The Big Knife

A Conversation with Actor, Bobby Cannavale

Posted on: March 19th, 2013 by Roundabout


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.

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2012-2013 Season, A Conversation with, The Big Knife


A Conversation with Director, Doug Hughes

Posted on: March 19th, 2013 by Roundabout


Just before rehearsals began, Education Dramaturg Ted Sod sat down with Roundabout Resident Director Doug Hughes to talk about The Big Knife.


Ted Sod: Why did you choose to direct The Big Knife?

Doug Hughes: I’ve always felt that it was one of Odets’s most striking and powerful plays. It's also one of his most neglected. Odets was a great American playwright who was staggeringly influential. Critical opinion has identified entirely with his pre-WWII work and the Depression era. But I think he had something remarkable to say about the America that emerged victorious from the war. That short period between Hiroshima and the Korean War fascinates me. What was this country going to do now that its military, economic, and cultural power was unassailable?  Nearly seventy years after that moment, I'm interested in looking closely at The Big Knife, which took the temperature of postwar America. We were either at the start of “The American Century,” as Henry Luce called it in Time magazine, or "The Century of the Common Man,” as Henry Wallace, Roosevelt’s wartime Vice-President, who had very different ideas, dubbed it.  In a very powerful, very personal way, I think Odets was writing about the tension between those two aspirations for our country. Charlie Castle, Odets’ protagonist in the play, wants to be an uncompromising artist; he yearns after an idealistic, altruistic pathway through life. But he also has an equal if not overriding appetite for power, for security, and for, as he puts it, “the life of a rajah.”  This was a life-long dilemma for Odets.  Somewhere in The Time is Ripe, which is the title of the published version of a journal he kept in 1940, there is this entry: “I want to be a poor poet and a powerful businessman, a sensational young man and a modest artist with a secret life.”


TS: The studio system in Hollywood was still in place during the time this play takes place, correct?

DH: It might be past its heyday, but it’s still very much in place. There are still big stars under long-term contracts. There are still studio heads who kept their own police forces, ruthlessly defended their territory, and dealt darkly with unpleasant secrets. These guys were totalitarian dictators. They were dedicated to driving up the company stock price and increasing their own power and prestige. They were making a lot of money. They were also, it has to be said, making some great movies. So, yes, the studio system was very much in place at the time of this play, which was first done on Broadway in 1949.


TS: Do you think Odets’ life in Hollywood or the life of his first wife, Luise Rainer, who I know was ostracized by MGM chief Louis B. Mayer, is reflected in this play?

DH: The story of Odets' time in Hollywood can certainly offer up a parable of the poet lured to Babylon. The notion that Hollywood corrupts the artist, that the system is rigged against the artist, is a tale that's been oft told. That's old news, and I don't think it's what Odets was writing about. He isn't writing a polemic. He's offering us an experience. The studio system is what it is (or is what it was); it operates on its own rules, just as Wall Street does or Washington does. And the play's central character, Charlie Castle, is a man who has thrived in that system and has played beautifully by its rules. But as the events of the play unfold, he finds himself entering an impossible situation. He is in a place where there really seems to be no way of avoiding soul-killing compromise. It’s Charlie’s story -- not a tale about how dreadful Hollywood is. That's not the way I’m going to approach it. I'm thinking of The Big Knife as "The Passion of Charlie Castle." Don't get me wrong, everyone involved in the show is fascinated by the milieu of that time and place--studios and starlets and fancy homes in the Hollywood Hills and such. But we are after other things as well.

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2012-2013 Season, A Conversation with, The Big Knife

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The Big Knife, written by Clifford Odets and directed by Doug Hughes begins performances this week.

While this production is, technically speaking, a revival, I would wager that the majority of people, even the most dedicated of theatregoers, will be seeing The Big Knife for the very first time. In a strange way, it’s as though we are getting the opportunity to discover a new play from Clifford Odets in 2013, nearly 50 years after his death. But how did this come to be the case? Odets was the single most celebrated American playwright of the 1930s. He was at the forefront of a new movement towards realism in the theatre, a voice for the downtrodden with four plays on Broadway in a single year and his picture on the cover of Time Magazine. So how is it possible that any of his work was allowed to get fall through the cracks of history? The answer to that question tells a great deal not only about Odets himself but about the character he created in The Big Knife, Charlie Castle.

Born in 1906, Clifford Odets, a son of Jewish immigrant parents, took an early liking to the arts and dropped out of school to become an actor. His future found its shape in 1931, when he became a founding member of the Group Theatre. The Group would become renowned for its employment of “Method” acting under directors Lee Strasberg and Harold Clurman, but these leaders were skeptical of Odets’s future as a performer. Clurman urged him to write, and after a couple of false starts, Odets realized that his strength was in his affinity for the people and places of his own life. He wrote as they spoke, bringing an almost musical touch to the tough street-talk of his upbringing. And he put characters on stage who faced the same struggles of the Great Depression as the people in the audience. All of the street smarts, anger, and lyricism of the man himself went directly into both Waiting for Lefty and Awake and Sing! These first plays appeared in 1935, became immediate hits, and turned Clifford Odets into the best-known playwright in America.

It didn’t take long for Hollywood to come calling, wanting Odets to bring his talents out west and willing to pay him nicely for the trip. Odets recognized the temptations that come with money and worried about being away from Broadway for too long, but he also knew that movies offered the kind of cash that would help him keep the Group Theatre solvent. It seemed like a simple enough compromise at the time, but it was a decision that would alter Odets’s life story.

Although he would continue to write plays, Odets never regained the focus he had in those brilliantly productive early years. His New York colleagues began to look down their noses at him for allowing himself to become a mere writer-for-hire on films beneath his talent. Odets struggled with this perception, and he put that struggle into The Big Knife’s Charlie Castle (Bobby Cannavale), a rich and famous movie star so deeply entangled in the studio system that he may never be able to break free. There’s a great deal of Odets in this 1949 play, and it’s a beautiful representation of where the playwright was at this point in his career. His early plays were bold and angry, perfectly in tune with the times and with his own youthful ambition. The Odets of 1949 was far from the same man, but critics weren’t looking for emotional growth. Instead, they interpreted the change in tone as an Odets who had lost his bite. And without bite, was he even still Odets?

Our fantastic Resident Director, Doug Hughes, told me that much of his affection for The Big Knife comes from this assumption that it is a “lesser Odets.” We both feel that it is anything but a lesser work – it’s simply a representation of a man who has done some serious growing up. It’s a phenomenon that we see so often with playwrights, even our great ones: they make a splash early on with a few big hits, but then we don’t know what to do with them as their perspective shifts with time. I’ve seen it happen with everyone from Arthur Miller (a great admirer of Odets, by the way) to Athol Fugard. We’re thrilled to hear what they had to say in their prime, but we become tentative when faced with work that reflects what they learned after that prime had come and gone.

I’m overjoyed to be rediscovering The Big Knife. It’s been away from the Broadway stage for more than six decades, which is far too long. While I will, like so many, always appreciate the early masterworks of Odets, I can’t help but have soft spot in my heart for this ambitious, prophetic, deeply felt piece. I hope you will share your thoughts on the play with me by sending an email to I can’t tell you how greatly I value your feedback.


Todd Haimes
Artistic Director


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2012-2013 Season, From Todd Haimes, The Big Knife

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