Mario Cantone Talks Whoopi Goldberg, Sarah Jessica Parker, Woke Culture
After being introduced to fans as Charlotte York’s quick witted wedding planner on Sex and the City for four seasons, Mario Cantone brilliantly reprised his role as Anthony Marentino on the HBO Max reboot And Just Like That… And just like that… Cantone’s clever scene stealing moments seamlessly re-captivated the show’s fans. Cantone’s character, Anthony, evolved to become Carrie Bradshaw’s close male confidant in the wake of Stanford’s (played by the late Willie Garson) absence as both characters bonded over losing love and a shared journey through later-life singledom.
In this incredibly honest sit down interview, Mario Cantone pulls no punches as he shares his experiences with being a gay man in Hollywood over four decades, his close friend Whoopi Goldberg, his many guest hosting stints on The View, working alongside Sarah Jessica Parker, the perils of woke and cancel cultures, and the famous world events he would change if he could.
Allison Kugel: You’re the quintessential New Yorker? How is the city doing lately. There’s been a lot of stuff in the news.
Mario Cantone: I think they’re exaggerating. I just got off the subway and I take it all the time. Look, if something happens to me, I’ll say they’re not exaggerating. I live across the street from the Chelsea-Elliot Projects, which is where Whoopi Goldberg grew up, where the Wayans Brothers grew up, and Tony Orlando. I have been living in this building since I was 23. I don’t like change. We’ve heard some gun shots around here during COVID, but it’s always kids on kids. It’s never someone being robbed or something like that. We had one incident during COVID where there was a protest up the street, and at 1 in the morning some kids came down and smashed windows and broke into a couple of liquor stores. I thought, “Go smash a Gucci window. What are you doing? What’s wrong with you? Go smash into a Chase bank. But a mom and pop liquor store?” Although I don’t think they were from this neighborhood. I love this neighborhood very much. I’ve seen all of these kids grow up. They all know me, and I know all of them. I’ve been loved. I’ve been bullied. It’s like being in Junior High again (laugh).
Allison Kugel: Speaking of bullying, your career in comedy, television and film has been going on now for more than thirty years. As somebody in the LGBTQ+ community, what has the journey been like for you since you started in the 1980s?
Mario Cantone: My first time doing standup, I passed at LA The Improv, which was the big club. I was in LA for nine months and I auditioned at The Comedy Store and I didn’t pass, probably because of the gayness of it all. I remember being told, “Don’t tell anyone you are gay.” My first year and a half I was killing it, and then all of a sudden, this anxiety set in and I was just terrified all the time. It was just scary; maybe because of being gay and doing mainstream comedy rooms. Once in a while I would do The Duplex or Don’t Tell Mama, which was a mix with gay cabaret rooms, but my main stuff was at The Cellar and The Improv. At the beginning I certainly didn’t say I was gay on stage, but I didn’t lie. I was doing impressions of women, so if you didn’t know, then you were an idiot! The fear of it all was of being on stage at 1 in the morning, and someone calling you a faggot from the back of the room, which did happen once in a while. It happened in Princeton one time. I’ll never forget that. And it happened at the Hyatt Regency, and they did nothing about it. In fact, they punished me.
Allison Kugel: What about being a gay comic on television back then?
Mario Cantone: I was booked on Johnny Carson in October of 1986 by the show’s Talent Coordinator. When he saw me, he said, “Oh my God, you’re amazing! We are going to shape six minutes for you. Then he looked at the video again, because he filmed it that night, and he said, “You know what? Your comedy has a gay edge to it and I think it’s going to make Johnny nervous, so I’m going to cancel you.”
Allison Kugel: Wow!
Mario Cantone: That happened a lot. I didn’t get the development deals until much later than everybody else did.
Allison Kugel: It must have been such a relief to have been able to portray a gay man on Sex and the City and now on And Just Like That… you were playing a gay man in a stable, loving relationship, and you’re able to represent something that wasn’t represented on television and film, even just twenty years ago.
Mario Cantone: No, it wasn’t. It’s gay history on TV.
Allison Kugel: It’s history in the making.
Mario Cantone: [The late] Willie Garson and I are gay history on TV. I’m gay in real life, so it’s really gay history on TV. Willie was straight and has an adopted son named Nathan, who he just loved. He was the greatest father and loved his son so much. But yeah, it’s like Jesse Tyler Ferguson and Eric from Modern Family. Eric is straight in real life. You know, I find it okay. Of course if I had the choice, I would like a gay man to play a gay man. But I’m not going to shut the movie down if they don’t do that.
Allison Kugel: It’s interesting that you say that, because you hear about other communities getting up in arms with that. For example, when Jennifer Lopez played Mexican Tejano singer, Selena, and they said, “Why couldn’t you find a Mexican actress?”
Mario Cantone: And James Caan played Sonny Corleone [in The Godfather], and he’s Jewish. Jews play Italians and Italians play Jews.
