autobiographical film (now showing in 52 cities, including New York, Los Angeles and Chicago; expands nationwide Friday), the comedian plays an awkwardly endearing math teacher named Terry, whose daughter, Emily (Zoe Kazan), falls strangely ill and is placed into a medically induced coma shortly after breaking up with her boyfriend, Kumail (Nanjiani). Holly Hunter co-stars as Emily’s tightly wound mom, Beth, whose real-life counterpart gave her thumbs up.
“(Gordon’s) mother said, ‘You know, Holly Hunter is prettier than me, but your father is better-looking than Ray Romano,’ ” says Romano, 59, who played schlubby sportswriter Ray Barone for nine seasons of CBS sitcom Everybody Loves Raymond. Jokes aside, “I wasn’t imitating him or emulating him. It was understood that if anything in this movie was free to create from scratch, it was the parents. But I kind of have to meet him now, because obviously he’s handsome.”
The TV veteran delivers some of Big Sick‘s most gut-busting laughs as Terry, who uncomfortably tries to broach the subject of 9/11 with Kumail (a Pakistani-American) and dole out sage but ultimately nonsensical advice for winning Emily back. (Offscreen, Nanjiani and Gordon married in 2007.) But Terry has tender moments, too, as he sheepishly tries to mend his strained relationship with Beth after his past cheating (a storyline that was entirely fictionalized for the film).
Big Sick producer Judd Apatow met Romano taping a Young Comedians special for HBO in 1992 and invited him to cameo in 2009 dramedy Funny People (Romano’s last live-action movie, having only voiced Manny in the Ice Age franchise since). He wanted to work together again and liked the idea of casting total opposites as Emily’s parents.
Judging by his dramatic post-Raymond turns in NBC’s Parenthood and TNT’s Men of A Certain Age, “we knew Ray could bring an enormous warmth and make the movie much funnier, while keeping the reality level that someone’s life is hanging in the balance,” Apatow says.
Critics have called it a “scene-stealing” and “career-best performance” from Romano. The Emmy winner says the ardent reception has felt “too good. I’m just worried, ‘What’s the catch?’ I knew this was a good movie, but I’ve been in movies that I thought were good and not everybody agrees with me. This has been more than I expected.”
Although he hasn’t lined up his next big-screen role, Romano will play a scheming movie producer in Epix series Get Shorty (Aug. 13, 10 ET/PT), which is based on the book and film of the same name, and is similar in tone to FX’s offbeat thriller Fargo. He says he has no desire to return to sitcoms, nor does he watch many at home, preferring earnest dramas such as NBC’s hit This Is Us. (“I like to cry now,” he says.)
Romano has slowly been writing a semi-autobiographical script in the vein of Big Sick, which he hopes to eventually produce and star in.
“The dramedy is the perfect vehicle for me,” he says. “You’ve got to ween people slowly off the Everybody Loves Raymond (persona). I saw one review say, ‘It’s good to see Ray Romano in something. His expiration date has run out and now he’s back.’ But I get that it takes time to see me as something else.”