Just a Regular Guy

Bobby Cannavale Turns Bookish on Broadway In “The Lifespan of a Fact.”

Between stage, screen and TV, Bobby Cannavale has played the tough guy, the gay guy, the cool guy and lots of other guys. His most natural role comes in real life, however, as just a regular guy.  

During our phone interview, the Union City, New Jersey, native, who has lived in New York since age 20, proceeded to rave about the Chattanooga, Tennessee, city he was visiting. During an excited, 45-second travelogue, he said, “Did you know the fastest internet in the country is in Chattanooga?” His genuine enthusiasm reflected a down-to-earth charm Cannavale has maintained while building a ladder of career successes he still climbs at age 48.

During 22 years of professional acting, Cannavale has been nominated for three Emmys (he won for his roles on “Boardwalk Empire” and “Will & Grace”). He has appeared in nearly 60 films with some of the industry’s top stars and directors, but his first love remains the stage, where he was nominated for Tony Awards in “Mauritius” in 2007 and “The Motherf**r With the Hat” in 2011. 

Now he returns to Broadway for the first time since 2012 (when he starred with Al Pacino in “Glengarry Glen Ross”) in “The Lifespan of a Fact” with Daniel Radcliffe and Cherry Jones. The play is based on the 2012 book co-written by University of Iowa professor and famed author John D’Agata (Cannavale) and his fact-checker, Jim Fingal (Radcliffe). 

D’Agata’s essay on Levi Presley, a teenager who jumped to his death from the roof of a Las Vegas casino, was squashed by Harper’s magazine, which deemed it too error-laden to publish in 2003. It was resold to the literary magazine The Believer, where Fingal was assigned as the fact-checker only to discover a plethora of untrue facts that sparked a seven-year debate on what passes for truth in literary nonfiction.  

Cannavale, who lives in Brooklyn with his fiancée, Australian actress Rose Byrne, and their sons, Rocco Robin and Rafa, discussed the play, his love of stage and his favorite city hangouts. 

 

In general, would you say theater audiences are different
depending where you play? 

I was doing plays in New York City when there were three people in the audience. I was learning how to act onstage during those years, but the feeling of being out there wihout a net, no matter what size the theater is, or where it is, is always present.

What attracted you to this particular project?

When it gets to about a year since the last play I’ve done (“The Hairy Ape” at Park Avenue Armory in 2017), I start to get really itchy. I really feel like I have to do something onstage.  

I read this play, and it took me somewhere that sort of fell in line with how I’m feeling. It’s a puzzling play, it’s an incendiary play. Truth versus reality versus art in art and in life. It’s just a bonus to have all the people involved like Daniel and Cherry. 

Beyond that, there’s the challenge to play this guy. John D’Agata is tricky: A lot’s been written about him. He’s obviously very successful. I have to find things to relate to about this guy. He’s a champion of the essay as an art form, which is  not really appreciated in this sort of media sense, the way other forms of entertainment are. It’s a challenge for the written word to compete with anything right now. It reminds me of the actor that only works in the theater because of their love for it. I guess I’m approaching it from that end. I don’t see the guy as a non-truth teller so much as an artist; and we’ll go from there.


You’ve succeeded in the big three entertainment mediums. What makes live theater still such a great passion?

It’s not like going to a movie, where it’s the same movie every time. There’s something very kinetic that happens when there’s a live audience: It’s a feeling that I just don’t get in other mediums. I also enjoy the rehearsal process very much. There’s nothing like going in and making something with a bunch of people who are there because they love it.  

 

You’re a hometown guy: What’s your go-to restaurant?

I love Lilia in Williamsburg, that’s my favorite restaurant. It’s so good. The chef, Missy, she’s a great chef, she makes incredible pasta. They use fresh, fresh local ingredients. They make things that I never thought I’d try before. I had blowfish tails a couple weeks ago. I never dreamed I’d eat something like that. Missy said, “Trust me, you’re gonna love them, they’re like wings but better for you.” She was right.

 
Are there certain neighborhoods where you hang out? 

I love the West Village: That might be my favorite neighborhood to hang out in. Also the East Village: Downtown, generally speaking. But the weekends get a little crowded, so it’s a good time to stay in Brooklyn, though now it’s also getting a little crazy. I will tell you this: The best coffee in the city anywhere is a place called Abraço, on E. 7th Street between First and Second avenues. You will not find better coffee. 

 
Awesome, thanks for that. How about shopping? 

Generally speaking I like little, weird places. There’s a store on Smith Street in Brooklyn called Modern Anthology. It’s a cool store. I just literally went in there for the first time, and it has a million little things that I would like. It doesn’t have just one thing. It’s guys clothes and stuff, but also cool little cards, belt buckles. I bought a couple cool key chains. Great place for little, weird gifts. I kind of like going into stores like that. 

I particularly like little stores you can’t find anywhere else. You usually find those places in little pockets in Brooklyn, the Lower East Side, in the far West Village. You just gotta look. That’s the great thing about being in New York. I just walk, man. I’ll think, “I haven’t walked down this street in a year,” and I walk down it and then I find some new store. 

 

If you can swing a sitter for date night, where might we find you and Rose on a weekend? 

We might say, “He, let’s take an uber and go to La Esquina,” because they have great margaritas and great food and always great music. Then maybe going to a movie or going to BAM [Brooklyn Academy of Music]. But that would be on a Thursday night [laughs]. The secret of New Yorkers is, we don’t go out on weekends!