First it was a feature film; then it was a Broadway musical; now, it’s a new show on Nickelodeon.
School of Rock is one of those pop-culture phenomenons that became instantly timeless, a cult hit and a modern classic. It’s a message of empowerment to children and the power of the arts in kids’ lives, so it’s no wonder the original film’s influence has expanded and is still felt today.
I recently caught up one of the stars of the new Nickelodeon series, Tony Cavalero, who plays Dewey Finn (the other stars being the kids, of course).
First of all, congratulations. You got it done, you got it out there. How does it feel?
Tony Cavalero: Oh, amazing, dude. I mean, talk about a dream come true. This is so cool. I love the original film, and when this part came out, I remember, like, the day it came out in the trades I messaged my manager, and I was like, “I want to get in for this. I love the movie. I love Jack Black.” A lot of people say we have a lot of similar qualities. So, that was October of 2014 when I got the role. So it’s been amazing that it’s out there now.
Awesome. So, people really like the film, and Dewey Finn is kind of an iconic character for a lot of people. Did you feel any sort of pressure once you got that role, of taking on that role, and differentiating yourself?
Cavalero: For me, man, it was like one of those things that… You know, when Jack Black got the role [of Dewey Finn in the film], I’m sure it was written for him. But he could relate a lot with that role, a guy who’s super passionate about the arts, and music specifically and rock-and-roll. And for me, you know, Dewey Finn uses the language of rock-and-roll to teach kids, and for me, when I first moved to LA I was a janitor and coaching lacrosse, and so… I use the language of improv comedy and comedy in general to work with kids. And so, for me it was always being more familiar with that character Dewey Finn. You know, I would never want to take anything away from Jack Black or anything like that. But a lot of people say that my comedic stylings remind them of Jack Black, and I think that’s just a natural knack that I have for physical comedy. You know, a lot of people say the same thing about Chris Farley. I love him as well. I’ve always leaned towards more physical comedy and broader comedy, and I think there’s something to being a big character but still being believable. And I think that’s what Dewey is. He’s really passionate and you know, it humanizes him because he works with these kids, and he finds that he can manifest his destiny of being a rock star, but as a teacher to kids. And so that’s more of where I was coming from, was getting to play the character and less of imitating Jack Black.
So you mentioned working with kids through improv. School of Rock kind of tangentially relates to arts in education, things like that. Do you do any of that work on your own?
Cavalero: Yeah. My wife and I are both regular volunteers at the Children’s Hospital in Los Angeles. We both kind of got started working there together because the Groundlings [improv group] would do shows there. We would do shows during the holidays, and I just fell in love with performing for the kids there. And so, we went through the process of getting certified and immunized so we could go and work there on a regular basis. So, we get to go in and help out with kids. And then, I usually do a free workshop or two every year at the Groundlings, and I know they offer team classes there as well.
So what’s it like working with the kids on the show?
Cavalero: Dude. We lucked out. These kids are so amazing, and so joyful, and it’s totally infectious. You can’t be having a bad day around these kids, man. They’re so great, and they’re just kids. They’re talented musicians, and funny, and super smart, and they work well together. They’re all best friends. You know, we all are. And that was, from the get-go, you know… My wife and I, we both kind of pow-wowed, and we were like, “We want this to be like a family.” The kids joke around that we’re a “bandi-mly.” We’re a band family. We have them over for movie nights to watch comedies. We’ve done School of Rock and Tommy Boy and Austin Powers. You know, we all get along. They’re all regular kids who happen to work on this amazing TV show.
So, I know it varies from production to production, but how much music is played by you and the kids?
Cavalero: So, every song we learned, dude. We have coaches that teach us each song, note-by-note. And we actually play the music. We go into the recording studio, lay down the vocals. So, I mean, it’s an around-the-clock gig. Again, we’re a close-knit group, so it’s fun to get together and have band practice, and work with our coaches, and everything else. It’s a fun process, and such a great learning experience to get to learn all this awesome music. Original songs, some new pop songs, and some classic rock.
Did you have any musical training before?
Cavalero: Um, that’s so funny. So, when I was growing up — I grew up in Virgina, not too far from here — but, I was a Civil War reenactor, and I learned the snare drum because I was a drummer boy. But before that, my dad had been in a bunch of bands when he was growing up [and] in high school and college. So he was always teaching us licks on the guitar, and it was more of just a hobby, to pick it up and mess around. But, you know, obviously when the show came around it was like, “Awesome! Now I have a real reason to really buckle down and get really really good.” As opposed to just picking it up and playing with friends every once in a while.
Can you tell me more about how you got the part? I know you mentioned that you saw the ad in the trades.
