Ray Romano Is Ready to Bare (Almost) All: ‘I Was Naked in Vinyl and Look What Happened’

The sitcom star opens up about his dazzling second act, including a part in sleeper hit ‘The Big Sick’ and a starring role on Epix’s exciting new series ‘Get Shorty.’

Photo Illustration by Elizabeth Brockway/The Daily Beast

Ray Romano is still the funniest guy in any room—not to mention one of the most successful comedians in show business history, thanks in no small part to his long-running CBS sitcom Everybody Loves Raymond. In the twelve years since that semi-autobiographical hit went off the air, the funnyman has slowly but surely transformed himself into a gifted performer in a wide range of projects on both the big- and small-screen, from voicing Manny the mammoth in the animated Ice Age franchise and appearing in 2014’s crime film Rob the Mob, to co-starring in NBC’s Parenthood and HBO’s short-lived music industry drama Vinyl. In doing so, he’s proven himself a deft actor in dramedies that take advantage of his stand-up skills while also allowing him to branch out into more mature, nuanced territory—a space that, it’s clear, ably suits him.

Even though Romano has lately carved out a unique new niche for himself in the ever-changing entertainment landscape, 2017 has still been something of a breakout year for the 59-year-old star. That began with his winning turn as Terry, a father who finds himself grieving—alongside his wife (Holly Hunter)—over his daughter’s (Zoe Kazan) potentially fatal condition in Kumail Nanjiani’s summer rom-com The Big Sick, which further underscored his ability to wring laughs out of less-than-wholly-silly material. And it’s continuing with Get Shorty, a loose TV adaptation of Elmore Leonard’s novel in which he plays Rick Moreweather, a down-on-his-luck B-movie producer (narratively speaking, he serves the same function as Gene Hackman’s character from the 1995 John Travolta-headlined film) who winds up getting into bed with a criminal-turned-moviemaker (Chris O’Dowd) and his underworld cohorts on a period-piece project.

Less cartoonish than its cinematic predecessor, it’s a clever expansion of Leonard’s original (think FX’s Fargo, in terms of approach) that again allows Romano to straddle the line between the grim and the goofy.

On the eve of the 10-episode series’ premiere on Epix tonight (August 13 at 10pm), we spoke with the actor about the show, his career’s evolution, The Big Sick’s 9/11 joke, and what he won’t do on screen.

So I’ve seen the first six episodes of Get Shorty, and…

Oh wow, six of them? Then you’re tied with me; that’s how many I’ve seen. I’ve seen six. Seriously. I got 1-6, and I don’t even get Epix, so I don’t even know if I’m going to be able to see the last four.

But at least you lived them.

I know what happens, yeah.

You’ve been involved in the entertainment industry for decades. Have you ever met, or dealt with, a sketchy producer like Rick Moreweather?

I can’t say I haven’t met guys like that. I’ve never gone into business with one, or done a project with one. But you know, there are small-time producers, to give it a better label—because they’ve been labeling my guy as a has-been, B-level. And I guess that’s fair. I’ve never done a project with one, but I’ve surely seen and talked to some of them.

Have you had to confront Rick’s type of mindset, which places a premium on making money over making art?

Sure. Look, this is not a criticism—it’s business. It’s business, and those people can only survive by making money. For most guys in that business, that’s the priority, and if you can make art along the way, that’s the greatest, right? When you can make art and you can make money. But otherwise, there’s a middle ground [laughs]. You can make something kind of artful, but it’s going to make a little bit of money. And then there are guys that could give a crap about the quality—it’s just going to make money.

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As an actor, you sometimes can’t pick and choose which ones you want to do. Luckily now, I can, at least financially. I don’t have to do anything just for the money right now. But yes, even on things that I’ve been on, there are producers involved, and some of them care more about the quality than others, and some of them care about the dollar. I don’t blame either one of them.

Another big facet of Get Shorty, especially with regards to your character, is the idea of a criminal element in Hollywood. Have you encountered any shady underworld types yourself?

I don’t think it’s fantasy. I’m sure it’s there. I’ve been lucky. I came up through stand-up, so by the time I broke into television, I didn’t have to crawl my way through that. I’m sure it’s there. And in stand-up, you meet a lot of characters also—a lot of different people who book you and whatnot. Some are seedy, and some aren’t.

I’m here in L.A., and I don’t work that much when I’m in L.A. But I go to the Hermosa Beach Comedy & Magic Club—the nicest guy in the world owns that comedy club. I’m only mentioning him because that’s the one I frequent; I don’t go to the other clubs. I’m sure the other club owners are great. But literally, what he did in life, he would stand out for being one of the nicest guys in the world. He happens to be in a business that’s pretty cutthroat, but he managed to make it. And my agent, when I originally started, was Sam Haskell. He was one of the heads of William Morris. Couldn’t have been a sweeter guy. Couldn’t have been more the opposite of the way you picture a successful agent.

