20th Century Fox/Blue Sky Studios
Ray Romano during an Ice Age recording session
From 1996-2005, TV audiences eagerly tuned in every week to watch what comical mess newspaper sportswriter, husband, and father Ray Barone tried to get himself out of in the hugely popular CBS TV sitcom Everyone Loves Raymond. Many of the episodes were based on the real-life experiences of actor, writer, stand-up comedian and series star Ray Romano as well as the show's creator/writer/executive producer Phil Rosenthal and its writing team.
While Raymond was still on the air, Romano made his big screen animated debut voicing the character of a woolly mammoth named Manfred a.k.a. Manny in the 2002 film Ice Age. Four years later he reprised his role for Ice Age: The Meltdown which was followed in 2009 by Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs and next year’s Ice Age: Continental Drift.
This Thanksgiving, Romano steps back into Manny’s furry shoes in the all-new half-hour TV special Ice Age: A Mammoth Christmas, airing Thursday, November 24 at 8:00 p.m. EST/PST on FOX. Last week he spoke with me as well as other journalists about working on this holiday tale. The following is an edited version of our telephone Q & A. Enjoy!
Since doing the first Ice Age movie are you surprised at how successful the franchise has become and that they continue to make more of these films? What did you think about when you first saw the script?
Well, I knew that if you did it right it could be something that would be successful. When I first read the script I enjoyed it. It was a nice story with a positive message. Then I met the director, Chris Wedge, and he kind of pitched the look he was going for and what he was trying to achieve. I had seen the Academy Award-winning short he had made and it had such a great look and creative feel to it. I So I got the sense that this was going to be a quality project and it was in the hands of some pretty talented people.
Did I know that this was going to happen, that we’d be making a fourth film? No, I didn't. 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. Again, I think it's very well done and it has a good message.
There are a lot of new animated shows and movies coming out this Christmas. Do you have holiday favorites of your own from when you were a kid or even more recent times?
You're going to age me now [he jokes], but I always remember Charlie Brown. That’s what I think of when I think of my childhood and Christmas and watching an animated film. There weren't many back then; I'm talking about in the '60s now. So it’s A Charlie Brown Christmas with the tree and Linus. Then, of course, there’s Charlie Brown’s Halloween and the Great Pumpkin. That’s it for me. There's nothing else for me in my childhood memories that stands out.
Now, of course, when I became a young adult there were things like How The Grinch Stole Christmas. There are so many of them now, though, 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 still holds up today. My kids watched it when they were at that age and pretty soon my grandkids are going to watch it.
After playing Manny so many times now, how do you find your way back into the character every time? 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 or my way in. It's from the first movie where Sid [John Leguizamo] is trying to get Manny to go somewhere and he just gets into Sid's face and says, "I'm not going." So I repeat that line about a dozen times until I feel it. And the thing is, when people see the movie they think that's just me doing my voice, but it's not. I'm tweaking my voice. It's Manny’s. I can distinguish between my normal speaking voice and the character’s. So at this point it's as simple as just repeating that line over and over again.
What is it about Manny that you think people are able to relate to?
He's kind of the everyman mammoth. Manny is a little bit of a curmudgeon on the outside, but we know he's got a great heart. He's a big hulking figure who’s a softy, really. And it's the family aspect of the character, too. Manny is a family man, and family is the most important thing to him. So he may seem like a grouch, but he sticks up for his friends and family. I think most people know someone like him and they just relate to the type of family values that he has.
What do you think is the best thing about doing the animation as opposed to “regular” acting?
The best thing is the fantasy of it all and that you can relate to everybody; adults and kids. It's timeless as well. It will last. The actual procedure for an actor is kind of hard to get used to because it's just you in a studio. I've done four [Ice Age] movies 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. Again, it’s great to be in this fantasy world, and being able to take your kids and your friends’ kids, etc to the movie. So it’s not an easy [creative] process, but the movie is fun to watch when it comes out.
Did you always want to work in this [acting] industry while you were growing up or did you have other professions in mind?
I was always interested in acting, and when I was in college I took a couple of drama classes. However, I think my heart was into comedy and mostly stand-up comedy. So when I became a stand-up comic I felt it was my calling. I felt that it was what I did best and I loved doing it.
As the years went on and I was doing it [stand-up] for a living I knew that acting was the next step, or maybe 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 with David Letterman when he signed me to do Everyone Loves Raymond. At the time, though, being a stand-up was my life’s goal and it was very fulfilling for me. I still love stand-up and think that I am a stand-up at my core. But acting is another part of me that I want to pursue further as well as perfect because I still have a lot to do. I hope that makes sense.
You spoke about your process for doing voice work for Ice Age, but can you also talk about your preparation? Also, when you're actually in the studio what kind of cues you get from the director, or whoever else helps you bring your character to life.
Well, it's a weird process. I get the original script, and you've got to remember that this takes a year-and-a-half to sometimes two years of recording. You go in and record for like a four-hour session and then you don't get another date to record for maybe a month or two or sometimes three months. During that time they're storyboarding the script and rewriting it; 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, again, it's done in such piecemeal that with every line the director needs to tell you, for example, "Your daughter is lost and you haven't found her. Now you're on this ice shelf and the shelf is ” So you just have to prepare for each line from what he gives you. As I said, it’s a weird process in that sense, but it’s also kind of exciting because with one line you're being soft and emotional and with the next you're falling down an ice mountain.
I know that 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, and Christmas is a big one. The kids want to open all the gifts on Christmas Eve and I'm a strict “on Christmas morning” guy. A lot of people do it on Christmas Eve and it kind of drives my wife and kids crazy that we don’t. But one of my childhood memories is trying to wake your father up on Christmas morning so you can get downstairs and open your presents. Of course, he has to shave and do whatever else he’s got to do, and you're just 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 go downstairs and find what new video game he's got. So that's big. Midnight mass is a tradition as well. I’m a midnight mass guy, so my family and I will go to midnight mass.
Then there are always the relatives on Christmas Day. We're here in Los Angeles and they're back 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 types of traditions alive. My family gets a big kick out of doing things the way I did them growing up, even though they get a bit anxious and want to update it. I try to keep those traditions alive.
Given that you have such a strong background in comedy, I'm wondering if you can share what you feel is the formula for a good comedy, be it with an animated project like Ice Age, with stand-up, or in front of the cameras or with other acting adventures?
Well, there are different formulas and different things that work for different people. What works for me and what appeals to me, although it seems cliché, is the truth, I love all kinds of stand-up, but the stand-up that I was really drawn to and influenced by was from comedians like Bill Cosby. Guys like him talked about family as well as life and things you experienced and then made all that funny.
That's what worked in Everybody Loves Raymond. We created our scripts from our own life experiences. It’s the same with Ice Age. It might be animation and talking animals, but underneath it all and at its core are just problems and relationships that people identify with. That's kind of half the battle in comedy. People identify with certain things or situations and then you make it funny.
Please note, all Ice Age photos above copyright of 20th Century Fox/Blue Sky Studios.