We need our family—we need others. We can’t do it alone. We lived through [the pandemic] for three years. It was wild.
Photography by Alexandra Arnold
Styling by Andrew Gelwicks
Hair by Ben Skervin
Makeup by Rebecca Restrepo
Stand-up sensation Sebastian Maniscalco has by now made a career out of poking fun at his family in his sold-out arena shows nationwide. In particular, by zeroing in on the Old World ways of Salvatore, his endearing Sicilian immigrant father who found his footing in America in the 1960s as a hairdresser in Arlington Heights, Illinois, a stone’s throw from downtown Chicago. The family dinners. Salvo’s unique methods of rodent control, and his Internet struggles. A man of a different generation and culture, and on the receiving end of Sebastian’s pleas growing up to “dial down the Italiano,” it’s a set-up that’s ripe for a big screen comedy expansion. That is precisely what’s on offer in Laura Terruso’s About My Father, which was co-written by Maniscalco and Austen Earl.
An auto-biopic with an inevitable dose of Hollywood plot-twisting, About My Father harkens back to the classic comedies of the early 2000s such as My Big Fat Greek Wedding and Meet the Parents. The film centers on a younger Sebastian’s mission to propose to his future wife, Ellie (Leslie Bibb)—an approximation of Maniscalco and Earl’s real-life partners—but first needing to find a way to introduce larger-than-life Salvo (Robert De Niro) to her well-to-do family over a Fourth of July weekend at their palatial estate. This includes Sebastian’s soon-to-be in-laws: father Bill (David Rasche) and politician mother Tigger (Kim Cattrall). Naturally, despite Ellie’s clan welcoming Salvo with open arms, nothing will stop this group holiday from devolving into chaos.
Anthem sat down with Bibb for a conversation about comedy and life in our post-pandemic world.
About My Father is now playing in theaters everywhere.
I saw your appearance on Watch What Happens Live last night. Is it an enjoyable show to do?
It’s a really relaxed environment. Sometimes I can get very nervous doing a nighttime talk show. It can be scary. When I did [David] Letterman, I remember walking out and my hands were shaking. Andy [Cohen] walks into your dressing room and he’s just so lovely. It’s really fun. I wasn’t nervous at all. The audience is so excited to be there, and it feels like there’s support. Other times, it can feel like they’re setting you up: “Let me see if I can get something for clickbait.” And I love those Housewives shows. They’re like candy to me. They help my brain relax. Sometimes I steal stuff for characters from them. Reality television is kinda fun for stealing ideas for a character.
You have a great one in About My Father. You’re so fun in this. I’m a fan of the genre as well.
I love this genre, too. They don’t make a lot of movies like this anymore. And it’s an Italian American story, but it also feels like a universal story about family—the importance of family.
There’s that quote in the movie: family isn’t one important thing, it’s everything.
Right! Sebastian [Maniscalco] says that. And as corny as that sounds, that reminder is really important, especially after the pandemic where we were isolated. I mean, I still see videos of people where they’re like, “I’m seeing my grandfather for the first time in three years” or “My child is meeting their grandmother for the first time in three years.” That just kills me. Coming out of isolation, there’s PTSD, having gone without your friends and your blood or chosen families. Both of my parents have passed away, but my relationship with my sisters is very important to me. My friends are my family as well. It’s about that need for them. We are all crazy! [laughs] We’re all bananas. We’re just finding our way through it. It’s better to do that together than solo.
When you arrived on set and started working on this movie, did it feel like you were back to pre-pandemic conditions? Do you think we’ve lost anything that we’re just not getting back?
That’s a great question. I met Laura [Terruso] in 2020 in New York City. It was a scary time. The pandemic sucker-punched us. It was also the first time I’d gotten to spend six straight months with my partner [Sam Rockwell]. We were lucky enough to get a place upstate and found a silver lining in it. Then in 2021, I got a job that shot in Australia: God’s Favorite Idiot with Melissa McCarthy.
In which you played Satan, of all things.
