Though people who paid close attention to his work in the quieter moments of "Everybody Loves Raymond" shouldn't have been surprised that Ray Romano could act, his work on the first season of TNT's "Men of a Certain Age" still felt like a revelation. (You can find my reviews of those episodes here.) On the dramedy about three best friends struggling to deal with approaching 50, Romano worked opposite one of the all-time powerhouse actors on TV in Andre Braugher, plus a guy who's no slouch himself in Scott Bakula. Yet as anxiety-ridden, gambling-addicted party store owner Joe, it was Romano who consistently gave the show's most compelling dramatic performance. (If anything, it was "Homicide" alum Braugher getting the biggest laughs.)

The series, which Romano co-created with friend and "Raymond" writing alum Mike Royce, returns for its second season on Monday at 10 p.m. with more small but interesting stories about what you do when the best years of your life are long behind you, and Romano continues his excellent work as both star and writer. I spoke with him recently about the kinds of stories he wanted to tell this year, the strengths of his co-stars, and the point at which he accepted that he was a good actor.

When you and Mike and the other writers sat down, what stories did you want to tell for the season?

Just as a broad outline we just knew that Joe was going to pursue the senior (golf) tour and see a lot of women.  That was me. That was me every day.  In every pitch meeting, "Joe see a lot of women!"  But Joe is single, newly single, and now he’s not gambling so we knew he was going to have to deal with the urge to gamble.  He was going to have to deal with being single and trying to meet somebody.  And trying to pursue the dream of the tour.  You know, Terry (Bakula's aging Peter Pan character) was going to be in the (car) dealership and how was he going to adjust to that?  We thought maybe he’s just the opposite of Joe; where Joe’s deciding to pursue his dream, Terry decided to let go of his dream, the acting.  So how is that going to affect him?  And Owen (Braugher's character) has taken over the dealership and in this economic time, it can’t go well.  So these were the broad ideas, the broad arcs that we wanted to try to follow.

Many of these situations were set up in last year’s finale. When you guys wrote that how much did you have in mind of what a second season would entail?

No, just in the broadest sense.  I mean when that season ended, I went into the writers room and on the blank board I just wrote all these thoughts down for next season.  And even just random thoughts, you know? About the kid, you know, "The kid does this, Albert gets drunk, dah-dah-dah-dah."  We didn’t have specific things in mind until we sat down with everybody and for 2, 3, 4 weeks we just kind of grinded it all out in more specific ways and more outline episode by episode.

Obviously, you had some experience on “Raymond” about writing for yourself, but are there things you learned about over the course of the first season about the kind of material that either you played best or that Scott or Andre played best?

Yeah.  We know with Andre whenever we want to give someone a speech, with a little gravitas, give it to him.  There was one show where we could have just wrapped it up with something implied, or we could have had him actually spell it out with a speech and one of the writers - he’s not with us this year - he said, "Listen, we have Andre Braugher. Why not just give him this speech?" And he was right.  But also, Andre is good with comedy, where we didn’t even know. We had no idea.  Scott actually has this - even though he’s kind of sure of himself, what we’re learning this year is - some nice vulnerable moments, where this side of him comes out that he really knows how to play and just walk the line.  And I learned, and I think it’s because of you, I think you had this conversation with Mike - I had said "I don't want to hear or feel Ray Barone in anything I do," and there was a moment where I had a debate with Mike about whether to cut something because it’s too Ray Barone.  And he said no, we leave it in.  And then you, I think…do you remember this?

Yeah, I do.  Mike told me that I found it funny and not Ray-like, and so he used that as ammo against you.

Yeah.  So then it was a whole week of "I told you so."  But I don’t know, I’m just happy to try anything.  I have trouble with anger - with acting anger.  Of all the things I mostly worry about how I’m going to organically do it, it’s whenever Joe gets angry.  So that’s what I kind of need to work on.

Well, you’ve been doing this awhile now and even when “Raymond” started, you’d been doing some acting at that point.  What kind of work do you do on your craft exactly?

Well, you know Andre’s Julliard-trained.  I don’t want to sound actory or whatever but, and I’m only going by "I heard this works," but I did write a whole back-story for this guy, before we started last year. And I did this on a film, a couple films I did, I wrote a back-story like about a 4 or 5 page thing of how this guy got to where he is and I read it and pictured this guy and I built this guy up in my head and it helps.  It feels organic and it feels like it’s not a far stretch from me or from Ray Barone or whatever.  He’s his own guy, you know?  It helps to just imagine this guy and imagine his past and it may be subtle, it may be just in my own head but I feel that’s what works for me.  That’s about as deep as I get right there is go there.  And then when there’s a pretty heavy scene and I need to summon up some crap, I do.  Some scenes you can just kind of start on a dime, and there’s other scenes I needed to be by myself and kind of drum up this feeling of this circumstance where this guy was, you know?  I don’t know, it seems to work.  I don’t get too crazy about it, but it seems to work for me.

("Raymond" creator) Phil Rosenthal loves to tell the story about the time when you realized you had to drink coffee on-screen.

Yeah, yeah, yeah.

At what point in your career of doing this did you start to feel like, "All right, now I am an actor.  I’m not just putting my standup in front of an audience?"

Oh boy, I don’t know.  If I think of myself as a comedian, as a comedian you never think you have it.  It’s kind of that you’ve got two things going at once.  You know you’re good but you also think you suck. As an actor, I don’t know.  I did a film that nobody saw called, “The Last Word” and I played a character that, first of all he wasn’t from the East coast, so I actually went to a speech coach to try to lose the New York in my diction.  And I kind of liked it.  I kind of felt like I was inhabiting this guy.  So I don’t know - maybe it was there.  It was right towards the end of “Raymond” when I did this independent film.  And the director recommended I go to a speech coach and he recommended I watch “Amadeus” because he thought the character had a lot going on that was similar. I forget the character’s name. Not Amadeus...

Salieri

His nemesis, yeah.  And I felt, "All right, I feel like I’m acting now."

Have there been points in your career where you’ve been working opposite somebody like Andre or Gene Hackman (on "Welcome to Mooseport") where you’ve had to say to yourself, "Wow, I’m doing the same thing this guy does?"  Or are you past that now?

Well, I was very intimidated by Gene Hackman, of course.  And after a couple days, we became movie buddies.  But yeah, I hate to say this, because I don’t want to jinx anything, but when I feel it’s organic and I’m confident, I’m not intimidated. You know where I get intimidated now?  Just meeting people.  Like, if a director wants to meet me for a film or whatever, that’s the most intimidating thing for me.  When I have to sit there and talk to him and pretend like I’m smart.  Acting-wise for now, at least with this show, I feel comfortable.  And like I say, there are still moments and still scenes where I’m like, "Wow, I’m going to have to get this scene because it’s something I’ve never done before."  But I like the challenge of it.  I'm scared of failing at it, but I like the challenge.  With Andre, initially I was intimidated by him but it goes away once they yell "Action." I feel like I just slip into this guy. I don’t want to say I’m on the same level as (Andre) because I’m not but I pretend I am. 

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at sepinwall@hitfix.com

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