Green Book actor Sebastian Maniscalco on his new Netflix special, breaking into the movie business
Despite his monster last few months, Sebastian Maniscalco is staying hungry.
Currently riding the wave of Green Book‘s awards season run, the comedian-turned-actor is about to experience the biggest week of his career. On Tuesday, Maniscalco’s latest stand-up special Stay Hungry will be released on Netflix, followed by four sold-out shows at Madison Square Garden on Jan. 19 and 20. His continued success in the comedy world comes as he’s breaking into the movie business. After brief appearances in The House and Tag, he scored his largest acting role yet opposite Viggo Mortensen in Green Book, this year’s Golden Globe winner for Best Motion Picture – Comedy or Musical. And his next acting gig is even juicier as he stars as real-life gangster “Crazy Joe” Gallo in Martin Scorsese’s The Irishmen, which is headlined by Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, and Joe Pesci.
Ahead of his big week, EW chatted with Maniscalco about all the emotions he’s dealing with, avoiding politics in his comedy, and the surreal experience of going head-to-head with Robert De Niro.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: This is a huge time for you, so how are you feeling?
SEBASTIAN MANISCALCO: It kind of all just hit me this week. It’s one of those things that has been on the calendar for a while and I haven’t paid much attention to it, just because I’ve been doing other gigs and family obligations, holidays, what have you. But this week, I’m going, “Damn, there’s a lot going on next week!” And it’s culminating in Madison Square Garden with four shows. So yeah, it’s all a lot of different emotions: excitement, anxiety, happiness. It’s all that in one.
Crafting an hour-long special is not something that happens overnight, so what was the process like developing the material and fine-tuning it?
For me, I never want to rush a stand-up special just to do one. It’s one of those things where you’ve worked on the act time in, time out, you’ve done it in small comedy clubs, done it in theaters. Then there’s a feeling of, “Okay, this is ready to be documented and shot.” With my material, it generally derives from a real place and real-life experiences, whether it’s me being a new father or my relationships with my wife or my father and how life seems to give us all these different experiences. I just take those experiences and translate them to the stage. So material has never been something that I’ve had to struggle with. Yeah, there’s times where you’re trying to find the funny in things and it’s just not there, but with all my specials, once they come out, I still do that act when I tour but I also do new stuff that I’ve been working on. I shot this thing in May, so obviously since then I have a lot of material that I’m going to be doing in addition to stuff you see on the special. You kind of get the best of both worlds. You don’t know who has seen what and who has been to a show, so you have to give them a little bit of old, a little bit of new and hopefully you’re hitting everyone’s taste points. But I’m really not doing the act for anybody but me. If I think it’s funny, then I believe that the audience will also enjoy it.
Your special definitely focuses on your daily life and observations, staying away from things like politics, which has seemed to seep its way into comedy. Is your stance just that people sometimes want to get away from that and hear some funny jokes?
I’ve always loved the type of humor where it’s relatable, and I can be sitting in the audience and go, “Oh my god, I’ve done that or I’ve seen that and I’ve never thought of it that way before.” Those to me are the best jokes. I stay away from politics. I’m not passionate about it and I don’t think people are coming to a comedy show wanting to hear about politics after getting beaten over the head with it everywhere else in their life. I think people are actually tired of it and a great majority just want to go out and laugh and forget about their problems. And if I can do that by talking about my family and observations, then I’ve won.
Like you said, your big week is culminating in Madison Square Garden. That’s got to be exciting after years working the comedy club scene to now have four sold out shows at this mecca. What does it mean to you to be able to get this opportunity?
New York has always been a great market for me, I started at Gotham Comedy Club and subsequently shot specials at the Beacon Theatre and Radio City Music Hall, and now reaching Madison Square Garden is the pinnacle. It’s the most famous arena in the world and here I am doing four shows there. And to be honest, I’m looking at this as, I don’t want to say just another show, but I’ve done arenas before, I know what to expect. But I will definitely be a lot more anxiety-ridden because of the magnitude of the shows and who is coming to the shows. Once I’m onstage, I’m the most comfortable. It’s just the stuff leading up to it that is a lot to take.
As you have all these great things happening for you in the stand-up world, you’re in the middle of Green Book‘s successful awards season run. Especially being new to acting, what has that experience been like?
The movie business is something that is very new for me; I’ve had just a handful of small roles. I hadn’t really had a role to sink my teeth into and then this opportunity reared its head. I went in for the audition and really related to the material. And after talking to the family and hearing about the character’s personality, I thought that I could really make this work. I don’t know what to expect on a movie set. I don’t know if the movie is good or not, I’m just there having fun with it. I had no idea that it was going to be this well-received. After I saw the movie in its entirety, I was really blown away. It’s been fantastic to see the movie resonating with people and getting calls from back home. My dad is really having a ball with it. He’s a proud father but also my biggest critic. When these things come out, I don’t know what to expect from my family, because they’re not shy to tell me that I sucked. If my father doesn’t mention it, then I know he didn’t like it [laughs]. But when he saw the movie, he was like, “Oh my god, it was unbelievable.”
For someone new to the movie business, you’re getting some big-time opportunities. Next up for you is The Irishman, which is about as big as you can get with Martin Scorsese, Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, and Joe Pesci. That had to be pretty surreal.
To get the role, I was given the option to fly to New York to read for the role or to send a tape. I opted to spend my own money and fly out to do the audition, because I felt like it’s always nice to meet someone in person and they might like you. I walked in and the casting director told me that I was looking really good for the movie because Martin had liked my stand-up and a role I did in this movie Cruise. All you have to tell is I’m looking good for it and I sabotage it. If you tell me that I’ve already got it then I fall apart. I just didn’t feel good about the audition. Sure enough, they gave me some notes and another chance. The second time went much better and he liked me but not for the part I originally read for, instead a different part, which is what he eventually gave me. So it was a process to get it and then, boom, first day I’m doing a scene with De Niro and Pesci. I grew up watching these guys and then next thing you know I’m going head-to-head with Robert De Niro in a scene at the Copacabana. It’s like, “Is this happening?” So the two movies that I’ve been fortunate enough to get in Green Book and The Irishman is stuff that working actors would probably cut off their right arm to be in, so I never take it for granted.