Yes! And I literally went to a country that hadn’t had one case of Covid. Then the day I left Australia, they shut down. It was a very weird thing. When I came back to America, it was the summer of 2021 and things were starting to open up. Then a lot of cases were restarting again, right before Omicron sort of hit, right around the time we started filming About My Father. The protocols the studios had in place were still pretty stringent. I couldn’t leave to go see Sam in London and he couldn’t leave his production to come visit me in Mobile, Alabama if he had a day off. There were no visitors allowed on set. Anytime you shoot on location, if you have nice people in your cast and crew—no assholes!—you’re gonna have a pretty good time. A lot of our crew was shipped in from Texas, Georgia, Florida, LA, and New Orleans because there aren’t a lot of local film crews in Mobile. We were all hunkered down together. We were shooting with Bob [De Niro], we had a timeline, and Sebastian had to leave so nobody could get Covid. All of our scenes were with the family—seven people and some peacocks and a dog—so we couldn’t get sick. We couldn’t lose our director. We were in it together and we really became this family. At the same time, there aren’t stories like, “We went to dinner this night, and we got to do that other thing.” Sebastian and I took it pretty seriously. We went to work, came home, and went to bed.
Looking back, I don’t think you missed anything. The weird thing that actually happened is, because we were all sequestered together in this tight pod, I think that added to the belief in us as a family. Every time I see Kim [Cattrall] and David [Rasche] and Anders [Holm] and Brett [Dier] on that screen with me or on the screen together without me, I believe that we’re a family. When I see Bob and Sebastian together, I believe that they’re a family. There was an intimacy that was created because of the pandemic, because we were all in it together. There was this thing that we had to go do and you weren’t messing around because there was this threat and you didn’t have any time to lose. So, in a weird way, it actually helped the story. Sometimes when you’re filming a movie, you’re like, “Oh, this feels good. That felt like a good day at work. That felt solid. This is fun. These people are nice,” and it just doesn’t translate to the screen. There’s an adage that if a movie is really fun to make, the end product will just go sideways. I remember sitting in a screening room with Sam and one of our best friends, who’s Italian, watching this movie. The movie ends and my friend stands up and screams, “We’re bringing Italians back!” I laughed. I looked at Sam like, “That was good, right?” and he goes, “Baby, that was really good.” We left and we all talked about it. I called my agent and I was like, “I’m about to have a conversation I’ve never had with you. I really loved the movie.” He’s like, “You never say that!” [laughs] I hate watching myself. I’m always cringing like, “You fucked up that moment” or “I should have done that instead.” I was so proud of everybody. Brett, Sebastian, Bob, David, Kim—everybody did a great job. I’m really proud of it and I never say that. I’ve seen the movie a couple times now and I enjoy it every time.
Let’s talk about Ellie. She’s that personality we all know with an indomitable spirit.
Wait, I love that: “indomitable spirit.” I’m gonna steal that from you.
Really, nothing will get her down. I’m always secretly envious of those happy-go-lucky types.
I’m with you. I want to be that person. Ellie is sort of an amalgam of Lana, Sebastian’s now-wife, and the wife of the other writer, Austen [Earl], which I hadn’t realized because he wasn’t around as much. At the premiere, Austen said, “I wanna introduce you to my wife. She is our version of Ellie, too.” I was like, “Oh, wow!” Sebastian said he and Austen would sit around talking: “We kind of married up. We married these women who come from more affluent families. They go to Aspen for ski trips—stuff like that.” [laughs] I met Sebastian on Tag. He married me and Jeremy Renner in that movie. Jeremy is a very good friend of mine. He’s like a brother to me. Anyway, when that movie was coming out, we all went back to Renner’s house after the premiere to have like an after-afterparty. That’s the first time I met Lana briefly, saying hello. I remember being struck by the yin and yang sort of connection they had. She was bright and bubbly, and Sebastian was, you know, more reserved and quiet. They had a chemistry that I could just steal from. When About My Father came around and I did my chemistry read with Sebastian, I knew that I would try and find that. The minute we started reading with each other, I think I made him laugh and then it just became easy. We naturally have very good chemistry. We really trusted each other, especially when we were filming. He was a great partner in crime and a great support for me. Whatever I felt like Ellie would be or do, he was in full support of that, as was our director, Laura. Again, like how you feel, I wish I had a little bit of Ellie. She’s very glass half-full. I think she has a curiosity and a “hell yes!” attitude that I wish I had more of, too. I’m envious of people with that indomitable spirit who, when they get kicked down, get right back up. I also love that you have this woman who comes from money, who has parents who wanna steal her lessons—“we’ll give you everything you need”—and she’s still like, “No, no, no. I like my life.” Sebastian and Ellie are, in a way, two halves of a whole. He buoys her in the places she needs to be buoyed, and vice versa.
