Bobby Cannavale on Playing the Reluctant Guest and Digging Into Trauma in ‘Nine Perfect Strangers’ [Interview]

Bobby Cannavale on Playing the Reluctant Guest and Digging Into Trauma in ‘Nine Perfect Strangers’ [Interview]

Based on the book by Lianne Moriarty, author of Big Little Lies, comes the very trippy, drama-soaked miniseries Nine Perfect Strangers. Just as the title indicates, the series brings nine complete strangers together for a 10-day wellness retreat at Tranquillum House, which promises “mind and body transformation.” Headed by the mysterious and scarily perceptive Masha (Nicole Kidman), the resort quickly proves to be much more than her guests expected.

Each of the strangers is in urgent need of healing, for reasons ranging from recent grief or past trauma to drug addiction. And despite how different their issues are, Masha has complete confidence in her methods. But the same can’t be said for each of her guests.

Bobby Cannavale stars as former football star Tony, one of Masha’s more difficult subjects for the week. But the tragic truth about Tony is that he came to Tranquillum willingly, despite doing his very best to resist every part of the treatment. Whether he likes it or not, Masha works in mysterious ways and seems to have each of the guests clocked before they’ve even stepped on the property. She has a plan for Tony, just as she does for all the other guests — we’ll just have to see how well it works out.

We caught up with Bobby Cannavale to chat about his character’s journey throughout the series, his relationship with Melissa McCarthy‘s Francis, and the powerful effects of the mysterious Masha.

Spoilers for the first two episodes of Nine Perfect Strangers below.

So Tony is one of the more reluctant guests when it comes to Masha’s tactics. How did you approach vulnerability for a character that’s really resistant to showing it?

Well, it’s what I was really most attracted to in the role, was this guy who voluntarily comes to this place and then spends all of his time just resisting it. And I thought, well, that’s really a challenge to play. How do you play that? And then I thought, well, it could be funny to play a character like that, just somebody who does not care and challenges everything around him. But what people don’t know is that he’s at the bottom of the rope, really, just looking for any reason to just end it all. And so I thought that could be a really interesting combination of tragedy and comedy at the same time. And the trick was just figuring out how to do it. But when you have a script that good and you have a scene partner like Melissa for most of those scenes, that becomes a bit easier.

So with Melissa’s character, Francis, what do you think is behind that relationship and how does it evolve?

Well, I think when we meet them, they’re just, they’re two characters who, again, they don’t know it, but they’re both pretty sad. He says to her, after their first meeting, “Sorry to bother you. I can see that you’re a sad, tragic figure.” But he might as well be talking to the mirror. I mean, there’s a reason why they keep on running into each other. It’s that weird force of nature that we can’t explain. It just keeps happening. And that rang very true for me, particularly at a place like that, where they would run into each other over and over again, it takes out that element of imagination, really, because they are kind of trapped there together.

And I liked that little by little, you mentioned the word vulnerability, I think their vulnerability comes forth the more he gets to know Francis and the more he gets to realize that there’s a symmetry between them. They kind of parallel each other in terms of their grief and their trauma. And so that’s a nice discovery, I think, for the character, and hopefully for the audience.

The guests all put together this theory that Masha picked them for their specific trauma and how they all complement each other. What do you think Tony contributes to the group dynamic when it comes to the others?

She says it to him in the first, I think it’s the first or second episode when he goes into her office and she says, “You’re the alpha male of the group. I need you. I need you. I’m going to give you what you want and you’re going to help me to keep these people on track.”

And it’s not like he decides he’s going to do that because he wants to help or… He wants his drugs really. And that is a dynamic that’s important. There needs to be that person that’s going to motivate the others, whether he does it with his cantankerous attitude or not. There is something quite confronting about his personality, and it keeps people sort of strangely alert. And I think she recognizes that. And I think that is what he contributes to the dynamic in the beginning.

How do you think Masha contributes to that? When it comes to his relationship with her and her power over him?

Well, I think, much like the audience, I think Tony is as confused about it as anybody, and slowly that story of hers emerges. And I think it’s teased out rather well, actually, by the writers. But there is something about her, and we as an audience learn about her experience and it is intense and it is a serious trauma, serious grief that she’s been working through. And I think there’s something unspoken that each of them recognizes about that in her, and it becomes sort of aspirational. I wish I could be like that because she’s been through something that is awful. I know she has. And yet here she is helping others, and there’s something very inspiring about that.

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The first three episodes of Nine Perfect Strangers will be available to stream on Hulu on August 18, 2021. The remaining five premiere weekly on Wednesdays.

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