I'm sitting in a room in the Beverly Hills Four Seasons with Andy Garcia, and we're waiting for Ray Romano. I'm feeling guilty. On the way over, I passed a group of Girl Scouts selling cookies. I was wearing dark sunglasses and I breezed by them, muttering, "no thanks." You'd think a Hollywood writer headed to the Beverly Hills Four Seasons for an interview with Andy Garcia and Ray Romano wouldn't need to worry about spending money on a box of Girl Scout cookies, but the truth is I've been wrestling with an exhausting bout of financial hardship. My rent is nearly due, and I'm trying to save cash everywhere I can.
"The party's over," Ray Romano says in his nasal, New York voice, as he enters the room. I laugh at his self-deprecating line, and I like him right away. The best comedians don't need clever material. They can make throwaway lines hilarious and memorable. I've never seen an episode of Everybody Loves Raymond, but I love Parenthood and think Romano's dramatic acting on the show is some of the best work on primetime television.
But we are not gathered here today to discuss Parenthood.
Today's discussion will center around Garcia and Romano's new heist drama Rob the Mob, the true story of two young lovers/criminals who robbed a bunch of New York City mafia social clubs in the early 1990s and happened upon a big secret and a whole lot of drama. Andy Garcia plays "Big" Al Fiorello, a kinder, gentler mafia don. Ray Romano plays a burnt-out, newspaper reporter who specializes in publicizing organized crime stories. Rob the Mob is a well-made, independent film, telling an intriguing story most people can't believe actually happened. For once, we get to see the mafia as victims. There's a lot of humor in this film and you'll have a good time watching it.
"It's such an extraordinary story and it seems so far-fetched, but everybody played everything as real as it could be," Romano says, when asked to comment on the honesty in the film's acting performances. "As far as living honest moments in the scene, that's important for all the actors in this movie and that's what made it real. Even with the humor. You have to be careful with the gangsters because if you make it too silly, then it's cartoonish. But everybody played it real. The humor was there, but all the moments were real."
Andy Garcia, who also exec produced Rob the Mob, is asked what he finds enjoyable about making an independent film.
"When you have good material, you're always going to attract a good cast," Garcia explains. "That's the essence of any independent movie. You never have any money for anybody -- or even to make the movie -- but what you have is the ability to attract great actors. In the independent film scenario, there's a freedom when making a film, an innate freedom where you have a space to explore. It's the spirit in which you go into it. It stems from the material and the excitement and the romantic idealism of just going off like gypsies and making a film that people will care about when they see it."
"If you have good material," Romano interjects, "you're willing to go on a budget where you enter your trailer and you can't go left and you can't go right. You're just there." (This line may not sound funny when you read it, but picture Ray Romano saying it and pretending to be cramped in a tight enclosure. Everyone in the room laughed. Trust me. It was funny.)
A journalist asks Romano if he would have played his Rob the Mob newspaper reporter character in a different way 10 years ago.
"Yes," Romano answers. "You are playing a character, but you do bring parts of yourself into it. Ten years ago, I was different. I still had a lot of the same problems, but I could run away from them faster."
I laugh at Romano's quip, but I'm still feeling bad about not buying any Girl Scout cookies, not contributing to a charitable cause. I check to see how much cash I have in my wallet as Andy Garcia talks more about the art of acting.
"As an actor, you bring all of your emotional baggage to every part you play," Garcia explains. "Those are the tools you have to fill these characters. You have to dig for those things within your own fabric of who you are and your life experience. When Ray's character has issues in his life, the first place Ray is going to go to is to find some sort of parallel in things that are directly related to his personal life. We don't need to know what that is."
"It's my father," Romano confesses with a laugh. "Just so you know, I always go to my father."
Everybody laughs. Everybody actually loves Raymond.
For some reason, another journalist asks Romano what it means to him to be 80 percent Italian?
"Why only eighty percent?" Romano asks.
"After this performance," Garcia quips, "they took twenty off."
This gets a huge laugh and, in an unpredictable turn of events, Andy Garcia winds up saying the funniest line of the afternoon. Who saw that coming?
I leave the Four Seasons and pass the Girl Scouts again on my way home. This time I stop and give them all the cash in my wallet. The last thing I need to do in my life is eat cookies, but giving money away feels better than worrying about not having enough of it.
Rob the Mob opens in theaters on March 21