How 'Vinyl' took 2 'Boardwalk Empire' guys back to the '70s with Jagger & Scorsese
When Bobby Cannavale turned up midway through the run of Terence Winter's HBO gangster epic Boardwalk Empire, the most surprising thing was that they somehow hadn't worked together before, whether on earlier Boardwalk seasons or during Winter's long run as David Chase's top lieutenant on The Sopranos. The half-Italian, half-Cuban actor has been no stranger to crime stories in his career (including a role on NBC's would-be Sopranos drama Kingpin), but the Boardwalk role of animalistic sociopath Gyp Rosetti (for which he would win an Emmy) was his first time working with Winter, and also with Boardwalk executive producer Martin Scorsese.
Now, all three men have teamed up with, of all people, Mick Jagger, for Vinyl, HBO's new Sunday drama, where Cannavale plays Richie Finestra, a '70s record company executive with a great ear and a nose too prone to having cocaine shoved up it. The two-hour Vinyl pilot is the first time Cannavale was actually directed by Scorsese, who was mostly hands-off on Boardwalk by the Gyp Rosetti season.
I'll post my review of the series — which co-stars Olivia Wilde as Richie's wife, and Ray Romano as his partner at the record label — tomorrow. At TCA last month, I spoke with Winter and Cannavale about what took them so long to work together the first time, how this reunion came about, what it's like having Jagger (credited as both co-creator and executive producer) stop by the Vinyl writers room, and more.
How was Bobby never on The Sopranos?
Terence Winter: That's the first thing I ever asked them when I met him. I said, "How is it possible where we haven't worked together before?" I forget what he said, but I also said, "And by the way, thank God. This is so great because I get to work with (someone new)" — I've literally met every Italian-American actor in the world…
Bobby Cannavale: I don't know, either. David Chase said the same thing, I auditioned for it once and it was towards the end to play Meadow's like new boyfriend and I was way too old. I did the audition and (Chase) went, "Who the fuck are you? I've never met you. How have I not met you before?" And I was like, "I don't know. I don't know." I think I just missed that.
Terence Winter: That was my good fortune on Boardwalk because it was like – and I remember you saying, "I never get to play these kinds of roles."
So when Bobby comes in and he plays Gyp, did you know right away that this was a guy you wanted to keep working with for a long time?
Terence Winter: I knew within the first conversation. Literally Bobby came in; we sat down; we talked about Gyp for 15 minutes, we just bullshitted and I just said, "I'd really love this guy." And I just had a sense that this is somebody I would love to work with just personally, just the right vibe and everything else. I explained like who I thought Gyp was. He's like, "Uh-huh," and then came back and he was Gyp Rosetti. And I was like, "Oh my God, that's better than I could have ever imagined it."
Bobby Cannavale: But from my perspective, there was nothing to read, so I just knew I was coming in for a meeting with Terry Winter. And in those 15 minutes, he made this character just come alive in describing him to me. And I remember him saying to me, you know, "I can promise you you're never going to be bored playing this guy." And he was so excited about it that I just thought, "Wow, if the guy who created the show is that excited about a character, that's a character you want to play," so I didn't have to read anything.
Were you finding things out piecemeal, like the dog collar just comes up like five weeks into it?
Bobby Cannavale: The dog collar, that's funny. Timmy Van Patten coming to my trailer, we're in the middle of shooting and I thought, "Holy shit, that's it I'm done. I can't believe it." I thought I was going to get killed. And it was Timmy asking me, "How do you feel about choking yourself while masturbating?" I remember being like, "In general?" And he said, "No, I mean for the show." I was like, "Oh yeah." I loved it. I just loved the idea because I had never seen it before. You don't have to ask me twice to do something that is out there. I was excited to do it.
At what stage of doing Vinyl did you realize this was going to be a part for Bobby?
Terence Winter: Well, I feel silly admitting this but we were in the middle of doing Boardwalk and Marty and I are talking about casting and the part was already written and it calls for a 40-year-old charismatic handsome Italian-American guy and we're like, "Who the fuck are we going to get for this?" "I don't know?" We're kind of brainstorming and then we looked at each other and went, "What about this guy, Bobby?" Then we were like, "God that's so obvious. Of course." And the pheasant just landed on the shotgun. He was already in the room, basically. And I called Bobby; I sent him the script; he read it; we met with Marty and that was it. It was the easiest thing in the world, but the fact that it hadn't occurred to either one of us sooner was weird. He was already Gyp Rosetti, I wasn't thinking of him in terms of being available to do something else, I guess.
At the Gyp stage of Boardwalk, how involved was Marty? Was he coming in and watching the dailies?
Terence Winter: Yeah, he'd watch dailies and cuts of shows and stuff. He liked Gyp a lot. He made him laugh.
