While he’s carefully crafted a playful on stage persona, storytelling lies at the heart of comedian Sebastian Maniscalco’s continually evolving stand-up act.
Though he’s remained focused on the art of live performance, Maniscalco has also cast an eye upon acting, appearing in a small but well-received role in the Oscar-winning 2018 comedy-drama Green Book.
Work in The Irishman, the epic Martin Scorsese-directed gangster flick, followed a year later, providing the moment in which he’d first cross paths with legendary Academy Award-winning actor Robert De Niro (who once portrayed fledgling stand-up comic Rupert Pupkin in 1982’s The King of Comedy).
2022 brought a bigger role in Irishman co-star Ray Romano’s directorial debut Somewhere in Queens. But all the while, Maniscalco was hard at work on his starring turn, enlisting De Niro to portray his father Salvatore Maniscalco in the new Lionsgate comedy About My Father, now in theaters.
Maniscalco co-wrote the screenplay, in which he plays himself, with Austen Earl, a script which predates the film’s 2018 announcement, a labor of love for the comic that’s finally finding an audience in theaters following pandemic.
Maniscalco is the son of Italian immigrants, his parents leaving Sicily to raise the comedian in the northwest suburbs of Chicago, where he was born.
Directed by Laura Terruso, the film centers upon a clash of classes, as Maniscalco and his father Salvo head to spend a country club holiday with Sebastian’s fiancée Ellie (Leslie Bibb), her parents Tigger and Bill (Kim Cattrall, David Rasche) and siblings Lucky and Doug (Anders Holm, Brett Dier).
Themes like the importance of both acceptance and family emerge as cultures middle class and white collar do battle.
“I absolutely loved it. I read it and I immediately leapt out of my seat and said, ‘I have to direct this!’ It was the first time in my career that’s happened,” said Terruso of first reading Maniscalco’s screenplay. “And it’s because I felt so close to the material. It’s about Sebastian’s relationship with his father, who’s a Sicilian immigrant. My mother is a Sicilian immigrant. And so immediately I just felt such a closeness to the characters and the world and the story. And I knew that I could be the perfect director for it,” she said.
Earlier this month during a red carpet homecoming event at the AMC River East in Chicago, Maniscalco was joined by his wife and parents for a special screening of the film based loosely upon events in his life, a somewhat nerve wracking experience for a comedian usually able to pivot in real time based upon an audience’s reaction.
“With stand-up comedy, you can change gears really fast. You do a joke and if it don’t land, it’s like, ‘Alright. Let’s try something else,’” the comedian explained. “With this, it’s like, you’re sitting there going, ‘Oh god. It’s there. You can’t change anything now!’ So that’s been my biggest hurdle,” Maniscalco admitted. “With stand-up, it’s really immediate. But, with the movie, you don’t know whether or not it’s going to play funny until people actually see it.”
While the film is driven by relationships, the most important is that of Sebastian and his father Salvo, a hair stylist.
For De Niro, authenticity is legendarily crucial. With the level of difficulty raised amidst pandemic, De Niro was forced to approach his character in slightly unorthodox ways.
“It was crazy. We grew up watching De Niro in all of these films. And then he’s playing my dad,” said Maniscalco during a separate conversation at the end of 2021. “He wanted to get all of the nuances of my father. So he’s Zooming with him, calling him. My father went to Oklahoma to spend the weekend with him at this house that he rented there while he was shooting a movie. Then he came to the set. So to witness this…” mused the comedian, trailing off. “I just kind of was sitting there watching my dad teaching De Niro how to do [hair] highlights going, ‘Wow…’”
“I liked Salvo,” said De Niro in Chicago. “When you’re close like Sebastian and his father, he’s one way. Any little thing his father does, he reacts. I meet him in another way – a social way. And I liked him very much,” he explained. “He was very helpful with me in what I was doing in portraying him. He’s a nice guy. We could talk about things. We could talk about the script. And he was very helpful. So that’s it.”
In the new film, De Niro’s interactions as the straight man, cracking wise during humorous interactions with both Ellie’s parents and siblings, provide frequent comic relief.
“It’s different than you think it’s gonna be,” said Holm (Workaholics), who portrays Ellie’s polo shirt-clad, helicopter piloting, uppity younger brother Lucky, of working with De Niro. “You think it’s gonna be intimidating – and it is. But then you meet him and he’s just so easygoing and inviting and collaborative that you forget you’re with this icon. And you can just do your job, try and be funny and try to make him laugh.”
“The approach to the character was, ‘How do I make him eccentric but grounded – and childlike and loving at the same time? How do I do all that?’” said Dier (Jane the Virgin) of his take on Ellie’s quirky brother Doug. “Bob’s really grounded too. So seeing how grounded he was, it’s just great. I learned a lot from Bob,” he said of working alongside De Niro. “I like my character because he’s just super out there – but also kind of loving and sweet. And very odd!” said Dier with a knowing laugh. “I like odd – because I’m weird. Odd is good.”
In one of the film’s sweeter moments – albeit a brief one – De Niro and Cattrall steal the scene as they puff away together on cigars, Salvo doing a bit of styling for Tigger.
“That was really fun to film,” admitted Cattrall of the scene. “Because I didn’t really know what was going to happen. And then Bob blew a smoke ring. And I thought, ‘Well, I could do that…’ So I blew one back. So it had sort of a life of its own!”
Alongside Tigger, Rasche, most well known recently for his recurring role in HBO’s Succession, is particularly funny in his role as Ellie’s father, the interplay between him and Cattrall shining throughout the film.
“There are a couple of people in my life – rich people – and I just would always remember them! That’s what I did,” Rasche said with a laugh, noting his preparation for the role of Bill. “She’s just always there,” he continued, praising Cattrall. “She’s really fun to work with. And she’s willing to do anything. Everybody was. It was a total fun fest.”
Key to the success of About My Father is the relatable nature of the story itself, family hijinks and dysfunction anyone can relate to.
“It’s a tightly written, funny script that’s familiar – but not formulaic,” said Holm. “So you recognize all of these things in the movie and they ring true – but they don’t feel like tropes or caricatures. I just jumped at the chance to be a part of it.”
In a motion picture era where storytelling and narrative often take a backseat to the visuals of any summer blockbuster, Maniscalco and Terruso doubled down on the idea, working together to create a family friendly, story-driven film.
“I wanted to make a film that sort of hearkened back to the films that made me want to be a director,” said Terruso. “Those films of the 90s: directors like Mike Nichols, Penny Marshall – those kind of just great, character-driven stories. And I’m so grateful that we’re able to premiere this film in theaters and I hope people come out to see something where the whole family can watch it together,” she said.
“I like stories. I like movies that got a story,” added Maniscalco. “We all love the big splash movies, the John Wicks of the world or Guardians of the Galaxy. But when you’ve got a movie like this that has some heart? It’s about family! Everybody’s got a family out here and they can relate to this in some way, shape or form,” said the comedian. “So, I like that this movie is in the theaters. People can go see it with their family – and laugh as a unit. Everything is so segmented nowadays. The son is going to see an action movie. The daughter is going to see a rom-com. No one really has a movie that they can all see together. Hopefully, this will be one of those movies.”