Fan Fest Exclusive Interview: Speechless actor Mason Cook on the ‘honor and responsibility’ of playing Ray DiMeo
Fan Fest talks with Mason Cook about his portrayal of Ray DiMeo, a character that is both relatable and hilarious on Speechless.
Ray DiMeo is the middle sibling, sandwiched between older brother JJ (Micah Fowler) and younger sister Dylan (Kyla Kenedy). Parents Maya and Jimmy (Minnie Driver and John Ross Bowie) round out the DiMeo family unit on the ABC comedy Speechless.
Speechless earns its name from the fact that JJ, the eldest DiMeo sibling, is non-verbal. JJ has cerebral palsy and uses a word board to express himself. Everyone takes turns speaking the words that JJ highlights on the board. This includes JJ’s school aide, Kenneth (Cedric Yarbrough), who ultimately becomes more like a member of the family.
As a mom to a non-verbal child with multiple special needs, I was so excited about the arrival of Speechless on the television scene. Even still, I was not quite sure what to expect from a series depicting a family with disability in the mix. What kind of tone would the show carry?
I quickly learned that it was the perfect combination of humor and heart. I also ascertained pretty quickly that Ray DiMeo was going to be one of my favorite characters on the show. Ray wears his heart on his sleeve. That allows for some of the funniest moments as well as some of the most heartfelt ones.
I was thrilled to have the opportunity to speak with Mason Cook about his work on Speechless and what makes it so special.
Your comedic timing is excellent! Have you had a lot of experience with comedy prior to Speechless?
MASON: Thank you! I love doing comedy! In my ten years of acting, I would say I have done about 50/50 comedic and dramatic roles.
I have always loved watching comedies like Anchorman, Bridesmaids, Superbad and Old School. A dream of mine is to host Saturday Night Live someday. I was lucky enough to work alongside a couple of my favorite comedic actors such as Jim Carrey and Steve Carell in the feature film The Incredible Burt Wonderstone, which was a great learning experience for me.
I have never had any acting training, so I just rely on experience and natural ability!
Your interactions with each of the DiMeo family members play so believably on screen. Is there one relationship that comes more naturally than the others?
MASON: Well, first off, our writers are freaking amazing! Week after week, they create creative, funny and heartfelt moments amongst the entire cast. I wouldn’t say that any one comes more naturally than the other really.
From the first time we met at the pre-network table read for the pilot, we clicked. Then, during the filming of the pilot, something magical happened. We all have an undeniable chemistry.
That said, the constant banter between Dylan and Ray does come pretty naturally. Kyla and I are very good friends off-screen and love to give each other a hard time in character and out!
Is it accurate to say that Ray is modeled after creator Scott Silveri’s experiences growing up? What kind of input do you receive from him versus making Ray your own unique character?
MASON: Speechless is based on the real life of creator/executive producer Scott Silveri, whose older brother Gregory had cerebral palsy.
And, yes, my character Ray, is 100% based on Scott himself, which makes him both an honor and responsibility to play.
Scott has told me that Ray is the Speechless character closest to a real-life depiction because, since it is based on him, he feels comfortable sharing his most personal stories. He didn’t feel comfortable exposing his other family members, including Gregory, to that degree, so the other characters are “inspired by” his real-life family. Because Ray is Scott, there is no shortage of material!
Scott never told me how to portray Ray, but he and I did work closely during the filming of the pilot to find the right balance in tone for Ray because, like Maya, he can be pretty intense. We played with different levels of intensity and, I think, found the right balance for the character so his anxiety and perfectionist ways feel real and not over-the-top.
I want Ray to be likable and not be just a high-strung pain in the butt. Scott didn’t create Ray as a duplicate of himself, so I really have created the character from scratch using the writing and storylines as my guide.
Inspiration goes both ways
How familiar were you with cerebral palsy and the overall special needs community before you took the role? Has your perspective changed at all?
MASON: Personally, I had a strong connection with disability before Speechless. My grandfather lost his sight to cancer at age 13. He and I were very close, so I grew up around him and his guide dogs.
But, I never really thought of him as “disabled” because he was able to do so much in his lifetime. He was a criminal defense attorney and law professor who had put himself through three universities, Baylor, Vanderbilt, and Princeton, on a full scholarship.
