A decade ago, Ray Romano found himself in the enviable position of never having to work again. The success of his CBS series “Everybody Loves Raymond” had left him flush with the kind of windfall-for-life that only a hit sitcom can deliver. But his nine-year run as Ray Barone on the definitive family comedy of its era also could have easily sentenced him to typecasting as a TV dad for the rest of his professional life. In a conversation with Variety, Romano spoke about the evolution of his post-“Raymond” career, from TNT’s “Men of a Certain Age” to NBC’s “Parenthood” to his most challenging assignment yet: a 1970s record company exec facing a midlife crisis on HBO’s “Vinyl.”
How did you decide your next moves as an actor after “Raymond” ended in 2005?
There was no game plan. To be blunt, I didn’t have to do anything for money after “Raymond” — which is what my wife keeps telling me after she sees me in a threesome in “Vinyl.” One thing I knew was that I didn’t want to do a four-camera sitcom. I was proud of what we did on “Raymond” — that was my legacy — but I wanted to move on.
Were you concerned about typecasting?
[Typecasting] is just natural when for nine years everybody sees you as that. I’m guilty of that. When we were casting actors [for “Men of a Certain Age”], when someone’s name would come up, I would say, “He’s not right.” It’s just ingrained in you.
Were you surprised at how well-received you were in the much more dramatic role on “Men of a Certain Age”? Was that a big boost for you?
Yes, we were very surprised when it debuted. I’m the first one to self-deprecate, but I couldn’t find a bad review. I wasn’t playing a serial killer or a drug addict — I was playing someone real. I was happy people accepted me. It wasn’t a super stretch of a character — it was kind of like a real-life version of Ray Barone going through some deeper issues. This wasn’t “Dallas Buyers Club.” Then we won a Peabody, which means you get canceled. And one cable show that gets canceled helps free you from that branding as a sitcom guy.
How did you wind up on “Vinyl”? Zak Yankovich is pretty far removed from Ray Barone.
Scorsese had never heard of me before. He’d never seen “Raymond.” I put myself on tape and sent in a video. He told his casting director he’d never heard of me — not that he’d never seen “Raymond” before, but he’d never even heard of me. It was the best backhanded compliment I ever got. It helped me get cast. He didn’t have to overcome Ray Barone when he watched me.
Was it hard to get under the skin of the character?
The hardest thing was getting in the head of a guy this tragic, where he contemplates suicide. It was hard to dig into that and feel what that guy is feeling. … When I was on “Parenthood,” Mae Whitman told me that to play [emotional] scenes, she liked to listen to music to get in the mood. She’d be in a bubble under head-phones. I made a playlist, and oddly it worked for me. It can trigger these emotions. I have Coldplay and Jeff Buckley to thank for those scenes.
Do you enjoy the debauchery featured in “Vinyl”? All joking aside, is it hard to play?
I’ve never had a threesome in real life — I’ll come right out and say that. I was talking to another very good-looking actor on “Vinyl” about that threesome, and I asked him if he’d ever had one. His answer was, “Five or six.” He didn’t even know how many he’d had! I had to be naked, which was terrifying for me. And I had to do it in a scene with Bobby Cannavale. I had to stand up and wear that sock-like wardrobe thing. On the second take, Bobby says to me, “Ray, you don’t gotta wear that for me. Don’t worry about it. I never wear it.” I told him, “I’m not wearing it for you, trust me. I understand why you don’t wear it. I’ve seen that shot of you naked. I need to wear it.” I had to be drunk in that episode, too. For me as an actor, the two scariest things are being drunk and naked. My joke was that the director was never going to yell, “You’re too big!” during the naked scene.
You and Cannavale had such instant chemistry. Did you know each other before the show?
We’d never met before. We became buddies. He’s a New Yorker. We went to Jets games, and he came down to the [Comedy Cellar] to watch me. The hours that guy has to put in on the show, it’s amazing.
Do you go out of your way to make time to do standup comedy?
I play Vegas about seven times a year, at the Mirage. If I’m in New York, I’ll always drop into the Comedy Cellar. I still love to get up there. The thrill is coming up with new material. “Vinyl” was shooting from May to October [last year], so I went on a lot. I don’t think I’ll ever give that up. Some guys do. If I have to be nice to myself and say one thing I’m good at, it’s doing standup. Everything else I suck at. Golf I really suck at, even though I love doing it.