TV's Raymond Heads To The Ice Age
Ray Romano/Ice Age Interview by Paul Fischer in Los Angeles.
As the somewhat anti-social head of America's favourite dysfunctional TV family, Ray Romano has emerged as something of an institution. Now in his first feature film, everybody will also love Ray's somewhat acerbic but loveable Manfred the Mammoth in the animated Ice Age. Paul Fischer talked to Romano about cartoons, stardom and the future of his TV show.
Ray Romano is as deliberately a slow-talking New Yorker as his famous TV alter-ego. But that's where the similarities between Romano and Ray Barone end. "The TV character is definitely more anti-social than me," he laughingly concedes. One of America's highest paid television stars, the former stand up comic decided to be heard and not seen- in his first feature film, the charming computer-animated Ice Age. "It was my way to wean the audience to myself on the big screen," he says with a wry smile. In Ice Age, Romano voices Manfred, a Mammoth who would rather be left in peace, but who grudgingly decides to escort a human baby to its parents, with some help from a pain-in-the-butt sloth (John Leguizamo} and a Sabre-toothed called Diego (Denis Leary) who has plans of his own for the little tyke. In discussing his attraction to this project, the self-effacing comic attributed several factors into his decision, but most importantly was the kid factor. "My kids played a big part in it, as it was something nice to share with them." Now that Ray's a cartoon character in a big, Hollywood animated film, his kids "are obsessed like you can't believe; it's almost scary. What have I created? I come home with this stuff, like the Burger King toys. I want to speak to a shrink about it to make sure we're doin' the right thing." His kids might think dad's cool and all, but they're also critical. "They don't like that Scrat steals the show [an acorn-loving sabre-toothed squirrel]. That was their comment as soon as they saw it: 'Scrat, is in it too much. I don't like that, dad. It should be you'. "
On the surface, there seem to be some distinct parallels between Romano's sometimes grumpy and cynical Manfred, and his TV character. Romano accepts the comparison in good humour. "I think my voice lends itself to this guy and Manny is definitely a version of the character I play on TV. but he's not passive. He's probably more cynical and has a bigger chip on his shoulder but at the same time he's a good guy too, he guy on TV just wants to be left alone and is kind of anti-social. He'd rather sit at home and scratch himself."
While in his sitcom, Romano benefits from a live audience and an ensemble of human co-stars, the actor was challenged by the isolation and process of voicing an animated character. "It was just physically difficult. You're in front of the microphone and you can't move around or emote. For instance, there's a scene where I grab Diego and throw him against the wall and you're in his face. Every time we would do it, I'd have to (physically) do that and I couldn't move too far from the mic so you get that taken away." Then there's no actor. "I was never with another actor so there's no give and take there and no feedback. Plus they made me take my pants off." He adds laughingly. So Ray had to rely on his imagination, an added challenge, so it appears. "I've got a weird and neurotic imagination, so I don't know if that's an asset," he confesses. "I guess anybody in this business has imagination to some degree."
Everybody Loves Raymond is now in its sixth year, and while it stems from Romano's success as a stand-up comedian, making the transition from stand-up to TV superstar was far from easy. "My first try on T.V. was on a show called News Radio which I got fired from," he recalls. "I got cast, we rehearsed for a few days for the pilot and then I got fired. It was one of those cases where I was disappointed but relieved. Originally when they cast me, the Joe Garelli character whom I was to play, was an office worker, a white collar guy, When I went to table read and didn't do well, the next day of rehearsal they changed him to an electrician with a tool belt and all that stuff."
"So we rehearsed that day and the next morning my manager called. My call time was at eight and it was six thirty and the phone rang, as soon as it rang I knew because I felt it. I felt it wasn't happening. He said 'They said they're going in another direction'. So it was back to doing stand-up". His return to stand up didn't last long, however. "Four months later I did David Letterman and his producer (Rob Burnett) called my house on a Saturday afternoon and said they were interested in signing me to a development deal to try to come up with a show based on my five minutes of stand up. There were a lot of steps along the way where we felt it was never gonna get over this hurdle or that hurdle."
Six years later, Romano hasn't looked back. The show has consistently increased in popularity, yet the actor remains surprised. "Every year, as it got more popular, I became pleasantly surprised. But now, since syndication started in September, it's almost retarded what's happening." He laughingly recalls being accosted by funk/R&B singer Bootsy Collins, who turns out to be he's a big Raymond fan. "He has this band Funkadelic and he's six foot six wearing some leopard skin outfit. Me and my wife are saying: 'look at that dude, man'. And he's coming closer, and coming closer. He comes right over to me with his wife and goes 'Oh, you're the man'. His wife is like 'God bless you. We watch you every night'. Tell your brother Funky P says hello'. That's the power of syndication. People couldn't see it and now you don't have to make an appointment to see it." As for Ray dealing with his new-found celebrity, Romano admits that "there's always a part of you that doesn't believe it. Part of you thinks 'these people love me' and part of you thinks 'No. You're an impostor'. I do these interviews and you're talking, trying to be interesting, intelligent while thinking: 'these people are only here because it's their job and they couldn't be less interested'. You've got all that going. I can find that insecurity in everything. Here's a bit I did on Letterman. Before I was successful, I used to think 'my cab driver hates me'. Now I think 'my limo driver hates me'." Romano sees his life as something of a paradox. "There's part of you that knows you're pretty good but there's also the other part that's insecure about it."
Yet those insecurities notwithstanding, he is clearly ready to put his TV character to bed, sooner than later. "I'd say there's definitely going to be a next year and then I would say it's fifty-fifty depending on the creativity and all that if we go on; it all depends. I don't want to leave when it's going downhill."
Ray is ready to be seen, as well as heard, on the big screen, and jokingly admits that he's currently on the lookout for projects that contain "a couple of sex scenes. When you're married you've got to find a loop hole." Still after the cheap laugh, no wonder Romano continues to return to his comedic roots doing stand-up. "I never stopped and every hiatus I tour. This year we have a tour in place doing the mid-West to get away from the family. My family is on the East Coast and it's rough. Two years ago I did an East Coast tour, including Boston, New York, Connecticut, and New Jersey which is right around my home. Every show it was like 'aunt Mabel's coming'. This one's coming, that one's coming. It ends up in a fight as to who gets this or that. I said we'll do Florida but in Miami there are more people than New York. Your cousin is coming. Now we're going to Chicago, Detroit, Milwaukee, around in there." So it's true what they say: Everybody STILL loves Raymond.
Ice Age opens Nationwide on March 15.
Paul Fischer is originally from Australia. Now he is an interviewer and film critic living in Hollywood.