Bobby, what were your interactions with Marty on that job?
Bobby Cannavale: On the day-to-day, it wasn't much, although I did get an email from him once after we shot the Easter episode when Gyp is in the church talking to Jesus. He wrote me an email saying how much she loved that scene. But outside of that, not much. The first time I met him really was we have a table read and the very first table read on a (season), everybody shows up. So HBO was there and Marty shows up, and I don't know if you remember, but the first episode of season 3, Gyp beats the old guy with the tire iron, because he's told him about 3-in-1 (oil). And they sat me next to Marty. And I didn't know Marty or anything but they had the little place card there and I was so nervous because I had of the first scene and I remember the guy reading the stage directions, and he gets to the part where he says, "Gyp turns around and grabs the tire iron and lifts it above his head." And Marty starts laughing hysterically. And I remember my line was something like, "Fucking 3-in-1," whatever it was it was just me cursing a lot and, this guy is just maniacally laughing and hitting my knee underneath the table and I was like, "I love this guy."
There is reading next to Marty, and then there's being directed by Marty. What was the experience of doing this pilot like with him?
Bobby Cannavale: The great thing about Marty is before we shot anything, we just got together a lot and we rehearsed a lot. He very much made me feel like I was his, like I could go to him for anything. And this was like months of rehearsal and having me come over to the house, so that on day one I would feel like I had the character, like I could do anything I wanted. What really struck me about him was how important it was for him that I felt comfortable offering up anything, saying anything, that it would really feel collaborative, which, of course, isn't like a natural feeling to have when you're working with a guy like him. At the beginning, I just assumed, "I'm just going to do whatever he tells me to do." But by the time we shot, I felt really like my ideas were important to him. So that really was something I did not expect was to have that kind of treatment. And then when you're shooting, it's just very collaborative and I've never seen a guy so prepared before ever in my life. I mean, every day, I'd come to work and I would go into his trailer before we shot anything and he's got his script out and he says, "Okay let's remember now where we're coming from and what's happened so far." And we'd talk about that and he sets the scene up and makes me a little espresso and we talk about it and it just feels very, very collaborative. Again, the guy is a master. The guy could tell me, "Just do this, do this, do this," and I would do it, but I never felt like that was the way he wanted to work.
There's sequences in this pilot where the camera is just on your face for very long periods of time. That's a lot of pressure to be putting on an actor. What was filming those scenes like?
Bobby Cannavale: Well, I'll tell you even better. The very first shot of the show was in the conference room with the Germans and I show up and all I see is his long table and a crane over the table with a camera right in front of where I'm supposed to sit. And I remember getting into the chair (very carefully) because I didn't want to hit the camera. And I was like, "This is the first fucking shot?" I couldn't believe it. The camera was right here. And (Scorsese) comes in and he goes, "All right kid, you ready?" And I said, "Yeah this will be the first one?" He goes, "I like to do this thing in my movies sometimes where you're not looking at the guy you're looking at the (camera)." And I go to him, "I know. I've seen your movies. I can do it. I'll do it. I'm ready." And he said, "I like breaking the ice like that. We start with the camera right on you and then we're good." But he was right. Seriously. I spent two or three months with the guy having pizza in his house, you know, coming over and just talking and shooting the shit and he just made me feel like I could do anything by that first day. And we'd rehearse with the crew so there was no problem in getting to know the crew when we shot. I already knew them, and that was so valuable.
Now Terry, where are the stories about the rock scene at this time coming from? Are they coming from Mick or are they coming from a specific source?
Terence Winter: A lot of different places. Mick certainly is first and foremost. You got the biggest rock star in the world in the room — that's the first guy to talk to. Marty too. A lot of it is Marty has got a huge history with musicians and obviously knows a ton of them. Read a ton of books. We've got some incredible consultants, Danny Goldberg, Nigel Grange — these are the guys who are in the record business. Danny Goldberg, for example, was the PR guy for Led Zeppelin at the show depicted in the pilot. He was backstage standing there. So he was invaluable. In terms of like how does it work in a record company, we have Kate Hyman, another record executive from the '70s who just told us war story after war story. So a lot of that.
And what is Mick like as a creative collaborator?
