Emmy-winning actor Ray Romano is best known for starring as Ray Barone in the long-running sitcom “Everybody Loves Raymond.” But when it comes to animation, there is one character that he with which he also has a long history. As the voice of Manny the mammoth in the “Ice Age” series (which has spawned three big-screen movies so far), Romano plays a lovable animal that keeps his herd of family and friends together despite getting into frustrating (and humorous) situations. “Ice Age” is now coming to the small screen with a made-for-TV special.
In the half-hour TV special “Ice Age: A Mammoth Christmas” (which Fox will televise at 8 p.m. Eastern/Pacific Time on November 24, 2011), Manny is upset with Sid the sloth (voiced by John Leguizamo) for accidentally destroying Manny’s favorite holiday decorations. So Manny convinces Sid that Sid is on Santa’s “naughty” list, which sends Sid into panicked trek to the North Pole to get on Santa’s “nice” list. Meanwhile, Manny is also dealing with his daughter Peaches being a teenager. In a telephone conference call with journalists, Romano talked about his favorite holiday memories and traditions; the evolution of the Manny character; and why he thinks the “Ice Age” series has had enduring popularity.
Back when you did the first “Ice Age” movie, people didn’t realize how big these animated films were going to be. How surprised are you that it’s had a life of its own and “Ice Age” has been seen by a zillion people and they keep making more? What did you first think about when you first saw the script?
At that time there were successful animated movies. So I knew that if you did it right it could be something that is successful. I read the script and I enjoyed the script. It had a nice story. It had a nice moral. It has a nice message.
Then I met the director, Chris Wedge, and he came in and he kind of pitched the look he was going to go for and what he was trying to get. And I had seen the short that he won an Academy Awards for that he did. And it had such a great look and creative feel to it. So I just kind of got the sense that this was going to be a quality thing and this was in the hands of some pretty talented people.
Did I know that this was going to happen that we were going to make a fourth? No, I didn’t know that. I knew we were going to make a good movie but who can tell. You know, there are a lot of good movies and for whatever reason this caught on. I think it’s very well done and I think it has a good message. I think, yes, it’s just something that caught on with the audience.
There is a lot of new animation coming out this Christmas for holiday shows. Do you have favorites of your own that date back when you were a kid, or even in more recent times?
Well, for the holidays, you’re going to age me now. But I always remembered “Charlie Brown.” That was when I think of my childhood and I think of Christmas and watching an animated film. There weren’t many then. I’m talking about in the 60s now. It’s “Charlie Brown Christmas,” and the tree and Linus. That’s where I go. And then, there’s “Charlie Brown Halloween,” and the great pumpkin. That’s it for me. There’s nothing else for me in my memory of my childhood that stands out.
Now, of course, there was a couple as I became a young adult “The Grinch that Stole Christmas” and whatnot. But now, there are so many of them. Yes, but for me, I go right to “A Charlie Brown Christmas.” That brings back memories. It’s very nostalgic for me to see it and it’s still on now. It still holds up. My kids watched it when they were at that age and pretty soon my grandkids are going to watch it. Oh God, I’m old.
After playing Manny so many times now, how do you find your way back into the character each time to separate yourself? Does it get easier between films?
It takes a couple of minutes when I get into the recording studio. I have a line that I use as my mantra, my way in. And it’s a line from the first movie were Sid is trying to get him to go somewhere and he just gets into Sid’s face and he says, “I’m not going.” So I repeat that about a dozen times until I feel it.
And the thing is, when people hear the movie they think that that’s just me doing my voice and it’s not. I’m tweaking my voice. It’s Manny. I can distinguish between my normal speaking voice and Manny. I am doing the character. And yes, at this point, it’s as simple as that. It’s just repeating that line over and over again.
When they pitched this idea of an “Ice Age” Christmas special, just the fact that it’s Santa Claus and everything but taking place in prehistoric times, was that a little strange? How do you think they handled that?
That doesn’t quite make sense. I never got into that and it’s the same with when we did the dinosaurs and how the logic behind it. You’ve got to let that go. Mammoths don’t talk either. So I just give over to it. It’s just a story and it’s fun to combine Santa with this world. So I think the audience that we’re going for it is not going to bump for them. But I have had that question though.
