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Thunder Force's Bobby Cannavale Takes Us Inside The Mind Of His Comedic Supervillain And Working With Melissa McCarthy - Exclusive Interview

Actor Bobby Cannavale has worked nonstop throughout his lengthy career, amassing more than 110 credits across a wide range of genres on the big and small screens. Whether it be comedy (TV's Will & Grace and Nurse Jackie, and films like Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle and Chef) or drama (TV's Mr. Robot and Boardwalk Empire, as well as films such as I, Tonya and The Irishman), Cannavale has done it all — almost.

Yes, Cannavale has been in a pair of superhero films with the MCU's Ant-Man and Ant-Man and the Wasp, but as San Francisco Police Officer Jim Paxton — the fiancé-turned-husband of Scott Lang's (Paul Rudd) ex-wife Maggie (Judy Greer) — he didn't have any superpowers. That's all about to change, though, with his first-ever supervillain role in the new Melissa McCarthy-Octavia Spencer adventure comedy Thunder Force.

In Thunder Force, McCarthy and Spencer star as Lydia Berman and Emily Stanton, respectively, two childhood friends who grew up in a world where a cosmic event only gave superpowers to villains in society. Sadly, Emily lost her parents at the hands of these supervillains, dubbed "Miscreants," so she's dedicated her life to creating a formula for ordinary people to become superheroes to combat evil. However, Emily is forced to test the formula much earlier than expected when the bumbling Lydia accidentally injects herself with the serum, giving her immense strength. After giving herself the power of invisibility, Emily and Lydia team to become Thunder Force, taking on such powerful Miscreants as the Crab (Jason Bateman), Laser (Pom Klementieff), and William "The King" Stevens (Cannavale) — a hot-tempered Chicago mayoral candidate who is using his cover to sway the election his way in his ultimate quest for power.

In an exclusive interview with Looper, Cannavale talked about why he loved reuniting with McCarthy on Thunder Force, a creative partnership that began with their 2015 action comedy Spy and continued in 2020 with the sci-fi comedy romance Superintelligence. Cannavale also gave insight into working with Spencer, Bateman, and Klementieff for the first time, and the idea he had for Rudd to give him superpowers in Ant-Man and the Wasp.

Directed by McCarthy's husband and longtime creative partner Ben Falcone, Thunder Force premieres on Netflix April 9.

Playing a different kind of a supervillain as a Miscreant

Hi, Bobby! I've always wanted to talk with a Miscreant, and now's my first chance. [Laughs]

It's a good name, right? It's good. It's better than the Legion of Doom.

Congratulations on Thunder Force. It might be a first, as far as superhero movies go and as far as your character is concerned, to classify "deadly temper tantrums" as a superpower — because it seems like whenever your character, the King, has temper tantrums, things go really awry.

Yeah, they definitely do. And I think that much like characters in other superhero genres, these superheroes, and supervillains — or Miscreants — have gotten more sophisticated in how we tell people what kind of powers these individuals have. We live in a much more... a touchier and a feelier world, so it's important to know what their strengths are emotionally as well as physically. The fact that he could throw temper tantrums and that they're epic and they might end up with somebody being squeezed to death is important to know where he's coming from emotionally.

It's funny. I feel like I've played a version of this character, just in a much more serious vein, He ends up actually killing people, The King doesn't actually ... Well, he does kill a couple people, actually... but he's lighter. He's not quite Gyp Rosetti [from Boardwalk Empire].

Thunder Force felt like another Cannavale-McCarthy family reunion

One thing I love about Thunder Force is how quickly you re-teamed with Ben Falcone and Melissa McCarthy. I mean, I was thinking about you doing Superintelligence together — that was less than six months ago. And in this business, I'm sure you've found out because you've worked a lot, It's not often that you can re-team with somebody once, if ever again.

Yeah, it's true.

So for you three to be working together again, that says to me a lot about how Ben and Melissa feel about you, and how you feel about Ben and Melissa.

I'm crazy about them. We just finished a job together [the dramatic miniseries Nine Perfect Strangers], Melissa and I, in Australia, about three months ago. So it'll be four times now that we've worked together. And look, you're absolutely right, it's not often you get to work with people that you like and then re-team with them again. Sometimes you'd never have a career like that. Everybody's got their own story, and there's all kinds of horror stories about, but I've been very lucky.

Melissa and I, and Ben and I, met when we were doing Spy years ago, with my lady, my longtime partner Rose [Byrne]. Rose had worked with her, of course, in Bridesmaids, so we had a very easy rapport from the beginning, and I feel really excited about that. We have a little company that we have worked with together. There are many people in the movie, actually, that they've worked with on separate occasions. And that's always a nice thing. Because it is very rare in a business — that really is a business — to give your friend a call and say, "Hey, do you want to come and play with us?" And that's literally what Ben and Melissa do. So it's nice. It's a touch of reality, in a world in which where it's very much a business. You know what I mean?

It sounds to me like you and Rose and Ben and Melissa, you just need one big house that you can live in, and then also have a studio adjoining it. And that would be the perfect setup!