Terence Winter: He came and he actually sat with us in the writer's room one day. And it was funny before we went in, he said, "What's it going to be like in there?" And I said, "Well, first of all everybody's going to need about 15 minutes to adjust to the fact that Mick Jagger is sitting at the fucking table. So I don't think anybody's going to hear a word you say, so just go and let everybody calm down and then we're just going to talk." I said, "It's just bullshitting really. The process is, 'One time this happened to me,' or we're just talking in very broad strokes about character and people." And I think that day we were talking about Richie's disillusionment in suburbia, how it seems like, "The brass ring for any person on the rise is like one day they're going to have a big house in the suburbs and then you get that and you go, 'What the fuck am I doing out here?'" At this point Mick said, "You know what, that happened to me once. I bought this big house in the country, and one weekend I remember I was spending time with the vicar, and he was a perfectly nice guy, but I'm thinking, 'I would do anything to be back in London right now.'" So it's like if that's what you're supposed to do, you have his big country state and he goes, "I'm bored to tears and every time I'd open the door there's a vicar coming over to hang out."
I want to see a show just about Mick Jagger and the vicar in the house.
Terence Winter: Mick and the Vicar. But he totally understood it. We were just talking about that whole idea that Richie probably on paper thought this sounded like a great idea, the big house in the Connecticut; maybe not such a great idea.
Bobby, you were a little kid at the time that this is happening, so your experience with the rock scene of the '70s in New York at that time is probably coming more from the movies that Marty and other people were making. Growing up, what was your sense of that New York?
Bobby Cannavale: Well, I grew up really close to the city. I grew up in Union City, which was ten minutes away. You see the skyline there, and I lived in an apartment building with my whole family, really, and I had cousins who were teenagers, 18 years old in 1976, so they would go to the city a lot. They would go to clubs and then disco hit and they would go to the disco clubs a lot. You had radio, WNEW was the radio station that was always being played in the neighborhood that I remember, and so the music was a definitely around, but the main thing about the city, in my world, was it's fucking dangerous. We're never going in there. My mother would be like, "We're never going to the city, and if we go, we'll go at Christmas time." We'd go see the tree and we'd go to Radio City to see whatever movie was playing. We'd see the Rockettes and we'd go see a movie, but that was the message was that it was very, very, very dangerous. But the music I was always attracted to and the shows I was really into like, you know, those weekend Don Kirshner shows, "Midnight Special," those shows, I remember watching those and the music was just on; it was the greatest radio stations.
Rock is going through a big transition at the time this is set, where you can have Bobby's character trying to sign both Led Zeppelin and a new punk band. You could have landed this at a lot of different periods in rock history. Why here?
Terence Winter: Well, '73 was the thing that interested me the most. '73 was the year that punk, disco and hip-hop all happened within like six months of each other, within a mile radius of each other. That was the year the first hip-hop party, Kool Herc in the Bronx, the first time anybody like scratched a record or went from one song into another. That was the year the first thing that we would recognize as a disco happened in Manhattan, The Loft down on Lafayette Street. And that was the year that punk sort of transitioned from the New York Dolls glam into Television and the Ramones shortly thereafter. CBGBs open in January '74, we start the pilot in July '73 so it's right at the cusp of a big change in music. So there's just so much going on and the city was at such a low point, economically it was like a year away from declaring bankruptcy and it was just really scary and dangerous, like Bobby said, but a really fertile place for art, so that was irresistible.
Bobby, you get some of the better end of early '70s fashion, Ray (Romano) gets the worst end of it. What was it like wearing those costumes and going back to the period in that way?
Bobby Cannavale: Amazing. It felt really right. Every time I would put something on, I would think to myself, "I would have kicked ass in real life in 1973." We have John Dunn, a great costume designer, who was the costume designer on Boardwalk Empire, and much like Boardwalk, the production value on the show is intense. It's very high. I'm surrounded by people in great period costumes and so that really helps you to get into the character. You're right though, I don't have to carry the brunt of the sort of hideous '70s looks so I think Max Casella really gets to pull that off. But I remember them talking about my palette as being mostly solids and dark, which I liked.
Terence Winter: I think Max has a lot of huckapoo shirts.
Did you get any protest from any actors at a certain point?
Terence Winter: No. The '70s is one of those eras where people loved the fashion. I mean you're right, the leisure suit is probably the single most egregious clothing object in the decade, but there's some really cool lines. I'm sure you're shocked to hear, but Bobby, the minute he walked out dressed as Richie, you think, "Holy shit, you totally look like the guy."
How do you decide like what stories are going to involve actual bands and which will have invented bands? How close can Richie be to all of the biggest acts of the '70s?
Terence Winter: Well, that's one of the challenges of the show. You take a show like Mad Men, for example, you'd say, "I have no idea what ad agency handled Heinz ketchup." It could have been Sterling Cooper, fine. But everybody knows that Swan Song was the label that had Led Zeppelin. So there were certain bands we go, "We can't say that they were on American Century," but then there are other bands where you're not really sure. In terms of the stories it's really just whatever is happening on that particular day.
You obviously have experience doing a period piece yourself, but did you and Matt (Weiner) talk at all, just because Mad Men was so close to the time that this was set in?
