You may recognize Cara Buono from any number of your favorite television shows: she’s appeared on classics like The Sopranos and Mad Men, and cult favorites like Stranger Things, for which she’s currently filming season three. But what you may not be familiar with is the New York native’s work off camera, including directing, producing and writing, as well as her philanthropic efforts.
We chatted with Cara about her powerful new film, returning to the small screen with Matthew Weiner, her ongoing fight against gun violence, and her favorite New York City hangouts.
You have experience on stage, TV and in film. How have all of those experiences helped shape you as an actress?
CARA BUONO: My first love is the stage. I actually was cast in a play before I ever saw one. I didn’t grow up with the opportunity to go the theatre but once I discovered it, that’s all I wanted to do. There’s a freedom and a sense of risk you get from the performing in front of an audience. I also love being part of a TV series—getting to play a character that evolves over several episodes or several years is fun and challenging. I also love growing as a company with the cast and crew and becoming a family. I’m drawn to a compelling story and great writing so I will work in whatever medium where those are the strongest.
You’ve landed roles in some of television’s most celebrated series, including The Sopranos, Mad Men and Stranger Things. What draws you to the roles you’ve played?
CB: The writing. Nearly every great story or performance on film, TV or stage begins with exceptional writing. Even the greatest ad-libs, like “leave the gun, take the cannoli,” are surrounded by great writing.
You’ve got a busy fall ahead. Your new film, Monsters and Men, draws inspiration from the Eric Garner case. Tell us about the film and why it was important to tell this story.
CB: When I read Rei’s script for Monsters and Men, I knew I wanted to be in it for my usual reasons—great writing/storytelling—but also because I felt I wanted to be part of this timely and important story. The story offers three vantage points on the aftermath of a police shooting. In the film, I play Stacey, a NYC police officer whose partner is Dennis (John David Washington). In preparing for the film, John David and I did ride-a-longs with the police and got to experience some pretty intense stuff. The movie presents complex portraits of each of the characters affected by the shooting, humanizes those that we may judge in a specific light by providing us a different lens through which to see them and I think and hope encourages a conversation about this situation. Ultimately, it shows how every voice matters and can make a difference, even if you think yours is insignificant. Collectively they add up. I’m really so proud and honored to be part of this movie. I had an indelible experience making it with Rei, John David and the entire cast, all of whom give singular performances. It’s something I’ll be looking forward to talking with my daughter about when she’s grown up; she’s 5.
You and your husband, Peter Thum, launched Liberty United in 2013, a non-profit organization focused on funding programs to reduce gun violence. Did your passion for fighting gun violence play a big role in your taking part in Monster and Men?
CB: I was born and grew up in the Bronx in the 70s, so I witnessed some very difficult things. We lived in a pretty tough neighborhood and my dad always taught us that we may not have a lot, but we have more than somebody else. So we were raised to help others. I think that our work on Liberty United and the thinking behind Monsters and Men are born from the same ideals as my dad taught us as kids: love thy neighbor; help take care of people; try to make a difference.
Tell us about the work Liberty United does.
CB: My husband and I are strong believers in social justice. Our work in helping others was a big part of what brought us together as a couple. For my part, I have been volunteering as an advocate for rape survivors in New York since I was an undergrad at Columbia University. The volunteers are on call from 7 am - 7 pm in the emergency room several shifts a month.
My husband Peter founded Ethos Water, which he sold to Starbucks. Ethos has donated more than $14 million to help half a million people around the world get access to safe water. When we first were dating in 2008, we traveled to Africa to visit Peter’s water projects and while there we met little kids armed with assault rifles. Sometimes the guns were bigger than the kids. There were some very scary moments. Peter decided to do something about this and so he began working to get AK47’s out of war zones there and recycle them to make art and beautiful things to sell and fund disarmament programs. To date, he his removed over 71,000 assault rifles from African conflict regions. When our daughter was about to be born in 2012, I said to him, “it is time to do this in the USA." That conversation was the beginning of Liberty United.
Each year more than 17,000 American children fall victim to gun violence in the United States. So, we launched Liberty United in 2013 with a mission to transform illegal guns confiscated by US law enforcement agencies into beautiful jewelry, accessories and art to fund programs for at-risk kids across the USA who are growing up with gun violence.
With every Liberty United product someone purchases from our site, we will give a bracelet to a teen committed to stopping gun violence in the USA and make a donation to programs that train one teen on how to identify and report risks in their own schools and other programs that protect and educate young people who are growing up with severe gun violence in their communities. For our other sales, 20% of profit from each sale is donated to these programs. To date Liberty United has donated over $100,000 to programs that have helped over 3,000 at-risk kids in cities like Chicago, Philadelphia and New Orleans.
You also star in Amazon’s upcoming anthology series, The Romanoffs, which was created, written, directed and produced by Matthew Weiner. How does it feel to work with Matthew again for his big return to television after Mad Men’s iconic run?
CB: Matt and I worked together on The Sopranos. I remember reading the pilot for Mad Men while we were shooting thinking it was brilliant and I so much wanted to be a part of it. Luckily, I got to play Dr. Faye Miller in season 4 and it was one of my all-time favorite characters and experiences of my career. I was beyond excited that Matt wrote this role for me and it was great to be reunited especially with him directing. It’s a comedic role, which I’d love to do more of!
In your episode of the series, you star alongside Diane Lane, Ron Livingston and Andrew Rannells? Any fun stories from the set?
CB: The entire cast of this anthology is incredible! I saw Andrew Rannells in Book of Mormon and on Girls of course. He’s just so incredibly talented that I’d just sort of stare at him and would just have to explain that I was in awe of him. It was nice to see Ron again. We’ve known each other for years since we made a movie together that I co-produced.
What’s next for you?
CB: We’re still shooting season 3 of Stranger Things which comes out next year. I’ve been pretty busy the last couple of years, so I’m going to take some time to see what I want to do next. We have some cool projects coming up for Liberty United and I’ll definitely be spending some of my time on that.
You are a New York City native. What do you love most about the city? Any favorite hangouts?
CB: I’ve always said I love that NYC embraces diversity; people from all over the world, all walks of life. We all live with each other and it makes us better and stronger. For me the celebration of everyone makes it really special. Most of the parade routes celebrating lives and culture pass by within a block of where we live, so we make a day of it; watch folks cheer, dance and shout out about who they are and what they love.
I love food and quiet spots. I could eat at ABCv every day. My husband and I love a glass of wine at the bar at Gramercy Tavern. For the best black & white cookie, it’s a toss up between The Donut Pub on West 14th Street and Morris Park Bake Shop in the Bronx. My husband recently discovered a pizza place on the upper west side called Mama’s Too that he’s taking me to soon.
The Frick—love it! The New York Botanical Garden is a great place to spend the day with the family and they have an excellent restaurant.
Before the city wakes up, I adore going for a long run. I can’t give up my quiet spots!
Monsters and Men is now playing in theaters. The Romanoffs will begin streaming on November 2 on Amazon.
Photography by: Photos by Martina Tolot