One of the most memorable and beloved television characters of all-time, queer or otherwise, has to be Sex and the City’s fast-talking, wise-cracking, insatiably horny, and adorably handsome Italian-American Anthony Marentino, who made his debut as Charlotte York’s wedding planner in the third season of the Emmy-winning series. The role was written for New York stage actor and stand-up comedian Mario Cantone by Michael Patrick King, who took over from creator Darren Star as showrunner from the third season and went on to write and direct both movies, which the actor also appeared in. Cantone, whose hit Broadway solo show Laugh Whore was Tony nominated, can currently be seen reprising the role in And Just Like That… opposite Sarah Jessica Parker, Cynthia Nixon, Kristin Davis, and the late Willie Garson.
With the first seven episodes of And Just Like That…streaming now on HBO Max, The Queer Review’s editor James Kleinmann had an exclusive conversation with Mario Cantone about stepping back into the character’s designer shoes, how Anthony has evolved over the years and become closer to Sarah Jessica Parker’s Carrie, the sad loss of Willie Garson during production, his own love of baking and obsession with Turner Classic Movies (TCM) on which he recently guest programmed and co-hosted, and the female impersonator who made a huge impression on him as a young performer.
James Kleinmann, The Queer Review: It’s impossible to imagine you were ever not funny, but when did you first realize that you had the ability to make people laugh and how did that manifest itself?
Mario Cantone: “It was definitely very early that I knew I could make people laugh. In my big Italian family I was always funny with my cousins and my siblings. Then in elementary school too. When I first started doing stand-up in school talent shows I would do Lily Tomlin’s material or Robert Klein’s material, then by high school I started writing my own. When I saw what I did to an audience it was like, ‘Oh, I think I can do this!’ Until I did it professionally, then the fear sets in and it’s horrifying!”
We first saw you in Sex and the City as Charlotte’s wedding planner Anthony. It was already a popular series by that point, so what did it mean to you to get that role at that time in your life and your career, and how did it come about?
“I’ve known Michael Patrick King since my improv stand-up days in New York. I met him in 1983. He was doing stand-up, but he always loved what I did. We were very close and he would always throw scenarios at me. He’d be like, ‘Okay, you’re Joan Rivers. Edgar has just died and you’re on a cruise. You’re trying to grieve and heal. Melissa’s there too and you’re outside having breakfast. And here comes Melissa with her friends, go!’ Then I would have to do it. He would direct me like that. So he really knew what I did and he wrote me this part. I went in as a formality to read for it, but it was written for me. So I started on Sex and the City in season three and I did one episode. Then in season four I did two episodes. In season five I did three episodes, and then I did six episodes in season six. I only did 12 episodes altogether.”
When I rewatched the series last year with my husband we were both surprised by how few episodes you were in because you make such a big impression on the show it feels like you’re in it so much more.
“Well, Willie Garson—may he rest in peace, I miss him so much—he was the first gay character on the show as Stanford, so when I did that first episode of Sex and the City I thought, ‘Well, this is it. That’s all I’ll be doing’. Then Michael called me—back when people were still writing letters—and he was like, ‘Do you know how many letters and emails we got about you?’ I said ‘No, I don’t. All I want to know is, am I coming back?!’ And he said, ‘Yes.’ To have two gay characters on one show back then was a lot, so I was very lucky. Then doing the two movies really solidified it and made me a regular.”
Given that he wrote the part for you, did Michael want you to bring a lot of yourself to it?
“Oh, yeah, and he knows me very well. He knows what I do, he knows my comedy, he knows how to write for me, he’s brilliant. What he’s done for me in this incarnation of it is unbelievable. There are some episodes where I have more to do than others, but even if it’s the smallest thing, whatever he writes for me is gold and it’s funny. They become classic quotes and there are some lines from the new series that people are already quoting. But this is actually the first time I’ve ever been a regular on a television series. At 90-years-old!”
It was 2010 when the second movie was released and so it was quite a big statement to open the film with Stanford and Anthony’s wedding. What did you think about choosing to open the film with that?
“Well, I don’t tell anybody what to do, especially Michael Patrick King, he writes what he wants to write, but we got married and it was great. It was at a time when it wasn’t federally legal yet and so I think we got married in Connecticut because it was legal there at the time. But would I ever have swans at my wedding? No!”
