In "Saint John of Las Vegas," Romany Malco enters a Dante-like… (Kirk McKoy / Los Angeles…)
His name is Romany Romanic Malco, and he's not sure why.
"I called my father 'Irving' until I was 7. When I found out I was Romany Romanic Jr., I said, 'Who's this Romany Romanic [Sr.]? Is he going to live with us?' Anyway, my dad's name was 'Romanic Romany,' and I'm 'Romany Romanic.' My dad [passed] away Aug. 25 of '08, never really knowing who his dad was. So I have no . . . idea what my name comes from," says the extremely fit comic actor, whose 41 years are betrayed only by subtle flecks of gray in his stubble. He was born and raised in Brooklyn, N.Y.; his immediate roots are Trinidadian, with extended family in Venezuela.
"My family's pretty broken . . . my dad did a really good job, considering his upbringing, bro. He actually died while I was shooting 'Saint John of Las Vegas.' "
In that film, hitting theaters Friday, Steve Buscemi's John, a former gambler trying to make it as an insurance adjuster, is taken on a fraud-investigation trek to his personal hell -- Las Vegas -- by legendary claim buster Virgil (Malco). Among those they encounter are a neck-brace-wearing stripper (Emmanuelle Chriqui), a naked cowboy (Tim Blake Nelson) and a man who can't stop combusting (John Cho).
It's an absurd, straight-faced Dante allegory, a comedy taken divinely seriously by its denizens.
And it was just what Malco needed.
"It couldn't have been a better environment," he says over a delicious-smelling gluten-free trout dish in a West Hollywood eatery. "It was Albuquerque, N.M., and something about the lay of the land enables you to be cerebral. It's really nice and quiet. Not a lot of grid and structure. And the director had lost his mother to pancreatic cancer as well." Despite the pressures of the small film's schedule, "He's like, 'Go be with your dad.' It was one time I was at a loss for words."
Malco vividly recalls the day he returned to the set:
"Me, dressed in black, with the shades on," he says of being in costume. "I had been in Trinidad, changing the diaper like, six, seven times a day. He was so skinny. It was nice to be able to take care of him and surprise myself I had it in me. I just remember the scene in the gas station where we stepped out for a minute and I was looking up at the sky -- because that's all you could see, the sky -- and just being really grateful. Really, really grateful for the experience of being there with my dad, and also [making the film] with the people I was with.
"Also, Steve, Mr. Buscemi, he's like soy milk. He's easy on you, bro."
Malco is a friendly, verbal guy with a "Should I have said that? Oh, well" attitude, but playing the enigmatic Virgil was tough, thanks to writer-director Hue Rhodes.
"Dude, he checked me so hard," he says of Rhodes refusing to let him rely on his bag of tricks. "[Virgil] is completely the opposite of me. I'm all angst-ridden and he's very comfortable in white noise."
The actor copped to not having read "The Divine Comedy," but rather than take a crash course in Italian poetry, he boned up on Buster Keaton at the director's request.
"He wanted me to see how much could be told in just the movement. It's weird; you do this indie and it's like, the hardest job of your life," he says, fondly. "That whole job felt like turning a new leaf. And I don't mean in just business; I mean a whole new perspective."
At that moment a fudge-drizzled, gluten-free banana split arrives; he confides he hates chocolate but didn't pay attention when he ordered it. He digs in anyway.
"Prior to this job, I used to eat all healthy -- I guess I still kind of do -- but seeing my dad pass away, you know what? Do whatever you want, when you want. I indulge more than I have in a long time."