Ray Romano tonight makes his directorial debut with the Tribeca Film Festival premiere of Somewhere In Queens. While this affable guy made a fortune starring in one of the biggest sitcoms of all time, then headlined the animated franchise Ice Age and went on to become the rare sitcom star to succeed as a dramatic actor in films including Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman, Romano doesn’t try to hide the nervousness he feels before tonight’s 8 PM premiere at BMCC Tribeca Performing Arts Center. Or the almost paralyzing anxiety he felt at the prospect of making the film.
Romano stars as the son of an Italian construction business owner who toils unappreciated in dad’s business along with everyone else in the family. Life with his wife (Laurie Metcalf) in Queens is unexceptional, except when Leo watches his son Sticks (Jacob Ward) play high school basketball. The kid excels, and dad revels in the youth’s ever success, and the plaudits dad receives from fans and the parents of teammates. It’s the kind of adulation he does not get from his father (Tony Lo Bianco), brother (Sebastian Maniscalco) and their tight knit Italian family. Sticks gets a girlfriend (Sadie Stanley), who boosts his confidence enough to seek a scholarship at a Division One school. When Dani abruptly dumps Sticks, Leo is threatened with permanently losing his vicarious athletic thrill, and Leo goes from a passive participant to something more. From the Queens locations where Romano grew up to touchstones of his own life in the script — including the strict adherence to the Italian tradition of endless Sunday dinners — Romano has put a lot of himself into the film. Last time he tapped his life for material, the result was Everybody Loves Raymond.
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DEADLINE: I’m an Irish guy, but have spent nearly 40 years courting and marrying a pure Italian gal. As I watched Somewhere in Queens, I felt right at home. From the Italian insistence to overfeeding you, to Sunday dinner starting at noon. You got the authentic feel down, and the only thing missing was the Seven Fish tradition on Christmas Eve.
RAY ROMANO: [Laugh]. Yeah, we never did the fishes. I know that’s a thing, but we never did it.
DEADLINE: My first Christmas Eve, they filled my dish with fish I never heard of. I thought it was like a dare that would determine if I could date their gorgeous daughter. I choked down everything they threw at me.
ROMANO: The traditions there, they come more from my wife’s side of the family. Her parents were right off the boat from Sicily. But somehow they didn’t do the fish thing.
DEADLINE: My in-laws are from Altavilla Irpina, also off the boat. When your character’s basketball-playing son invites his new girlfriend to dinner, she’s told to show up at noon. I can’t tell you how many Sunday my future brothers-in-law and I would whisper to ourselves, is this ever going to end? But the food was great and endless. My future mother in law could sling it.
ROMANO: When I started dating my wife, I hadn’t met her mother yet. I called and said, ‘excuse me, is Anna home?’ She said, no. I said, can you just tell her that Ray called? And she goes, ‘Okay…you hungry?’ She asked me over the phone if I was hungry. She wanted me to come over [to eat.] I mean, it sounds like a cliche, but it’s a hundred percent true.
DEADLINE: We lost my mother in law a year ago, and this is making me nostalgic for those endless Sunday dinners. This to me is the sign of the authenticity of your script. When the new girlfriend of your character’s son asks if there are more meatballs, mom springs from her seat and sprints into the kitchen to make more. It was just how it was. Now, you bounced around a bit before landing Everybody Loves Raymond and became an overnight success. How long has making your directorial debut burned inside you?
ROMANO: It came about when Raymond ended. I didn’t know what I was gonna do next. I ended up writing and creating the show Men Of A Certain Age with my other writing partner, Mike Ross. I enjoyed making the transition to the dramatic side. And then we won the Peabody, which apparently means that nobody’s watching. We were canceled after two seasons. Again, I was like, what’s next, and I thought, let me try a full length feature. I knew that as far as writing, I worked better collaborating. Having a sounding board with someone who would bring their point of view to it. Mike Royce had deals and wasn’t available. One of the writers we hired on Men Of A Certain Age, Mark [Stegemann] was out of work too and he said, yeah let’s do it. We partnered up and 10 years later, here we are.
DEADLINE: No wonder your script feels genuine.
ROMANO: He would get work on a writing staff, I would get work on a show or a movie. We’d put it down, pick it back up. We started with 180 pages. Then 160 pages. We changed the big plot line. Five or six years go by. We got to 130 pages of something we really thought, maybe. We had a table read with some actor friends and thought, maybe there’s something here. We honed it a little more, got producers who gave us notes, and said, let’s do it. And then Covid came. I wasn’t planning on directing. I never thought about it until my agent put it in my head. I was reluctant and very against it.
ROMANO: Honestly? Technically, I have no knowledge. I couldn’t tell you a 50 lens from a 100 lens. I don’t know any of that. I do know what I like things to look like, and I knew every inch of every character and every moment and every motivation, and the soul of every person. My agent convinced me it was too personal to not try. He also reps Chris Rock and how you surround yourself with good people and you’re fine. Chris didn’t know anything about making movies, either.
DEADLINE: Easy transition?
ROMANO: I finally made the commitment and then was a nervous wreck for, oh God, every moment leading up to the movie. I was a basket case. I had to go to the doctor and get a stress test. I had to go to the eye doctor. I was seeing shit. I mean, leading up to the movie there was so much angst and I thought it wouldn’t be that bad once we get started. Finally, we’re in prep in New York. Then, Covid shut us down for a year. And when we tried again, Covid was still around, but we had all the protocols.
DEADLINE: The anxiety get any easier?
