Sometime during 2006, I was asked to moderate a couple Q&A screenings of the documentary Wild West Comedy Show: 30 Days and 30 Nights – Hollywood to the Heartland, a road film that followed actor Vince Vaughn and four hand-picked, rising stand-up comedians who went on a a nationwide tour together. One of the screenings was at my alma mater Northwestern University with comics Ahmed Ahmed and John Caparulo. A couple days later, I hosted another event at the Apple Store on Michigan Ave. (at the old location just up the street from the current one), with a virtual unknown named Sebastian Maniscalco, who was actually from Chicago. The screening was after hours, so the only people in the store were those in the small-ish screening room at the back of the facility. For some reason, Maniscalco showed up before the screening, helped introduce the film, and then the two of us sat in the Genius Bar for two hours while the audience yucked it up as the movie played.
During our talk, he told me a joke he was working on that I thought was hilarious (I wish I could remember it), and during the portion of the Q&A when we hit upon the topic of joke writing and testing out and fine-tuning jokes in smaller clubs, I said, “Hey, tell these people that joke you just told me.” He froze for a few seconds, then dipped his head like he was going into a trance, then popped his head back up and launched not into a telling of the joke, but into a full-fledged performance of it. If you’ve ever seen one of Maniscalco’s many stand-up specials, you know he uses the whole stage; he moves around and throws the entirely of his body into telling any funny story, often about his parents, his wife and kids, whatever. As he performed this new joke, I stepped away from him to give him space to maneuver, and I realized he was ramping up to launch into the joke he had simply told me earlier.
From that moment, I realized two things: that this man was a performer and not simply a joke teller, and that he might one day make a terrific actor. And then more than 10 years went by, and Maniscalco became one of the top-selling comics in the country, selling out arenas and releasing several stand-up specials on Showtime and Netflix. But it wasn’t until 2018 that he really started showing up as an actor, mostly in strong, noticeable supporting parts in movies like Tag, Green Book, and most memorably in Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman. In recent months, he hit with a string of great performances in Ray Romano’s Somewhere in Queens, the abysmal Spinning Gold (in which he plays producer Giorgio Moroder), and even as the voice of Spike in The Super Mario Bros. Movie.
But with About My Father, Maniscalco tackles his first leading role, in a film he also co-wrote (with Austen Earl). In it, he plays a hotel manager named “Sebastian Maniscalco,” living in Chicago with his girlfriend Ellie (Lesline Bibb), to whom he’s planning to pop the question. Like the real man, Sebastian the character is close to his Italian immigrant father Salvo (his father’s real name, played by Robert De Niro). When Sebastian tells his father that he is going to propose to his all-American girlfriend, Salvo insists on crashing a 4th of July weekend with her parents (Kim Cattrall, David Rasche), where this proposal is meant to happen. The film is part culture-clash comedy, part more emotionally driven father-son story about a dad afraid of losing the bond he has with his son.
I got a chance to sit down with both Sebastian and Salvo Maniscalco recently during their press tour stop in Chicago, and we talked about the transition from stand-up routine to the big screen, how true-to-life the film gets at times, and Salvo’s time hanging out with De Niro on the set of the new Scorsese film. Please enjoy our conversation…
A lot of times when people write a film that is somewhat biographical, they change the names slightly, maybe make it close to their real name, but not often exactly the same like you’ve done here. This may lead some people to believe this is pretty close to a factual story. Why did you choose to do that? And Salvo, did you actually kill a peacock?
Sebastian Maniscalco: I never really thought about using a different name because I was going into this playing myself, so I felt the names fit the characters. It’s a good question, but I never really thought of changing the names. It was a story that was very personal to me; I wanted to tell a story about my father that was not for the stage—because I talk a lot about him on stage—and our relationship is a little deeper than what I talk about in my stand-up routine. I felt a movie would better explain the relationship between a father and son. I’ll him him answer…
Salvo Maniscalco: About the killing? [Everybody laughs] No, I did not.
Did something like this event happen, where you brought your father to meet the future in-laws?
Sebastian: No, there was no ring, none of that. But what does happen is I do go up every year for the 4th of July to North Carolina to visit my wife’s family. And yes, they live in a gated community on a golf course, with large homes. They dress up on the 4th, they’ve got the American flags, the fireworks, the whole thing. So as I’m sitting there year after year, I’m going “I have to do something here, write something. There’s too much comedy here not to share with the world.” So that’s where the idea came from of meshing these two worlds.
Actually, the feelings he’s feeling toward the family are my feelings; he’s never been there. So I just gave him my point of view in the movie. We’re seeing the family through his eyes in the movie, but it’s actually my thoughts. We manipulated the script in ways where some of it’s true, some of it’s not. The pants coming down during jet-booting is made up.
Why did you change your profession to hotel manager? I could see this family having issues with you being a stand-up, but they’re in the hotel business, so they have the utmost respect for what you do.
Sebastian: I never thought of doing a version of me as a stand-up. The reason I chose being the manager of a hotel because if I wasn’t a stand-up, that’s what I’d be doing. I’d be in the hospitality business in some way, shape or form. I used to work for the Four Seasons Hotel for seven years. That was a version of me, just not the current version.
