When a TV show manages to stay on the air long enough to make its stars rich, the post-cancellation careers of the cast are always fascinating: We get to see what kind of work the actors would do if money were no object, because, well, it isn’t. Maybe they buy the old RKO lot and start their own studio. Maybe they produce, co-write, and star in an animated movie about bees. Or maybe they do what Ray Romano is doing, and quietly become one of the country’s great character actors. Romano has been making interesting choices since Everybody Loves Raymond ended back in 2005, but for the past five years he’s been on an incredible run, turning out one career-best performance after another in roles ranging from a smooth-talking mob lawyer in 2019’s The Irishman to a barely talking misfit in that same year’s Paddleton. Here’s Slate’s guide to the great art of the Ray Romanoissance.
The Big Sick
It’s easy to hail The Big Sick as the opening bell in Romano’s current run, but he got the part only after nailing a small cameo in Judd Apatow’s 2009 film Funny People. “He was so good in it, it kind of boggled our mind that people haven’t used Ray in movies more,” said Barry Mendel, one of the producers on both movies. Directed by Michael Showalter, the 2017 indie hit stars Kumail Nanjiani and Zoe Kazan as characters based on the real-life couple of Nanjiani and Emily Gordon. Romano plays Kazan’s character’s father, who shows up after she’s hospitalized for a lung infection and placed into a medically induced coma. The rom-com leverages Romano’s amiable charm in interesting ways in a showcase monologue about infidelity:
Romano delivers “Soon as I was finished—soon as I finished, I was like, ‘What did you fucking do?’ ” in a stand-up sort of cadence, like he’s building to a big punchline, but flips all that energy into self-loathing as he practically wails, “What did you do?” It’s a little overplayed, maybe, but he’s going for it. For my money, though, Romano’s best moment in the film is the infamous 9/11 joke, both for his inarticulate stumbling as he broaches the topic with Nanjiani and for his absolutely perfect reaction to the punchline, combining a dead-eyed glare with slow-motion chewing:
This is Romano’s best performance and nowhere near enough people have seen it. The dramedy, which premiered at Sundance in 2019 before a quiet release on Netflix (where it’s still streaming), stars Romano and Mark Duplass as neighbors and best friends whose routines—structured around a terrible kung fu movie and a paddleball game they’ve invented—are thrown into disarray when Duplass is diagnosed with terminal cancer and asks Romano to help him end his life with dignity.
Romano and Duplass’ characters take a road trip to Solvang, California, to find a pharmacy that will fill a prescription for euthanasia drugs, which makes it the grimmest Sideways riff imaginable. That movie was about a guy who expresses his discontent in torrents of verbal fireworks, while Paddleton, as Mark Duplass explained to the Los Angeles Times, is about “characters who aren’t full of all the words.” Romano confessed to finding Duplass’ improvisational approach “a little scary,” but it led to a beautiful performance, in which Romano underplays almost everything, using false starts and fumbles to create a compelling portrait of a man whose language almost never catches up with his emotions. (Here, for instance, is Romano’s character’s initial response when asked to assist with his friend’s suicide, as rendered in the subtitles: “Me? Uh… Do… I mean… The way… You gotta … you can’t give up, huh? You gotta… You can’t do that.”) The film is intensely sad in ways that can make it a tough sit—what movie about terminal illness isn’t?—but it’s the furthest Romano has pushed himself as an actor, and the results speak for themselves, even when the characters can’t.
Most of Romano’s best recent performances rely on his ability to tap into a certain type of flustered, inarticulate masculinity. In Martin Scorsese’s masterpiece The Irishman, he goes the other direction, playing real-life Teamster lawyer Bill Bufalino as a smooth-talking mafia talent spotter who recognizes Robert De Niro’s Frank Sheeran as a man who can keep his mouth shut. It’s no shame playing second fiddle to De Niro, but Romano manages to steal at least one scene, his character’s first meeting with Sheeran. The two treat Sheeran’s crimes as little more than a joke shared secretly between two new friends, and Romano conveys it all with his eyes.
There’s plenty to appreciate about Romano’s performance in its own right, but there’s also a meta reason to enjoy it: Romano was absolutely thrilled to be working with Scorsese, and he’s extremely charming when he talks about it.
“Beloved sitcom actor nervously tries his luck in Martin Scorsese movies and succeeds” is as satisfying a story as any Scorsese movie, and a considerably more upbeat one than The Irishman.
Bad Education, HBO’s 2020 movie about a real-life embezzlement scandal at a Long Island high school, is not a showcase for Romano’s talents so much as it is one for those of Hugh Jackman and Allison Janney. Romano plays a beleaguered school board president whose single-minded focus on test results and college admissions—and the high property values that come with them—enables Jackman’s crooked superintendent to embezzle millions of dollars. The fun of the movie is watching Jackman and Janney engage in mustache-twirling villainy as their scheme collapses, so Romano’s role is to play a straight man who is just grotesque enough to shift the Overton window until Jackman and Janney’s performances make sense. He does a magnificent job of it, and shows that he’s just as good at supporting his co-stars as he is at stealing scenes from under them.
Made for Love
Romano’s most recent acting challenge is this spring’s Made for Love, HBO’s television adaptation of Alissa Nutting’s 2017 novel. As the estranged father of a woman on the run from her tech CEO husband, Romano has to come across as caring and concerned, despite the fact that he plays most of his scenes across from the sex doll he’s used to replace the protagonist’s dead mother. “Have you ever thought of just lowering your standards in terms of general happiness?” is the line Romano was born to deliver, and boy does he deliver it.
Romano has a great talent for making bizarre and grotesque people likable, and the best of his recent work leverages this to push him into interesting places. It’s rare to see someone change gears and do the best work of their lives after the role that makes them rich and famous, but Ray Romano is doing it, and it’s impossible not to root for him. Everybody loves the guy.