As a comedian whose routines not only lampoon Italian stereotypes but demand larger-than-life performances of those cultural peccadilloes, Sebastian Maniscalco has carefully — if inadvertently — created a niche for himself as an actor. In 2018, in between selling out shows at Radio City Music Hall and Madison Square Garden, he took his first steps into film work with a small role in Peter Farrelly’s Oscar-winning “Green Book,” playing Johnny Venere, the fast-talking brother-in-law of Viggo Mortensen’s Nick Vallelonga.
Next up is a part in Martin Scorsese’s “The Irishman” playing “Crazy” Joe Gallo opposite Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci. But never having supplemented his standup career with acting or other industry side projects, Maniscalco seems eager to take his time exploring this new career path.
“The acting and the film stuff is something really fun and cool to do while I’m doing standup comedy,” he tells Variety. “I’m fortunate enough where I don’t have to take on roles that maybe I don’t want to, but if some things come along that I would like to be a part of and opportunities come from that, that’s great.”
While looking for Italians to populate his real-life dramedy, Farrelly says the comedian’s bona fides were emphatically evident. “We wanted real Italians, and Sebastian Maniscalco? It doesn’t get much more Italian than that,” he says.
But the filmmaker also immediately detected how Maniscalco’s comedy routines could translate into delivering a believable performance — even when others weren’t as sure. “Someone said, ‘I don’t think he’s an actor,’ and I said, ‘His whole performance is an act.’ He doesn’t just tell jokes, he’s really becoming the character up there. But what I didn’t know was how good he would be.”
He says even in the small role, Maniscalco shared an important quality in common with some of the other performers whose careers he watched — and helped — catapult to the next level. “We started realizing that this guy can do anything,” he says. “So we cut him loose and just him do whatever he wanted.
“Honestly, I know when someone’s funny and then when they are, I don’t get their way,” Farrelly continues. “Guys like Jim Carrey, Bill Murray, Lee Evans, you give those guys a lot of rope because they’re talented dudes and you want them to be able to do what they do best, which is find the fun. And he was as good as anyone, he was fantastic.”
For “Irishman,” Maniscalco landed the role of real-life New York gangster Joseph Gallo after putting himself on tape for Scorsese and his longtime producer Emma Tillinger Koskoff.
“We loved Sebastian as a comedian and knew that he had impeccable timing from his standup routines, which can translate really well into drama as well,” says Koskoff. “Once he was cast, he was extremely impressive in terms of his preparation and professionalism.”
She adds: “His first day on our set was a scene with Bob De Niro and Joe Pesci, and obviously being directed by Marty — and that has to be intimidating to anybody. But he delivered a killer performance. We had a terrific time with him on set, and I think we’ll be watching him for years to come in all sorts of roles big and small.”
Maniscalco, who is developing a film project loosely based on his own life, acknowledges that he’s neither prepared nor inclined to transform himself into another person. “The roles that I’ve gotten were kind of close in a sense to my personality. I mean in ‘Green Book,’ it’s not like I’m changing into Rain Man,” he jokes. “I’ve made specific choices in my wheelhouse where it’s been Italian-American gangster types. Do I want to do that moving forward? I’d like to grow out of stuff like that as I get better as an actor. But right now, the Daniel Day-Lewis parts right now are off in the distance.”
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