Bobby Cannavale looks back at being 'invisible'

Wednesday - 4/3/2013, 12:18pm EDT

MARK KENNEDY
AP Drama Writer

NEW YORK (AP) -- Hard to believe now, but Bobby Cannavale at one point felt invisible in the casting room.

Before the Tony Award nominee became known for his stage work and roles on "Nurse Jackie" and "Boardwalk Empire," Cannavale was a reader for the Roundabout Theatre Company in the late 1990s -- a low-level guy who runs lines opposite actors auditioning for roles.

The dream, of course, is that the director will be bewitched by the person reading and hand him the role. But while Cannavale was earning a steady paycheck and learning how the business worked, that wasn't happening.

"I would be the reader for the understudies," says the 42-year-old Cannavale backstage at the American Airlines Theatre. "I couldn't even get an audition to understudy."

When Frank Langella was directing and starring in a production of "Cyrano de Bergerac" in 1997, Cannavale was putting his heart and soul into showing Langella that he had the goods. "I remember thinking, 'Oh, man. Why doesn't he let me be Christian?'" Cannavale recalls.

Maybe it was because Cannavale was reading Roxane's part.

"OK, I had no shot at that one," Cannavale confesses with a laugh.

Cannavale also twice struck out at impressing director Michael Mayer when he was a reader for "Side Man" -- "That one I really thought I was going to get," he says with a sigh -- and then "A View From the Bridge," where he longed to play Marco.

"I remember being like, 'C'mon. The guy's Italian. I'm Italian. Anything going on here?'" Cannavale says. "But I was like invisible to those guys at that point."

He's definitely not anymore.

Cannavale's work ethic and lightning-quick ability to access raw emotion has steadily gotten him noticed, from understudy roles to sharing a Broadway stage with Al Pacino.

These days, he's starring in a revival of Clifford Odets' "The Big Knife" for the very company that gave him his first job as a reader -- the Roundabout Theatre Company.

"He sure as hell didn't have to audition," says Todd Haimes, artistic director of the Roundabout. "It's great. The universe doesn't always work that way but it's notable when it does."

In a strange twist, Cannavale was first exposed to the play while reading lines opposite Richard Kind, who was auditioning for director Joanne Woodward in her Fifth Avenue apartment. (He remembers being given lemonade.)

Sixteen years later, Cannavale is starring in the same play and opposite Kind, who is reprising his old role. "It's all funny how it connects," says Cannavale.

In the play, Cannavale portrays Hollywood's biggest star, a leading-man type whose marriage is on the rocks and who is being asked to compromise what little is left of his artistic integrity by signing a long-term studio deal. Oh, and he's also being blackmailed.

Cannavale has long been a fan of Odets, whose other plays include "Waiting for Lefty" and "Golden Boy." As a young actor, Cannavale cherished a volume of six collected plays by the playwright.

"I was a fan of that idealistic writing, that struggle between holding onto your ideals in a culture where that wasn't necessarily encouraged, particularly in a country where commerce took precedence," he says. "I was just very attracted to that as a young person. I very much saw myself as an artist. It was the only thing I knew I wanted to do."

Raised in Union City, N.J., Cannavale's days as a reader ended thanks to the "Spice Girls" movie. In 1998, the actor and director Bill Irwin asked the young man to understudy the role of Carlos in the off-Broadway revival of "A Flea in Her Ear."

A few weeks after it opened, the actor playing Carlos, Mark McKinney, left to film "Spice World" and Cannavale took over the role. "It was a huge breakthrough for me, both creatively and in the business. People saw me and casting directors came and saw me," says Cannavale.

One person who saw him was John Wells, the producer of such TV shows as "ER" and "The West Wing." Cannavale soon landed a part on Wells' short-lived "Trinity," but bounced back to get a spot on his "Third Watch."

Two other people who saw Cannavale in "A Flea in Her Ear" were director Christopher Ashley and playwright Paul Rudnick, who cast Cannavale in "The Most Fabulous Story Ever Told" at the Williamstown Theatre Festival.

From there, a collaboration with playwright Lanford Wilson and membership in the now-defunct Circle Repertory Company led to steady work for Cannavale and an ever-increasing profile.