In the cheap Thai restaurant in Toronto's Roncesvalles Village that's his local haunt, actor Tony Nappo puts down his knife and fork and, at my request, rolls up his sleeves to show the tattoos on his beefy arms. Two tell the story of what did and did not help him beat his addiction to cocaine.
On his right arm, in Chinese letters, is the word "discipline" – a tattoo he got when he first went to rehab in 2000. But as Nappo says now, "Discipline's way easier to write on your arm than to actually do."
On the other arm, there's the four-letter word that actually pulled Nappo out of a relapse that could have ended his career – and his life – in 2005: "Ella."
"If becoming a parent isn't the wake-up call that will kick your ass out of addiction, then I don't think anything will," he says.
As his daughter prepares for her ninth birthday, Nappo's career is hardly dead. Indeed, it's more alive than ever. Currently he's starring in Mirvish Productions' long-awaited Toronto premiere of French playwright Yasmina Reza's screaming satire God of Carnage, about two sets of parents who meet to discuss a case of schoolyard bullying. After that show closes, he moves on to Sean Dixon's new play, A God in Need of Help, at Tarragon Theatre and then to 12 Angry Men at Soulpepper next summer.
In God of Carnage, Nappo plays one angry man named Michael, a part that was originated on Broadway by James Gandolfini in 2009. Nappo delivers what is probably the key line in the comedy: "We tried to be nice, we bought tulips, my wife passed me off as a liberal, but I can't keep this bullshit up any more. I am not a member of polite society – what I am and always have been is a Neanderthal."
There aren't many Canadian stage actors capable of pulling off such an alpha-male role, but Nappo has the ability to be as fierce and frightening as he can be funny. He showed that in spades recently in career-defining performances such as NHL hockey enforcer John Kordic in Sudden Death at the Next Stage Festival or as another caveman-in-khakis in Peggy Pickit Sees the Face of God at Canadian Stage.
It's an ability he shares with the late Gandolfini, an actor with whom he feels an affinity. "I'm an Italian-Canadian, not an Italian-American, but there's not a lot of Italian-Canadian models, you know," says the Scarborough native, who currently voices the lead character in Teletoon's animated Sopranos spoof Fugget About It.
Beneath the bluster, Nappo also has what fellow actor David Ferry has called an "inherent sadness" that adds depth to his performances. "I think this is a gift Tony has: Whatever travails he may have faced in his life, he has not let them defeat him, but at the same time he does not cover the hurt or disappointment that is residual from those travails," Ferry, who acted with Nappo in Alias Godot at Tarragon, writes in an e-mail. Since he played Kordic (who died after a drug overdose in 1992) last winter, Nappo – whose outspokenness has made his Facebook page a hub of theatrical gossip and debate – has kept the cover off his past troubles. Most recently, he spoke about them openly in the storytelling podcast called The Spoke, produced by theatre company Outside the March. (It's available free on iTunes under the title The Comedown.)
In this startling episode, which went viral in the acting community, Nappo talked about a fateful 2005 Toronto production of Stephen Massicotte's The Dirty/Beautiful – and you can hear the gasps from fellow actors in the live audience when he admits committing the ultimate theatrical crime.
At the time, Nappo had been landing steady work in films such as Saw II, Four Brothers (with Mark Wahlberg) and the George A. Romero horror flick Land of the Dead. Even as the cash was rolling in, however, Nappo was digging himself deeper and deeper into debt because of his drug habit. At the same time, his on-again, off-again girlfriend became pregnant. "It was just an overwhelming time," he recalls.
Things reached a head during Dirty/Beautiful: One night, Nappo got so high and drunk that he failed to show up to a performance, shutting down the understudy-less production. Then, after promising it would never happen again, he did the exact same thing a week later.
The director on that show was Jim Millan. In his recollection, Nappo missed a dress rehearsal and then a performance, and Millan vividly recalls having to go search for the actor. "I went over to his house and banged on his door and woke him up," he says. "But it was scary, because of his habits, to have the thought as I was driving over, 'I'm going to find him dead.'"
Millan could have brought an end to Nappo's career right then. Instead, the story goes in the opposite direction. Rather than firing him, Millan got together with Nappo's agent and other actors and had a theatrical intervention of sorts. The show went on and, with the birth of his daughter Ella, Nappo cleaned up his act – for good this time.
Today, Nappo and Millan are close friends – the actor lives in the basement apartment under the director's house. As Nappo puts it, he's become "Uncle Tony under the stairs" to Millan's kids, and they have become friends with his daughter. Adds Millan: "I would describe him as family now."
Nappo may still have his inherent sadness – in an interview, he often slips into profanity-laced existentialism – but he doesn't party anymore, preferring to hang around the Thai food restaurant with his new girlfriend. At best, he says, he will occasionally have a beer after playing in the local arts hockey league (he's on a team with musician Dave Bidini). "I'm past being afraid of drugs, or interested in them. I'm 45 years old," he says.
When I meet him on a Monday (his one day off from God of Carnage rehearsals), Nappo has already walked his daughter to school and has given Person of Interest actor Enrico Colantoni an estimate on painting his condo – Nappo earns extra income running a crew, hiring actors between gigs to paint houses (and Tarragon Theatre). And that's how he found the routine to help him get past his addiction, as well as the means of relieving his financial woes.
In another accomplishment as big as landing his first Mirvish gig, Nappo recently paid off the last of his debt. "I just got a credit card for the first time in a decade," he says, taking another bite of his green curry. "My kid wanted Netflix."
God of Carnage continues to Dec. 15. For tickets and times, visit mirvish.com.
Follow me on Twitter: @nestruck