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Mario Cantone Becomes a Stressed-out Shore Bird in Surf's Up

By B. Alan Orange — June 6th, 2007

Mario Cantone fires off a Gatling gun full of jokes during this insightful interview about his new animated summer movie

Mario Cantone is such a wild blur of energy; you almost can't catch him in a still photograph. Even if you don't recognize the name, you will instantly recognize his purposely-obnoxious smile. It hits your face like a blinding white light. Born to be a performer, Cantone has won praise and wowed audiences worldwide with his Tony nominated stand-up show Laugh Whore.

This summer, Cantone lends his unforgettable metro-Bronx twang to the animated feature Surf's Up. Mario plays Mikey Abromowitz, a shorebird on the edge. With long, skinny legs and a manic delivery, Mickey runs about Pen Gu Island, tossing off jokes so fast, the rest of the film can barely keep up with him. His goal: Find the next big thing in surfing. Once a talent scout for the world of Waterfowl Theater, our hapless bird is now Surf Promoter Reggie (James Woods) Belafonte's right-hand man. Mario's performance single-handedly steals the entire show. That fact is undeniable.

I arrived at the beautiful Kahala Resort & Hotel in Honolulu, Hawaii just in time to talk with Cantone about his work in the film. After checking out the dancing dolphins, which were visible from our conference room window, Mario shared these colorful antidotes about the making of the film, and his life as a gay stand-up comedian:

Mario Cantone: Yeah, that's me. The little neurotic bird. He's like a neurotic, Jewish, talent scout, sandpiper bird with skinny little legs. He just runs around, and he's completely stressed out. It was fun. It was a big stretch.

You had a lot of scenes in this film.

Mario Cantone: Yes, I did.

You worked closely with James Woods in this film. Did that intimidate you?

Mario Cantone: No, it didn't. He is out of his mind. He is hilarious, and brilliant, and loves to talk. And I could listen to him forever. He is Hollywood history. He has worked with everybody. His The Way We Were story is hilarious. He convinced Sydney Pollock to get this certain close-up that he wasn't supposed to get. He got it. He's been around. Him and Betty Davis were having sex. It was after her stroke, which is incredible. No, I'm kidding. But she loved him, you know? What's funny is that I do Betty Davis. I do her early, but do her after the stroke. Which is politically incorrect, but I don't care. Things happen to people. And I'll probably have one eventually. So, I said to him that I did Betty Davis after the stroke. And I just started doing her. And his eyes glazed over, and he started talking to somebody else. I Was like, "Jayz Wooz I ham tahgging to shoo." And he just glazed over. I thought, "He's just not into this. Shut up." Cut to, I'm watching him on celebrity poker, and guess what his charity is? The American Stroke Association. I am an ass. And then, he was on the last Betty Davis documentary called Stardust. And he says, "I really don't like when people do her, and consider her camp." I was like, "I don't consider her camp. Just, when I do her, I like to do her." But he doesn't like it when people do her. That was the history of me and James Woods. But we've worked together twice and I had a blast with him. I think James Woods is in every movie that takes place. I think if you pick up a rock, and the movie takes place on a beach, he's in it.

Was it a challenge to have these other actors in the recording booth with you?

Mario Cantone: It was. You have got to listen to the other person, and go back and forth.

With James Woods talking all the time, did you find it difficult to get your own lines in?

Mario Cantone: Yes, he did talk a lot. And he plays my boss in this. It was tough to get a word in edgewise sometimes, but I got it in there. We did a lot of good stuff together. It was fun. There is just so much stuff you do, because you work on this for a long time. And a lot of that stuff winds up on the cutting room floor. But they got a lot of good stuff. The only thing I told then was, "I want a musical number. Where's my musical number?" In the next one, in the sequel, I'm getting a musical number. I told them if they don't get me a musical number in the next one, I'm going to have to kill a few penguins. That's all I'm going to tell you.

Did James Woods ever make fun of you?

Mario Cantone: Oh, yeah. Not in real life, but character-wise, he did some homo-bashing on me. I was like, "Hey, he's just a bird." Though, a lot of seagulls are homosexuals. Scientists have told me. He wasn't a seagull, though. He was a sandpiper. He could have been seduced by a seagull of the same sex. I don't even know. James got a little raunchy. I did too. But you just go there, and you come back. They use what they use, and don't use what they don't use. But I think the film came out really well. I love it.

You are telling us that some birds are gay?

Mario Cantone: No, just the seagulls. Didn't you know that? Or am I just talking out of my ass?

Some penguins are gay.

Mario Cantone: Are they? Do not tell Deidrich Bader that, okay.

Had you ever worked in animation before?

