When you hear about Vinyl (2016-), a Martin Scorcese-created period series about a struggling 1970s rock and roll record label, and you hear that company is championed by Richie Finestra, a coked-out menace played by fearless and brash powerhouse Bobby Cannavale, and you learn the co-founder of Finestra’s label and head of the company’s promotions department is a major character who serves as Finestra's moral punching bag and verbal sparring partner, there is only one possible contender to which the mind turns for playing said character: Ray Romano. Right?
Well, okay… probably not. How did that happen? As it turns out, Romano managed to land the gig thanks to the fortunate (and almost unbelievable) fact that Martin Scorsese had never heard of him, and thus didn’t have the “Ray Barone” preconception of Romano’s acting skill burned into his brain like practically everyone else in America following Everybody Loves Raymond’s 9-season run (1996-2005). When Romano showed up for the audition, Scorsese was able to view his dramatic performance without judgment from any other material. Even more fortunate for Romano is that following Vinyl, the rest of us may be able to wipe Ray Barone clean from our slates.
Ray Romano and Bobby Cannavale on Vinyl
As it turns out, Romano is icing the cake of his turn to dramatic acting with his character, Zac Yankovich, who brings a lot more to the table than a dopey period-appropriate haircut and a fresh new beard. Romano is consistently excellent as a dramatic actor in this role, and his years of practice in the art of comedic timing add subtly dark, smirkish nuances to the character. His hangdog face and down-in-the-dumps demeanor may ring familiar to fans of his sitcom, but that is where the similarities end. In Vinyl, he even has a nude scene -- during a threesome, no less. (The event happens in Episode 7, for which Romano suggests fans “go bowling.”)
Romano’s dramatic metamorphosis began on his dramedy Men of a Certain Age (2009-2011), the Peabody Award-winning TNT series which explored three best friends dealing with the realities of becoming middle-aged. He succeeded that tenure with a role on over 40 episodes of Parenthood (2010-2015), another family drama wherein his character became integral to the story. As a period piece and, more significantly, something set outside the structure of familial narrative, Vinyl signals Romano’s biggest departure from the roles that have defined his career and his abilities.
Explaining the origin of his casting to NPR, Romano said, "The casting woman, Ellen Lewis, she's been [Martin Scorsese's] casting partner for everything he does. ... My agent actually went to her after he saw the script and said, 'What do you think of Ray Romano?' And she said, 'Well, that's an interesting choice, but have him send in a tape.' I did a couple scenes; we sent it. And the feedback we got from Ellen was, 'Marty likes what he saw. ... He knows this person,' meaning he knows the guy I was playing. 'He knows this guy. But also, he's never heard of Ray Romano,' and it turned out to be a blessing."
Romano continued with Collider, saying, “Martin Scorsese had never heard of me. He had never seen [Everybody Loves Raymond]. I was just an unknown actor to him. I don’t want to sound conceited, like he has to know who I am, but that seemed a little odd. He’s a film genius. He doesn’t watch sitcoms. But, it worked out to my favor because sometimes you see the character and you can’t seen anything else. It took about four weeks until they finally said, ‘You’ve got the part,’ and I’ve been pinching myself, ever since.”
The role offers the complexity and depth that most actors strive to play. While Romano's character is chiefly sympathetic and worth supporting, the business he is in and the culture of the time present him with a number of dark and morally questionable opportunities. Continuing with Collider, he said of his character, "I think he’s a good guy. I’ve justified what he’s doing, but it’s a shady business and he has to do some shady things. There’s a lot of cutthroat and back-stabbing and ugly characters in that business and in that world, but there’s a morality to it. Even though we do go down that road, I think we’re the good guys. I think the audience still roots for us. I haven’t had roles where I’ve gotten to go a little dark like that, so it’s fun to do that and still find a way to feel like I’m doing the right thing."