Allison Kugel: I’m Jewish and you’re Italian. And yeah, we’re kind of interchangeable like that (laughs).
Mario Cantone: If it’s an independent film, a television show, or a low budget film, I think a gay person could play a gay person. I think a trans person should play a trans person. I think all of that. But if it’s a major motion picture from Warner Bros or 20th Century Fox, you’re not going to get that movie done unless you have a movie star. It’s just the way it is. It has always been that way. Brokeback Mountain would have never gotten done without Jake [Gyllenhaal and Heath Ledger].
Allison Kugel: And that makes sense. Sometimes you have to give something to get something.
Mario Cantone: It’s Hollywood. They’re not going to do it any other way because where is the openly gay movie star, leading man? Where is he? Where is the trans movie star that will put people in seats. It doesn’t exist.
Allison Kugel: That’s a good question.
Mario Cantone: That’s never going to change. Not in my lifetime. There are no openly gay LGBTQ+ movie stars, leading men or leading ladies.
Allison Kugel: There actually were, for decades, without people knowing it.
Mario Cantone: There certainly were, and they are. Gay people play straight people all the time, and I think it’s great, but there is maybe one gay role per every five to ten TV shows or movies.
Allison Kugel: Let’s back up and talk about Willie Garson, who played your husband on And Just Like That… until his recent passing. Did the cast and crew know that he was battling cancer? Did you know he was sick?
Mario Cantone: I didn’t know until a month in, when he told me and told everyone. Sarah said that she knew and she kept it kind of under wraps, but he told me like a month in.
Allison Kugel: Shooting schedules can be long. Did he struggle to get through the work day?
Mario Cantone: No, he was great until he just wasn’t there anymore; until he just couldn’t come in, but you would never have known. His energy, his stories; he was hilarious and brilliant, and you unfortunately never got to see what our marriage was going to be, which was going to be very interesting and funny. It was basically two people that argue, fight, and have a very turbulent relationship, yet they can’t live without each other.
Allison Kugel: I like the way the absence of the Samantha character was handled, was very good. They didn’t try to replace her, but instead brought in these really amazing women with different points of view and different stories to add to the show.
Mario Cantone: Yes, I think that was really smart, and I actually felt like one of them. I got to sit down with them at a table read twice, and I got to add to that voice. And now I’ve been put into Carrie’s life as her friend. The character of Stanford (played by the late Willie Garson) was Carrie’s best friend, so it’s not a big leap that I’m in her life now, more and more. We are both grieving in the show. Stanford left me and Big passed away, so now I’m in her life heavily, and I’m still in Charlotte’s life heavily. I love working with Sarah a lot more this year.
Allison Kugel: Sarah Jessica Parker seems like she’s just all heart, like she has this huge, really warm heart. Is that what she is like?
Mario Cantone: Oh yes. She’s a mom. She takes care of you. I remember, after one of our first scenes together, she said to (Sex and the City and And Just Like That… creator) Michael Patrick King, “You know that scene with me and Mario? I like that.” So I got her blessing and I love working with her. I remember turning to her in the scene where I have to tell her that Stanford was divorcing me, and I remember sitting there and I just looked at her and said, “You do this with such ease.” First of all, I think she is better than ever. She has always been great, but she is at the top of her game.
Allison Kugel: Let’s talk about The View. You have been on The View, as a guest host, a lot over the years. From Rosie O’Donnell to Elisabeth Hasselbeck and now Whoopi Goldberg, co-hosts have stuck their foot in their mouth quite significantly, saying things they came to regret later. What does it feel like being on the panel with all those outspoken women? Is there pressure to bring strong or outrageous opinions to the table?
Mario Cantone: You can’t say shit anymore. You can’t say anything. They come after you. I wouldn’t want that job. I would never do it. Joy [Behar] has stuck her foot in her mouth. Whoopi [Goldberg] is one of my closest friends. I adore her, and Joy is too. I didn’t see what Whoopi said, but I know she’s not an antisemite. Period. She has a heart of gold. She stands up for everything. I don’t understand this world anymore, and that is why I don’t really want to do standup anymore. I was never a political comedian, anyway. I wouldn’t want that job. At the time people asked me, “Were you really being considered as a permanent co-host [on The View]?” No, but it was big press for me. I ran with it at the time, but it’s a woman’s show. It’s all women. That is the way that Barbara Walters wanted it, and that is the way Whoopi wanted it.
Allison Kugel: If you are going to have a forum like that, I think that it should be constructed in such a way where if somebody says something that doesn’t take historical context into consideration, that is where somebody else should say, “Hey, you know what? Let me explain this to you.”
Mario Cantone: Let’s have a conversation.
Allison Kugel: Let’s have a conversation. I think that is where we are missing something. Let’s explain it and turn it into a teachable moment.
Mario Cantone: Yes, absolutely. This cancel culture has ruined entertainment, the world, and comedy.
Allison Kugel: Do comedians talk about that?
