Ray Romano was stressed out.
It was the night before he was supposed to start filming “Somewhere in Queens,” his directorial debut, and Romano wasn’t sure he was up to the challenge. He’d already peppered his agent with calls warning him he thought he needed to drop out. Oh, and he’d been forced to go to the cardiologist to undergo a stress test after he started having chest pains in the lead-up to shooting. But now, the pressure he was feeling was manifesting itself in a bizarre way. As he was going to dinner with the producers and Maceo Bishop, the film’s cinematographer, Romano drove through an intersection as the light turned from yellow to red. When the camera flashed to capture his license plate number, something strange happened.
“For the next couple of blocks, everybody I saw had a green face,” Romano remembers. “I thought, ‘What is going on?’ I had to pull over, call my doctor and tell him, ‘I’m seeing green.'”
The next day, he snagged a 7 a.m. appointment at the eye doctor, who told him there was nothing wrong. Romano was able to make it to set less than an hour later for the first day of shooting.
“Once we started and I yelled ‘action,’ the anxiety went away,” Romano says. “It’s like, you jump off a cliff and there’s no time to think about anything else. You just have to do it.”
Now, “Somewhere in Queens” is ready for its unveiling. The film, an impeccably observed drama about a father whose obsession with securing a basketball scholarship for his high school-age son nearly tears his family apart, will debut on June 10 at the Tribeca Film Festival. Romano not only directs the movie, he co-wrote its script, produced the film and stars as Leo, the patriarch with some ill-conceived ideas about shepherding his child through the college process. And with just a few days to go before “Somewhere in Queens” screens for the public, Romano is starting to feel the heat again.
“We’ve screened it twice, so I think the audience is going to like it. But once you get it out there for critics, that’s a whole other story,” says Romano. “I’m always pessimistic, and I’m always trying to underplay everything so I can’t be disappointed. But truthfully I am not quite sure how the critics are going to respond.”
“Somewhere in Queens” took more than six years to bring to the screen, and it comes as Romano has re-established himself as a character actor with some dramatic chops. That career pivot took some maneuvering. “Everybody Loves Raymond” made Romano a household name thanks to his hilarious portrayal of a beleaguered suburbanite with a wacky extended family. But it has also put him in a situation comedy box.
“When ‘Raymond’ was over, I got offered other sitcoms, but I didn’t want to do that,” says Romano. “I didn’t want to follow what we had just done. I wanted that to be my sitcom legacy, and I wanted to test the dramatic waters somewhat. I didn’t need to go into anything heavy or intense, but I liked the idea of doing something different.”
So Romano co-created the show “Men of a Certain Age,” a midlife crisis dramedy that scored great reviews but lackluster ratings when it aired on TNT from 2009 to 2011. After that series was cancelled, Romano felt he was at another crossroads. In response, he pitched himself to the producers of “Parenthood” and waved his usual fee in return for playing a meaty recurring role as a photographer on the spectrum. That, in turn, revealed hidden depths to Romano and casting agents came calling. In short order, he landed supporting parts on the likes of “The Big Sick” and the Martin Scorsese HBO show “Vinyl” and the director’s Oscar-nominated crime drama “The Irishman.”
“I’m realistic,” says Romano. “When people are thinking about how they need a great dramatic actor, they’re not thinking Ray Romano. But maybe they consider me now for something they’ve never seen me do.”
In the case of “Somewhere in Queens,” Romano was able to put a lot of himself into the project. In the film, Leo’s wife, portrayed by Laurie Metcalf, is a cancer survivor. That’s something that Romano and his wife Anna Scarpulla also experienced, as Scarpulla battled breast cancer in 2010. And Leo’s investment in his son’s athletic career also struck a chord. Romano’s son, Joseph, was a center on his high school basketball team. As he prepared to graduate, Romano begin to feel a sense of loss.
“I would go to his games and get a thrill watching him play and also get all this attention for being his father of the starting center and, if I’m being honest, I really enjoyed living through my son in those moments,” Romano says. “As lame as that is, as if I don’t get enough attention in my life, as the star of a TV show.”
So Romano used that as a jumping off point to create his on-screen son, who works for his family’s construction business and has a much different reality.
“This is a guy who felt very invisible and very small in his real life and he was kind of a doormat, but this made him feel like somebody,” Romano says.
As for directing, Romano may have approached it with a lot of trepidation, but he warmed to calling the shots behind the camera.
“Initially, I thought that I’d never do this again, but towards the end, I decided it might be something I’d consider,” says Romano. “I got some satisfaction from the experience.”
Getting to that point…well, that was a process.