Early in the rehearsal process, Bobby Cannavale spoke with Education Dramaturg Ted Sod about the role of Charlie Castle in The Big Knife.
Ted Sod: Would you tell us a little about yourself?
Bobby Cannavale: I was born in Union City, New Jersey. I moved to Florida in the middle of the 8th grade. I got thrown out of school in Florida so I moved back to Jersey to live with my dad and grandmother in my senior year. I graduated, started auditioning, and didn’t go to college. I was acting from the time I was a kid. I knew very early this is what I wanted to do. I didn’t grow up wanting to be a doctor or a lawyer. I wanted to be an artist. I went to the library a lot. Plays were some of the first things I read as a kid. I was obsessed with them. I could hear the characters in my head. As a kid, I read Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller, Sam Shepard, the classics. I started going to open calls. There were a lot of years of no pay and off-off Broadway plays. I was in a production of Joe Orton’s The Ruffian on the Stair at the American Theatre of Actors on 54th Street. It opened on Christmas Eve. There were four people in the audience. One of them was an agent who was a friend of the director. That’s how I got my first agent. Eventually I was asked to be a member of Circle Rep and that’s where I received a more formal education. The playwright Lanford Wilson took me under his wing and became a mentor. He really taught me how to act. He taught me that what the characters are going through in the play has to be the biggest event of their lives. He taught me how to find the beats in a play, how to tell the difference between a well-written play and a not-so-well-written play, which I had trouble with as a younger actor. I learned quite a bit from Lanford. I hear his voice in my head all the time.
TS: How did you become involved with this production of The Big Knife? Were you familiar with the play beforehand?
BC: I was in Williamstown rehearsing for Paul Rudnick’s The Most Fabulous Story Ever Told. One night after rehearsal, I went to see a production of The Big Knife and I was knocked out. It had me glued to my seat. I couldn’t move. I thought, “How come I don’t know this play?” I was already a fan of Odets and I knew the popular plays, but not this one. I went on a mission to do this play one day. Anytime I did anything with a director I admired, I would bring it up to them. Then Doug Hughes called me about a year ago and said, “Roundabout wants to do something with you. How about we do a reading of The Big Knife?” Odets is one of those writers who I feel has not received his due. He’s considered a post-depression-era playwright, but he was a working playwright his whole career, even after he went to Hollywood. People who have been in the theatre their whole lives don’t know this play. So I am excited.
TS: Talk about the character you are playing, Charlie Castle. He seems extremely complex. Do you see him that way?
BC: Absolutely! It’s very easy to say the play is about a movie star in Hollywood, but that’s what happens on the surface. What makes the play complex is the fact that it was written post-World War II. This is a play about Americans. The collective consciousness of this country changed after we “won the war.” It became very important for us to be “the best.” Corporate America and the desire to “have it all” began to dominate the collective conscience. The play asks tough questions: At the end of the day, how much is enough? When do you realize that you can’t have it all and not compromise yourself or your beliefs? What happens to your loved ones when you leave them behind? At what point do you say, “Enough is enough. I’m going to stick to my ideals and not desire everything the world has to offer?” That’s what interests me about playing Charlie Castle. Hollywood is a good metaphor for this atmosphere of needing to be the best, being given everything, feeling like you’re number one and on top of the world.
TS: Talk about the relationship between Charlie and his wife, Marion. They seem to be soul mates.
BC: I think you’re right, they are soul mates. They come from the same place. She’s known him since before he became Charlie Castle. He was Charlie Cass in New York. She knew him before he went to the war. She knew him when he was acting on the stage. He has a coterie of intellectual mates that all have that idealistic Group Theatre quality about them. She recognizes the truest part of him. Yet she is also complicit. She’s come out to Hollywood with him. She’s gone along with the various contracts he’s signed as well as the lifestyle. I think Marion has had it. She’s woken up to what they have become. Now is the moment for her to confront Charlie and force him to make a decision.
TS: What do you sense is the biggest challenge of doing this role?
BC: I never really noticed the fever dream quality of this play until we got on our feet. It’s striking to me. Charlie doesn’t ever leave the stage, and that is always a challenge. I sit there and various people keep coming in. They come in the front door. They come in the back door. The chickens are coming home to roost. I am being confronted by all of these obstacles. The challenge is getting the audience to go on a journey with Charlie, who is trying to find his true self before it’s too late.
TS: Is there anything else you would like to add that we haven’t covered?
BC: I wouldn’t be doing this play if I didn’t think it was relevant. I think a great play lasts because it speaks to us no matter what the times are, particularly today when we are so easily distracted. It’s astounding that this play is 60 years old and very little has changed. Life doesn’t just happen to you. You can’t let it happen to you. You have to meet it halfway. It’s about committing yourself to what’s important and what you want to do. If it means changing the way you think or your behavior to get what you want, then you actually have to do that. No one is going to do that for you. We get complacent. We get comfortable. I think Charlie Castle is the epitome of the comfortable guy whose life is falling apart.
The Big Knife plays March 22 through June 2 at the American Airlines Theatre. For more information and tickets please visit our website.
2012-2013 Season, A Conversation with, The Big Knife