Mario Cantone: I was working on a huge animated film for three years that just recently fell apart, unfortunately. And I had the lead, so I don't even want to go into it. Because it's over. I would want to go off and kill a few people. Continue. Next question? Let me say, I love animation. A lot of people do this stuff for their kids. I don't care about kids. I don't want kids. I don't want them in my life. For a second, they're okay. But then, "Bye!" I had a kid over the other day. She was about eighteen months old. A little girl. My friend Pam's daughter. She's taking all the DVDs out, eating pizza with the oil and going over to the lamp. "What are you doing? That's Virsachi!" It was horrible. And then she was under the glass table playing peek-a-boo. I'm like, "It's a glass table. I can see you. Your peek-a-boo technique is hellatious." It was bad. No, I don't do it for the kids. I do it because I am obsessed with the Disney classics. Maybe I shouldn't say the "D" word, but I love all that stuff. I do, I do, I do. I love Bambi. It took me a long time to get used to the CGI stuff. It is finally getting softer, and they are finally getting a handle on the backgrounds. Sometimes you see it, and the background just looks like houses. There's no style. Every Disney movie had a style. Sleeping Beauty was angular, and beautiful, and detailed. Pinocchio was watercolors. The 101 Dalmatians was sketchy. All of them had a certain style. So, you've got to create a style. A look for the film. So it doesn't just look like a lawn. Grass. A house. What was that movie? Over The Hedge? Everything looked like a house. I said, "This isn't animation. This is not good." I'm very serious about this stuff. And that's why I loved this project. And that is why I loved the other project I was doing.

Did you know that James Woods is a republican?

Mario Cantone: I heard this. But, no, I didn't talk politics with him. No wonder he doesn't like Betty Davis impersonators. He's a republican! I'm surprised I wasn't strung up by a mic cord in the studio by him. No...Someone told me this yesterday, and I am shocked that he is a republican. Because he is a very outspoken, ballsy guy. Well, good. Let him be republican. Enjoy yourself.

Have you thought about replacing Rosie on The View?

Mario Cantone: No, no. I am going to be doing The View to promote this on June 11th. And then I'll be back on June 18th, after the daytime Emmys. I always go on and do the whole awards skewering thing. I've been doing that for ten years. I think I've done The View more times than anybody. I was the first male co-host, too. They'll never use a man. Gay man, straight man, it just wont happen. And that's fine. If they actually came to me and offered it to me, I don't know if I'd want to do it. I don't want to do something like that everyday. That's a lot to do. I also don't feel...Rosie gets on there, and she is so brave. Whether you agree with it or not, she just has this way of saying things. The whole 9/11 conspiracy theory, whether you believe it or not...The fact that she is saying something about it, and she has not been thrown off the air, or ostracized by anybody but Bill O'Reilly...But who cares? "Oh, I'm having phone sex!" Or whatever he's doing. It is amazing that she gets away with it, and that people take it in. Whether they believe it or not. I also don't feel intelligent enough to speak politically the way she does. I never did. That would intimidate me. And let me tell you, when I co-hosted it the first time, I couldn't get a word in edgewise with those bitches. It just didn't happen. I was like, "Could you shut up, Star?"

Do you think Rosie believes the things she is saying?

Mario Cantone: I really think she does. They want her to do that. But people are tough when it comes to contracts. They probably wanted her for a few more years, but they were only willing to sign her for one more year. That's probably why she was like, "Well..." I understand that. If you want to do something for a certain amount of time, and they only want you for this amount of time, you have to make a decision and go, "No." I spoke with Joy on the phone and she was very sad that Rosie is leaving. I am too. I'm bummed that she is leaving.

Did you ever have a mentor in show business?

Mario Cantone: I did. It was someone that I knew that was like a mentor. The last time I saw him was during a New York Times interview. They took me to Boston. His name is James Romano. Jimmy Romano. He's still alive. He was a schoolteacher. He was my high school schoolteacher. He was like my mentor. He actually told the New York Times that he came out of the closet to the faculty because of me. Because I was out when I was twelve or thirteen years old. One of my best friends was Jackie, the cafeteria lady. She was a chain smoker. It was hilarious. That was way back in high school. She would always answer the phone, "Kitchen! John, I don't have any more bacon burgers! Where the hell are they?" She was a lunatic. But I loved her a lot. She was fun. But Jimmy Romano was the big mentor. He was a man who took me under his wing. Some of the teachers were talking. There was one rumor about us messing around, which never happened. Our principle, Bill Hoyt, who was awesome, said to the woman who said it, "I would rather have a gay man on my faculty than a gossip." This was in 1975. I said, "Good for you, Bill Hoyt." This guy was an upright, strong principle. Jim Romano was a great teacher, and he taught me a lot. He was like my drama teacher, too. He coached me on my monologues to get me into college. That was the one for me. Sibling wise, my sister Miriam was the one that got me into theater. Acting. She kind of did it first.

You said you came out at thirteen?