So it’s out there, but the other is true also. I’ve never really run into anybody who I had to turn the other way because something criminal was happening. Nothing where you could actually go to jail [laughs].

You never had to step outside the room for a moment…

No. Not yet.

One of the things I love about your performance in Get Shorty is your look—the spiky hair, the old-school jacket. It looks like you’re hung-over…

The hung-over part is my normal look! [laughs] No, I’m kidding.

Where did that come from?

I chose the hair. It’s weird, because I try to shy away from over-the-top and broad, and you could look at me, and at that hairdo, and think, well, it’s a little cartoony. But I think they caught a middle ground on it, because when we started with the hair, we had to do a lot of adjusting. If it was too long, it looked goofy, and if it was too short, it wasn’t enough of a statement; it didn’t look like much of anything. So we found a middle ground. I looked at pictures of guys out there, and I thought of a guy who I’ve met and know. I don’t know him well, but Brian Grazer. And I’ve said this in every interview, and I hope it gets out there: he is an A-lister! I’m not playing Brian Grazer! He’s an A-list producer. I’m just stealing his hair.

I brought it up with [showrunner] Davey Holmes, and he loved the idea of it, and we toyed around with it, and it worked. As far as the wardrobe, they came up with ideas, and yeah, it was weird, because you don’t want to look dated, but this guy is probably not the trendiest, and probably can’t afford that anyway. So he’s trying as hard as he can with the means that he has. But he’s a little out of touch.

In preparing for the part, did you revisit Leonard’s book, or Barry Sonnenfeld’s movie adaptation?

What’s funny is, [Get Shorty] was given to me by Allen Coulter, the director. He directed me in Vinyl, and he was the executive producer and the director of the Get Shorty pilot episode. He called me and offered it to me, and we discussed it, and he said, “Don’t watch the movie.” I have to be honest, I don’t think I saw the movie when it first came out. I didn’t read the book, I can tell you that, because reading isn’t my pastime [laughs]. But I do read books. I have not read that book, but I have read Elmore Leonard, actually.

So he told me not to see the movie, but I disobeyed him. I went and watched the movie. And I could see why he told me not to, because as good as the movie is, this is different. Yes, it’s the same concept and the two worlds colliding. But the characters are a bit different and the tone is definitely different. So I did watch it, and I appreciated that movie, but I do like the way they’ve made the show its own thing. People who revere the movie and revere Elmore Leonard, they’ll like it. But some may be a little thrown that, well, this is nothing like the movie. But it’s not trying to be. And I think if you just let it go for what it is, you’ll enjoy it.

Your character is definitely different than Gene Hackman’s producer in the film version. You worked with Hackman on 2004’s Welcome to Mooseport. Did you speak with him about Get Shorty at any point?

No, I wish I could have spoken to him. He lives in New Mexico, and we filmed there. I just wish I could have spoken to him, because the last time I spoke to him was on the last movie he made! I wish I wasn’t the last movie he made! [laughs]

And ever since, he’s been writing novels…

I know. Every once in a while, a story comes up about—I don’t know what the right word is—how wrong it is that Welcome to Mooseport was his last movie. [laughs] But he was awesome to me. The movie is what the movie is, and some people like it. But it was a great experience to work with him. I wish I could have spoken to him about this [Get Shorty], yeah.

Since Everybody Loves Raymond, you’ve worked in both TV and movies. Do you prefer one more than the other?

It’s totally about the project. I’m kind of torn about what I like better. On a TV series—and when I say TV, I mean single-camera TV, not a four-camera sitcom—you get to live with that character a little, and it can evolve and you can grow into this character, and the stories can grow. Also, it gives people time to find the show, and to become fans of it, and it stays out there a little longer.

A film is quick, and if people don’t see it, then it goes. And a film is two hours, one script, and that’s the character. But I like that also, because then you can build a backstory, and everything goes into that two hours; you just pour everything into that one character. That’s also appealing. But they’re both kind of the same process. I do a little backstory, whether it’s a TV show or a film. It’s just that, with a TV show, you get to revisit it the next week, and the week after.

What’s a little different is that, when you’re inventing this character for a film, you’re basing it on the script, and you know what’s going to happen to this character. With a TV show, you don’t know what’s going to happen in episode 2, 3, 4 and so on. All of a sudden, it may be that you think what happens is out of character, and it’s not--you just weren’t aware your character could do this. I like them both. I don’t know which one I like better. I’m writing a script now, and I don’t know if I wish it were a TV show or a film. And I’ll never know, because I’ve been writing it for five years. [laughs]

You’re also in one of the summer’s big movie hits: The Big Sick. Did you ever envision it connecting with audiences the way it has?

