Several breakthrough stars have come out of Nathan Fielder’s twisted new HBO series The Rehearsal so far. First, there was Kor, a man worried that his trivia friends might drop him if they found out he didn’t have the master’s degree he claimed to possess. Last week, we met Robbin, who crashed his Scion TC going 100 mph and now sees numerological signs everywhere. But it’s Vincent A. Cefalu, who stars as a fake, diaper-donning grandpa in the latest episode, for whom fans are already mounting an Emmy campaign.
The whole scheme began innocently, with watching Dragon Ball Z and changing grandpa’s diaper. But how did Cefalu, a retired federal agent known for his undercover work, get involved with The Rehearsal?
“My No. 1 goal in all of this was to get exposure for my book,” Cefalu tells The Daily Beast, in an interview following the episode’s debut. He was referencing his non-fiction memoir Ratsnakes, about his time working as an undercover agent for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. The TV show promised a bit of promotion, Cefalu tells me, though the hour-long interview he filmed with HBO about it didn’t make the final cut. “They fell a little bit short on their representation… that the book would be pumped, somehow, on the show,” he says.
The Rehearsal, whose initial premise was Nathan helping innocent strangers practice for an important upcoming aspect of their life with elaborately staged scenes (already a complex concept), has sprawled into something berserk. While balancing his rehearsal for fatherhood with real child actors and a non-romantic co-parent, Nathan still tries to help other folks prepare for their big life moments.
In Episode 3, Patrick enters the picture. He tells Nathan that he’d like to confront his brother, who refuses to give Patrick some of the money in their grandfather’s will unless he breaks up with his “gold digger” girlfriend. At one point, in order to raise the stakes in his “rehearsal,” Nathan hires a an actor to portray the grandpa (Cefalu) of the actor portraying Patrick’s brother, attempting to draw an emotional rise out of Patrick by staging the exact same scenario: Patrick will help the actor’s fake grandpa dig up some gold he buried (a literal gold digger!), and the fake grandpa will leave it to Patrick in his fake will.
It’s all very complicated—poopy diapers are involved—and Cefalu doesn’t quite know how to explain his role, even after starring in the show. Still, he understands that Patrick was getting sold a big lie. What Cefalu feels now is a twinge of guilt, especially after Patrick ghosted the show with no explanation before going through with the confrontation he was rehearsing for.
The show’s ethics have been called into question all across social media over the past few days. Is Fielder invading people’s privacy by lying to them, staging scenes that make them look a bit foolish on HBO, and encouraging us all to laugh at them? Some say it’s not as cruel as reality shows like The Bachelor. Others say Fielder picks from a self-selecting group, people who are ripe for targeting. And then there are people who suggest that interrogating how manipulative Fielder’s comedy might be is the whole point.
But Cefalu, who was in on the joke and helped punk Patrick, has a few doubts about the outcome of the episode. While tying his work on The Rehearsal in with his book—which, because HBO didn’t do the job, he says he’s now trying to promote “like f@&:$)& War and Peace”—the hilarious undercover agent-turned-actor chatted with The Daily Beast about what working on The Rehearsal was really like.
How did you get involved with The Rehearsal?
By pure chance. There was a contact made with some higher-ups in ATF [the law enforcement agency Cefalu works for] seeking contact specifically with myself and some other agents. We initially thought it was for some sort of law enforcement production. Initially, they didn’t tell us much about the show. They asked a bunch of questions: “What’s your background? You do a lot of undercover work?” That was it.
They just came back to me and said, “Look, we were thinking about doing this one thing, but we’re doing another thing.” They weren’t giving up anything because there was no NDA. They just gave me a broad idea of what they were looking for. They weren’t going to show me anything until there was an NDA in place, and I wasn’t going to agree until they gave me more. I needed more than just the generalities. We finally got there, and there you have it. They picked me out of the blue and offered me the gig. I ultimately took it.
And what a role you had! You’re already a fan favorite.
Well, it’s generally thought I have a face for radio. But let me put it this way: I was nervous and concerned because I’m not an actor, per se. I had no idea about the process, how they do it, or how it’ll look in the final cut for the episode. But it was entertaining for me. I didn’t think I completely embarrassed myself. That was kind of the best I was hoping to get out of it. I had no idea it was going to be such a popular show, because I didn’t even understand—I still don’t understand the complete concept of it.
It’s a very convoluted show.
It is very quirky!
What did they tell you in those early talks about The Rehearsal?
What I saw in the episode is exactly what they portrayed to me, as best they could. But hearing it and then actually seeing it and trying to put it together—they’re artists. Obviously HBO gives them a bunch of money to do what they do because they’re really good at it. I can’t really sit in judgment of the process or anything, because it’s obviously working. They’re getting great reviews.
And you are too.
I think part of why they selected me is because of my extensive undercover background. That is ad-libbing in real life, and faking it. They gave me real broad parameters and guided me through how they wanted this to go with this guy, so I could twist and turn to keep it on track with what they wanted.
That undercover work—you say you’re not an actor, but you’ve got “acting” chops that suit this show.
It worked. They were right. It’s obviously working for them, because they’re doing very well, or whatever.
What was it like to work with Nathan Fielder?
I had a fair amount of contact with Nathan. Nathan’s a quirky dude. I don’t know really how to explain it. He was pleasant enough, forthcoming enough, and engaging. But what you see on that show, I don’t think he’s acting. [Laughs] He’s just a quirky dude.
