Ray Romano smiles ruefully, running a hand through his famously thick mop of hair.
There's more salt and pepper in the mix than there was when Everybody Loves Raymond was the darling of CBS, a ratings juggernaut that won 15 Emmys over nine seasons. Still, the familiar smile and distinctively nasal voice are unchanged.
Sitting in his unassuming office on the Warner Bros. lot, he's wondering if he is, like so many comedians, a little tortured. "The drama's in here," he says, a finger circling his heart. "The drama's all with me."
Lest anyone call TMZ or request a breathalyzer (a pointless effort, as he doesn't drink), the onetime futon deliveryman elaborates. His drama, like his comedy, is the stuff of everyman, everywhere. "I think the perception of me is normal. I think I am normal. But we all have our issues. I don't have any fewer issues than the guy who doesn't seem normal to other people."
Some of the big, normal questions on Romano's mind would likely be familiar to any man of a certain age. His kids are grown (three sons and one daughter), his career is well established and his marriage of 30 years is solid. Now, he wonders what matters most — what's next.
But he also mulls topics average guys are less likely to ponder: those random thoughts comedians contemplate. "I like to pose these weird hypotheticals to my kids," he says, recalling the time he asked his twin sons if the world would survive if everyone suddenly went blind. "They're in their 20s. I have done some horrible parenting acts, but they can handle it."
Wife Anna gets some of those weird hypotheticals tossed her way, too. "We were watching a Cialis commercial, and I said to her, 'What would you do if that was me, if I couldn't get aroused by you anymore? What would you do?' She said, 'Celebrate.' She's not trying to be mean. She knows we're going to laugh at it."
It's the kind of self-deprecating joke that would be perfect on Everybody Loves Raymond or in a stand-up special. If Romano wanted to revisit that familiar turf, he wouldn't be the first successful comedian to do so. He could take a standing gig in Las Vegas — his friend and Raymond costar Brad Garrett has a comedy club there. And any network would be happy to air another Romano-led sitcom.
Instead, Romano has gone another way. After Raymond went off the air, he turned his attention to murky, complex characters in dramatic works. When there were laughs, they were biting or poignant.
He played an introverted photographer on NBC's family drama Parenthood, and a timid party-store owner with a faltering marriage and a gambling addiction on TNT's Men of a Certain Age. He made another leap with HBO's Vinyl, Martin Scorsese's gritty '70s love letter to sex, drugs and rock and roll.
This year, Romano is adding two more dramatic projects to his résumé. He plays husband to a fiercely protective mom (Holly Hunter) whose daughter falls into a coma in The Big Sick, an autobiographical indie film from Silicon Valley star Kumail Nanjiani. He'll also play a seedy movie producer in the movie-turned-TV-series Get Shorty on Epix.
Is Romano playing into the old trope that every comedian secretly wants to be a serious actor, while every serious actor pines to tell jokes?
"Not everybody wants to do it. You know, [Jerry] Seinfeld doesn't want to do it, that's for sure," Romano says, smiling briefly before his brow furrows in thought. Romano replies to every question with a disarming thoughtfulness. Whether his answer is serious or has a gentle punchline, he's never glib.
"When I started stand-up, I just loved doing stand-up. It was never a means to get to here," he continues. "That's what I was passionate about — and still am. Then Everybody Loves Raymond came, and that was my baby too. I was passionate about that. Then after nine years, you want to grow, I guess. There was something out there that I knew I wanted to try at least, or tap in to."
To The Big Sick director Michael Showalter, Romano has simply evolved. "Comedy, for a lot of comedians, comes from a serious place," he says. "I think that maybe a lot of it is about opportunities. As you advance and evolve, you're given the opportunity to take on more dramatic material, and maybe you've evolved to a place where that feels organic.
"I think you never want to get to the place where you're not funny anymore, and I don't think that is the case with Ray. He's learned he loves acting as well."
Get Shorty promises to have less in common with the 1995 film of the same name and to be closer in tone to Fargo's moody movie-to-TV adaptation. Even so, Romano will use the full range of his skills.
"We had a lot of discussions about the character of Rick Moreweather," says Shorty showrunner Davey Holmes, who is also an executive producer, along with Adam Arkin. "Ray wanted to be sure the character was more than just a slick con man, that he had a serious side and a tragic side.
"I was in complete agreement, but said I hoped Ray would also play the comedy of this character. Ray said, 'Sure, that comes with the model.'"
No matter how dark the role, Romano's innate congeniality may be impossible to suppress — and that's okay. "He's just immensely likable, which makes him very useful for this role," Holmes says. "The character is so scurrilous; if it wasn't a likable actor, you'd hate the character. But with Ray, you want to side with him no matter what he's doing."
