Bobby Cannavale has played his share of shady guys on TV recently: gangster Gyp Rosetti on Boardwalk Empire, hard-partying record exec Richie Finestra on Vinyl, slippery fixer Irving on Mr. Robot. But the 48-year-old actor sees Colin Belfast, the scheming offsite overseer of a secret government facility in Amazon’s Homecoming, as an entirely different shade of shady. “I’m interested in characters that are desperate — really desperate,” he says.
Earlier this week, Cannavale spoke to Vulture about what makes Colin such a compelling villain, the “nail-biting” wait before finding out he got the part, what it’s like to yell through a phone at Julia Roberts, and which other podcasts he listens to (aside from, obviously, the one that inspired this series).
I heard you brought the Homecoming podcast to Sam Esmail’s attention. Is that right?
No, I didn’t bring the podcast to his attention. Far from it, no. I am very late to things, so I got on the podcast bandwagon very late. When I do get on something, I talk about it like I discovered it.
I was working with Sam at the time on Mr. Robot, and over the weekend I went to visit my brother in South Jersey, an almost three-hour drive. Both ways, I listened to the whole thing and was blown away by it. I came to work the next day and I was like, “Anybody hear this podcast, Homecoming?” Of course it had been out already for a while and Sam was like, “Yeah dude, everybody’s heard it. I’m producing it.” My mind was blown.
I couldn’t believe the coincidence of that and I just asked him, “Is David Schwimmer doing it? And if he’s not, can I do it?” The person who is making those decisions, you don’t usually point-blank get to ask them that to their face. But I did and he thought that was interesting, if unconventional. It took a few months but I really, really, really wanted to play the role. It ended up going my way, but it was pretty nail-biting there. I don’t remember the last time I really wanted a role like that.
What made you want the role so much?
You know, on the surface it might look like he’s just another asshole for me to play. I don’t really look at roles like that. I’m interested in characters that are desperate — really desperate. I thought this was a mid-management kind of guy who treats this project like it’s something he invented, that he has that much ownership of it, personally, because it means so much to his future. The ambition is off the charts. It was different enough and the twists in the storytelling were so good that I just really wanted to be a part of it.
Obviously you listened to the podcast. Was it hard to set aside what David Schwimmer had done and find your own way into the character?
You know, Jen, not really. I could appreciate what David did. David made choices that were good for David and I don’t really think about it. But I’ve got a lot of experience playing things that other people have played. I did a play a few years ago, [Glengarry Glen Ross], with Al Pacino. I played the role he played in the movie and I was opposite him the entire time for months and I never really once thought about how he did it. My brain doesn’t work that way. I can appreciate and respect what they have done, it just doesn’t help me any to try and replicate something.
Obviously it’s a dramatic role, but I felt a little more subtle comedy in what you were doing. How much did you think about it from a comedic perspective, or were you just playing it straight? Maybe it comes across as kind of funny because Colin is just so desperate.
More the latter. I think desperation is funny. Most people, when asked, probably don’t admit to being desperate, but we are all desperate in our own ways. We all have things that we want really badly and our behavior adjusts accordingly. Whether we admit it or not, we all do it, and I find that to be really funny because we do things that are out of character, or at least out of character of our normal story.
David’s performance is really funny. The stories that character makes up and the way he plays those scenes are very funny and I think he nailed it. We’re just different people. Whereas David only had the audio — I don’t think he was ever in the same room with Catherine Keener for the podcast — I have whatever my chemistry with Julia is. I think it is there, but you don’t know until you get there and you’re working with the actor, what that’s going to be.
With the sequences where Colin and Heidi are just talking over the phone, how did you shoot those with Julia Roberts?
We shot it all live. If Julia was on camera, I would be there off camera on the phone. If I was on camera, Julia would be there for me so that our rhythms would be in sync. That was really the only way to do it. You wanted to hear the other actor’s voice. Julia used to always joke that she was hearing my voice in the middle of the night, yelling at her, because we spent so much time together. We weren’t on camera together but we were always there, take after take after take of me just haranguing her.
Chemistry isn’t just if you believe two people can like each other or be in love with each other. Chemistry also can work in an antagonistic relationship, right? I don’t think that gets talked about as much. I was seized by that. I was like, Wow, that’s a weird kind of chemistry those two have. Even though he is completely pulling the wool over her eyes, the fact that they end up together for a night isn’t that shocking to me. There’s something they are both reaching for in those moments in the Chinese restaurant where they just become symbiotic in a sense. I quite like that.
Heidi can’t remember the circumstances regarding their relationship, but I feel like she can recall some sort of molecular activity between them that could be mistaken for attraction.
Yes, absolutely! Those things are complicated, right? Those aren’t cookie-cutter sort of situations, why people are attracted to each other. Sometimes people are attracted to each other because they hate each other on some level. I don’t think that’s a very traditional, everyday thing we see depicted in storytelling, because storytelling is generally neater than that.
I did want to ask you about a scene in the season finale, when Audrey turns the tables on Colin and suddenly becomes an authority figure. What was it like shooting that scene?
You mean the one where she makes me sign the paperwork?
Yeah, in that huge conference room. Were you on a set in a soundstage or were you in an actual building?
We had basically two main sets. There was the Homecoming facility, which was a massive set they built on the lot at Universal, and then the other set was the former headquarters for Toyota, out by Long Beach. That’s the headquarters for Geist, including that long-tabled conference room. We were like, How the fuck did they get this table in here? That table was so long and it was made of marble. That was such a weird place and it’s empty now. It’s for rent or for lease or something. It is a massive, massive space.
But yeah, that was such a trippy scene because Hong doesn’t have that much to do in season one. I think we are going to see a lot of her in the next season. Don’t quote me on that, but I think we are. In that scene, she’s just so fierce. She’s so direct. Direct and completely unemotional about it.
In the moment, he gets so caught off guard that he never asks for proof. He signs that fucking thing and I find that to be really fascinating because I’m not sure she ever did go to the farm. I’m not sure that she ever met the boss at that point. I think she tricked him. I do, that’s what I think.
But you don’t actually know?
I don’t actually know.
You mentioned you’d just gotten into podcasts. Aside from the ones that you’ve worked on, which podcasts do you recommend to people? What do you really like listening to?
I’m late to everything so I am not going to be surprising anybody, but I think S-Town is fantastic. I would like to play that guy in S-Town. I would never get that part — the watchmaker, the clockmaker — [but] I think that’s just a great part. That’s one of the best things I’ve ever heard.
I think Crimetown is really good, to give you another Gimlet Media one, about Buddy Cianci and all the politics of New Providence. I enjoy The Daily. I listen to The Daily every single day. I love Michael Barbaro’s voice, I love his questions. I love that I can be smart about something, one thing, every day and it only takes 20 minutes. And I love Marc Maron. That’s about all I have time for, really.
Well, that’s a lot.
That’s not bad, right? The Daily is automatic. I can find 20 minutes every day, I try to do it early so that I have my one thing to talk about all day. But yeah, I’m glad I hooked into them. I was late and it’s such an interesting form of entertainment. Especially the scripted stuff if it’s done really right.