There’s a lot of discourse online on whether what he’s doing is ethical or not. What are your thoughts on that?
I had misgivings about it. They told me: “This is what you’re going to be doing. This is where we want you to be, in this role.” They tried to explain it to me, but I had some misgivings. I’d raise the issue a little bit. I felt a little uncomfortable at first. Just because the ruses that we were pulling on people—that fake environment, that fake set-up to accomplish what he wanted to accomplish—but they said all the right things to me.
I wasn’t worried about me. I said, “Worst case scenario, this is a show where they’re really punking me somehow? Oh, well. I’m a big boy. I’ve been punked by better.” I was worried about the people that I don’t know that I was going to be interacting with. They said the right things to suggest to me that they were keeping their interest in them up front, that they weren’t intentionally going out to hurt anybody or embarrass anybody.
But the character you’re punking ends up ghosting the show.
I saw that! I didn’t know about that either until it aired. Initially, that was one of my concerns. I didn’t want anybody to get hurt just to make a buck for me. I didn’t want to do that. It was suggested that nobody was gonna [get hurt], and that they’d go out of their way to try to make sure nobody did.
Obviously, something happened with him—according to the show, according to what I saw—that he didn’t want to reach back out to them and hasn’t contacted them. Maybe in Episode 6 or next year or something, they’ll reinvigorate the relationship [with Patrick] or something. I don’t have a clue. I’m speculating on everything.
We’ll have to see.
It was kind of weird. He went dark after that. I sure hope that him stepping away from the show was just personal shit, and that he was just done doing his stuff so he wanted to go, and not something that I played a part in. Getting beat down, watching him cry and all that was a little—whatever.
I tried to find Patrick online, but I could not find anything about him.
They only say his first name. You’re in the credits.
He’s not in the credits? Yeah, I don’t know. We haven’t discussed it, and they haven’t told me. Basically, the only communication I’ve gotten since it came to pass was two emails: one telling me that I’m bound by the NDA, and the second one where [executive producer] Dave Paige sent me a clip from Vulture.
Can we talk about the diaper?
The diaper scene!
I want to know how that all went down.
Well, believe it or not—I’m sure you’ll believe it—there was much discussion on the front-end. When we had a non-disclosure in place and we were talking specifics of it and they first ran that proposed scene by me, I was like, “What?! Woah, woah, woah, back up. Ah—NO.” I just would get all kinds of bad voodoo, personally, if I did that. If every ATF agent I’ve ever worked with saw that, I was going to be getting my balls busted non-stop for the rest of my life. At every reunion, I was never going to hear the end of it.
You’re a real champ.
It took some mental preparation on my part, working through trying to figure it out. Negotiating it down to what was in parameters of what I could live with… It’s art. It’s “acting.” I just sucked it up and did the best I could, made my issues known. “How graphic does this have to be, guys?”
It was a critical part of that episode. I finally just sucked it up and bore it, and hoped it came out where I could show my face. [Laughs] It was difficult. It was humbling. I’m not an actor in that sense. I’ve done some stuff under cover, but I’ve never faked wearing a diaper.
It’s such a funny scene.
After it was finished and I saw it, and even after filming it and having gone through a few weeks of prep with them doing what I had to do to get set for this, it wasn’t as bad as I built it up in my own mind to be.
“They did me a favor by picking me—it’s probably the only thing that’ll ever happen to me in the entertainment world. MGM is not having their people call my people for the next big Pirates of the Caribbean part or something.”
You’ve got great reception online now—I saw people on social media calling for you to get an Emmy for this performance.
What?! No you didn’t. They don’t want me on-screen at some red carpet.
I do. I think that’d be fun.
It’d be way fun. “Ladies and gentlemen of the Academy, kiss my ass!”
How does seeing all the reactions feel?
My fleeting 15 minutes is awesome. I got a lot of support from my friends, and everybody’s pumping me up about how cool it is. It makes me smile. They did me a favor by picking me—it’s probably the only thing that’ll ever happen to me in the entertainment world. MGM is not having their people call my people for the next big Pirates of the Caribbean part or something.
Who knows after you win this Emmy?
Well, it definitely sounds like Nathan and HBO are on track to get something out of recognition for this, because like I said, I don’t get it. I don’t get the whole concept. I haven’t figured the whole thing out yet. But according to everything I’ve read, they really have got a winning show here.
It’s really popular.
Is it really?
Yes! I don’t know if you’ve checked out Nathan For You, his other show, but it’s very similar. He gives fake business recommendations—poo-flavored fro-yo for an ice cream parlor.
Ahhh! Why doesn’t that shock me, having met Nathan?
In that show, they bring back key players again and again for recurring roles. Would you be down to return to The Rehearsal?
I would, absolutely! Number one, I made money. Number two, it was fun. It was an experience I would’ve otherwise never had. I would absolutely entertain it if that came down the pipe again. But again, just like this one, it would [have to] be something that I could live with. I couldn’t say, “Wow, I got away with wearing a diaper, and it didn’t kill me. In the next episode, they want me running down the street naked, so why would I not do that?” It just depends.
But if it was something you were comfortable with, you’re in?
Hell yeah! I had a trailer with my name on it. Albeit, it was duct-taped and written with a Sharpie, but it was still a trailer, and it still had my name on it. Next time, they’re going to have to up the ante a little bit. Especially if I get an Emmy. Cost is going to go up a little bit. Full bar.