Leandro Cano met his destiny when he was 8 years old and in John Steinbeck country, Salinas, Calif., where he was attracted to one cover on a display of the author’s works.
The book was of “Mice and Men.”
“I thought there were mice involved. I’m 8, I thought, ‘Mice are cool,’ ” he said.
The son of migrant workers and a shy boy, always big for his age, young Leandro was bullied by little guys trying to make a reputation as he and his family moved to wherever they could find work — he figures he attended 13 schools through high school. He didn’t understand everything in that Steinbeck novel, “but I knew these people, I knew Lennie,” he says, sitting at a Shadyside coffee shop with a well-worn script of the “Of Mice and Men” play on a chair beside him.
“I knew I wanted to play Lennie even before I became an actor, and here I am.”
Leandro Cano, often cast as bouncers and bruisers on TV series and onstage, was getting ready to play Lennie Small opposite Jarrod DiGiorgi as George Milton for The REP, the professional company of Point Park University. The two had met in the barebones production of “The Mother****** With the Hat” and had become fast friends
The George-Lennie dynamic, two wandering ranch hands — one small and clever, the other big and slow, both with big dreams, dependent on each other to ward off loneliness — has become an icon of Americana since it was published in 1937. The play adaptation was first on Broadway that same year and revived for a second time this year, with James Franco as George and Tony nominee Chris O’Dowd as Lennie.
Mr. Cano moved around when he was younger, living in Phoenix and then Alaska for 12 years. He’s now settled in southern California with his wife and children, ages 14 and 12, taking TV and stage work on shows such as “Castle” and “CSI: Miami” and regional theaters such as the La Jolla Playhouse.
For Lennie, an imposing man with a child’s mind, that was a problem. Mr. Cano’s mother constantly was reminding him not to hit anyone, because he was so big he might hurt someone. When he was younger, he was the subject of bullying because of his size, Mr. Cano says, and he once let his anger get the best of him.
My story is kind of weird. I have a real affinity for this because I am nearly 6-foot-5, 265 pounds, and I’ve always been a big guy and always been bullied. Little guys would come up and think, ‘If I can take that big guy, I can take anybody.’ I was told by my mom you can’t hit anybody back, you can really hurt them. And Lennie was told the same thing — keep your hands down, you don’t want any trouble.”
It’s hard to imagine the man you see being bullied, even as a boy. The actor he has become makes eye contact and, before gently touching the listener’s hand or arm, he’ll tell you he’s “a touchy guy; it’s just who I am.”
Mr. Cano first came to Pittsburgh two years ago, to play a brutal prison guard in barebones’ “Jesus Hopped the A Train.” Until then, the city had not been on his radar.
“The actor who was playing Valdez became very ill and they lost him, so Patrick [Jordan of barebones] put out an APB to all his friends saying here’s the specs, I need this kind of guy, preferably Latino. A friend of a friend saw me in a show playing a mean, horrible, nasty guy, and he said, ‘I think I’ve got your guy.’ ”
He came back for the “.. With the Hat” play and talked to barebones leader Jordan about the possibility of doing “Of Mice and Men,” but the company was booked for a while, Mr. Cano says.
When the play showed up on The REP’s schedule, he found that he and director Robert A. Miller lived within five minutes of each other. They met on the director’s patio in Laguna, and Mr. Cano explained his connection to the role. “I told him some stories about how I, too, reacted violently when being attacked, and then the remorse, the sadness afterward, which is what Lennie experiences.”
Mr. Cano also related that he had played Lennie once before, as part of a group that created their own production of “Of Mice and Men” that they deemed a success — “no reviews or advertising, but we sold out every night,” he recalls.
“I always wanted another shot at Lennie and I was biting my nails, hoping I’d get this call, and sure enough, here it is.”
The role was so important to Mr. Cano, he is missing his daughter’s first day of high school and his son’s first day of junior high, “and I’ve never missed any of those things,” he says. But to play Lennie, he traveled across the country to a city where he feels at home in just his third time on a Pittsburgh stage.
“I love film and television, because it’s there forever, and my family in Alaska, my family in New York, my family in Arizona, they can all tune in,” he says. “The thing about the theater, it’s so visceral. Every night is a special night.”
Sharon Eberson: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1960. Twitter: SEberson_pg.