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You’ve Got to Work to Get to the Front Row: Sebastian Maniscalco on About My Father

Sebastian Maniscalco and Robert De Niro in Laura Terruso’s “About My Father.” Photo Credit: Dan Anderson.

On May 6th, one of the most impressive red carpet events in recent Windy City memory took place at Chicago’s AMC River East. Laura Terruso’s endearing new comedy, “About My Father,” had its long-awaited premiere in the hometown of its co-writer and star, the wildly successful comedian Sebastian Maniscalco. He stars as an Italian American character named after himself, who is eager to propose to his American girlfriend, Ellie (Leslie Bibb). But before he can receive the approval of his father, Salvo (Robert De Niro), Sebastian must allow his dad to meet Ellie’s wealthy family: her parents Bill (David Rasche) and Tigger (Kim Cattrall) along with their two eccentric sons, Doug (Brett Dier) and Lucky (Evanston native Anders Holm, who can also be seen in “The Muppets Mayhem” on Disney+). When I first spoke with Maniscalco, he took a moment to savor the incredible events of his day, which began with him and his real-life father Salvo being interviewed with De Niro by Gayle King on CBS. 

“It’s so good to be home sharing this experience with everybody,” Maniscalco told me the following afternoon at the film’s official press junket, which took place on a high floor at Chicago’s Peninsula Hotel. “Last night was great. I had my wife and my father and my mother and in-laws, as well as friends that I grew up with, all watching this film for the first time in a theater in my hometown. I used to come down here and go nightclubbing when I was in my early twenties with all of my friends. We’d also go to North Avenue Beach. I keep looking out the window here every once in a while, catching myself looking at the lake or the water tower that survived the fire. I found myself talking to people around there and asking, ‘You know what that building is?’, and they’re like, ‘We know, we’ve been here for a while.’” 

On the red carpet, I asked Maniscalco what it was about the Chicago community and its historic comedy clubs that proved to be especially formative for him. 

“Just growing up here getting ripped to shreds,” he replied. “Chicago likes to bust balls and that gives you a thick skin. I know a couple of friends in Chicago who are funnier than I am—they should’ve been comedians—and I just grew up with a fun group of people, a fun family. When people came to my house, my parents would always make them laugh.” 

Maniscalco’s answer was cut short when Bibb interrupted him, exuding faux outrage as she exclaimed, “Who told you you could wear white?!” Without missing a beat, the comedian laughed and quipped, “See? This is what I love—just getting ripped to shreds during an interview.” The film’s premise does harken back to De Niro’s comedy hit from 23 years ago, “Meet the Parents,” a fact that is not lost on its co-stars. 

“It’s a field that’s been plowed before, but it’s really heartfelt,” said Rasche. “It doesn’t make you feel like you’re being manipulated. And De Niro is just unbelievable. Working with him was like watching LeBron James or Mickey Mantle or Babe Ruth. He’s the best there is, and you just look at him and think, ‘God, how do you do that?’”

“De Niro was very present in our home,” recalled Maniscalco. “He was one of the actors in the 80s and 90s whose films I always looked forward to seeing, whether it was ‘Casino’ or ‘Heat’ with Pacino. So he definitely was a part of my upbringing, my childhood and an inspiration for me just because I really love the way that he acts. To have him playing my father decades later is something that I never thought was in the cards.”

“I went to see him in Oklahoma [where Martin Scorsese’s ‘Killers of the Flower Moon’ was being filmed] because he wanted to see me,” said Salvo, who was paired with his son for the press junket interviews. “So I flew over there and we talked about the script for three days because he is very particular about every detail, which I didn’t expect. Afterwards, he sent me a new version of the script that would correspond to his own copy of it so that when we went through it on the phone, we would be on the same page. There are a lot of phrases in the film that are in Italian, and I sent a video to him of me repeating them. I was onset when they shot the scenes in the salon, and he wanted to learn certain techniques, such as how I do highlights for a woman’s hair. So I would show him how to do it. Then he’d motion for me to step aside and he’d do it himself. That was impressive to me. He really wants to do the things his characters does, so when the time comes for him to do them on film, he knows what he’s doing.”

Anders Holm and Brett Dier in Laura Terruso’s “About My Father.” Photo Credit: Dan Anderson.

That level of commitment was shared by De Niro’s co-star Dier, who starred in one of the single funniest scenes from last year, the horrifically bad date that opened Mimi Cave’s “Fresh.” To prepare for his role as Doug, Ellie’s sibling who spends his evenings serenading his pet peacock, Dier told me that he attended sound bowl classes to study the quirks of the people who played them. Maniscalco found that this sort of preparation was essential for his own performance. 

“I have noticed that it is very hard to act, say lines and do something else at the same time,” sighed Maniscalco. “For example, driving a car and pulling the car over while talking to someone else is something that I have a hard time doing in real life, let alone when we are doing it in a film. They gave me an activity to do in the script, and I found myself becoming more concentrated on the activity than I was on the lines, so it was definitely a learning experience. I also have a problem with memorizing my lines. I have to continually say them. I know some people who can read their lines once and boom, they’re off to the races. I actually found rehearsal to be really helpful, where we’d burn through the lines a few times. It was all a lesson in filmmaking for me.”

