ILLUSTRATION BY HANOCH PIVEN
There are 210 episodes of the sitcom Everybody Loves Raymond pinging across the streaming networks and terrestrial antennas of the world, right now, as you read this. For perspective, this lump sum of situational comedy shares a rarefied air with a handful of iconic primetime shows from the 1990s, network dynasties such as Seinfeld (180), Friends (235), and Frasier (265). It’s the kind of cultural saturation that, during the course of Raymond’s nine-year run on CBS, made Ray Romano the functional equivalent of a generic term for “comedians with a TV deal.”
Like most wildly successful entertainment formulas, there was nothing particularly complex or secret to Romano’s success. Perhaps some explanation for the magic behind it is his willingness to be the butt of his own jokes—and other people’s jokes, too, as best seen in the 2009 comedy Funny People, in which he gets verbally accosted by the rapper Eminem. (“This is why I don’t go out of the house,” a shaken Romano tells Seth Rogen.) It’s this willingness to play a supporting role in scenes of cringey self-deprecation that might also explain why the comedian has successfully tackled a string of off-type parts in series for HBO and Showtime, as well as the well-received indie films The Big Sick (2017) and Paddleton (2019). Now, however, Romano’s dramatic experiment reaches a critical phase, as he steps into the biggest film performance of his career, playing a mob lawyer in Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman. Not only does the film offer an epic reunion of Robert De Niro and Al Pacino, it marks the second time Romano has worked with Scorsese (the first being HBO’s short-lived 2016 series Vinyl). Following the movie’s premiere at the New York Film Festival, Romano told Hemispheres about his Denzel Washington–inspired dramatic approach, how he landed his first role in an Oscar hopeful, and that timeless industry quandary of how everyone loving you often means nobody will cast you.
It seems that most comedians–turned–sitcom stars later try to chase some equivalent success as a leading man in films. You’ve chosen a different lane. What guides your decision-making at this stage in your career?
I’m going wherever I’ve been invited to go. I’m not specifically seeking out character roles; I’m just looking for things that are appealing to me. Whether it’s a lead, like in Paddleton, which I did with Mark Duplass, or something like The Big Sick, I’m looking for an interesting story. I’m not going into any project and being like, “Oh, I’ve got to be the lead.” I just want to challenge myself a little. I want to be able to do some engaging kind of work. If it’s a big role, it’s big. If it’s not, that’s fine, as long as it’s in a movie with people that I’m really interested to work with.
In challenging yourself, you’ve managed to also challenge how audiences know you, but you haven’t gone overboard.
There are some things you’re just not right for. I got offered a role—I don’t know if I should name the role—but let’s just say I would have been the love interest of some very well-known, established, respected actress of my age. But I really just felt, “Hmm, this role is for Sam Elliott.” I’m just throwing a name out there. I was flattered to be offered it, but it felt too much like putting a square peg in a round hole. There was a gut feeling there. It felt false to me, so I passed it up. My wife eventually saw the movie, so I asked her, “Do you think I could have played it?” She wasn’t trying to be funny, but she just said, “Well, he is kind of charming…” I’m going, “All right.”
I’m not going into any project and being like, “Oh, I’ve got to be the lead.” I just want to challenge myself a little.
You did a comedy special earlier this year for Netflix, but otherwise it seems as if you’re backing off from comedy a bit.
Comedy will always be a part of my life and who I am. Stand-up, in particular, if you had to pinpoint what I am naturally. I’m not ever going to rule out doing comedy, but I think the dramatic part of a role is what attracts me now. When I look at scripts—and I don’t get offered a ton of stuff—I’m drawn to that part of it. Is it moving? Does it move me? My desire now in performing is that I want to keep exploring the dramatic side of things. Stand-up, I feel confident. I know I’m a stand-up. Am I a dramatic actor? I don’t know. We’ll see. Practice makes perfect.
How do you prepare for a dramatic role, then? Do you have a different approach to that, as opposed to playing a character who is essentially you?
I always write a backstory for my characters. I did it for the first time for a movie I starred in called Grilled. I feel it works. You can’t just go up there and not have the core of who you are or where you came from. So I write it, absorb it, then forget about it.
Was this something a director or an acting coach passed on to you?
No, it’s from Denzel Washington. I heard him say it in a TV interview, I think. It was a piece of advice he gave to young actors. But one of the first directors I worked with subscribed to this method as well. He said, “Write it. Read it. Try to get it inside you, and then forget about it.” You and the character evolve together.
How did you put together the story for your latest role, the mob lawyer Bill Bufalino in The Irishman?
It helps that he was a real guy. They sent me a lot of material on him, but the only thing I saw of him in an interview was when he was testifying in Congress. There’s only, like, a five- or 10-second clip of him answering a question. But it’s so easy to see that he had a gregarious attitude and vibe to him. I have that, and then, well, I just made up my own stuff. I combined the two. It also helps that I look a little bit like him. He did have this friendly aura to him, despite being very cutthroat. And, actually, he appeared to be a little more rotund than I am.
This is your second Martin Scorsese project. How did that relationship start? Did he seek you out or vice versa?
They were casting Vinyl, and my agent made a call to the casting director, who told us to send in an audition tape. It came back from the casting director that Marty liked it, but he’d never heard of me. My agent goes, “What do you mean? He’s never seen the show?” She goes, “No, he’s never heard of him.” I mean, what am I going to be—offended? [Laughs.] Of course he hasn’t seen the show; he’s a genius. He doesn’t watch sitcoms. It’s not his world. In a way, I think it was a blessing, though. I think what got me into his camp is that he didn’t have to look past the character I played for so long.
He saw you with fresh eyes. Had you encountered this, let’s call it sitcom prejudice, before?
I’m guilty of the same thing. I do it a lot. When I created Men of a Certain Age, and I was casting it, if someone would suggest an actor that I knew from a sitcom, I was always reluctant.
You’re fighting against a stereotype that’s still appearing on people’s screens every night.
Yeah. Nine years, in my case. Everybody’s living their lives, but an actor is still living with a character for nine years. It’s hard to get away from that, to not hear it, to not see it. Scorsese had never heard of me, so he saw the tape, and I got the role. That simple. For The Irishman, he just offered me the part outright. That became very frightening, because the first time he saw what I was doing on tape, and he liked it, I went, “All right. I’ve just got to do that.” But this part, he just gave it to me. How does he know what I’m going to bring to this?
So how’d you feel when you got the part?
When I first got the word, I’m not kidding, I broke out in hives.
BY THE NUMBERS
Emmy nominations for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Comedy Series, all for Everybody Loves Raymond (he won in 2002)
Romano’s salary for 2004’s season 8 of Everybody Loves Raymond, at the time making him the highest-paid actor in TV history
Place he and his partner, Australian pro Steven Bowditch, finished at the 2012 AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am golf tournament
Number of Romano’s actual family members who appeared
on Everybody Loves Raymond
Hours of footage filmed for Romano’s 2004 comedy-tour road-trip film, 95 Miles to Go
Age at which he moved out of his parents’ house in Queens, New York
Amount he won (on behalf of the NYPD’s D.A.R.E. unit) on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? in 2000