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Bobby Cannavale at 54: What I Know Now

The actor outta Jersey riffs on fatherhood and Russian baths, finding the right roles and the power of hypnotism

spinner image Bobby Cannavale against grayish wall with his reflection to his left
Bobby Cannavale stars in the film "Ezra," in theaters now. AARP spoke with the actor about his health and guilty pleasures, and how he's raising his kids.
Tom Corbett

Emmy Award–winning actor Bobby Cannavale — who made his mark in such streaming shows as Boardwalk Empire and Vinyl — stars in the film Ezra, in theaters now. AARP spoke to Cannavale, 54, for the June/July issue of AARP The Magazine.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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Seeking out challenges

I have three sons. I would do anything for them. So in Ezra — about a father who kidnaps his autistic son from his ex-wife — I was interested in this idea that this guy would do anything, including taking his son away, until he could figure out exactly what the best thing was for him. I thought that was an interesting high-stakes circumstance to find a character in.

Collaborating on raising kids

Rose [Byrne, his partner and costar in Ezra] and I are not always on the same page. We’ve been together long enough that I trust she’s coming from a place that’s meaningful to her. And so we tend to not argue in the moment, particularly with two boys [ages 6 and 8] who are always around. They’re like court reporters — they remember everything, and they will play us off each other. So we put it aside and then have a conversation about it later, though it’s taken us a while to get there. 

Supporting one another

The older I get, the more of a fan I am of my peers. I mean, yeah, as an actor, my North Stars were a couple of guys ahead of me: Bob [De Niro, who plays Cannavale’s father in Ezra], Al Pacino. But I love to see my peers be great. I’ve always thought, You get the part you’re supposed to get.

Sometimes in life there’s no Plan B

Acting was always it for me, and my willingness to do anything in this business to try to get my foot in the door came in handy. I flirted with being a firefighter after my oldest son was born [actor Jake Cannavale, 29, whom he had with his ex-wife, Jenny Lumet]. I was 24. I was a bouncer, and then I was a bartender because I felt like being a door security guy was unsafe now that I had a child. But I thought I should get serious. That I should be thinking of things like benefits and pensions. That didn’t last long, though. My buddy [writer-director] Tom McCarthy was, like, “Dude, what are you talking about? Acting is all you ever wanted to do. All those firefighters are going to know you’re an actor, acting like you’re a firefighter. What are you going to do when the building’s burning?”

Young dad vs. old(ish) dad

I used to be a workaholic. Then I had these two little boys in the last eight years. It’s just that old cliché about how time flies.... One minute, they won’t get out of your bed; the next, they’re not calling you back. And that happens like that. And I can testify to that having gone through it with my first child 20 years ago. So I feel really lucky I’m getting another shot at it. I start to get really anxious, and my stomach starts to hurt if I’m not home by 5:30 or 6:00, where I’m supposed to be. They need me. I don’t get that feeling on a movie set. On a movie set, they don’t need me.

Singing and dancing? Sure!

Generally speaking, in this business, people want you to do the same thing — the thing that they think you’re successful at doing. And that’s OK for some people. But I’m just trying to flex every muscle that I don’t even know I have. I’m 54, and to be asked to do the off-Broadway musical Here We Are was a tremendously flattering thing. I sang and — I wouldn’t say I danced … but I moved! [Laughs.]

Try stuff to get healthy ...

Before, I smoked. I never worked out. And then we had these kids, and I was, like, I want to try to live forever. So I started eating better. I started lifting weights. And I quit smoking. At first I couldn’t do it. I tried everything. I was always that guy leaving functions to sneak a cigarette. Then I went to this hypnotist, and I guess I was susceptible, because after the third or fourth session, I never had the desire to smoke again.

... including steeping yourself

I’ve been sick for the past week, so after I leave here, I’m going to the Russian baths. I try to go once a week. Sometimes I have to drag my butt there, but I never regret going.

Then again, one guilty pleasure seems about right

I’m not a drinker. I don’t do drugs. I work out. I try to really do the right thing. But … there’s something about late-night eating. After the boys go to sleep around 8:30, I do some incredible power eating. Bag of potato chips, bowl of cereal, then some chocolate, then a piece of fruit, then I’ll go back to some more chips. I sometimes fall asleep with crumbs on me. So, yeah, I’m a real bad boy. I put on the sunglasses and leather jacket and just go to town on some Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups.

The most important thing I tell my kids

Think the best of people; give them the benefit of the doubt. If somebody doesn’t treat you well, don’t take it onboard. Assume that there’s something going on with them. Just try to lead with compassion — life is hard, and you guys have got it kind of easy, but most people don’t.


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