ROMANO: As soon as we came to New York for nine weeks of prep, it dawned me that it’s gonna happen. Now I will have people to look after, I’m gonna have a crew. That reality hit. And it was nine weeks of just anxiety on top of anxiety. And once we started it kind of it was like, you jump off a cliff and you’ve just gotta do it. Pull the cord and hope you parachute opens. Then I didn’t have the time to doubt myself.
DEADLINE: How did the anxiety compare to when you did standup on Letterman and found yourself in a deal with his company, leading to your breakthrough sitcom?
ROMANO: I had plenty of anxiety then. But this was different. I had a bit of control with Raymond. We were writing a show based on my standup and my life. I was there with Phil Rosenthal, and I had a say in where we were going and what we were doing. I was just exploring acting, though, was coming off the experience five months before, of being fired off NewsRadio. It wasn’t like, I was super confident with my acting after that, but this different because they were catering it to me even though it was still nerve wracking. But the movie? I’m taking on every decision that has to be made in a movie. It goes through me.
DEADLINE: What’s that involve?
ROMANO: The actors need to be directed, to find out the motivation of their characters. Different actors have different styles and how do you coerce them and care for them to get a performance? It’s different with each actor. Do I have that skill? Now, in honesty, if this crashed, well, I’m not doing it for the money and I don’t have to wonder where my next paycheck’s coming from. So that stress is not there. But that stress hasn’t been there since Raymond.
DEADLINE: You find yourself going, why didn’t I pay closer attention to what Marty Scorsese did and said on The Irishman?
ROMANO: [Laughs]. But to be honest, I don’t know if I’m wired that way, to be the guy who’s going to know the intricacies of lighting and cameras. I think my strength in directing came through finding the guy who’s going to give that to me, hold my hand through it and express and explain it to me and listen to me and know what I’m trying for, and then go get it. I found that guy in cinematographer Maceo Bishop. So I could whatever talent I had in directing into getting the performances.
DEADLINE: What kind of confidence came from having a script you spent a decade writing? Like Everybody Loves Raymond, didn’t you break off pieces of yourself and sprinkle them into the plot and characters?
ROMANO: Yeah. But to a certain degree, Raymond was the comedic version of my life. And then it broadens into the sitcom. We weren’t as broad as other sitcoms, Yeah. You know, these, the, the broaden, the slightly broadened, you know, we were sitcom, we weren’t as broad as other sitcoms, we tried to keep it as real as possible. The twin kids, the parents living right across the street, the police officer brother, all that was taken from my life, but when you make 210 episodes, it becomes about the writers and their lives too.
DEADLINE: What from your life found its way into the movie?
ROMANO: My son is six foot five, and played center on his high school basketball team. And I used to love going to the game and got a thrill out of watching. Lame as this sounds, I used to love the attention. Hey, that’s my son and he’s the starting center. I say lame, because, like I didn’t have enough attention already, being a celebrity? But I really got a thrill outta watching him, being proud of him and being the guy who gets slapped on his back. We knew he wasn’t going to play Division One in college, he was a 6’5” center. So when his basketball career was over, I really felt this sadness. That was the spark. What if this was a guy who, that’s all he had? His life was very small and, and he felt small and this made him feel like somebody.
That was our jumping off point. And my wife is a breast cancer survivor and I’d gone through that with her, so that’s where that came from. The whole Italian thing, too, and the father issues. I’ve always had father issues.
DEADLINE: Coming out the other side, would you direct again?
ROMANO: There are aspects I like. The fulfillment of a script you helped create, with characters and story and now you’re seeing it through. Would I direct someone else’s piece of work? I, I don’t think I have that desire. I’m on this HBO show Made For Love and they offered me to direct a couple of episodes. I was flattered, but politely turned them down. It doesn’t appeal to me as much as just taking a piece of work that I did and helping it come to life. But if I write another script? I’d direct again in spite of it all. Maybe I wouldn’t be as nervous the second time around.
DEADLINE: What would make this a success for you?
ROMANO: I would hope someone picks it up, and makes it financially successful. Maybe it’s not gonna make a ton of money, but hopefully nobody loses money. I would love for it to have a theatrical run. I know the world is different in that sense, but people are starting to go, again., Do critics matter? I’m not gonna say no. I want the audience to like it, I want to be in that premier [tonight] and hopefully hear the audience enjoying it and identifying with aspects of it. It’d be nice if some critics like it. We’re never gonna get all of them; it’s a certain type of movie and not that edgy. But I would hope we can get a good portion of the critics to say something nice about it.
DEADLINE: Some would think, here’s a guy who starred in one of the most successful sitcoms of all time, and who has managed to be successful in both comedic and dramatic movie roles. Is he really that worried about his Rotten Tomatoes score?
ROMANO: Well, you know the saying, you’re only as good as your last show.
DEADLINE: Last one. You’re going to play another kid from Queens who made good. What’s your affinity for the late Jim Valvano, who coached the underdog NC State to the national championship in 1983, but who is better remembered for standing tall as he battled terminal cancer?
ROMANO: I was in my twenties when he won it all, and I was a big sports fan. He was such a charismatic underdog. When he passed away, I hadn’t kept track of his story. Then I saw his speech at the ESPYs, and it brought me to tearssee the theb speech, you know? Yeah. And it brings you to tears. And then I watched this documentary. I don’t know if you saw it; it’s called Survive And Advance, and oh my God, it’s my favorite sports documentary ever. It’s him and his journey, told by the players. I’m not gonna lie, I have a resemblance to the guy. But watch that documentary, the story is amazing. I’m bawling through the whole thing. The energy and this life he had, the joy that he tried to just spread. I just thought boy, if I was ever to do a biopic, it would be Jimmy V.
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