When I turned 30 earlier this year (B.P., before pandemic), I held my birthday party at Johnny Utah’s. It’s the only establishment in Manhattan that houses a mechanical bull. The bartender bet the crowd that some woman couldn’t stay on the thrashing bull for more than one minute, and when she did, a Johnny Utah’s waitress jumped up onto the bar to make good on the bartender’s bet. She brandished a corked bottle of Fireball above the crowd, pouring two-ounce shots of Fireball into any mouth the bottle could reach. As I rushed to the bar to get bukaki’d with bottom feeder alcohol, I spotted the Mandalorian actor Jake Cannavale.
Johnny Utah’s is the last place you would imagine running into anybody, mostly because it’s essentially a T.G.I. Friday’s in a cowboy hat. Certainly not Cannavale, who grew up in Hell’s Kitchen just a couple blocks away. Our run-in, he says, “was just a beautiful, happy New York accident.”
The 24-year-old is mostly known for his central role as Toro Calican in episode five of Disney’s The Mandalorian – a spinoff Star Wars series created for its streaming service, Disney+. His surname, however, could swing open the saloon doors of Hollywood upon its mention. He is, in his words, a “fourth generation showbiz whatever-the-fuck”. His father is Boardwalk Empire actor Bobby Cannavale. His mother is Jenny Lumet, daughter of Dog Day Afternoon director Sidney Lumet. His great grandmother is jazz musician and actress Lena Horne. It’s a spar of Hollywood pedigree one could only dream of, and yet Cannavale admits it can be more harmful than helpful in getting work. “They assume you’re just a kid who’s trying to make a buck off of your lineage,” he says.
As Calican, he must make a bounty kill to enter the Guild. He enlists the help of the Mandalorian (Pedro Pascal) and eventually turns against him, discovering there is a bigger bounty on his head than their original target. He’s great in the role, all hat and no cattle. But soon after his big debut in the Star Wars universe, Cannavale took to Instagram to review the other Star Wars property in cinemas at the time. He called The Rise of Skywalker “an absolute fucking failure”, among other things. He’s since apologised, and has doubled down on his love for the franchise.
Right now Cannavale is in quarantine at his dad’s house in Brooklyn. We gave him a call to find out how he found himself on Tatooine with Amy Sedaris and how he’s doing in isolation.
You never wanted to be an actor, right?
It’s not that I didn’t want to be an actor, I thought that I didn’t have a choice.
What does that mean?
It means my dad was an actor, my mom was a writer, her dad was a director, her grandma was an actor… I’m fourth generation on both sides of the family. I thought you had to do something involving the visual arts. Growing up, I was always helping my dad run lines, and thought that’s just what every kid did. Then I found out that it wasn’t and I could do whatever I wanted. I wanted to do anything but acting. I fell in love with other shit, and when I was around 15, I came back to acting of my own volition, and that’s when I started doing it professionally.
Did you want to be a rock star for a time?
Yeah, I wanted to be a rock star on my terms. The music I loved to make and I do make, isn’t something you can’t get “famous” off of, which is kind of freeing in a way. It just proves to me that the only reason to do it is ‘cause you love it. I’m in a “grindcore” band, which is a particularly inaccessible strain of heavy metal, which is already pretty inaccessible and not wealth-creating. So yeah, that and writing have always been the main two things for me.
You come from this insane lineage… Do you feel like you want to kind of pimp that out to get better or cooler jobs?
It’s actually not as advantageous to have my last name or history. It’s there, of course, the advantages you would imagine. But there’s also the fact that a lot of artists, filmmakers, casting directors will see the last name and immediately assume you’re not gonna be as good as the reason it carries weight. Or they assume you’re just a kid who’s trying to make a buck off of your lineage. I try to steer clear of that, if I’m going to take the opportunity to milk my lineage and put myself out there, I don’t do that unless I have the utmost faith in what I have to offer and what I’ve created. I will say that when I moved last year, and really needed a fuckin’ job, I asked my dad whose friend owned a restaurant if I could be a fuckin’ busboy at his restaurant, and he got me the job.
So you’d say it’s different asking your dad for a restaurant job than asking for a film job?
Yeah, absolutely. Let’s say my father went to a director and said, “Hey, put my kid in your movie.” A good director’s not gonna give a shit if my last name carries some financial weight, or give a shit if he’s friends with my dad or my mom. He’s gonna give a shit about his art, and they’re not gonna sacrifice the integrity or quality of art just so they could put my last name on their product. Frankly, I wouldn’t want to work with anybody who’d do that.
With acting, how much do you agree with the statement, “Fake it ‘til you make it.”