You joke, but actually, I think that's what Melissa would like. And that's what Melissa and Ben have kind of gotten, obviously, with their work relationship. They've worked together so many times. And like I said, they've been forming this company as they go along, a real acting company. And even the crew is the same. There's a camera operator, Casey [Hotchkiss], who's worked in every movie with those guys. And so you get to work, and it really is a fun place to go to work. Because what are we doing, after all? We're flipping burgers, we're not saving lives.

Working with fellow Miscreant Jason Bateman (and getting intel on Ozark)

I almost feel in a way that Ben and Melissa have a troupe, because you named other people who have worked her on other productions, and I know Jason Bateman and Melissa worked together on Identity Thief. Now you get this opportunity to work with Jason and just find out how wonderful of a performer he is. For example, I think Ozark has shown us how serious this guy can be. Identity Thief and all the other roles he's done, like Arrested Development, everything else shows us how funny he can be. I almost look at him in Thunder Force like he can be funny and serious at the same time.

At the same time. Yeah. Oh yeah. The one great thing about Jason is he's never winking at you. He's not telling you, "Hey, listen, I'm in on the joke." He's playing the circumstances as if they were real. So that character, the Crab, it's just unfortunate what happened to him, but it's what it is. And so he's not dumbing anything down. He's a really smart, smart performer. And that probably comes, I'm sure, from years of doing this. And we have watched that actor grow and become and evolved into an incredibly multifaceted and deep actor.

It was really exciting to work with him. I'm a big fan of Ozark, so if nothing else, I got to tell him that and ask him a lot of questions about Ozark, and the origin of that show. And he's constantly thinking. When we would shoot these scenes, we made sure that there was no joke. We weren't playing any jokes. We were playing real circumstances. [In Thunder Force], he works for me. And if there's going to be some kind of an insurrection that he's going to lead, it's going to lead to serious consequences. I mean, I think the fact that we're playing it as straight as we are, I mean, you just got to laugh, because the circumstances are so silly.

And that's the great thing about comedy. And obviously, you're great at comedy, Bobby, and I think a lot of other actors will tell you, "Don't ever try to be funny" — that you really need to find the comedy in truth and in honest circumstances. And you're right. Playing it straight really does yield some great laughs.

I think so. I think the same in drama. I find in straight drama I can always find something funny about something that's supposed to be very serious as well. Because I find that it's like the same theory holds true for drama. If you play it really serious and you play it with a human being's truest, deepest insecurities, there is something familiar about a person's insecurities that will make you laugh uncomfortably, even in the most serious moment.

I always look for those opportunities. And really, that's what we're doing. We're watching it. We're hoping that we can relate to these characters in some personal way. And I think Jason's one. Jason and that character he plays on Ozark, I watch and I go, "Well, I have nothing on the surface in common with him, but I feel what he's going through so viscerally." And that's a testament to his work.

Bobby Cannavale says he kept falling victim to Octavia Spencer's deadpan look

I have to ask about Octavia Spencer, because you get the opportunity to play off both her and Melissa, and I'm sure you've admired Octavia.

Yeah, very much. Yeah. Gosh. Well, I mean, she's an incredibly fierce and ferocious actress, and she's an incredibly kind and warm person. And I, luckily enough, got to meet Octavia when she worked together with Rose. They did a movie together, [Instant Family], with Mark Wahlberg, and I got to meet her in Atlanta then. But she is just the warmest person and so much fun to be around. She doesn't do that many of these kinds of broader comedies, so it was really fun to get to act opposite and see her deadpan, which is amazing.

She would make me break a lot because she'd be in the peripheral. I'd have Melissa here and Octavia here. And sometimes I had just ask her to not look at me, because she would make me laugh so hard; her deadpan, and her character's unwillingness to buy any of the BS that the King is serving up, really made me break many times. She's incredible.

Bobby Cannavale flirted with the idea of playing a character with superpowers before

I want to take you to the Marvel Cinematic Universe for a minute. In the Ant-Man movies, obviously, you didn't have the superpowers then, but was there a secret desire you harbored to play a character with superpowers while working on those films? Maybe you mentioned to Paul Rudd, "God, I'd love to play a superhero or supervillain." Were you harboring that secret and hoping that someday it would happen?

Not really. Paul and I are very, very good friends. We've been great friends for 20 years. When it first came up, he said, "Hey, man, I'd love it if you could do this part." And I asked him, "Do I have any superpowers?" He said, "You don't, but we have a lot of stuff together. It'll be fun." So, in the interim, in between those movies, because we hang out a lot — we play cards, and we play fantasy sports together, we see each other a lot — and I will occasionally, usually a couple of drinks in, I'll lean in and say, "All right, how about this for Paxton?" And I will make up some scenario in which he maybe acquires a power in order to save [Paul's] character.

And he's like, "Yeah. But if Jim Paxton is saving Ant-Man what does that say for Ant-Man?" And I'd be like, "Yeah, good point. Let me rethink that. I'm going to rethink that." So I don't think that's going to happen... [But] you know why I like that character? I like that character because he's so serious about his job, and yet I think he might be the kind of person that trips up the stairs a lot. He's probably clumsy. I enjoy the opportunity to just have some comedic scenes with Paul and laugh all day on set. But I don't have any illusions. I don't think Paxton is about to attain any superpowers.

