How Bobby Cannavale Made His Boardwalk Empire Mobster His Own

"Boardwalk Empire" never lacked great villains. While it could run low on momentum, with storylines fizzling out and characters getting thrust to the sidelines, it was always compelling when it let its antagonists dominate the scene. Characters like real-life mobster Arnold Rothstein (Michael Stuhlbarg), fictional Prohibition agent Nelson Van Alden (Michael Shannon), or the vile Commodore Kaestner (Dabney Coleman) gave "Boardwalk" thrilling setpieces and intimidating performances. For a show that studied the relationship between government, organized crime, and the individual capacity for sin, villains like these proved essential.

But the show's most compelling villain might well have been Giuseppe "Gyp" Rosetti (Bobby Cannavale), the hot-blooded Sicilian who makes a quick enemy out of series lead Nucky Thompson (Steve Buscemi). Very early into the show's third season, viewers are introduced to Gyp as an irritable man with car trouble. By the end of that scene, we've seen him beat a good samaritan motorist to death for a perceived insult. He's loud, violent, and funny-scary, not too dissimilar to the gangster characters played by Joe Pesci in movies like "Goodfellas." While Cannavale might not have been given the chance to improvise whole scenes like Pesci, he still creates a masterful, fully-realized villain throughout his appearances on the show.

Coming into a show that's already been running for years may be difficult, and stealing scenes from the brilliant character actors of "Boardwalk Empire" is even harder. But Cannavale put the work in.

A shot of adrenaline

"Boardwalk Empire" always had a fairly laid-back pace, a quality that had critic Emily St. James calling it the pinnacle of the "hang-out drama" after its second season concluded in 2011. The arrival of Gyp Rosetti gave season 3 a shot of adrenaline, and not just because his villainy provided the show with a new sense of focus. "Boardwalk" often played out its psychological dramas in relatively subtle ways, whether in long and complex dialogue-driven scenes or in the escalation of cruelty that characters would be willing to exact upon one another. Coming into that was Gyp: a guy who would yell, scream, and fight if he didn't get what he wanted, and whose psychological depth kept him compelling beyond just moving the plot along.

As Bobby Cannavale recalls, it was during the table read for his first scene that the show's Executive Producer Martin Scorsese began to really admire his approach to the character. In particular, Cannavale noted that Scorsese cracked up at the comedic aspect of Rosetti's insecurities and hypersensitivity, qualities that would lead to the actor getting cast in Scorsese's 2019 film "The Irishman." Per Cannavale, Scorsese said, "it's so funny how offended you get!"

Cannavale's sense of the character, simultaneously threatening and on the verge of a breakdown, made Gyp wildly compelling.

Sex and desperation

Bobby Cannavale went on to tell NPR's Fresh Air more of his thoughts on Gyp, saying that he's "got to do what he's got to do to stay on top. He wants to be remembered and he wants to be feared." By the end of season 3, Gyp Rosetti has violently assaulted a priest, taken over by force a small town in rural New Jersey, and taken refuge in the brothel run by Gillian Darmody (Gretchen Mol). Part of his loose cannon nature is his desperation, the fact that he always seems to be on the ropes. While the show only gives viewers small pieces of his backstory (diving into his immigrant family and the anger he feels towards the women in his life in the Easter episode "Sunday Best"), it's unnecessary next to how Cannavale plays the part.

"Boardwalk Empire" also uses the character's sexuality to express his untrodden psychological territory. As if an argument for the necessity of sex scenes, Gyp's intimate moments give viewers more insight into the man, probably one of the least introspective characters on a show filled with short-sighted gangsters. His interest in rough sex and asphyxiation leads to one memorable scene where he's forced to defend himself from a shooting practically in the act. Not only did this material give viewers a greater understanding of Gyp – it helped Cannavale too.

The essence of Gyp Rosetti

Bobby Cannavale put a great deal of commitment and research into crafting the role of Gyp Rosetti. The show's writers gave him compelling and entertaining scenes, but it would be on him to understand it all, to give concrete definition and physicality to what we see him do. He looked into the psychological basis of his character's kinks and came away with his own insights, telling NPR's Fresh Air that "Gyp's the kind of guy who needs to feel physically stimulated all the time."

Meanwhile, Rosetti's somewhat lowly upbringing has resulted in somebody with a need to be at the center of every conversation. His violent outbursts are, as Cannavale mentioned to Fresh Air, the result of him being "a person who is not respected in his own home." Essentially, Cannavale plays Rosetti like a walking cyclone, tying a great deal of disparate but intriguing traits into a convincing, endlessly watchable character. Watching any of his scenes as Gyp Rosetti makes a strong case for why he won the Emmy for Best Supporting Actor. 

His work here forged a strong creative relationship with Martin Scorsese, who would cast him not just in "Boardwalk Empire" and "The Irishman" but in the ill-fated 2016 music industry drama "Vinyl." Even if the iconic Rosetti casts a long shadow for Cannavale, he's more than proven himself a creative, disciplined actor who can make any character his own.