There’s a sort of blink-and-you-missed-it moment that totally sold me on your character: it’s Ellie’s peacock walk on the drive to her parents’ house. That’s her. I loved her immediately.
[laughs] Thank you!
How does a moment like that come together?
So, this movie wasn’t easy to film because we filmed in Mobile, the rainiest city in America, right?
Really? I didn’t know that about Mobile.
Mobile, Alabama! We were shooting on a very tight schedule. Sebastian and I did all of the house stuff in the beginning, and we would get shut down because of lightening strikes. Lightening strikes happen a lot in the South, and if you’re shooting in New Orleans, for example, if there is a thunderstorm and lightning within three miles of you, even though it may not be raining where you are, you have to shut down for 30 minutes. And if lightening strikes again within those 30 minutes, the clock resets. So you can have two-hour wait times and the studio isn’t gonna be like, “Let’s add that to the rest of your day.” No. They’re like, “That’s your loss. You have to fill it.” I remember Laura would be like, “Lightening strikes?!” Then the car would screw up. Things were just happening. I would come to work and I’d be like, “What happened today?” and Sebastian would be like, “Cursed. We are cursed!” [laughs] When we had to film with the peacocks, they were molting and some of them were white. I guess there’s a season with peacocks where they’re the most beautiful or something. Laura was like, “We need that.” We were trying to get the peacocks on this road and we’d already lost a bunch of stuff at the beginning of the day. We’re just trying to get this shot—trying to get something. Maybe I was supposed to get out of the car in that scene, but I wasn’t supposed to do what I ended up doing. We pulled up in the car and I’m like Sergeant Feathers or something, right? I’m even in the wrong shoes. I think the reason I got out of the car is because the peacocks were starting to stray the wrong way. I didn’t even realize I was doing that dance. That was just me being like, “Stay in line! Just stay in the frame!” [laughs] Because the DP had said, “They have to walk on this line.” I mean, how do you wrangle peacocks? So it was like a happy accident and it worked. I’m really glad that happened. It’s a cute moment in the film.
Sometimes I’m glad that I don’t edit myself, you know? Because maybe Bob could be like, “What is that crazy girl doing?” [laughs] You trust your instincts. There were places to improvise, even though I think the movie was really well-written. I know Laura also worked on the script as well. Sebastian and Austen wrote it, but Laura also did passes. I’ve been struck a lot of times in Hollywood where you have movies with female characters that aren’t fleshed out or just surface-level. I feel like both my character and Kim Cattrall’s character, Tigger, are really fabulous to play. Honestly, with Satan or Ricky Bobby’s wife [opposite Will Farrell in Talladega Nights] or a crazy gold digger, I’m usually getting to play something a little left of center. I’m attracted to them ‘cause they’re fun and they score. But with this character, I was really interested in playing a person where I didn’t have anything to hide behind. I didn’t have a crazy wig or crazy wardrobe. I could sort of look like Leslie and create this woman without having anything to really shield me.
You’ve done your share of comedies. Your first film was Private Parts. Is this your genre?