Sure, but playing the villain with superpowers now, I mean, that's got to be a tremendous amount of fun; maybe even more fun than playing a superhero. Is it tough playing a villain, maybe tougher than you would have thought than playing the hero?

Well, I don't know. I always think, just like anybody else, we all have grievances. And it's the rare person that can take those grievances to such a degree where they're going to make life miserable for all of civilization. And I think that kind of commitment to me is very funny, and it's also very desperate. And I think those are things that I enjoy playing, because it's like being on the edge of a cliff, that you'll do anything to get off the edge of that cliff.

I find that those characters usually have very high stakes, so I enjoy playing them. I did that villain character, Van Pelt, in Jumanji. And it was a lot of fun, but I felt like I created a good story for that guy, that he was tremendously aggrieved that he needed what he needed back. In that case, it was that green crystal. Also, what's a villain, really? I mean, all movies have to have a bad guy, but when you add on things like superpowers in this kind of genre, then you really just get to play it to the nth degree, don't you? And really get to have fun with it.

Thunder Force features another actor from the MCU

You had another opportunity to act with another MCU star, with Pom Klementieff playing Laser in Thunder Force. Did you talk about the MCU between scenes, or were you just focused on what's at hand? Because you've got a lot going on with what's at hand and it's a lot of fun being the villains.

We got a lot going on with what's at hand. Everybody's wearing some prosthetic of some kind. I'm wearing this massive muscle suit underneath this specially made suit for me. So we're spending a lot of time with fans and getting unzipped and getting comfortable. And I have to say, Pom was really into her character. She was very much in the zone with that Laser character. I would sometimes look over, and I'd see her doing her thing. There'd be nothing there. And I'd go, "All right. Well, I'm going to just try to get cool over here." Yeah.

Bobby Cannavale loves the creative freedom of Netflix productions

Of course, Thunder Force isn't your first Netflix production. You were brilliant in The Irishman, under the direction of Martin Scorsese.

Thank you.

And I think the reason the film was so great is because Netflix really gives artists the creative freedom to tell the story right. That must've been so refreshing to be in that sort of atmosphere, to see people like Martin Scorsese thrive, and see people like Ben Falcone thrive. It really is a different environment, isn't it?

Well, it is. I mean, Netflix made it very clear that they were going to make a commitment to letting auteurs be auteurs and make the movies they wanted to make, with their support. And it's not just people like Martin Scorsese. I mean, that's like the shining example. I think every young filmmaker can look and see like, "Holy crap, if Martin Scorsese is letting Netflix produce this film, they must be incredible creative partners."

And I think we're seeing a lot of first-time filmmakers at Netflix making movies. And it's a testament to them, really, that they're financing, producing, and distributing all this new art. You're talking about art that's also maybe some of the most diverse art that's coming out, in terms of the people that they're giving the chances to, women and people of color. It's just so obvious, when you turn on your Netflix that that's what's happening.

Bobby Cannavale reflects on the big impact The Station Agent had on his career

I want to wrap things up by telling you one of my favorite films of yours is from 2003, The Station Agent, with Patricia Clarkson and Peter Dinklage. You guys are an absolute power trio in that movie. The movie is near and dear to my heart and was one of my favorite picks of that year. It's great. What's so satisfying, though, is seeing what happened with you and Peter after that. Patricia had a pretty great career already going, but you guys just rocketed into superstardom after that. Working with Peter must have been just an absolute thrill, and a thrill now for you to see where he's gone with his career.

Yeah, incredible. And we remain good friends. We were friends before we made the movie. We live just a few blocks from each other in Brooklyn, and it's amazing. It's an easy one. It's my favorite movie that I've ever worked on as well. And it was very personal. [Writer-director] Tom McCarthy wrote those parts for the three of us, so it really was a labor of love, and we're all still good friends. And like we were talking about earlier, there's something that's extra special if you get a chance, not just to do this for a living, I mean, we were already tremendously lucky to be able to do that. But then, if you get the added bonus of being able to work with good friends and then have success with those friends.

That movie was impossible to get made. It took us so long to get that movie made. And then what it did for Tom, what it did for us, and the fact that it's out there, and that people do say wonderful things about that movie. And deservedly so. I think Tom has shown [he's talented]. His track record's incredible, movie after movie that he makes is stellar. And to see somebody like Peter, who'd been kicking around for a while and doing many independent films before that, to see him break through like that, it's very exciting when that happens to your friends. And something like Game of Thrones. I mean, if you'd have told me in 2003 that Pete was going to be on a show about dragons and knights and sword fighting, I'd have said you were on drugs. But he is. Right? What's his name? Tyrion Lannister or something?


Tyrion Lannister. Yeah. It's crazy. It's just crazy — but it couldn't have happened to a better guy or a better actor.

Thunder Force premieres April 9 on Netflix.