Liza officiating maybe?
“Would I have Liza marry me? No! It was a ridiculous scenario, but it was fun. It was great to make that statement and to have such a grand wedding. I got married with eight people on my on my roof-deck and we went to Del Posto for dinner and that was it. I don’t like crowds. I don’t like a lot of people. I don’t want to party. I want to do things quietly. I’m so the opposite of this character as far as what I like and what I want. The other great thing is I am so happy that Anthony’s no longer a wedding planner, because I couldn’t do that in real life if you paid me billions of dollars. I couldn’t pick out a wedding dress. I couldn’t care about your shoes! I don’t give a fuck, I don’t! I do bake in real life though and Michael knew that, even though he claims he didn’t. Yeah, he knew, he’s psychic! So he made Anthony a baker in And Just Like That… .”
“I actually sell my own banana bread to a coffee shop down the street from me that a good friend of mine owns. I don’t do it all the time, but I was also making sourdough bread for a while before COVID. I had a sourdough starter and you have to feed it every fucking day! So I was traveling with it like an infant. I would put it in my suitcase and the shit would explode! You have to feed it every day, otherwise it dies. So finally, I had to kill the child and I stopped making it. But Michael didn’t even know that, so this whole baking thing is something I’m so happy about. I think the gimmick of Hot Fellas is hilarious. I just I love it. I’m so happy about this part and I love how he’s evolved. I mean, he’s still blunt and he’s still outrageous, but he’s a little calmer. There’s a maturity there that I like.”
As you were saying, it was quite a big deal to have two gay characters on one show at that time. There was a lot of fun in the way that Anthony and Stanford used to almost snarl at each other, they really didn’t get on. What did you think about them becoming a couple when that happened?
“I was happy that it happened because there’s so much real estate to cover on the show, there are a lot of characters, and in this incarnation of it there are even more which is why I’m lucky that I’m getting what I’m getting in this and that I’m a pretty big part of it. If there was going to be a third movie or this show, putting us together killed two birds with one stone. You put us together and then we can have our plotlines together instead of separating us, so I understood why they did it.”
“We were very opposite and we hated each other, but Michael also set it up in that first movie in the New Year’s Eve scene. So I thought it was very well plotted out and I wish we could have seen what our marriage would have been like in this particular series, but we won’t. I’m just happy to still be there and I miss Willie a lot. It was pretty difficult, but we all huddled together and loved each other and took care of each other and went forward and finished it and that’s how it worked out. But Willie and I did have good chemistry and you could see how it was going to be from the first few episodes.”
“Putting me more in Carrie’s life, I absolutely love. I think we have great chemistry. I love working with Sarah. I think she’s magnificent and that she’s better than ever in this series. The other thing is, Stanford was Carrie’s BFF, but people have to remember that I was married to him for 11 years so obviously I’m pretty close with Carrie now. I mean, we both walked into her husband’s funeral with her. So me being in her life the way he was is something that I think was already happening but is actually growing more because we’re both grieving and we’re both taking care of each other. So I’m very happy that I’ve been put in Carrie’s life and then I’m still in Charlotte’s life. She’s my girl, I adore her. I love Kristin too. I love Cynthia as well.”
“Cynthia actually directed a play that I did with my husband off-Broadway called Steve in 2015. The bigger episode that I had on And Just Like That… was episode six and she directed that. I was so happy that she did that and she did amazing job. I’m working with great people and people who I trust. I would walk into a room blindfolded with Michael Patrick King. I just know that he’s going to take care of me.”
Like you said, Anthony and Carrie are both going through a similar kind of grieving process in a way and when Carrie said, ‘My Husband died’ in episode seven, I wanted Anthony to say, ‘Well, mine went to Tokyo with a TikTok twink!’
“But the fact that Anthony says to her, ‘You get one more of those’ shows how close we’ve become. Just that one line. You can’t say that to just anybody. That’s the brilliance of Michael. Like I said, there’s a lot of real estate to cover and he has to really make that writing count and it has to be lean. I said to him on set that day, ‘The fact that Anthony says that to her means that’s it, all bets are off, and we can say anything to each other now.”