Let’s talk about approaching Robert De Niro to be in this. Did you go through usual professional channels, or did you make a more personal, impassioned plea for him to take this role?
Sebastian: No, I didn’t have that relationship with him, although we did work on The Irishman together, and he came to a show I did at Radio City and came backstage and said “Hello.” I just didn’t have the man’s number or that relationship with him. Robert De Niro is a man of few words and hard to penetrate and get to know, so it wasn’t like a fast friendship, so we used the proper channels. Paul Weitz, who was a producer on this film, worked with him on two previous film, and he gave him the script. Robert knew the script was about my life; he knew me well enough to know that, and that’s how it all happened. I didn’t call the guy on a Sunday and say “Hey, we’re doing this.”
Salvo, knowing De Niro’s process, I’m assuming he wanted to meet you. What do you remember about that first meeting?
Salvo: He was in Oklahoma filming another another movie with Scorsese [Killers of the Flower Moon], so he wanted to see me. I went down there for three days. His driver picked me up, and he drove me to where his residence was, and the driver started talking and he kept mentioning Bob, Bob, Bob. And I’m thinking “Who the heck is Bob?”, so I asked him, and he said, “Well, that’s what Mr. De Niro likes to be called. Bob.”
So I met him and right away he wanted to sit down and go over the script, and we worked for most of the afternoon, and we got done, they gave me lunch, and then he said, “I’ll see you tomorrow.” So I went back to the hotel and got a call from him saying he was in the town—I think it was Tulsa, I’m not sure—and wanted to meet again. I didn’t pick up the phone at first, so he left me a message. But when I talked to him, he said, “I’m in town, I’ll come pick you up, maybe I’ll take you to the house and discuss some more.” And I’m thinking “This guy really wants to know me, he’s so particular.” It was interesting spending three days with him.
Sebastian, were you at all nervous about this meeting, either for your father or De Niro?
Sebastian: [laughs] I don’t know if I was nervous. I was more curious about what these two guys are going to talk about. Maybe, and correct me if I’m wrong, [to Salvo] I don’t think you thought you were going to get there and go to work right away. I think he thought it was going to be more like sitting down, have a glass of wine, get to know one another on a personal level. It was more like “Sit down. How do you say this in Italian?”
Salvo: He was taking notes. They told me “He wants to have dinner with you.” So I’m thinking we’re going to talk a little bit. Instead, it was three days of intense script analysis [laughs].
There are a few layers to this story, some of which are a little more serious than others. I like the idea that when you’re confronted with this other family for whom money doesn’t really have value to them, at least not in the same way it does to your family, it makes both of your characters insecure about how much they had growing up. It’s more vulnerable than I was expecting. Can you talk more about that aspect of the story?
Sebastian: Money, growing up in our house, we’re still very cautious spending money and what to spend money on. It’s gotten so [laughs], the topic of money comes up a lot with him and I, and sitting here working my ass off, right? And my whole struggle, coming from where I come from, we weren’t poor or rich, just middle class, but we didn’t overspend. My father and mother were very cautious about what we spent money on, so I still have in my blood; it’s burned into my soul.
Now that I have money to spend, I don’t know what the hell is enough. I knew back then, if I went out and got a nice dinner, probably not going to be doing that again for another 8-9 weeks. But you work your whole life, and my dad was like “Should I go to Italy this year?” He’s 76, go to Italy. Next year you might be in a wheelchair and can’t do nothing. So why not enjoy life while you can, rather than wait for some magical number to do it all. “I’m going to retire at 75 and then to it all.” So he gave me this book, Die With Zero, and the book explains how you should die with no money in the bank. He’s coming out with a new book called Living With Zero [laughs].
The other thing this film is is a love story. And we have to remember that the whole reason this is happening and that you’re willing to even contemplate changing your thoughts about these people is because you’re in love. Talk about working with Leslie Bibb and selling this love story.
Sebastian: The love story is a big component of the movie because it’s a new family, a new chapter in my life, my father feels like he’s losing me. He lost his wife, and now he’s going to lose his son to this family. Leslie was phenomenal to work with, and she really guided me. I leaned on her a lot in a couple scenes in this. There’s a scene in the treehouse, which is very climactic in the movie, and she was very helpful in guiding me through these moments. I’m not a seasoned actor by any means, and I always rely on other actors who’ve done this time and time again.
Being from here, when you look at your life and career, what remains the most Chicago thing about you?
Sebastian: God, number one, the accent alone. Talking to people from Chicago, you can tell right away. There’s a word that Chicagoans often use: Actually. There are a lot of people around here that use that word, and as soon as I hear it, I know someone is from Chicago. Chicago is deep in me. We rip each other to shreds out here. Last night, I don’t know how many times I got made fun of for wearing an all-white suit. My friends were like “What are you doin’? What’s going on?” You don’t get a big head where I’m from.
You also have the work ethic of a Chicagoan. You don’t stop working.
Sebastian: Yeah, I’ve gotta stop. It’s a disease.
Great to see you again. Best of luck with the film.
Sebastian: Thanks so much.
Salvo: Nice meeting you.
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