If I’m being honest, everything we did was great, but it’s so broken up, and in pieces. Sometimes we do what’s on the script, and then we improvise, and we improvise for ten minutes, and they’re only going to put two minutes in. So in that sense, no, you don’t really know how it’s going to turn out. I really liked the script, although I didn’t know Kumail before it, so I didn’t know—who is he? Can he hold the movie? And Holly Hunter I’d never met, I just knew she was great. But I didn’t know—are we going to have this chemistry? As it’s going on, you’re getting little bits and pieces of it, but until you see the final product, no.

I don’t want to say it’s overshot my expectations—that makes it sound like I didn’t think it was a great script, and that there were great people involved. I’m saying it because that’s like with anything, you never know how it’s all going to come together. So I am really pleased and surprised at how it’s been received. And I’m really lucky. When everything came together, I was like, I have to do it. Holly Hunter, Judd Apatow, I met Kumail, I met the director. But who knows? It could have gone the other way, and I just feel so lucky that that did not happen.

You have such great chemistry with Holly Hunter in the film. Any chance for a spin-off starring you two?

[laughs] I’m here, I’m ready to go. She was great. I met her at the table read, and I was of course intimidated, because a) she’s a real actor, and b) she’s a woman. All those things intimidate me. And she’s an award winner! But we immediately bonded. She has twins, I have twins, we talked family, and we did the table read and it worked. I didn’t see her again until we started rehearsing. And then, it was that I don’t know what she’s like, and I know the characters she’s played are strong and intense, and what type of actor is she? Is she a method actor? Will she see right through me? And the truth is, she is intense. And she has a process. But she couldn’t be nicer. You know, usually you associate that with you can’t make eye contact with them and all of that. But it was none of that. And she’s collaborative and cares that you’re getting what you need in the scene.

She came to see me do stand-up, which is when she gave me my favorite backhanded compliment. After a week of working together, she came to see me do stand-up at the Comedy Cellar, and when I came off stage, she said—and now I’m going to try to do her accent—“You were different up there. You were different. You’re like a man up there.” [laughs] I said, “That’s great. I don’t know what I was on set, but I’ll take it!”

Have you gotten any feedback about The Big Sick’s 9/11 joke?

First of all, a fun little nugget is that my brother, who’s a retired New York Police Department officer, was on set that day. Kumail said the line, and the original way he said it was, “We lost thirteen of our best men.” And my brother, in-between takes, I didn’t know if he was going to have an opinion on it, but his only thing was to tell me, “Raymond, it was nineteen men, not thirteen.” They had to change the line to make it correct. Otherwise, it would have been in there wrong.

I’ve only gotten that audiences laugh the most at it. And you know, I did get something about the idea that it was good to be able to at least let yourself laugh, in the context it was said. But we did ADR last week, for the episodes that are going to go on planes, and they wanted it removed. They wanted it removed for when it goes on planes. Which I can understand.

Maybe that’s not the ideal venue to hear that joke.

Have you heard any feedback about it?

Everyone I know thought it was funny and perfectly acceptable. But given today’s environment, you never quite know…

Look, when I saw it in the script, I was like, “Oh boy. I guess they feel it…” And so far, everybody takes it in the spirit that it was. I guess it’s a good thing that we’re at a point where a joke like that is—it’s not okay to make, but people aren’t up in arms about it.

When you were coming up as a stand-up, and even when you were on Raymond, did you ever envision moving into more dramatic terrain?

It wasn’t a plan. But when I was doing stand-up, it wasn’t a plan to do that until I got a sitcom. It was: I love stand-up, and I’m making a living. Then, in my eleventh year of doing stand-up, I got the urge to move on and see what’s next. Not to leave stand-up behind, because I always do stand-up, but to stretch and see if there is somewhere else, and what’s the next thing to do. And luckily the sitcom came, and I loved doing that.

Then that came to an end, and the next thing that interested me was this: single-camera, and playing something more grounded and a little more real and internal, and tapping into drama and angst. But never giving up comedy. I’m drawn to dramedies now. I like to do both. And I’m still kind of growing in the drama department. I’m still nervous when a big scene comes up. But I guess that’s good.

Maybe it means you’ll continue moving into new areas. Is there another genre you want to try out?

I want to sing [laughs]. No, god, if I do that, we’re all in trouble. That’s one thing I can safely say will not happen. And nudity. I don’t seek out nudity, I’ll tell you that.

So I can definitely write down “No nude Ray Romano musicals.”

Right. I was naked in Vinyl and look what happened. [laughs]