I know the writing itself is out of your hands and that it was a delicate thing to handle, but I wondered what you made of the the way that Stanford was written out of the series following Willie’s passing? It felt to me like the Stanford we know from the original book who was quite flighty and it all sounded very glamorous. What did you think about that Tokyo Story?
“I loved that scene between me and Sarah. I loved how it turns where I’m angry about this TikTok star and that he’s gone to Japan and then finally I go, ‘Well, I got a letter too and he wants to divorce’. You could see on both of our faces that there was real pain there about it because he was really gone. Also I thought they had to write it and move on because there’s so much plot in this series with so many characters. I mean, people who want to complain about it, I’m like ‘You fucking write it! You do it. You make it better’ because the big thing is that Big died and you can’t kill someone else off, you just can’t do it. So it had to be kind of a sad yet slightly comedic way that he left. You’ve got to go the opposite way. Especially with the way that he really left the show. So I thought it was good and I thought that scene was really wonderful between me and her. I was very happy with it.”
Because Sex and the City was a cultural phenomenon and is still such a touchstone in pop culture I think the movies and then And Just Like That… are held to such a high level of scrutiny that hardly any other shows are.
“Yeah, everybody has an opinion about it and people don’t like change sometimes, but people get older and move on. There were 11 years when you didn’t see these characters from the second movie to now, so you can’t just jump back in and pick up everything where you left off because that’s just not reality.”
What was it like stepping back into that character again after those 11 years?
“The way Michael presented it to me was that he’s still Anthony, but he’s evolved, he’s matured, he’s a little more grounded. There’s still his way of speaking and his spikiness and his bluntness, but I think he’s more aware of the world and what to say and what not to say and who he can say what to. At first with the bread boys I thought, ‘OK, so he’s got these boys around him that he’s hired to deliver his bread. What is this about?!’ Because he’s a cheat and he likes to fuck around, but Michael was like, ‘No, you don’t shit where you eat!’ I was like, ‘That’s funny’ and I actually used that line in one of the takes, but he cut it. I was like, ‘Well, you fucking wrote it so you shouldn’t have cut it!’ But it’s true.”
“Anthony in And Just Like That… is more like me at this point, which I love. But it was scary to step back into it. On my first day I was terrified. I was working with Kristin and she was just amazing. If I don’t get things in one or two takes I’m very hard on myself and I kept dropping one of the lines for a couple of takes and I was like, ‘Fuck!’ I just put my head down and Kristin looked at me and she was like, ‘It’s okay. I’ve got you.’ I adore her and I think her work in this is amazing. She’s fucking funny. She’s magnificent. And I love where her character has gone too.”
I enjoyed watching you on TCM back in October last year with your Classic Horror Sundays, what was that like?
“First of all, I’m obsessed with TCM! It’s on 24-7 In my house. I’m very close with Ben Mankiewicz. He’s my bro. There’s a real bromance there, even though I make fun of him! I’m like, ‘You don’t like musicals, you love sports, and you’re a gambler. You’re like one of my Italian uncles!'”
“I was a guest programmer on TCM with Robert Osborne in 2005 which was really amazing, but with Robert you felt you had to respect him. He was older, he’d been around for a long time, and you felt more of a reverence towards him. With Ben, it’s like he’s my brother and I can just be myself, so I had the time of my life doing that. I watched it every frigging Sunday! Originally I thought I was just going to do a spotlight for them, I didn’t think it was going to be a month-long thing and then as it was in October it was five Sundays. I was like, ‘I’m getting five fucking Sundays!'”
“There were certain movies that I wanted to show that they couldn’t get the rights to, but I picked all of the movies and curated that month. I filmed that scene on And Just Like That… with Carrie in the van where that guy carries her upstairs and I do my Bette Davis to her. Then I got in the car, went to the airport, flew down to Atlanta to be on the set with Ben and we did the whole thing from two in the afternoon until six. We did 20 segments, two segment per movie, and then I had to get to the airport for an eight o’clock flight. Curating it was the most exciting thing to do and I hope to do more. I love TCM. I really do I live for it!”
I love it too. You can always put TCM on and you never know what you’re going to discover. I know you said there were a couple of films that they couldn’t get the rights to but was there something that they did play in October that you were particularly thrilled about?