Mario Cantone: Yeah, and that was back in the seventies. I'm old. I'm 97 years old.

Do you think it's easier to come out in this day and age?

Mario Cantone: It is. It's changed a lot. In the 80s, I was doing stand-up in the mainstream comedy rooms like The Improv and To Catch a Raising Star. All of these comedy rooms in New York. When I first started doing stand-up, I never talked about being gay on stage. But I never lied. I was doing Betty Davis impersonations, and if you didn't know, you lived in a cave. I was doing Julia Childs. It was a scary time for me. I always thought, "Someone in the audience is going to be drunk and they're going to yell out faggot." And it happened. It happened a few times. It happened once in Princeton, Connecticut. And New Jersey. Sorry, who cares where it is. It doesn't deserved a state. But it happened there. And it happened quite a few times. That was a scary thing. Then, gradually, I started to talk more personally about myself as the years went on. I think it was a way of bringing them all in at first. Then going, "If you don't know this by now, you are an idiot." The audience that stays with you stays with you. If they have a problem with it, they go. But I was young when I came out. I always knew. I didn't waist any time. Here, these people are coming out, and they are in their late thirties and late fifties. You have to go, "What are you doing? Why?" But I guess everything grows in its own time, and you can't push people.

Does it hurt when someone calls you a name like faggot?

Mario Cantone: It still hurts. Because you are plugged into your youth, and hearing that early on. In junior high school, I got bashed. I got bashed all the time. I was terrorized in junior high school. The weird thing was, by the time high school came along, all those people that hated me, and called me a faggot all the time...It just flipped over. And I was protected by the quarterback of the football team. He used to always make fun of me, then all of a sudden, he was like my protector. It all changed in high school. This was during the 70s. After I left, they started a gay-straight coalition club. I had a lot of influence on my old high school. There were a lot of kids coming out of the closet after that.

There has been a lot of controversy surrounding the word faggot? What is your take on that?

Mario Cantone: As far as the word faggot goes, which I say all the time, it is finally being taken seriously. Now, whether Isaiah Washington is a homophobe or not, I don't really think he is. I think he is an angry, angry man. There have been reports of him beating up the director, the actor. He has had his outbursts. He needs anger management. Not gay rehab. Whatever the hell that is? What are you going to do? Go to a resort with a bunch of flaming homosexuals and bake scones? What are you going to do? What is gay rehab? I am floored by this. It is such a publicity bullsh*t twist. But, whether he is or not, I'm glad they nailed him. Someone needs to be taken to school for this. And he's the scapegoat, maybe. Especially if he isn't a homophobic person. Like I said, I don't know. I don't think he is. But, too bad, you got busted. And there are plenty of black comedians that do fag-bashing in their acts. There are some white comedians that do to, too. I live in New York City. I live across the street from the projects. I had a children's show for five years. And I got some sh*t from those kids that used to watch it. That took me back to being called a faggot in high school. And then, the same thing happened. I was on TV, so I said, "You can kiss my ass. What are you doing? Where's your works? Where's your crack pipe?" Gradually, that shifted, too. Even that thing I did on Chappelle's Show, "Ask a Gay Dude." Have any of you seen that? David did that for a reason. He had "Ask a Black Dude" and "Ask a Gay Dude." Both in the same category. To me, that is brilliant. I did it for Dave, because I knew what his ulterior motive was. It wasn't to make fun. It was to prove a point. When you see these young urban kids, these young Puerto Rican kids, these black kids that loved that bit, you see that these three minutes of humor have changed there view on it. That piece made a big difference, I think. And that's thanks to David and thanks to my comedic brilliance. I thought the context was worth it. Then there is the "N" word. This beautiful young black kid, hanging out with his buddies, says, "Yo, man. You're the guy that does that Liza Minnelli bit." And to hear him saying, "Liza Minnelli bit" Hello? He goes, "Yo, yo, yo, you are hilarious. You my niggah!" And I'm like, "I am? I'm feeling ten feet tall, now." In that context, he was complimenting me. I feel like I should be able to quote that without being nervous about saying that word. Michael Richards, that went deep into his psyche. It's kind of like when you dissect a frog. You saw what was inside. It wasn't like any mystery. You knew what he really meant. Like I said, I'm glad the word fag is finally getting some press.

When are we going to see Three Days to Vegas?

Mario Cantone: Is it coming out? Does anybody know? If I'm in it, there's no release date. Every independent film I've done has never come out. Next question.

What is that film about

Mario Cantone: Taylor Negron is in it. It's kind of like a gay Thelma & Louise. It's kind of funny. The script we got was horrible. It was so gay, and cliched. So, Charlie Picerni let us rewrite all our stuff. It is really great. That stuff is funny. I haven't seen the movie. I don't know what it's like yet.

Catch Mario in Surf's Up, which opens June 8th, 2007.