Cavalero: Yeah. So, the Groundlings and Nickelodeon have a really cool relationship. They do a big teen workshop during the summers. I know Jace Norman from [Nick’s] Henry Danger did a workshop there before he got cast in that. And they came and saw a Groundlings show that I had been in, and I ended up going and pitching them some TV show ideas, because I’m a writer as well. And so I went in and pitched them some ideas. And they didn’t happen to buy any of my ideas, but they cast me in like a little one day role in a web series they were doing. And I decided to do it, because I like Nickelodeon, and I wanted to keep a nice relationship with them. And it ended up being such a fun experience, and the project was great. And then a few months went by, and they were casting a film. And I didn’t think I was really great for the part. It was for a magician in this movie. And I ended up getting the part and shooting for like five weeks up in Vancouver for them. And again, it was another great experience. It was Splitting Adam with Jace Norman and Isabela Moner. And then about three months later, I saw that they were going to be making School of Rock the TV show. And before I could even submit myself, the director of Splitting Adam [Scott McAboy] said, “Hey, I already recommended you for the role of Dewey Finn. I think you would be amazing.” And, you know, just… How that all came about, it’s so… cool. You know, you work so hard, and I had tested for SNL out here in 2012, and done bit parts in a bunch of different shows and stuff like that. And then, you know, a dream role comes, and my hair was long, and I just worked with Nickelodeon, and it had all kind of lined up. And the dream came true. And I got to get this amazing part.
So are you still active in the LA improv circuit?
Cavalero: Yeah. I just did a three-month run at the Groundlings. So I’m still a member of the main company there. And last week I did two shows with my wife for a lady-centric sketch comedy show. So still very active. We did a show at [Upright Citizen’s Brigade] in LA… I don’t know, like six months ago, and we’re trying to line up another one. We perform a bunch together. […] So yeah, I’m still very active in the improv community out there.
How does your improv training play into being on set?
Cavalero: Well, you know, it’s great. One of the executive producers, Jay Cogan, he’s one of the original Groundlings. He was a Groundling ages ago, and is an Emmy Award winner. And so he gets it. You know. When you hire someone with that kind of a background in sketch comedy, they know what they do well. And they’ve written for themselves, they’ve written characters for themselves. Usually, you know, you’re not just an actor at that point. You’re also writing a lot of your own material. And so, that’s the great part about having that improv. And not only that, but, you know, I get to bring that kind of work to the kids, too. So we did a whole improv workshop with the kids sponsored by Nickelodeon at the Groundlings before the show even started. And so, sometimes the kids will even get to improvise a little bit. But for me it’s great because I can always, you know, go up to the writers and say, “You know, I have a little idea, maybe this’ll work.” Or in the moment, if I’m really feeling passionate I might add in a line or a physical bit or something like that. And I’d say about fifty percent of the time they work, but uh… You know, it’s such a great background to bring in. And New Girl, when I got that part just recently they had seen me at the Groundlings. When I got my Modern Family part they had seen me at the Groundlings. You know, so a lot of people come there and that want that. “Oh, you know, he does three shows a week. We can trust him, and he’s going to bring something unique and funny and a different point of view to the character.”
What is like a general day on the set? What is the shooting like?
Cavalero: I drive to the Paramount lot, and the whole time just saying to myself, “Oh my gosh, this is my life, this is so cool.” And we usually get there early in the morning, and the kids and I will have some breakfast and go over what the music is for the day and if there’s any kind of rough scenes, you know, line-wise, or heavy dialogue, or musically, or if there’s a physical bit. And, uh, usually we’ll shoot scene-by-scene. And you know, we all stick around pretty close. No one really retreats back to their trailer. We like to support each other throughout the day. And uh, you know we’ll shoot a few scenes before lunch, and the kids will have to go to school for a little while. They have to go to school in the morning and around lunchtime. They have a certain number of hours. They still have to go to school. It’s not like they’re getting any kind of free pass. Luckily, I get to read my books or practice music in between. And yeah, we do table reads usually every Thursday for the next episode, and we shoot… I think we shoot like Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday. And table read Thursday. And then start the whole thing the next week again.
Awesome. So are you on a break now between seasons?
Cavalero: Yeah. Hopefully we find out about season two, because I know we just had our premiere. But I think people are really gonna love the show, man. So I’m hopeful that we get another season.
Do you have a feel on the response? Any feedback, anything over social media?
Cavalero: I mean, we got a fantastic review in The Hollywood Reporter. Which is great. And a lot of really cool feature articles in the New York Post, the USA Today, and everything’s been super positive. And as far as social media, we did like a Twitter Q&A, and I’m Snapchatting for J-14 today, so kids are really excited. And as far as people in the Nickelodeon universe goes, at the Kids’ Choice Awards, a lot of the kids on other shows were coming up and telling us how frikkin’ excited they were for our show to come out. So I think it’s going to be a real hit with the music and the comedy. You know, just the the movie. I think that’s why it crossovers. You know, it does that crossover with so many audiences — with Broadway, and with Nickelodeon, and of course, with the original feature.
The series, produced with Paramount Television, will air regularly on Saturdays at 8:30 p.m. (ET/PT).