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Ray Romano on starring in ‘Vinyl': ‘The whole thing is surreal’

Ray Romano stars in “Vinyl.”
Ray Romano works with Martin Scorsese and “I talked on the phone with Mick Jagger ... and it’s like, what world is that?” the actor says of working on HBO’s “Vinyl.”
(Genaro Molino / Los Angeles Times)

Martin Scorsese had no idea who Ray Romano was when the “Everybody Loves Raymond” Emmy winner sent over an audition tape for HBO’s “Vinyl.” Scorsese (who executive produces the series with Mick Jagger) just liked what he saw – and tapped Romano to play hapless but ambitious record executive Zak Yankovich. And Romano has delivered; he may not have the flashiest role on the show, but his has the most heart. Back in his home state of New York recently, the comedian/writer/producer/dramatic actor who is now known to Scorsese sat down with The Envelope to talk about the series set in the 1970s music scene.

I think Denis Leary, who stars in FX’s “Sex&Drugs&Rock&Roll,” is a little jealous of you. He told me, “Romano’s doing a drama with Scorsese and Jagger and I’m doing a comedy.”

I’ve talked to him a bunch. On email he’s mentioned that. His show is the reason they changed the name of our show to “Vinyl.” It was going to be “Rock & Roll,” but that feels too generic. “Vinyl,” there’s a coolness and subtlety to it. But I love doing comedy too – doing a great comedy is just as rewarding.

So are you a big classic rock fan?

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My favorite group in the 1970s was Chicago. [“Vinyl” costar Bobby] Cannavale gave me a hard time about it. But music was a big part of my life when I was growing up – I fell in love, I got kicked out of school, I got depressed, I got drunk – and the music that played through it is a memory that brings up all these things. It’s like time travel.

I fell in love, I got kicked out of school, I got depressed, I got drunk – and the music that played through it is a memory that brings up all these things.
Ray Romano

I imagine for a guy who grew up Italian that working with Scorsese is a dream come true.

The whole thing is surreal. I talked on the phone with Mick Jagger – well, his producing partner was on it too, it’s not like he called me up personally – and it’s like, what world is that? But yeah, you score a lot of Italian points.

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The irony is that you don’t get to play Italian with Scorsese: You’re playing Jewish.

I’m as neurotic as any Jewish person. I talk like an Italian, but it’s very similar. One tick away. I made up a back story for [Yankovich] after talking with [former show runner] Terry Winter. He said he has immigrant parents and they’re very strict, and he grew up in Queens. So I just ran with that and I pictured his father working in a textile factory and his son falls in love with the streets and music and probably disappointed him. That’s my go-to for a lot of characters, needing your father’s validation.

Does that come from a real place for you?

My joke I always say is if my father hugged me once I would be an accountant right now, because I wouldn’t have to do any of this, I wouldn’t have to get attention. My father was very undemonstrative. It kind of shapes your psyche and when you get older you realize maybe that’s what was missing. Every back story I write it’s always trying to please the father. I gotta find something new.

You’ve had an interesting trajectory since “Raymond” ended, with “Men of a Certain Age” and then your recurring role on “Parenthood.” How planned is all of this, to veer more dramatically?

It’s not like someone is seeing these little dramatic steps. I’m not complaining. When “Raymond” was done, I’m not going to stop working. I’m not retiring. I have to keep moving; otherwise, I catch up with myself and I don’t want that up here [taps forehead]. I didn’t want to do a sitcom, I could safely say that. I have nothing against my legacy but I did it for nine years.

I have to keep moving; otherwise, I catch up with myself and I don’t want that up here [taps forehead].
Ray Romano

You don’t want to catch up with yourself in your own head?

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I’m in therapy my whole life. I got issues just like everybody. My family is the most important thing to me. But I am a better father and a better husband when I am happy, and work makes me happy. It also makes me miserable. Writing every new “Men of a Certain Age” script was so hard, but it was the good kind of hard. Being that busy and creatively stressed, I get lost in it and I’m not in my own head. I keep moving or I catch up with myself and then I remember, “Oh, yeah, you need an Ativan.”

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