Ray Romano is known best as the star of the TV sitcom, "Everybody Loves Raymond," which ran for nine years on CBS and earned him an Emmy as the lovable Long Island father. But recently, he's thrown a little edginess into his everyman persona — thanks to Martin Scorsese.
First, there was the short-lived Scorsese/Mick Jagger-created HBO series, "Vinyl," in which Romano played a cocaine-snorting music executive (Romano said Scorsese cast him though he had no clue who he was). That led to him playing a shady B-movie producer on the Epix series ,"Get Shorty" (now in its third season), and a convincing not-so-innocent school board president in the upcoming HBO movie, "Bad Education," starring Hugh Jackman.
Now Scorsese has called on Romano again. This time, Romano stars in the Oscar-winning director's most ambitious gangster movie yet: "The Irishman" (in select theaters starting Friday, and on Netflix beginning November 27).
The movie looks at the life of mobster Frank "The Irishman" Sheeran (played by Robert De Niro), who before his death, claimed he killed the International Brotherhood of Teamsters president Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino). Romano plays Bill Bufalino, who from the late 1940s to the early 1970s was the attorney for the Teamsters and had ties to the mob through his cousin, Pennsylvania syndicate boss Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci).
Business Insider spoke with Romano on how working with Scorsese on "Vinyl" didn't lower his anxiety — especially since his scenes for "The Irishman" were either with De Niro, Pacino, or Pesci. He described what it was like to act across from De Niro while he had dots on his face for the de-aging that would be done for his role. And Romano explained why, after 15 years, he still can't get over that his first starring role in a movie, "Welcome to Mooseport," has been Gene Hackman's last movie.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Jason Guerrasio: Have you seen "The Irishman" yet?
Ray Romano: I've seen it twice. I saw it once in Scorsese's screening room in his office in New York, and then I saw it at the New York Film Festival premiere.
Guerrasio: So I'm assuming getting the Bill Bufalino role was an easier experience than getting the Zak role in "Vinyl"?
Romano: It was easier. For "Vinyl," I had to put myself on tape and the feedback we got was that Scorsese liked what he saw, and he's never heard of me. And I was like, I get it, he doesn't watch TV. So there was that. But for this one, he just gave me this role.
Guerrasio: So you've come a long way!
Romano: Yes, but it scared me more because for "Vinyl" he saw on tape how I was going to play the character. On this one, he gave me the role, but how does he know I can do it? So I was very worried.
Guerrasio: Because of that, do you go crazy on the research and find out everything you can about who this guy was?
Romano: They gave me as much info as they had: articles and books and pictures. But the only thing they had of video of him was literally a seven-second clip, I'm not kidding. It was him testifying in front of Congress. So all I got was this little glimpse of how he held himself in court. So I just ended up creating my own backstory for the guy.
Guerrasio: On top of the anxiety of trying to pull off the character, most of your scenes are with De Niro, Pacino, or Pesci.
Romano: I know.
Guerrasio: Was anything about working on this movie normal?
Romano: [Laughs.] Of course not. Joe Pesci I know because we golf together. I kind of feel okay around him. I'm still a little intimidated. But the other two guys I've never met. Look, I get nervous anywhere — on any show, whatever. But with two of the biggest stars in the world, it was crazy. But they made me feel comfortable.
Though they are different. Pacino is a little more gregarious and out-there. With Bob De Niro, it took like half a day of working with him and starting a conversation that eventually I found him to be very friendly. The insecurity never goes away but the fear kind of went away with each guy.
Guerrasio: The first time we see you in the movie you are in a scene opposite De Niro, and in the scene he's de-aged. So does that mean when you filmed it he had dots all over his face for the de-aging process that would happen in post production?
Romano: He had dots on his face but it's not like years ago where they had these big dots on you.
Guerrasio: So it wasn't noticeable?
Romano: Sometimes you couldn't notice it at all. They are clear and there aren't too many of them. But in your head, you have to know that you're not talking to a 75-year-old man, I'm talking to a 40-year-old man. I was talking to someone younger than me.