Terence Winter: No. We didn't really talk about it. I mean, he's excited for the show. I know that. It was really just a coincidence that Mad Men went right up to pretty much right to the edge of where we're starting. But they're very different. I mean they take place in an office and there are inevitable comparisons that are just sort of because it's a show that takes place in an office with a charismatic male lead who's got trouble. That's where the similarities begin and end, though.
The fantasy visions of Bo Diddley and some of the other early R&B stars, where did that device come from?
Terence Winter: Marty. All Marty. He called me up as we were preparing to shoot the pilot and he said, "I have an idea for some sort of connected tissue moments." We started calling them musical interstitials and he described what they were. And then I scripted a few for him and they were just brilliant, I mean they just worked great and it add such a layer of complexity to Richie and it informs every scene with something deeper. Richie, let's say he's around 40 years old in 1973, has got 40 years of music history behind him, and it includes everything from Ruth Brown to Bo Diddley to everybody else.
And you've got to play younger in those scenes.
Terence Winter: Well, he has a beanie with the propeller on it. It takes ten years right off him straight away.
Bobby Cannavale: Yeah. And I've got the seat behind the bar where I'm cleaning the glass with the towel. Nothing says young like that.
Was the pilot meant to be two hours or that's just what the cut came in at?
Terence Winter: It was long. I think the final shooting script was 70-something pages. When Marty started cutting it, he goes, "I'm getting into the scenes and when the New York Dolls were performing a song, I don't want to cut it away. I'm just letting it go. As long as I'm in it, I'm in it, and I'm letting it run." I finally said, " How long is this thing?" He said, "It's close to two hours," and it's like a full-blown Martin Scorsese film.
Bobby Cannavale: But he always called it the movie. He always would say, "The movie."
Terence Winter: Well, when we first started talking about TV, literally the first conversation about Boardwalk Empire, he really needed to have it explained, like, what's the difference between a series and a miniseries, and was really not interested in TV at all. So I said, "It ongoing series, of course, it could go on for seasons and we did 86 episodes of The Sopranos, for example. There's the pilot, and then you continue. And with Boardwalk, you would do the pilot." So he goes, "So there's the movie and then there's everything that happens after the movie." "Exactly." He goes, "Yeah, it's like you come to the movie and then you get to go back the next day to see what happens to the people in the movie." I was like, "That is exactly it right. Yes. That is exactly true."
Sopranos was a very episodic kind of show, where even if there were seasonal arcs, each hour was meant to be its own thing. Boardwalk had some of that, but you would talk about how each season was more like a book. Structurally, how are you approaching this in terms of over the season and from episode to episode?
Terence Winter: It's similar to Boardwalk in the sense that each season has got its own beginning, middle and end, but also we've done some standalone episodes already even within the first ten that are their own little mini-movies. So it's a little of both. I think it borrows from The Sopranos in that sense and also from Boardwalk — there is a larger story at play. And then the series itself is sort of the big epic novel.
How do you feel cable storytelling has changed from when you came onto Sopranos in season 2?
Terence Winter: Well, the microscope that you're under. And I don't think this is unique to cable, but people are just blogging about every single thing and the idea that people are reviewing every episode of every show, and I always said it's like reviewing chapters in a book. Or they'll say, "This made no sense," and I want to say, "Tune back next week and it will, because we're setting something up." So it's sort of weird that you're just under such scrutiny like that. I think binge watching also has changed things quite a bit too. We've been talking about it in the room: should we assume people are binging this, or not? And if they are binging it, do we need to remind people who this character is again? What you do on a traditional show is (think) people might not remember this so why don't we just give a little exposition about who this was again. And do we need that anymore if it's going to be literally one hour into the next? So we're still trying to figure it out.
Bobby, you were on network around that time. You were doing Third Watch and you did Kingpin, which was a network attempt to do a cable kind of show, but you've also done cable and you've gone back and forth. How do you see it like from the acting perspective these kinds of shows have evolved over the last 10-15 years for you?
Bobby Cannavale: The most obvious change for me has just been being on network television and then getting a chance to be on cable. There's a huge difference. I don't even know who watches network television anymore. I don't. I think that's still in the traditional arc structure of network television, and it just seems like in cable, all those rules are thrown out the window. And you're right, I started doing network television but I didn't spend that much time in it. I went from Third Watch, where I only did like a season and a half, and then I did 100 Centre Street, that was A&E's first show with Sidney (Lumet) and that was really unique because that was sort of going backwards in a way with that multi-camera sort of live television way of shooting. So I've never really been in one style of shooting a television show for too long to really know and stop and go, "This is really different." They've all been different to me and for me it's just been about how the complexity of the characters have evolved for me, and the roles have just gotten better for me as the years have gone by.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at email@example.com