Melissa McCarthy Satisfied Bobby Cannavale ‘9 Excellent Strangers’ Was Excellent for Him

Bobby Cannavale stars in Nine Perfect Strangers. Vince Valitutti/Hulu
Following the critical success of Big Little Lies and The Undoing, Nicole Kidman and David E. Kelley have teamed up once more for Nine Perfect Strangers, another star-studded limited series that is set to premiere on Hulu next Wednesday.
Based on the New York Times bestselling novel of the same name by Big Little Lies author Liane Moriarty and co-written by Kelley, John Henry Butterworth and Samantha Strauss, the eight-part miniseries follows nine stressed city dwellers who enter a retreat at Tranquillum House, a secret health-and-wellness resort that promises to transform their lives and bring them healing and rejuvenation. Their 10-day stay is overseen by the resort’s enigmatic director, Masha Dmitrichenko (Kidman), a Russian-American woman who is known for carefully mixing and matching her guests “like a cocktail.”
But as the unsuspecting guests surrender themselves to their host in order to confront their deepest fears and innermost demons, the truth about Masha’s mysterious past and use of psychedelic therapies begins to reveal itself in surprising and unsettling ways.
I definitely can separate my work from my personal life. I have two toddlers at home. I don’t give a shit.
One of these “perfect” strangers is Tony Hogburn (Bobby Cannavale), a former football star who initially wants to curb a drug addiction at the retreat. Before he even sets foot on the premises, Tony, who is admittedly a little rough around the edges and hiding his own painful past, begins clashing with Frances Welty (Melissa McCarthy), an author who is struggling to sell her next book and believes she is “in need of some fixing.”
In a recent video interview during the TCA Press Tour, Cannavale opens up to Observer about his close friendship with McCarthy, the way that Tony and Frances’ lives will intersect at the resort, and his lifelong quest to avoid typecasting and find roles that highlight different parts of the human experience.
Observer: It’s been about a year since it was announced that you had signed on to star in Nine Perfect Strangers, so what was it about this project that immediately captured your attention?
Bobby Cannavale: Melissa McCarthy brought it to my attention. She texted me about it, and she was like, “You should read this. I think this could be something that we could do that we haven’t done before. I’ve never seen you play this kind of part.” So that got me hooked, and then I read it, and I just thought it was so interesting on a lot of levels.
I had just read a book about psychedelic therapy two weeks before this script — it just so happens that I just finished this book called How to Change Your Mind by Michael Pollan. That had me already in the mindset of thinking about alternative therapies, and how tirelessly people have been working for years to try to treat depression, different forms of trauma and grief.
And here came this script about people trying to move through their grief. I was kind of game for that kind of information going into my head, and I just thought the character was funny, interesting and unpredictable. I loved that he was a guy who voluntarily signed up to be at this wellness retreat and spent all of his time there resisting it, and I thought, Well, that’s an interesting dichotomy. How can I play that?
Nicole Kidman in Nine Perfect Strangers. Hulu
You have collaborated many times with Melissa McCarthy, and you have a shorthand with each other off-screen that seems to translate on-screen. How has working with Melissa really pushed you as an actor, and why do you think you seem to gel so well together?
I don’t really know. We hit it off like a house on fire right away when we were doing Spy together. One of the first things we had to do was shoot this ridiculous fight in a helicopter for two days, and we just laughed a lot.
I think we’re the same age, and we’ve got a lot of the same references. We think the same things are funny. Our families really like each other. I don’t really know why the chemistry is there, but we do enjoy working with each other, and it’s pretty easy going when you’re working with her. We both like to prepare a lot. We don’t do a lot of talking about the scene. We just let it fly, and I don’t know, man. But she is just extremely talented and she’s a deep, deep, deep well of emotions, and she’s got a lot of tools in the box. And when you’re playing with somebody like that, it’s next level, and I’m very, very grateful for it.
At the retreat, Tony has hit a bit of a rough patch. He’s still reeling from an injury that ended his football career, and he’s not really on speaking terms with his kids. But it isn’t until he meets Frances and they begin to clash that he begins to find a renewed purpose in his life. How would you say the relationship between the two of them helps both of them heal as the series progresses?
Well, I think it’s one of those things, right? When he first meets her, I think one of the first scenes I have is at the side of the road with her, and he’s trying to help her and she’s not giving an inch. And he says to her, “Sorry to bother you. I can see you’re a tragic person.” I think that’s a prophetic line. I think he could be talking to himself, and I don’t think he realizes it.
But I think, as they keep running into each other, there is a similarity in their processing of their grief and their trauma that is familiar, even though, on paper, they don’t have anything in common. There’s something about [how] their vulnerabilities match up in a way that we don’t see coming sometimes. I think that’s very, very real. And sometimes, the people that we have the strongest reactions to end up being the ones that change our lives the most, and I think that’s what happens with these two.
Bobby Cannavale in Nine Perfect Strangers. Hulu
Does working on a show about personal wellness and confronting your own demons make you think about your own life, or are you generally someone who is able to separate your acting work from your personal life?
No, I definitely can separate my work from my personal life. I have two toddlers at home. I don’t give a shit. (Laughs.) My problems ain’t nothing like any of these characters. Work is fun — work is just work. I love what I do, but there’s so much involved with making these kinds of things, and I’m so grateful for the opportunity. But I just have too many kids to deal with.
This is one of those projects that immediately captures your attention when you see the entire ensemble. What would you say was the most surprising or challenging part of working with such a seasoned group of actors in Australia — and in the middle of a pandemic, no less?
It was intense, man. It was hopefully a once-in-a-lifetime experience. But we’re talking about a time when not a lot of work was happening in many sectors at all, particularly in our business, so we were one of the first things to go. So it wasn’t lost on us that we were able to go to work. It really brought back into focus just what a collective effort it is to make one of these things.
It’s hundreds and hundreds of people that are employed with jobs, and you could just see the look on everybody’s eyes behind the masks — how grateful they were to be in contact with other people, doing a job. It’s important that we go to work, and that really, really, really was brought home by this pandemic and by this experience and having to travel halfway around the world in order to do the one thing that most of us take for granted — going to work every day.
You’ve done so much varied work over the last 25 years. At this stage of your career, do you still feel typecast, or are you someone who likes to avoid being pigeonholed in one specific category or genre?
Well, I think the business always wants to pigeonhole you. That’s the easiest thing to do. Some people are into that; some people really want that. I’ve talked to actors who are so glad they’ve found their thing, and I’m just allergic to that kind of thinking. I keep myself up at night wondering what I’m gonna do different that I haven’t done before. It keeps my mind sharp, it keeps my interest at a high level, and it makes me more and more curious about the things that make us tick. That’s why I became an actor in the first place.
But as you look ahead, is there a genre that you would like to revisit or tackle the first time?
That’s a good question. I did a project some years ago — it’s a play, nobody cares. (Laughs.) I did a play that was a 100 years old, this old Eugene O’Neill play called The Hairy Ape. And I worked with somebody who really understood it really well and made it beautiful to me, really illuminated it to me, and I, therefore, felt like an expert at the thing by the time I was done with it. We were able to create something that was really dynamic and really imaginative and really fresh for people who never really considered it, so again, it was like a 100-year-old piece of art. I’d like to do more of that. I’d like to find things that are tricky in terms of their approachability and try to figure out how to make them approachable. I don’t know exactly what that is, but there’s plenty out there.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
The first three episodes of Nine Perfect Strangers are now available on Hulu, with one of the remaining five episodes set to be released every Wednesday.