Max Casella Takes the '70s for a Spin in HBO's Intense Music Drama Vinyl

Thanks to the new HBO show Vinyl, Max Casella is getting a do-over on the music of the 1970s.

The first time around, when he was growing up in Cambridge, Mass., he was listening to family records and the radio.


"My brother had all the Beatles records," says the 48-year-old Casella (above with Juno Temple). "My parents were into be-bop jazz and classical. Mostly I listened to the radio. Billy Joel, Chicago. 'Brother Louie.' Two notes of that and it takes me right back."

Vinyl plunges into a different 1970s music world, the fledgling years of punk, new wave,hip-hop and, yes, disco. It revolves around Richie Finestra (Bobby Cannavale), a '60s music guy who feels his American Century record label drifting into irrelevance until he hears these subterranean sounds at a downtown New York club and they reawaken his passion.

They also thrust him into the heart of a chaotic, cocaine-fueled business, not to mention a city that teeters close to anarchy.

Casella plays Julie Silver, Richie's A&R guy, which means he's the one who actually records the music and shapes how it will sound. The new marching orders leave him a little scared, because what he knows is the old.

"Julie feels it's slipping away," says Casella, and that means Richie, already a mentor, becomes a do-or-die lifeline.

"Julie is confident with everyone but Richie," says Casella. "With Richie, he's completely deferential - 'Whatever you want, Richie.' He and Richie go back. Julie feels like he's beholden."

Richie's team brings Julie the Nasty Bits, a punk band whose attitude will remind viewers of the Sex Pistols. Their lead singer, Kip Stevens, is played by James Jagger, son of Mick, who is one of the creators and executive producers of Vinyl.

"Julie tries to turn the Nasty Bits into the Kinks," says Casella, "because that's his closest point of reference for a band that plays raw rock 'n' roll."


What keeps Julie in the game, says Casella, is the same thing that keeps Richie (above with his wife Devon, played by Olivia Wilde) in the game: They love the music. They aren't accountants or salesmen. They're music guys, and Vinyl is a music show.

Casella notes that its original title was simply Rock 'n' Roll, before it was changed to avoid confusion with the Denis Leary FX show Sex&Drugs&Rock&Roll.

"I see Julie as someone who probably started out writing for Creem or Rolling Stone," says Casella. "He also wrote songs. He was probably in a band that cut a record that wasn't very successful, but he kept writing songs and some of them were hits for other people. That's how he got to where he is."

The "where he is" part includes New York - a town that badly needed a shower.

"I used to visit my Dad in New York in the '70s," Casella says. "I remember the subway graffiti and how seedy Times Square felt. In fact, it was still pretty much like that when I moved here in 1985. It wasn't until Giuliani that it started to get cleaned up.

"New York of the '70s is absolutely a character in this show. It couldn't be set in any other place."

That's a strong endorsement from a guy who grew up a Red Sox fan and says he can still name most of the '75 Sox team that, once again, almost went all the way.

Casella came to Vinyl through creator Terence Winter, with whom he previously worked on shows that included Boardwalk Empire and The Sopranos.

"I wouldn't be on this show without Terry," he says. "He heard my voice and said that's it, I was in. Not even the usual three, four, five auditions."

The big difference between playing Julie Silver on Vinyl and past characters like Benny Fazio on The Sopranos and Leo D'Allesio on Boardwalk Empire, for Casella, is that Julie is a regular.

After a long and busy career doing guest spots, Broadway theater and recurring roles, that matters.

"The last show where I was a regular was Doogie Howser," says Casella, who played Vinny Delpino, Doogie's best friend. "And I gotta tell you, being a regular makes all the difference.

"You get the perks, like being picked up and driven to the set. You feel like you're part of the family.

"Julie's in every episode and Terry really develops the character, so we can bring out different sides."

Casella has played both comic and menacing characters over the years, and he says there isn't always that much difference.

"Almost everybody who's funny can also be dangerous," he says. "It just depends on how it's written. "

Another piece of good news is that HBO has already renewed Vinyl for a second season.

"The ratings for the pilot were pretty bad," Casella notes. "And I'm sure HBO doesn't want to produce an expensive show that nobody watches. But HBO doesn't live or die by ratings the same as some other networks, so renewing the show means we'll have time to grow and find an audience. It also means they're paying attention to quality. You don't always get that."

Nor do you always get one other bonus of Vinyl: that '70s clothing.


"I love it," says Casella. "The clothes we get to wear in this show are gorgeous. I think we look fabulous in them."

Okay, he allows that a few '70s outfits, in retrospect, did invite the laughs they bring today.

"Like in any era, some things went a little too far," he says. "But what we're wearing here looks great. It was such a sexy, sexy decade.

"For me, a role doesn't seem real until I'm in costume. You can read the lines, but once you put on the outfit, boom, you're into it."

And, here, into the '70s.