Did you do this recording for “Ice Age: A Mammoth Christmas” at the same time as “Continental Drift?”
Yes. We get them together. When I would go in for a recording session for the new movie like the first hour or so would be for the special. For a couple of recording sessions we piggybacked them together.
And can you talk about that plot for “Ice Age: A Mammoth Christmas”
The new movie more is about the daughter that we have, Peaches, who now is a teenager. It’s kind of about that, about Manny dealing with a teenage daughter. You know, there is so much crazy stuff that goes on but underlying it all is just the plight of the families and friends and all the trials and tribulations of being a family and a parent. That’s what this one is.
It’s her trying to go out on her own and have a boyfriend and this, and that, and Manny has to learn to let go. But there’s a great adventure which moves the story. Does that make any sense? Clean that up. I’m done.
What is it about Manny that you think people will be able to relate to the most?
Well, he’s kind of the “everyman” mammoth. He’s a little bit of a curmudgeon on the outside but we know he’s got a great heart. He’s a big hulking figure but he’s a softy, really. And yes, it’s the family aspect of it. He’s a family man. And the family is the most important thing to him.
So he may seem like a grouch but he sticks up for his friends and his family. I think people know people like this and people are like this. And I think people just relate to the values that he has, the family values.
What do you think is the best thing about doing the animation as opposed to regular acting?
Well, it takes getting used to. The best thing is the fantasy of it all and here you can relate to everybody; adults and kids. It’s timeless. It’ll last.
The actual procedure for an actor is kind of hard to get used to because it’s just you in a studio. I know this is the fourth one I’ve done and I’ve never been in the recording studio with another actor. We’re always on other sides of the country or this and that and you have to do it in piecemeal. So that’s kind of hard to get used to.
But the pros of it is, yes, being able to be in this world, this fantasy world, and be able to take your kids and your friends kids and everything. It’s just fun. It’s fun. It’s not an easy process but it’s fun when it comes out.
Did you always want to be an actor when you were growing up or did you have other professions in mind?
Of course, I originally was interested in acting. In college, I took a couple of drama classes. But I think my heart was always into comedy and stand-up comedy mostly. So when I became a stand-up comic I felt like this was my calling. I felt this was what I do the best and I loved doing it.
As the years went on and I was doing it for a living I knew that acting was the next step, not the next step, but the next venture. And I wanted to pursue it. Stand-up was a great vehicle to get me there and it did get me there. It got me my deal. David Letterman signed me to the deal to do “Raymond.”
But being a stand-up was my life goal at that time and it was very fulfilling for me. And now, I still love stand-up and I still think I am a stand-up at my core. But acting is another part of me that I want to pursue further and I want to perfect because I still have a lot to do. Does that make any sense?
You talked about your process for doing voice work on the “Ice Age” movie. But can you talk about your daily process regarding your preparation? When you’re actually in the studio, what kind of cues you get from the director or whoever else is kind of helping you bring your character to life?
Well, it’s such a weird process because, like I said, it’s done in such piecemeal. And what happens is I get the script, the original script, and you’ve got to remember this takes a year-and-a-half to two years sometimes of recording. And you go in and you record for like a four-hour session and then you don’t get another date to record for maybe two months — a month, two months, three months sometimes. And in that time they’re storyboarding it and rewriting it and the script gets rewritten continuously.
So each time you go in you don’t know what scene you’re doing. You don’t know where you are and it’s in such piecemeal that the director needs to tell you, “OK, here’s what’s happening, the dah, dah, dah, dah, dah. You’re falling off the cliff and dah, dah, dah.” So, you really have to just get ready for every line.
Every line the director has to tell you, “Your daughter is lost and you haven’t found her. And now you’re on this ice shelf and the shelf is ….” And each line you just have to prepare for each line from what he gives you. So it is a weird process in that sense. But it’s also kind of exciting that every line–one line you’re being soft and emotional and the next line you’re falling down an ice mountain.
Manny is trying to uphold his traditions with his family in the half-hour special. Do you have any particular holiday traditions? Are you really into the holidays with your family?