In terms of cerebral palsy specifically, there was a learning curve for me. I knew a boy with CP at my old elementary school in Oklahoma before I moved to LA, but cerebral palsy casts such a wide net in terms of symptoms and severity that it almost seems like no two cases are alike.
It has been an eye-opening experience, in a good way, meeting so many people in the special needs community and hearing their stories of perseverance and success.
I have told John Ross Bowie this before. My all-time favorite scene so far is where Jimmy tells Ray that their family is “bulletproof.” It really resonates with me. Clearly, the DiMeos have their share of challenges and disappointments, but they are always there for each other. How does it make you feel to inspire people through the show?
MASON: It is an amazing feeling to know that in addition to making people laugh, we are inspiring them. It’s a bonus that I didn’t necessarily see coming.
The “bulletproof” scene is one of my favorites too. John and I have had some amazing father-son scenes, but this one is a stand-out. The writing was so spot on and clearly came from a place of personal experience, which is probably why you relate to it.
In my opinion, this scene is the perfect example of what sets Speechless apart from other sitcoms.
Something for everyone
What do you attribute to the diverse appeal of the show? My fellow special needs moms love it. I have friends with typically developing kids who rave about it. I even have a good friend who is a bachelor that is a huge fan.
MASON: I am so excited to hear you say this! From my first meeting with Scott Silveri, before I was even cast in the show, he was very clear that he did not want to create the “disability show.” He was not looking to be the new “afterschool special” of our generation. He wanted to create a “family comedy” that was first and foremost funny.
I think that is why people within and outside the special needs community can relate and connect to the show. It is not written as anything more than a comedy about a family who happens to have a son with a cerebral palsy. The writers always equally address the lives of the other family members, like Ray and Dylan, too.
Of course, much attention is paid to the representation aspect of this because Scott is determined to accurately portray families like the DiMeos. The dynamics of families in the special needs community are unique. You all have waited a LONG time to see families like yours on TV, so we want to make you proud!
The show very often makes me laugh, but I have also been known to shed a tear. What’s the show’s secret in eliciting both laughter and tears?
MASON: We get that a lot [laughs] We love to take our audience from laughter to tears to laughter again. Our show has the unique ability to be funny and heartfelt at the same time.
The writing is so incredible on our show, but it is tricky. There are many quick transitions, moments within moments and sub-texts that require a certain level of skill and commitment. We have such a talented cast that they make it look easy.
I think one reason people are so in love the with the show is that we can all relate to what it feels like to laugh through tears or having to laugh instead of cry at what life throws your way.
“Out of this world” moments
Are you a big Star Wars fan? I see that the cast attended The Last Jedi premiere after having filmed an episode about Ray attending the premiere. Was that kind of surreal?
MASON: I am a huge Star Wars fan, so I was super excited by the Star Wars-themed episode of Speechless. The Last Jedi wasn’t my first Star Wars premiere, but it was the first time I had met Mark Hamill, which was very surreal. He is Star Wars to me.
Finally, can you share a couple of your personal favorite “Ray” moments?
MASON: It is so hard to trim it down to just a couple!
One is definitely the “bulletproof” scene with John. Like I said before, I feel like that scene just nailed it on so many levels with regards to Ray’s anxiety and the underlying cause of it.
Another would have to be my scene at the beach with Micah in the R-A-Y-RAYCATION episode. Ray and JJ have a great “bro-ment” after JJ gets the shaft from a girl he asked on a date. It is a rare moment of Ray being the Jimmy in the scenario and being a rock for JJ. Micah and I are like brothers in real life, so scenes like this are so authentic for us to film and I think that really comes across on-screen.
Look for more great Ray moments on the Speechless season 2 finale this Wednesday, March 21st, when Ray turns to basketball as part of his ongoing effort to reunite with estranged girlfriend Taylor. Jimmy faces a different kind of challenge and JJ feels misled about a film award nomination.
The episode titled ‘N-O– NOMINEE’ airs at 8:30/7:30 central on ABC.
Many thanks to Mason Cook for his time and insights about an amazing show.