Listen, I like working. I’m an actor. I love what I get to do for a living. I just love it. I love movies, theater, TV—I love it all. Good writing is what I like. I like a good character. I’m keen on working with great directors, actors, and writers. A great experience is what I look for. I have gotten really lucky to work with some comedic geniuses. I don’t wanna sound like an arrogant person saying this, but Will Farrell is a genius. Adam McKay is a genius. I just worked with Kristen Wiig and she’s a genius. Carol Burnett is a genius. Allison Janney is a genius. Melissa McCarthy is a genius. I feel so lucky in the comedy world to even share any screen time with these people. I try to be a sponge and just absorb it all, and say yes because the tenet of improv is to always say yes, right?
That’s something I learned fairly recently, actually. I was listening to Adam Carolla’s podcast where he talked about this. That, in improv, you never negate things—“that’s dumb!” or whatever it is—because then you’re not advancing anything. You should lift your partner up.
Exactly. Don’t shut it down. It’s always, “Yes, and—” I didn’t know this until Molly Shannon said that to me on Talladega. She asked me if I came from The Groundlings and I said, “No, I studied acting in New York.” But [William Esper Studio] is essentially about listening and responding honestly in the moment. That’s, you know, one of the major tenets of Meisner. Comedy is someplace where I feel very safe, and if I connect with the character, it’s a sweet spot for me. But I love everything. I wouldn’t trade my experience on Iron Man for anything and that wasn’t comedy. I wouldn’t trade getting to work with Jamie Foxx and Gerard Butler on Law Abiding Citizen, or with [the film’s director] F. Gary Gray. I loved The Italian Job so I was so excited to do that movie when they cast me. So I don’t know if comedy is my favorite genre, but it’s a very easy spot. With About My Father, it’s like, “I got to work with Bob!” To even be able to call him Bob, and to hug him and not get arrested, is incredible. [laughs] To be sort of friends with him is really exciting. He’s very generous. Bob and I went to see Sam’s play [American Buffalo] together, and we also all went to dinner with Laurence Fishburne ‘cause he was in the play with Sam. And I’d worked with Laurence before as well [on Running with the Devil]. They just gave me really special advice and it changed my whole experience. I’m sort of gobsmacked by that. It’s like, “Mercury, please don’t go into retrograde! Please keep this going as long as possible.” And, of course, I’m so excited that movies are back. Sammy and I go to the movies all the time. When I went to see Renfield with Sam in the theater, he went, “Look, baby, there’s the poster.” I walked up and looked down and it says, “Sebastian Maniscalco, Robert De Niro, and Leslie Bibb.” I mean, I could cry here right now.
I think it’s so key to chase experiences. The end product is just gonna be what it’s gonna be.
Exactly. That’s the most amazing thing. I’m not in the editing room. I can’t decide. Do you think they care if I’m like, “Well, I was really good in take three”? [laughs] You can’t stick the landing in every job, so you’re just building. The character I played in Confessions of a Shopaholic was sort of the foundation for playing Satan. There was something in there that I was starting to dance with. Then when God’s Favorite Idiot came around, I got to do it in a more realized way. Ben Falcone wrote this incredible character, right? I’m so proud of that work. You’re just always getting better at your swing. Now I’m making a baseball reference and I’m not even a baseball person… You take chances. I wanna stay curious. That’s something I really love about Bob, too. Raging Bull, Deer Hunter, Meet the Parents, Midnight Run—he’s done everything. He could be resting on his laurels, but he doesn’t do that. He comes in and makes sure that the rehearsal process happens. He makes sure that it’s a closed set so the actors feel like they can create something. He’s always asking, “Could this be funnier? Does this read on camera? Do we have a through line?” That was really cool to watch. That guy, at 79, isn’t phoning it in. He doesn’t treat it like a money job.
On my end of things, I’m always just trying to complete the whole picture of a person. With someone like Robert De Niro, who I have yet to interview, I don’t just admire him as an actor. Tribeca is coming up again and I’m reminded that he co-founded the festival to bring people back downtown after 9/11. I have a better sense of who you are now, too, and I love that.
