Bobby Cannavale plays Joe, a lovably garrulous hot-dog vendor, in Tom McCarthy’s “The Station Agent,” a Sundance favorite which has now opened to rapturous reviews around the country. Cannavale was in Dallas for interviews recently, and he proved almost as loquacious as the character. But he pointed out that as Joe, he was acting: “I’m not that guy. The only thing we have in common is that I like to talk a lot. I remember Tom saying, ‘I’m going to write you a part where you have more to say than you’ve ever had, because I’ve just got to get that part of you.’” Cannavale recalled getting the first indication that McCarthy was making good on his promise when the writer asked him a question about cooking (the actor, who’s Cuban on his mother’s side, “loves making Cuban food”). “The first inkling I ever had that Tom was writing a script [was when] he called me up one day and–I heard his little fingers on the computer–said, ‘Hey, man, what’s a Cuban dish?’ I said, ‘Why, are we going out to eat?’ He said, ‘No, I’m writing something.’ ‘What do you mean, you’re writing something?’ ‘Just tell me, what’s a Cuban dish?’ This went on for a day or two. I wouldn’t even give him an answer until he told me he was writing something for me. Then I told him.”
Cannavale pointed out that McCarthy knew him and the two other principals in the cast–Peter Dinklage as Fin, a dwarf who inherits the abandoned New Jersey train depot where Joe parks his van, and Patricia Clarkson as Olivia, a divorcée grieving for a dead son–from working together in the New York theatre. “Tom’s an actor, a wonderful actor,” Cannavale said. “We met acting in a play together about eight years ago. We became friends. I didn’t know he was a writer as well, and then he wrote this play, this off-Broadway play–it was wonderful, called ‘The Killing Act,’ in which he cast Peter Dinklage. And that’s how I met Peter. That was about six, five years ago. And we all knew Patty from the theatre. It’s funny, everybody in this movie is connected through the theatre, literally, with the exception of maybe two people…Everybody was a phone call, everybody had worked with somebody in a play.”
McCarthy used that personal knowledge in writing the movie. “That was sort of the beauty of the script,” Cannavale explained. “He took an element of each of us and put it in the story. And then he gave us these wonderful challenges.” In Cannavale’s case, it was “how do you play a guy who seems to have everything, and seems to be a socially-adjusted guy, connected with the world, and yet he’s just as lonely as the other two? So it was nice–it was a challenge.”
The theme of isolation, in the actor’s view, is a central one in “The Station Agent.” In discussing the character of Cleo (Raven Goodwin), a solitary neighborhood girl who latches onto Fin, Cannavale said, “She’s another representative of the isolation that everybody in this movie [feels], not just the main characters–they’re all isolated…That’s one of the, for lack of a better word, messages. [Fin] seemed to have a decent life. He was very content in his life of isolation…But what happens when it’s all taken away from you? When you put all your eggs in one basket like that, what do you do? I think that’s sort of the point–that it’s not always the healthiest thing in the world. Even the most sociable person, when hard times come, rather than reaching out to people that are close to you, you can go in and push people away. It’s such a natural thing that happens…[Tom] really wanted to touch on that.”
So if Joe wasn’t him, how did Cannavale capture the character? “I thought of my kid a lot,” he said. My son is eight. I’ve never met anybody who asks so many questions as my son…and he really wants to know the answers to all these questions, he’s not doing it just to talk. It’s the most endearing thing–it’s charming, it’s not annoying, ever. And I kind of saw Joe that way–as the sort of guy who’s undernourished with information. He’s never really stopped to listen, and he takes a genuine interest in these people as opposed to, maybe, in other relationships. Those scenes [when he’s on] the telephone are very specific, those conversations. They’re all geared to him. He’s always asking, ‘What did they say about me? Are they asking about me?’ With Fin, [Joe] wants to know about him. And I think that’s a wonderful arc that [Tom] wrote in the script. I think [Joe] goes to a place at the end of the movie where he doesn’t feel the need to have to constantly fill that dead air with noise. To be able to just sit in the company of people is sort of a big step for him.”
“The Station Agent” has become a big step for the actor, too, its success surprising everyone who was involved in the modest project, which was shot in New Jersey over only 20 days for a mere $400,000, after some three years of trying to get it made. But as Cannavale described it, the long gestation period was ultimately a great benefit. When, prior to beginning filming after financing had finally been arranged, McCarthy arranged for some rehearsals, they were eventually canceled. “I remember Tom just saying, ‘You know what? We don’t need to have this rehearsal.’ It was three years of trying to get it made, and in those three years we didn’t just put the script down. We got together every four months, workshopped it and did a reading of it, got together some other actor friends to hear it again and cut, cut, cut…The [original] script was a lot longer and over that time, getting to know these characters and getting to know what their world was and what the story was about, a lot of the expositional scenes would get cut. Lines that we didn’t need were cut. That was like a rehearsal in itself. So when we got to the rehearsal room, that was the most inorganic feeling, being in that room. And I remember Tom just saying, ‘You know what? I don’t want to kill this. Let’s just get out to New Jersey and make this movie.’ And we did, and we were just on the same page from the very beginning.”
But while valuable, the waiting was also frustrating. “Toward the end there, we just really wanted to make it, and we didn’t care anymore. I remember at one point saying to Tom, ‘Let’s just shoot it on digital’–which is, like everybody’s answer when you’re not getting money for something. I remember Tom saying, ‘No, it’s not going to work on digital–it needs to be cinema; it needs to be film.’…And so when we were done with it, what we were really most proud of was that we made the film we wanted to make. We did it exactly the way we wanted.”
He added: “Everything that’s happened afterwards has been a shock to me. The first time I saw the movie was with five hundred people at Sundance…There I was in a movie theatre in Utah. I’d never been to a film festival, and I was amazed at the reaction. They gave it a standing ovation, and they laughed like it was, you know, ‘Everybody Loves Raymond.’ They were laughing hysterically at everything. I remember turning to Tom and going, ‘Did we laugh when we were making this?’ We didn’t laugh at all–nobody was laughing. That was the other great thing. You have it for three years, and what’s funny the first time you read it–I remember the first time I read it…I laughed a lot–but I’d had it so long by the time we shot it that it was just real. It was just this guy talking, and so nobody was laughing. And so that was really rewarding, and a very nice feeling–to see people laughing at real circumstances and people having real problems and talking about real things, as opposed to trying to be funny. It’s not a comedy like that–it’s not the Farrelly Brothers.”
Cannavale added: “I always think of it as a love story between three people.” And in a way the affection they share has now spread to an audience larger than anyone had ever expected.
“The Station Agent” is a Miramax Films release.