Yes, Christmas is a big one. The kids want to open and all the gifts and presents Christmas Eve. And I’m a strict “Christmas morning” is the morning. And a lot of people do Christmas Eve and it kind of drives my wife and the kids crazy. But one of my childhood memories is that Christmas morning, coming down, trying to wake your father up so you can get down. And he’s got to go in the bathroom and shave and do whatever he’s got to do and you’re dying to get down there.
We’re past waiting to see if Santa came but my youngest is 13. So he’s still excited to get down and find what new video game he’s got. So that’s big. Midnight mass is a tradition. I am a midnight mass guy before Christmas Eve. So me and the family go to midnight mass. That’s big.
Then there are always the relatives on Christmas Day. Now we’re here in L.A., and they’re in New York. So it’s a switch back and forth. Sometimes they’ll come out here or we’ll go out there. For Thanksgiving it’s either we go to New York for the big Thanksgiving dinner, try to watch football or they’ll come out here. But yes, we like to keep those things. My family gets a big kick out of doing all the things the way I grew up, even though they get a little anxious and want to update it. I try to keep the traditions alive.
Are there any holiday films that you are most looking forward to this season? Are you a big “Twilight” fan, for instance?
I’m not. I haven’t gotten into the “Twilight.” It’s weird because my daughter who would be is just probably a little past that age where she’d be a heavy “Twilight” fan and my youngest is 13. No, so not “Twilight.” What else is coming out? There’s that one Martin Scorsese one that looks pretty interesting, “Hugo.” I’ve got that on my list of want to see.
What is it like going from stand-up comedy, where you have a full theater of people and a sitcom, where you have a live audience, to the silence of the recording booth for an animated project?
Well, like I said, it takes a while to get used to. To be totally honest, on the first film I had no idea; you’re right. It was such a difference for me and when I went in and recorded there’s no feedback. There’s nothing. I seriously thought I was going to get fired.
Like the first couple of sessions I would tell my manager, “You’d tell me if they fire me right?” He goes, “Yeah, yeah.” I go, “Don’t wait; just tell me. I can take it.” And the next recording session I would be, “All right, well let’s see.” And then I would come out of that one and think, “Well, now they’d really have to fire me.” Because it is so bizarre. It’s such a weird genre in that sense, yes.
How did you initially get involved in this project of playing Manny?
Well, they approached me. It was during “Everybody Loves Raymond.” Oh God, what year was that? I guess it was, I’m going to take a guess that was either the third or fourth year. So they had known me from that and my manager just gave me the script and asked me to read it. And he says, “They are interested in meeting with you.”
I read the script and it was a great script. So I said, “Yes, I’ll meet with them.” They came in to where we film “Raymond.” And during my lunch hour the director and the producer just sat with me and told me what they were thinking of and I signed on.
And did you ever expect it to be as big as it was now?
I did not and I still am baffled. Like after we did the third I said, “Wow, this is a great franchise but it’s three and out, isn’t it?” And sure enough the fans just wouldn’t let it go. I knew that if they came up with an interesting story, it’s good, it’s great. But you also want to make sure you’re not overdoing it. You’re not overstaying it. But I really enjoyed this last one we did. Again, they have other stories to tell. The baby is now a teenager and it’s a whole other set of circumstances.
Can you share what you feel is the formula for good comedy, be it, in animation, with “Ice Age,” or in front of the cameras with stand-up or other acting adventures?
Well, there’s different formulas and there’s different things that work for different people. But what works for me and also what appeals to me is, and it seems cliché but it is the truth. It’s relatability. Any stand-up — I love all kinds of stand-up but the stand-up that I was really drawn to and influenced me was like Bill Cosby. Guys who talk about family and life and things that you experienced and then they made it funny.
And that’s what worked for me. That’s what worked in “Everybody Loves Raymond.” That’s what we did. We took our own life experiences. Again, this is animation. It’s “Ice Age” and it’s animals talking but underneath it all, at the core, are just problems and relationships that people identify with. That’s kind of half the battle in comedy, I think, is people identify with it and then, yes, you make it funny.
RELATED LINKS ON lodeplus.com:
Interview with Ray Romano, July 2010
“Ice Age” news and reviews