I have a bit of faith that whoever gave me the job knows a bit of my ability. And so when I show up, I raise the bar a little bit higher for myself. I try to isolate myself from the mentality that I’m here because of my last name and I just think, “I am a talented artist and this job is an invitation to work my ass off.”
Can you tell me how you got the Star Wars gig?
I was with my team. Once every month, we try to meet up to get dinner and drinks. I got a phone call from my agent but I had literally just left the restaurant, so I was like, “Fuckin’, did you lose your keys?!” I answer the phone and fuckin’ Jon Favreau wanted me to do the fuckin’ Boba Fett movie, or some shit, they didn’t have all the details. I was like, “Oh my God, they’re doing a fuckin’ Mandalorian series, this is insanely cool.” And then I went to meet up with some friends for drinks, and that was it. I couldn’t see the script for a couple weeks after, it was hard. I couldn’t tell anyone for like a fuckin’ year.
Yeah. So I got the job in October, maybe November, I didn’t leave to go shoot it until mid-January of 2019, and then yeah it aired in December of 2019. So I had to keep it under wraps.
Were you on a green screen for part of it?
We used this new technology. Instead of a green screen they build like a centerpiece, and around it is a dome of LED screens, with a video department which is just like, 20 nerds sitting behind it who literally upload and manipulate a background.
Did you meet Amy Sedaris?
Yes I did, Amy’s lovely. Funny story, I’m a huge fan of Bojack Horseman; I love it. There was a funny on-set moment with Amy, who likes to keep to herself and do her job. Very cool, very friendly, very professional. And then at one point, and this is how I know it was pure, she was by herself. I was walking up to the tent, she didn’t know I was there, she thought I was alone. She saw something on her phone and in her natural Princess Caroline voice, just went, “Oh fish!” and put her phone away. I was like, “Oh my God.” I wanted to call her out on it, but I didn’t. I was too nervous.
So just after The Mandalorian came out, you posted a rant on your Instagram stories reviewing The Rise of Skywalker. When you Google your name now, ten headlines come up that say something along the lines of “Jake calls Star Wars ‘Fucking Shit’”…
Me and my roommate, we’ve known each other 15 years. He’s a huge Star Wars fan. We went to see [The Rise of Skywalker], and, look, I’m not gonna pretend that my opinion has changed. I’ll apologise, which I did, for the way I handled it, but I really didn’t like the movie. I felt really cheated and I didn’t really expect my [Instagram] followers to give a shit what I had to say. I posted that thing the next day, didn’t really think anything of it. I went to work, I was wiping tables and shit, then my phone keeps popping off but I didn’t check it ‘cause I was at work. When I get out my phone, a million people texted me like, “Oh my God, did you see blah blah blah, blah blah blah?” And, uh yeah, I guess I found out how much people cared.
I was a bit embarrassed because I am a genuine, diehard Star Wars fan. I am very embarrassed that I was so careless with my social media. Like I’m not just Jake from New York who just goes to work and hangs out and steals toiletries from house parties. When that heat picked up, I did email some of the people at Lucasfilm and at Disney that I had a personal relationship with, and I said, “Hey, I don’t know if you saw all this shit but if you did, this is not me, I have nothing but respect for you guys, thank you a million times, the me that you worked with is me in my truest form.”
Have you been doing a lot of auditions?
Before Covid-19, I was going on some stuff. I’ve been focused on writing a lot. I wrote a play a few years ago, and I’m working on one now. I write a lot of poetry too, so I’ve been working on that. Then me and my band are working on some demos now. We added a fourth member to handle electronics and pedals and shit. We’re just trying to make some really cool grind right now.
What’s your band called?
Have you released any records yet?
We released a demo, and we released two singles. We have another demo that is ten songs, but we haven’t uploaded that yet, we need to mix and master them. And then we’ve got about four songs demo’d right now for an EP.
Do you feel more productive in quarantine than before?
I don’t think it’s a matter of how productive I feel, it’s just a matter of what I choose to do with my time or my day, with the only difference being that I can’t go outside and I can’t see people. It’s a nice pitstop along this weird ass mountain we’re collectively climbing up.
Are you getting bored?
Oh, of course I’m getting bored. The hardest part isn’t the boredom, the hardest part is the pressure. There is nothing but the voice in your head telling you to make use of this time, I recognise that. And sometimes the hardest part for me is telling that voice to shut the fuck up and let me chill for a little bit. Yeah there’s a quarantine, but that doesn’t mean I have to write a fucking masterpiece, it doesn’t mean I need to learn to cook a fuckin’ million meals, it doesn’t mean I need to learn a new language.