezing my leg, and he's slapping my leg, and he's trying to hold his laughter, and he's laughing, hysterical. Like he's watching a comedy or something. And by the end of that scene on beating the guy, and the narrator's narrating, how I'm beating him with the tire iron. And Marty's laughing, hysterical. And so that was my first experience with him. And that told me a lot about how he is, and how he equates violence with sensitivity and offense. How much that means, Sicilian. So, sensitivity to a man's, you know, a man's masculinity, a man's sensitivity. And how tricky that is. It's sort of a recurring theme in many of his movies. And I got to sort of sit right next to that and witness that, and it taught me a lot.

I feel like it's the end of movies

That's really interesting because I think that's a really big one in this movie, and in a way that he hasn't hit before, where it felt even more like, melancholy and meditative than some of his others, especially, with regards to crime and treating it as a fact of life versus reveling and enjoying it.
Yeah, for sure. I agree with you, especially that last 40 minutes of the movie, it's like you're having like a religious experience or something. It's very meditative, and you know, it's one thing to see Henry Hill learn the ropes, but Henry Hill—we only see Henry Hill 'til he's like 40. Even the character that Bob plays in that movie, he gets old, but he doesn't get that old. To see these guys at the end of their lives after living their whole lives with this code, that men's code, that they've held on to so tightly for so long, and then watching in their eyes, their sort of reflectiveness of like what it all meant. Was it all worth it? Was it worth it? Was that code worth it to end a man's life, who he truly loved?

You really feel that deeply in the movie, for what? In the end, one guy gets taken off into one door in a wheelchair, and another guy gets taken off in another direction. You go like, oh we're all going to end up in the same place. What are you left with? You're left with the decisions you made, and you feel that really at a deep level in this movie, and it couldn't have been done at any other time. You've got to wait until these guys are the age that they are. I get the sense of time when the movie's over. Like, I get really sad, because I feel like it's the end of movies on some weird level. You know, you've got like the greatest filmmaker in the world. That's certainly Marty, and he's a certain age.

Bob and Joe both die. Al dies in the movie. You know that they're not young guys. And seeing them all die makes you feel like, well what's left? With Al Pacino's gone, and Joe Pesci's gone, and Bob De Niro's gone, what's the point? Of course [they're not really] gone, but it does feel like that because they were just so emotionally connected to the work of all these incredible, these icons.

Right. And it does kind of feel almost like a closing statement.
It kind does. It kind of does. Yes. I mean, I'm still going to go and see it all, you know. What, Quentin has one more movie he left, he says? And of course there's great younger filmmakers, but that [does] feel like the end of something, you know? And it's sad...

It's like the end of a very long era.
Yes. Yes. And not only that, with this movie, he's also kind of redefined what a mob movie is. Even at this, you know, later stage of his career. You know, he's not remaking Goodfellas. He's not remaking Mean Streets. I mean, no one's ever made a mob movie like this. And so the fact that these guys can still do that, you know, is intense, and it's a real testament to what real artistry is. And what a lifetime of devoting your life to your art can produce.

What's it like being on set, you know, playing off of Pesci and especially De Niro, whom you have the most scenes with?
Yes. Amazing. It was great. Bob is a very kind person. I'm not very close with him, but he is very supportive. I work in the theater a lot, and he comes to my place all the time. And he always comes backstage, and he's always so nice. So I really appreciated that because you know, to play his boss, it's weird. I had to play guys older than him but he is just incredible. I [figured] I'd go my whole life without getting to work with him. And so I feel very blessed that I get to work with him, and watch him in action is because he is every bit what you want him to be. He's like focused and concentrated, and in it and physical. And he does things that like you don't even see on camera. Like he does things.

You know it's interesting, there's that scene, where he first sits down with Russell Bufalino in the restaurant when Ray introduces them, and then they have that scene, where Joe [Pesci] was asking him about the war, and fighting in the war, and what it was like to kill a man. That whole scene.

It's interesting because the scene opens on a shot of hands pulling bread apart. And what's interesting about that scene that you don't see is, actually, the way that scene is shot at the very end of it, the last shot is a wide from above. And you notice, or you don't notice that Ray and I are at the table with them. So, the scene started originally on Ray and I sitting there having a conversation about "I got this fucking guy keeps showing up at my restaurant with this fucking subpoena. Would you do something for me?" I'm talking to Ray and he goes, "Yeah, don't show up in the daytime." And I go, "That's your fucking advice?"

So it's this funny scene that's happening, and then the camera drifts over to them. And Marty, his direction was, "I want you guys to have that conversation, and then I'm going to bring the camera over, and then keep miming the conversation. And then I'm going to go on these guys, and then I'm going to come back to you guys, and then you pick it up again. But we're going to do it all in one shot." It was really cool. I couldn't believe it. Ray and I sit in there and we're doing the thing and we're doing it. It really is an improv, like "Maybe I should go get a different lawyer." "No, no, no, don't do that."  And then you feel the camera. Because when you feel the camera come off you, you just mime. So, camera comes off of us, and rather than mime, we're just watching the scene. Because it's a great scene.