Mario Cantone: Oh yes. Judy Gold talks about that all the time. She wrote a book about it. I think it was called, Yes, I Can Say That. I just saw her do a little bit that was so true. She said, “I’m up here doing comedy. I don’t know about your childhood trauma. If I trigger you with something, sorry, I’m not psychic.” You know what I want to say to these kids? Toughen the fuck up. The world is not easy. It’s the cause and effect of having Trump in office. The piggish things that he would say have caused the opposite effect in the extreme liberal world, where they shut it down, every little thing someone says. They don’t allow a teachable moment like you said.
Allison Kugel: How long have you been married now?
Mario Cantone: Legally, I’ve been married for eleven years. We legally got married on October 5, 2011, when it became legal in New York, but we’ve been together for 30 years. We were married by Jay Bakker, Tammy Faye Bakker’s son. I love Jay. Sundance did a documentary series on him called One Punk Under God. I just called him up and said, “I saw your documentary.” I knew he welcomed gay people into his church. I said, “Do you marry gay men?” And he said, “Yes, I just saw you on The View saying we’re getting married.”
Allison Kugel: How did you know your husband Jerry was The One?
Mario Cantone: I knew the night I met him.
Allison Kugel: Shut up!
Mario Cantone: I met him on June 20, 1990, but we were just friends for a year and a half. We were not serious. Then I went to LA in July of 1991 and when I came back in October he started coming around again. Then we spent some time together and we moved in together March 1, 1992. I knew right away. I could tell just by talking to him. He was just so handsome, but he was also so smart. He’s a stubborn son of a bitch sometimes, but he’s very fair and he pulls no punches. He’ll tell you if he doesn’t like you. You’ll know it. That is where he is like my father, because when my father didn’t like somebody, they knew about it. When Jerry meets someone for the first time, he’s pulled back. You kind of have to go to him. Then you see the difference once he gets to know you, and really likes you. He’s just a good guy. He’s got my back. I knew right away.
Allison Kugel: What did marriage do for you as a couple?
Mario Cantone: It felt different. It felt like, “Okay, this is legal now. This is it.” I’ll tell you when I was younger, like ten years into our relationship, I would not have married him. Not because I didn’t love him, but we are not having kids? Why are we getting married? Then you get older together and legally this needs to be done. We need the benefits and the whole thing. Being sick, being able to be with each other, taxes, all of that. I thought, “I’m not going anywhere. Let’s do this.”
Allison Kugel: Makes sense.
Mario Cantone: These kids that get married after just six months or a year [of dating], they’re crazy. It’s going to be all the same shit that straight people go through.
Allison Kugel: Oh, like getting married and then getting divorced?
Mario Cantone: Getting married. Getting divorced. Fighting over the kids. Kids? I don’t want kids. Gay people didn’t have kids. I like kids, I just don’t want them. We both agreed on that. We both did not want children.
Allison Kugel: From day one?
Mario Cantone: Yes, we knew that. I don’t even have a plant.
Allison Kugel: If you could travel back in time and change a famous historical event, where would you go and what would you attempt to change?
Mario Cantone: I would have changed the 2016 presidential election. It’s like that scene in the movie Carrie when Carrie becomes the prom queen and they pour the blood on her. When you asked that question, I was thinking of that Stephen King book, 11/22/63. The guy goes back in time and tries to change the Kennedy Assassination. Also, I would like to go to China three years ago, four years ago, and prevent this [virus] from escaping. That would be a nice thing to change too. It was the worst case scenario with the worst case scenario president of the time.
Allison Kugel: What do you think of people on social media saying that And Just Like That… was trying too hard to be “Woke,” with a lot of its new characters and storylines?
Mario Cantone: I think they have to diversify it. They absolutely had to do that. Whether you think they went overboard with it or not, you have to figure it out the first year. Then you see, hopefully if there is a second season, what you are going to do. I was really happy with all of it. I love the new women. I was thrilled with it, and I do like this iteration just as much as the old. I like the maturity of it, and selfishly, I love the maturity of Anthony (Cantone’s character). I love that he is kind of still caustic, abrupt, and honest, but he’s evolved.
Allison Kugel: What do you think you came into this life as Mario Cantone to learn, and what do you think you came here to teach?
Mario Cantone: I feel like I came here to just entertain, I really do. I’m not a teacher. Who the fuck am I to teach anybody anything? At this point in life, it is hard to teach anybody anything because people are very stuck in their ways. It’s all a very knee jerk reaction with canceling and all that stuff. How do you unteach that? How do you teach people, like you said, and have more teachable moments? People resist teachable moments. I came into this world to entertain and hopefully make people forget about that stuff sometimes. I don’t feel like a profit. I’m filled with rage, and I’m filled with joy.
Allison Kugel: Interesting. And you made a comment before about a second season of the show. Do you know if there is going to be a second season?
Mario Cantone: As my mother would say, “I’m always the last to know.” I think Michael Patrick King did a magnificent job. I think everybody in it is phenomenal, and I think the writing is gorgeous and we made a big splash.