That amiability appears to be reflected in Romano's life off camera as well. While the title Everybody Loves Raymond was a bit of snark — the eye-rolling complaint of little brother Robert (played by Garrett) — it seems to be an accurate description of how people view Romano.
"I remember going in for the first audition for the show. I didn't know who he was and had never heard of him," his Raymond costar Patricia Heaton recalls. "I came into the room and saw him and thought, 'Hey, maybe that guy over there can get me some water.' He was just very modest, very unassuming and humble. He still is. He has none of that Hollywood sickness."
Garrett adds: "What really keeps me dedicated to this friendship is the human he is. That heart he has, which he tries not to show you, is massive."
The two have stayed close; they were scheduled to take a trip to New Orleans with their significant others the week after this interview. "He's never changed, with all the success and money. He is still so grounded. He doesn't talk about it, though. He would rather watch a Jets game and talk about the best pizza in L.A."
Still, Garrett says his friend isn't a walking Hallmark card, either. "I won't get into details, but there are a lot of voices in that Italian melon," he says. "That's what makes him amazingly gifted. It goes with the territory. I don't know why. People who aren't tortured aren't that fun. I've never known a stand-up who didn't have some pain."
Romano, who's received raves for his performance in The Big Sick, seems to have convinced critics he's found a sturdy bridge between comedy and drama. Yet he's not so sure he's made the leap.
"If you were to say: are you a true dramatic actor? I would never dare to say that," he begins. "[But] if you were to ask me, 'Are you a professional comedian?' I'm confident to say yes on that. It doesn't mean I'm always good, and great, and all that."
Ironically, it's when he's discussing the craft that has "gotten me everything" that Romano seems to feel his age. Though he'll do as many sets as he can get at the Comedy Cellar when he returns to New York City, he asks that none of them be scheduled for the late show. "I'm just too self-conscious that I'm the older guy to that audience," he explains.
"Raymond went off 11 years ago. If you're in your late 20s, maybe you never even watched it. Then I'm just the old guy going up at 12:30 at night in this hip club in Greenwich Village. Also, I don't have material about Instagram. I have material about colonoscopies and my kids, and my wife not having sex with me.
"I'm always wondering when the inevitable will happen and [my relevance] just fades. Hopefully by then this need to perform won't be as great — or I'll replace it with something else."
So far, that something else seems to be dramatic roles, where he is once again the new kid on the block. Romano seems to love the challenge. He still relishes that Martin Scorsese had no idea who he was when casting Vinyl. "That he never heard of me means he's just going on what he's seeing and feeling," Romano says. "It felt good that I got it just on the merit of that tape that I sent in."
Romano knows drama presents an uphill climb for former sitcom stars. He was an executive producer on Men of a Certain Age, and he recalls his own casting prejudices. "When somebody would pitch a sitcom actor, I was guilty of it myself. Right away, you just see and hear this character that you know and you've seen every night of every week for years and years. It's hard to get away from that."
The good news is that, so far, Hollywood's decision-makers have been impressed with his work ethic and preparation; he's been writing a backstory for every character he's done since Men of a Certain Age. "It's very clear he doesn't want to just exist in the shadow of that sitcom character," Showalter says. "I see Ray Romano as a great actor; I don't see him as the Ray Romano from a TV show. He's transcended that."
But if you ask about his method, Romano just shrugs. "Everything I've done, there's a common denominator in each one. There are different versions of trying to validate yourself in your father's eyes. There's always a father issue. My father was a good man, but he couldn't be demonstrative.
"I'm not an unhappy man, but I'm sure it affected me, because that's what I'm drawn to when I need to tap into something. I think I heard Gary Oldman once say, 'I have to stop using my father.'"
The father formula has worked for Romano so far, but he's quick to dismiss the Oscar buzz about his performance in The Big Sick: "I've been in this business long enough to know you never know what to expect."
His feelings about awards are mixed. "You want them, but you don't want to believe them." He's more enthusiastic about a self-deprecating joke, one that would work well in his stand-up act. It riffs on the cancellation of Vinyl and the three-way sex scene his character had in the series.
He pulls out his phone and scrolls through his photos, saying, "So I found out about the cancellation that day, and I go do the junket for Ice Age 5. Then I sent my agent and my manager this picture, with a text: 'This is the only threesome I'm going to be having now.'" In the photo, Romano is seen standing between the cartoon's woolly mammoth and ground sloth. He chuckles softly and puts the phone back in his pocket.
This article originally appeared in emmy magazine, Issue No. 7, 2017