Though the comedian is still relatively new to screen acting, he had the full confidence of his director, who co-wrote and produced Michael Showalter’s 2015 gem, “Hello, My Name Is Doris,” starring another Oscar-winner, Sally Field

“Sebastian is such a hilarious guy, but I also think he’s a movie star,” said Terruso. “He’s got real movie star looks and he can act. He can do those dramatic scenes and he pulls them off beautifully in the film. And he really trusted me. Once we established that we had a kind of connection over the material and the world and the characters, he just let me direct him. I am so excited for what’s to come from this guy because he really is a star.”

Having been a part of some of the greatest ensembles in recent television history, from “Veep” to “Succession,” Rasche said that the key to a good collaborative atmosphere onset is a “shared lunacy” that keeps everyone laughing. Both he and Cattrall told me that they were drawing on people they had closely observed in life while performing their respective characters in the film. 

“She is the sort of person who doesn’t think before she speaks, which comes from a place of self-preservation,” said Cattrall. “As an actor, it all starts from a place of empathy. You look for what they are missing or what they want, and it’s usually something that they are not getting, which is the conflict that you want to solve throughout the movie. Sebastian had no ego about the script and Laura had a lot of wonderful ideas, so we all got to collaborate, which felt really fresh and fun. When you watch the film, you can tell that we really like each other.”

“If somebody is saying lines that are funnier and better than what’s in the script you wrote, let’s have at it,” said Maniscalco. “The reason you hire actors in the first place is for them to bring their own spin to the characters, and if they want to improvise, we are totally game for it, just as long as it doesn’t screw up the storyline. In this sort of collaborative process when you’ve got a director, a cinematographer and other actors involved, you have to be open to letting people play in the sandbox and build their own castle. I definitely had a great time just playing on this movie.”

Kim Cattrall, Leslie Bibb and David Rasche in Laura Terruso’s “About My Father.” Photo Credit: Dan Anderson.

Scorsese fans will be the first to note that this is not the only time Maniscalco and De Niro have acted opposite one another. In 2019’s Best Picture nominee, “The Irishman,” Maniscalco played Crazy Joe Gallo, a notorious gangster who ends up getting memorably bumped off by De Niro’s character, Frank Sheeran. 

“A Scorsese set is such a grand production,” marveled Maniscalco. “Everything that I was involved in with that movie was just so heightened. When I walked into the courtroom scene, I was like, ‘My god, this is unbelievable.’ But the way that Scorsese spoke to me while he was directing me was extremely sweet and nice. I didn’t have a lot of experience with directors—I had nothing to compare it to, really, but I noticed how Scorsese would actually sit down with us in between scenes when they were relighting something. It would take a while, sometimes about an hour, so he’d sit and talk with us about his upbringing in New York City with his mother and his father, how he met De Niro and what have you. I applied that to ‘About My Father’ in that I wanted to make people feel at home on the set. When you are starring in a movie, you kind of have to set the tone, so I was very conscious of doing that right from the get-go.”

When I asked Maniscalco and his dad what aspects of their own experiences they were eager to have portrayed in “About My Father,” Salvo said that the film reflects his deep belief that “family is everything.” 

“I wanted to bring an immigrant experience to the screen,” said Maniscalco. “My father came here at 15 years old and he didn’t know the language. He went on to build three businesses, start a family and build a home from nothing. I really wanted to show in the film that it’s possible in America to make your dreams come true. There are people who were born here and still speak the same language who haven’t done half of what he did. I definitely took a lot of his drive and perseverance and incorporated it into my own life. I wanted to show in the movie that the father-son relationship and that dynamic between them is extremely important. I think we did a pretty good job of sprinkling humor throughout that while also tugging on people’s heartstrings. In the movie, on Ellie’s side of the family, there are two brothers who don’t do anything. One is playing sound bowls, the other is playing basically every sport known to mankind because he’s got no job. Then here I come into this movie as a working class guy who has a job at a hotel. Sometimes in these wealthier families, the roads are paved with gold. Their kids don’t have to do anything because the parents are basically giving them money, and I wanted to kind of depict that.”

“I’m not saying all wealthy families do that,” he quickly affirmed. “I am very cautious of how my kids are now growing up a lot differently than how I did. I almost have to work three times as hard to instill in them the fact that this ain’t normal, and that I had to work to get here. For example, my dad and I went to a Chicago Bulls game in 1991. We sat in the third balcony with an obstructed view. I was behind a pole watching the game, but I was just so happy to be there because I got to see Michael Jordan play. Now, we have the opportunity to sit closer, but does that mean I’m going to take my kids to the third row of an NBA basketball game? I almost want to take them up to the third balcony first. My dad and I sat courtside at a Timberwolves game when we were in Minnesota, but I had perspective because I knew where I was and where I came from. The appreciation I felt of sitting in that seat was far greater than if I just sat in the front row to begin with. I want my son and daughter to know that you’ve got to work to get to the front row. But it’s hard because I did the work and I want to enjoy the front row. Do you think I want to sit behind a pillar? So I am very cautious, but I am cautious because my dad made me cautious and hopefully I’ll be able to instill those same morals and values into my kids.”

Matt Fagerholm

Matt Fagerholm is the former Literary Editor at RogerEbert.com and is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association. 


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