Guerrasio: What was the chatter on set about the de-aging? Was everyone very curious how they were going to pull it off?
Romano: The chatter with me and Bobby Cannavale and Jesse Plemons was just how awesome it was. There's a scene where Jesse Plemons and I are walking down the Bronx courtroom hallway with Pacino and De Niro in front of us and there are people surrounding us. Doing that scene, knowing that it's going to be Pacino and De Niro in their 40s, and we're right behind them, we were blown away. Every time we did that scene and had to walk back down the hallway for another take, Jesse and I would be like, "I can't believe we are walking behind these guys." Everyone was looking forward to seeing how these guys would look.
Guerrasio: Well, did it live up to your expectations when you finally saw the movie?
Romano: Yeah, I actually liked that you weren't looking at a Ken doll.
Guerrasio: I agree.
Romano: Even when they de-aged them, they still had a weathered look to them. Naturally, it is going to take a few minutes to get used to it, but after a while it wasn't distracting.
Guerrasio: So there's a moment in the movie where I thought you may have broke character. It's the scene where Pacino says, "When it's a gun, you run at them; when it's a knife, you run away."
Romano: No. No. No. I didn't break character.
Guerrasio: Because your reaction when he says that line is perfect. You turn away from the camera like you are holding back from laughing.
Romano: I don't think the line was written the way Pacino said it. During a Q&A, I did ask Al Pacino if that line was scripted or did he improv it. And he said the line was written that way but he said it with more of a rhyme feel. He gave his own little flair to it. But I wasn't breaking character. I was just reacting.
Guerrasio: With this movie and another one that's coming out soon, "Bad Education," you are playing these characters where they are involved in shady things, but you aren't necessarily fully involved in the bad stuff going on.
Romano: [Laughs.] I haven't gone full bad guy yet.
Guerrasio: Has it been fun to play these kinds of roles, something very different from the character that made you famous in "Everybody Loves Raymond"?
Romano: Yeah. It's real fun. But you're right, I'm still the everyman, but now I'm the everyman in pretty questionable situations. I'm waiting for that role to come where it's like, this is a bad dude. But, honestly, I don't know if I could pull it off. I'll give it a try.
Guerrasio: I have to bring this up. It has been 15 years since "Welcome to Mooseport" came out —
Guerrasio: And that is still Gene Hackman's last movie. I mean, does that —
Romano: It bothers me.
Guerrasio: I mean, no disrespect, but you would never have to talk about the movie ever again if it wasn't because of that.
Romano: Every now and then, something pops up online like, "Why does that have to be his last movie." [Laughs.] I retired him. I retired Gene Hackman. Listen, the movie is whatever. It's charming. It's cute. It didn't really end up being what we thought it would be like. But it shouldn't be his last movie. We became friends on that movie. I haven't seen him since.
Guerrasio: I don't know if anyone has seen him since, Ray.
Romano: Yeah. I know. I think he's writing books now. He's still doing something.
Guerrasio: But unless he comes out of retirement you will forever be linked to Gene Hackman.
Romano: That was my first starring role, by the way.
Guerrasio: I know!
Romano: I'll tell you a funny story. When we started the movie, we had a dinner the night before we started filming. I had just met Gene. One by one we introduce ourselves to the table and who we are playing. So it's a long table. I'm at one end and he's at the other end and I go, "I'm Ray Romano, I'm playing —" I think it was Handy or something, "and I just want to say how much of a thrill this is, this is my first movie." And from down at the other end you hear Gene go, "Holy s–t."
Romano: He was joking. It got a huge laugh. But we had a great little relationship there. We became friends and bonded over, this is going to sound nerdy, but "American Idol."
Romano: That's back when it was big and I was a big fan. So there was "Canadian Idol" ("Welcome to Mooseport" was shot in Ontario and Toronto) so I would get the DVDs of "Canadian Idol" and I would give it to him because he was into it also.
Guerrasio: Wow. Gene Hackman was into "Idol"!
Romano: I don't know if he wants me to reveal that side of him.
Guerrasio: He's got a tough guy reputation to protect.