Totally! I just don’t wanna get jaded. I remember something my old therapist said to me once. It’s so corny, but: a miracle is just a shift in perspective. I know it sounds dumb, but it’s true. It’s so easy to complain about stuff. The world is rough and things can be unjust, so you go, “There’s no hope. We’re sinking.” Some days, I look at a group of kids running towards me and I’m like, “Oh god, maybe I should’ve had children.” [laughs] Or, I can say, “It is what it is.” I’m trying to work on that as Leslie ‘cause the optimistic thing doesn’t always come easy for me. My sister and I also both always talk about being perfectionists. That’s something I wanna work on as well, especially with my acting. Holly Hunter once said something—maybe in a Sam Jones interview or maybe to my partner Sam—that struck me. Gena Rowlands had told her, “If you’re at work and you’re off, don’t talk about it. Don’t expend that energy. Keep it for later. If you miss a moment in a scene, try to find it elsewhere in the script where you can place that moment. Use it as fuel somewhere else.”
I would take that to heart. It’s that whole thing: if someone’s that good at what they do, who am I to question it? And it’s funny you bring her up because I watched Copycat last week.
Oh my god, how good is she and Sigourney Weaver in that? And when [Harry Connick, Jr.] says, “Your panties! Your squirrel covers!” My sister and I call underwear squirrel covers because of that movie. [laughs] Speaking of Copycat, my scripts apparently look like serial killer scripts. People usually tease me about it. They’ll be like, “Are you kidding me with this script? What’s happening?” I have notes scribbled all over them, to the point where I’m Son of Sam apparently. But that advice from Holly really resonates: if you happen to miss a moment, not all is lost. I applied that thinking on the new Apple show [Palm Royale] that I did with Kristen Wiig. If I happened to miss a moment and felt like I didn’t quite stick the landing in a given scene, I would try to find another place for it where my character, Dinah, could show that facet of herself.
I’m looking forward to checking out that show. I also need to watch About My Father again, with an audience this time. It’s different as a communal experience, especially with comedy.
Did you watch it on a laptop?
I did. I just wasn’t around for the in-person screenings.
Go see it in the theater! It’s really infectious watching it with an audience. People catch stuff that you don’t. I love seeing what tickles other people and the stuff that lands with them. And as much as this movie is a comedy, it’s also a love story between Sebastian and Ellie, and a real love letter from Sebastian to his father. There’s a couple of scenes between Bob and Sebastian that killed me. Sam brought his father to the premiere ‘cause he was in town. I looked over and they were both crying. Sam was raised by his dad. It’s a beautiful thing. It’s so beautiful that a film gets to do that.
And to think that was potentially lost forever. It’s crazy what we lived through. I went back and watched your appearance on The Kelly Clarkson Show from two years ago. You’re sitting a foot across from her as a face on a screen, and not only are you a screen, every audience member is also a screen behind you. Where would we be had we kept going down that road?
That’s why it’s important. That’s why Sam and I go to movie theaters. What I also think was dangerous is, again, the PTSD associated with the pandemic I was talking about earlier. That’s a message in this movie I love: we need our family—we need others. We can’t do it alone. We lived through that for three years. It was wild. Again, better together than solo. And I do remember seeing the audience on screens. I personally had to ‘cause I was in Australia at the time and Kelly was in America. So I had to do all of my press virtually anyway. But it was bonkers. We lived in a world where I washed every piece of food and packaging that came into my home. It’s so wild to think about. When I was just on Watch What Happens Live, they had to give me a Covid test. It was a nasal swab and I’d already forgotten what that’s like. It had been, I don’t know, six months since I’d done it for the Apple show where we were testing pretty regularly. I’ve probably had a thousand Covid tests in total. I don’t think we’re really ever gonna understand the magnitude of what the pandemic did to us—not economically or socially, but emotionally, you know? It broke up marriages. I think people who were already even a little bit agoraphobic were like, “Now I don’t have to ever leave my house.” I have a friend who doesn’t know if she will ever start teaching yoga in-person again. That’s dangerous. We have to get out there. I mean, people make me nuts, but I’d rather be walking the streets of New York City than stuck up in a tower like Rapunzel by myself. It’s more fun to be in the mix. We have to stay curious. Take risks. Live your life.