Ray Romano was sad — sad because his youngest son, Joseph, was near the end of his high school basketball career. He was a star athlete, and the Everybody Loves Raymond star admittedly enjoyed the afterglow of his son’s success a little more than he maybe should have. So he wrote a movie about it, with partner Mark Stegemann, and made it his directorial debut.
Somewhere in Queens stars Romano and Laurie Metcalf as Leo and Angela Russo, parents of the shy but athletic “Sticks” (Jacob Ward). Leo works in the family construction business, and lives a life of quiet desperation only alleviated by his son’s success on the court. When Sticks’ chance at a college basketball scholarship is challenged, Leo jeopardizes everything to fix it — including relationships with his close-knit family.
“I wanted to tell a story about working class Italian-Americans from Queens because I grew up there,” says Romano. “But more importantly, I married into the family that you see on the screen.”
Actors Sebastian Maniscalco and Tony Lo Bianco bring authenticity to the Russo family, playing Leo’s domineering brother and father.
“I’ve lived like this for the 35 years I’ve been married to my wife, with extravagant Italian food and celebrations,” says Romano. “So I wanted to tell this story in that world. What happens is universal for all families, but I also wanted to make it specific to mine.”
MovieMaker spoke with Ray Romano about his agent convincing him to direct Somewhere in Queens, performing stand-up during the production, and his sneaky way of helping Metcalf with her Queens accent.
Joshua Encinias: You’re directing your first movie after nearly 40 years in entertainment. How does it feel to break new ground?
Ray Romano: To be honest with you, I never intended to direct this. I’ve written many TV scripts for the shows I’ve been on, but I’ve never written a movie. So that was really the adventure I was going on as far as changing it up a little and trying to find something new. My agent suggested I direct it, and my knee-jerk reaction was to say no. I’d never directed anything.
I never even directed an episode of Everybody Loves Raymond. But as the project moved along, my agent would remind me Somewhere in Queens is a very personal, semi-autobiographical story. I know this world in Queens. I know every inch of every character.
Joshua Encinias: Why didn’t you want to direct it?
Ray Romano: I was afraid of not knowing enough about the technical side of directing a movie. My agent talked to me about it and said, “You surround yourself with good people. You find a cinematographer who knows what you’re looking for. You may not know technically how to get it, but you know what you like and they’ll get it for you.”
I finally realized he was right. I didn’t want to put this story in someone else’s hands. As nerve-wracking as it would be, I think it’s a good thing, at this point in my career, to get nervous about something I’m excited to do, so I jumped off the cliff. I gotta be honest, it was everything I was worried about as far as nerves and panic I would feel, but only to a point. Once we started filming, that all went away.
Joshua Encinias: When did you and Mark Stegemann write Somewhere in Queens?
Ray Romano: I’m embarrassed to say it, but we started writing the script seven years ago. … Writing is weird. It’s torturous, and yet, it’s very rewarding. For me, it takes a while. I’m not a prolific writer who can just crank out a script. I need to collaborate with someone. And it took time because we also were doing other projects.
Joshua Encinias: Somewhere in Queens is about discovering that you need others when you’re scared. Who did you turn to in those moments while making the movie?
Ray Romano: The big answer is my wife. She’s held my hand for 35 years. With certain things, I am neurotic, I am a nervous person. So she was always there. My agent would talk me down, too. I found a great cinematographer named Maceo Bishop who, as much as I’m neurotic, he’s just the opposite.
He’s primarily known as a camera operator, but he was the best camera operator. He’s the guy that Spielberg wanted, that Scorsese wanted. He’s directed a lot of music videos and commercials. So this was his first film [as a cinematographer], but everybody I spoke to said, “This guy is going to be the next great cinematographer.”
When I met him, he had this calming influence. I needed someone who I wasn’t intimidated by and was totally going to be collaborative. I’m so glad that I went with Maceo, that I took the chance on a guy who’d never been the DP of a feature film.
Ray Romano on Making HIs Directorial Debut
Joshua Encinias: What did you bring from your acting career to directing?
Ray Romano: I’m very non-confrontational. So for a director, you know, that can be dangerous. Because I know dealing with actors is a touchy thing. To be able to tell an actor, “Let’s try it this way,” you have to be tactful to say it the right way.
If I had a vision of the way the scene should go and the actors were doing something different, I was conscious of how to get that out of them. I know that from my experience as an actor, but I’ve never had to be on the other side of it. Luckily, I found the right way. But I also found the right actors who were very willing and responsive. It was never an issue. It never became, “Who’s this first-time director guy?”
Joshua Encinias: Did performing at comedy clubs during the shoot help you let off some steam?
Ray Romano: It was something to relieve some of the tension, and I think I did it once or twice. It’s my comfort zone. Ninety percent of the time I’m in New York, I’ll go to the club to perform. Plus it’s therapeutic and it’s fun. The cast members came and it was a way to bond. Tony Lo Bianco came one night with his wife. If I was going to be intimidated by anybody, it would be the veteran actor.
Joshua Encinias: How do you write Italian-American characters without making them into a caricature?
Ray Romano: There were times when we were writing the script, and I would say to Mark, “Are we doing too much? Are we making these characters too big?” And then I would go back to New York for somebody’s christening or whatever, and I would take my phone and put it under the dinner table and record the conversation. I would always call Mark and say we’re not doing enough. It’s all real, it’s all true.
Joshua Encinias: Laurie Metcalf doesn’t act in a lot of movies, but when she does, it’s always memorable. How was it working with her?
Ray Romano: Laurie Metcalf is great. She’s a pro and when she comes to work, she’s intense about it, but in a good way. I never felt like I couldn’t talk to her and couldn’t discuss a scene with her. Laurie didn’t know if she could play this character from Queens and do the accent, but I gave her some of these recordings of my in-laws. I think she went to a dialect coach, but there was never any doubt she could do it.
Joshua Encinias: How did you balance acting and directing?
Ray Romano: Mark and I lived with the script for a long time. We’ve gone over every moment. And yes, of course, things change when actors bring their own moment to it, and that happened a lot. I had my own instincts of what went right and wrong with the scenes that I was in, but I also needed Mark as someone else watching it to tell me. I don’t know if other actor-directors do that, but I spoke to another actor-director who also gave me that advice to have somebody on set who you trust.
I don’t want to name drop, but I did speak to Bradley Cooper, because when I was shopping for producers, his producer on A Star Is Born was one of the guys that we were considering. But yeah, because I am my worst critic. If I left it up to me, I’d still be out there trying to do my scenes.
Somewhere in Queens is now in theaters, from Roadside Attractions.
Main image: Ray Romano on the Somewhere in Queens set, courtesy of Roadside Attractions.