“To be able to pick Little Shop of Horrors, which I really do think is the last great movie musical ever made, was a thrill. Each night had a slight theme. First it was creatures, and so The Birds played with Little Shop of Horrors. They were two big ones for me. Then another theme was children that kill, so I chose The Bad Seed, which is one of my favorite movies. I wanted to play it with The Other from 1972 with Uta Hagen and Diana Muldaur. It’s about a good twin and a bad twin, based on a book by Tom Tryon. It’s a great movie, but they couldn’t get the rights to it. I was one of the twins for Halloween when I was 12 and no one knew who the fuck I was from this obscure movie! So instead we had to do It’s Alive and Ben and I were rolling our eyes and laughing during the whole conversation about it because it’s such a ridiculous movie where a woman gives birth to this creature and it starts killing people!”
“The final week was Psycho and Blow Out. I love Brian De Palma and I love that movie. I actually got a beautiful DM from Nancy Allen after that and all I said back to her was, ‘Shut up, call me!’ And we talked and she thanked me for talking about her performance in the film. She was so lovely. I love Nancy Allen. So that was fabulous. Then I got a letter from John Travolta saying, ‘Thank you so much for talking about my career and all your accolades. I really appreciate it’. It was on a letterhead and everything. So that was pretty awesome too. People watch that network a lot, and like you said, you never know what you’re going to discover and be like, ‘Why haven’t I ever seen this film before?!'”
Yeah, some of the Pre-Code films that they were showing in 2020 were amazing, like Baby Face, which I’d never seen before. I watched so much TCM during the lockdown. I’ve got one last question for you, what’s your favorite piece of LGBTQ+ culture or a person who identifies as LGBTQ+; someone or something that’s had an impact on you and resonated with you over the years?
“The people who influenced me as a stand-up comedian were Lily Tomlin, Robert Klein, and Steve Martin. They were the big ones for me. Then Richard Pryor a little later. But there was a female impersonator in the 70s and 80s who died of AIDS in 1990, and his name was Craig Russell. He was from Toronto and he did a cult hit movie called Outrageous! in 1977. He was a female impersonator like Jim Bailey and Charles Pierce were. They did drag but it was like a female illusion. Jim Bailey would come on and do Judy Garland and Barbra Streisand for an hour and he was brilliant, but Craig would do thirty women in an hour and a half. He would do Bette Midler, Bette Davis, Joan Crawford, Judy Garland, and Mae West. He was actually Mae West’s houseboy when he was younger and president of her fan club. He was a genius.”
“I saw Outrageous! when I was in high school. I loved that movie so much. Then I ran his spotlight when I was 19-years-old in Provincetown and watched him do these women on stage for two weeks. It wasn’t lip-syncing, it was his own voice. He sang brilliantly and he did the voices brilliantly. If he had his blonde wig on he would do Carol Channing and then Peggy Lee. His Peggy Lee was genius. Essentially, he’d do a group of women with one look and slightly change it and then do another set of women. When he got to Judy Garland he took his wig off and pushed his own hair up and he would do Garland in a leotard. He was one of the biggest influences on me. I do a lot of impressions of women, but I don’t do it in drag because it’s cumbersome and it’s a lot of work. I don’t even like bringing a prop on stage with me. That’s what I learned from Lily Tomlin. She would do men on stage in character and she never changed, she just did it and had a blouse and pants on. That’s how I wanted to work. I wanted to do stand-up plus impressions of women and some impressions of men.”
“He played Carnegie Hall twice in the 1970s. Once was a triumph and the second time he was so high that they were booing him and he was crawling under the piano. There was a two-hander play that I did about it in New York. It never got done commercially, but we did a couple of workshops of it and I always wanted to make it a movie and play him, but I’m too old now. But he’s a great story. It’s a typical tragedy like with Janis Joplin and Judy Garland, it’s that same story, but it’s different because of when it took place and because of what he did and how he crossed over to a straight audience. Jim Bailey was another one who crossed over and he would go on Ed Sullivan in the 60s and do Judy Garland and they never talked about the fact that he was gay. Craig was out though, he was an openly gay man in the business. He had a big cult following and he did what he wanted to do and he was a massive influence on me.”
By James Kleinmann
Mario Cantone stars in And Just Like That… streaming now on HBO Max. New episodes premiere weekly on Thursdays until February 3rd 2022. All six seasons of Sex and the City and both Sex and the City movies are also available on HBO Max now.