Imagine being this close to it. And Ray and I were just giving up on the improv, we're just moving our mouths now. We're just looking at them, watching them. And Bob is talking about killing in the war and he, that's when he starts to pick up the bread. He starts playing with the bread and he fucking massacred the bread. I mean massacred, and Ray and I were like blown away. Like, "Look what he's doing with the bread!"

So it's interesting what Marty did. He didn't use any of that because the scene is really such a good scene. You probably saw that. Like you didn't need that. But then he starts it with him pulling the bread apart. And it's interesting because I remember thinking like, I wonder if they're catching that on camera, what he's doing to the bread while he's talking cause he's very calm when he's talking about how you just kind of go on autopilot after a while. You just do what you got to do. It is what it is. But his hands, physically, he's doing something else. So clearly it's not as cut and dry as that. So like it's all just to say that De Niro has got everything going on at all times and it's amazing to watch it up close.

They did like a short panel after the screening. And Marty mentioned that for the de-aging stuff, it wasn't like they were walking around with like tennis balls or whatever on their nose. So how did that work? Did it affect the filming process a little bit or was it all stuff they just kind of added after in post?
No, you know, they were wearing like these reflectors, but they were almost invisible. Like you can barely see them sometimes you'd see the ones like on the jacket or something, but like they weren't all over their face. They weren't different colors, they were just, you could barely see them really. You'd have to make certain adjustments. Like for me, there's those early scenes when he's like dropping the meat off from the truck and it's Bob and I don't know how old Bob is, I'm going to say 70—

76. I looked it up yesterday.
But you know, he's dressed like a 30-year-old [in that scene] and he's got like the jeans with the rolled-up cuffs and he's got the page book, the hat, and the leather jacket. And it just takes a second for me to go, right: he's 30 and I'm 50. But very, very quickly, you forget because again, Bob's physicalizing it, and he's acting younger. It's amazing. So it really never bumped me. For a second in the beginning I would just have to recalibrate and readjust. And if we were ever standing next to each other, he'd have these Frankenstein boots on to make him taller and that was another thing I just would have to block out and go like, right, Bob's my height now. Yeah. But these guys are like the most professional, the best actors in the game. So you know, they can play anything. So I never thought twice about it really.

Boardwalk Empire

You're one of my favorite character actors out and you can slip into a lot of different roles and lose yourself in the part completely. And you deployed a very wide range at this point. What is it about mob types that attracts you?
You know, I don't know. I never really thought about it. I mean, my first mob part was Boardwalk and that wasn't that long ago. So I think that got a lot of attention. And so then people thought I played a lot of mob guys, but I really haven't played that many mob guys. And for Marty, I've done it twice. I guess Mr. Robot is kind of like an underworld kind of figure. But I wouldn't call him a mob guy, but the truth is I'm not really attracted to them. It's just like I get cast in them and then I figure out why I like them. And for me, any part that I play, I don't ever judge the character, and I just try to find the things that the character loves in his life.

Years ago I did a job with Alan Arkin and I was talking to him about this movie that he did called Wait Until Dark that I really like, and he's a fucking great villain in that movie. He terrorizes a blind woman, and he breaks into her home. It's like a home invasion thing. It's Audrey Hepburn, and he like mentally tortures her. I was a young actor, like 25, and I asked him, "how do you relate to that character? How do you find the thing that humanizes him?" And he went, "what are you talking about?" And I go, "Well, like how do you connect with them? How do you find the thing that you can connect to, to find the humanity?" And he went back, "You know what, that's all bullshit. Sometimes guys want to be bad. And that's what makes them excited. Sometimes guys just love being bad." And I thought, wow, that's pretty good source. Alan Arkin, he's one of my favorites. And so I think about that sometimes. Sometimes you'll meet some somebody and go like, that guy has got it figured it out. That guy just knows how to walk through life. He's just cool. And then with that comes a certain amount of power. And with that, sometimes with power, comes corruption of power, and some people really get off on that. Look at our president.

So a guy like Gyp Rosetti, his Achilles heel is that he's sensitive. So he's got all this power and all this strength, but he's just sensitive about everything. And the combination is this the powder keg. And so I really like playing guys who are sensitive, and I like playing guys who are desperate on some level, and I think you can be a person in power, and still have these very human qualities that we can all connect to whether we admit it or not. We're all insecure on some level, and we all have an Achilles heel. But, usually it has to do with our sensitivity on some level. Very, very few of us have got the whole package. And so I like the juxtaposition between power and sensitivity, and what that can create. And usually, it can create something humorous, because I think Gyp Rosetti's one of the funniest parts I've ever played.

Oh, definitely.
I know he kills a lot of people, but to me, it's one of the funniest roles I've ever played. And it resonated for some reason with people. I don't think it's just because of how creative he was at killing people. I think there's something when we laugh at people like that, it's because we recognize something in ourselves. It's why Tony Soprano is such a great character, and why [The Sopranos] was so funny. I think the mob genre affords a lot of opportunities for characters like that, you know. The great characters.

The Irishman is in theaters now, and hits Netflix on November 27.

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