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Ray Liotta

Sunday Herald (January 2003)

It was to be Ray Liotta’s toughest assignment yet. He'd been called in as smart muscle, a made guy who could be depended upon to exude the same charismatic menace as he did as Henry Hill in “Goodfellas”. He was on the door, a thick set of shoulders acting as the first line of defence for the main operators inside. All he had to watch out for, he was told, was a sassy blonde broad. And what the dealers on the street were calling magic dust. Always keep an eye out for the magic dust.

“Yeah,” Liotta laughs, dressed in customary all black, sitting in a suite in the Dorchester Hotel in London, “I did a Muppet movie.”

Meeting Ray Liotta in the flesh is a quietly unnerving experience. He may be ten or so years older and be carrying a few more pounds than the character you remember from Martin Scorcese’s peerless gangster movie, but the eyes still carry a thousand yard menace that’s impossible to ignore. Here he is laughing about his appearance in a freaking puppet show for crying out loud - clearly in a boisterous mood despite finding the British weather “grey and unmotivating” – and all you can focus on are those tough, blue, threatening eyes.

“It was absolutely great,” booms Liotta, a little too cheerily for comfort. “It really was. They asked me to do it and I jumped at it. My scene was with Miss Piggy. Actually all of them. They’re going into this complex and I’m a guard at the gate and I won’t let them in. So Miss Piggy’s flirting with me and I don’t buy it, but then she sprinkles this dust on me and I become goofy.”

How did Miss Piggy compare to his other leading ladies?

“She was great. I’d love to do a whole movie with her. I’ve been lucky too. I also did a movie with an elephant. ‘Operation Dumbo Drop’. It’s a horrible title but it was a sweet movie whose heart was in the right place. It was really well done. They just screwed up the marketing. Horrible poster, the title was rough. But it was eight weeks in Thailand with this elephant.”

In a colder, harder, more cinematically black and white world, Liotta wouldn’t be wasting his time talking about kids’ shows and dumb animals. He’d be living up to his early promise, cracking heads and silencing dumbass questions with just a simple hardening of those granite features. But the truth is that, after ‘Goodfellas”, Liotta wandered into the wilderness, struggling to find a role that was even half as spectacular. He was a man out of time and out of place.

“If he was in the Seventies, Ray would have had the kind of Gene Hackman career,” says Jason Patric, co-star in Liotta’s latest movie “Narc”. “But the movies made today are just so silly, pretty boyish.”

Time, however, has been kind to Liotta. As he settled into his forties, he found high profile roles that suited his age and demeanour (Johnny Depp’s father in “Blow”, a hard boiled cop in “Hannibal”), while “Narc”, released on the cusp of his fifties, is a gritty, brutally authentic indie about two undercover narcotics officers in Detroit that could prove to be another career peak.

Liotta plays Henry Oak, a heavy handed and often volatile veteran investigating the death of his partner. He’s teamed up with strung out former cop Nick Tellis (played by Patric, seen previously in “Rush” and “Your Friends & Neighbors”), who’s lured back into the force and the life that once turned him into a drug addict. From the outset, there are no punches pulled. The opening is vicious and shocking and the tension builds from there on in, as you find out more about the real nature of Oak, Tellis and the cop whose death they’re investigating.

“I put on 25 pounds,” says Liotta, when told that the greying, balding character he portrays is hardly recognisable as him. “I shaved my head back. Added the grey, that I already have. I just broke down the script. My wife died 16 years ago, I don’t think I’m a gourmet cook, before or after her. There was a lot of fast food and a lot of no sleep and a lot of obsessed with the job. Joe (Carnahan, director) wanted me taller, so I put lifts on, and that was good because it gives you a certain way of walking.”

Did Liotta specifically want to play an older character?

“It’s a natural progression,” he says. “In order for the career to sustain you have to go along with what your age is. There’s a lot of guys who are in their sixties and seventies even who are playing these leading men that are just… ’come on!’”

Liotta’s almost fifty, isn’t he?

“Getting there.”

Is he aware of that?

“Not until just now. If things aren’t going the way you want them to be going, as has happened in my life, you could be approaching thirty and that seems too much. If you’re happy, it doesn’t matter what you’re approaching. I’m very happy right now. There’s still a lot more I want from my career, but I also look at, not so much that I’m approaching fifty but that I’m approaching only 16, 17 years of making movies. I’ve always felt like twenty years, that’s when you become the overnight sensation. So I’ve still got a few years to go.”

Oak is an emotional loose cannon, a giant of a man who snaps between simmering discontent and raging violence in the bat of an eyelid. Where does Liotta summon that all from?

“I just know my job,” he says. “I’ve been in one fight my whole life, never been arrested, not a violent or physical person in my own life. I just understood who this guy was and what brings it to him. The frustration.”

Who won Liotta’s one fight?

“I did. It was in my mind. Except I was too afraid to start the fight. I was twelve. And I wouldn’t start it, so this kid Norman Green put a stick on my shoulder, that’s how they used to fight in the old days. He pushed the stick off but he hit me in the nose and I have a really tender nose and that was it. I remember
getting on top of him, beating him up and then you know…ah, it was just dumb.”

Despite Liotta’s protestations, Oak is all too convincing. Does he get fronted up to in the street by people who want to test the hard man?

“No. Because I’m nice to people when they come up. I’m not one of those cigarette smoking, leather jacket wearing, gum-chewing actors that try to project this actor attitude. And they’re out there. I don’t believe in that. I might have a little in the beginning. To convince people that I was that kind of person. You’re trying to find an identity at first and the obvious identity to go for is that tough guy, moody, me against the world kind of actor, ‘I’m so misunderstood, fuck you’. It’s just a bunch of malarkey. It’s so transparent.”

Liotta learnt about the brutality of American police work the best way: by riding with the very cops he wanted to portray. He visited a few precincts to prepare for “Narc”, although at this point in his life he feels fairly comfortable with the realities of the job.

“Once you realise how to hold the gun, how to walk into the building, how to do certain cop procedures to make it look natural, you don’t need much homework. But I just like doing it. The first call I went on was a house that had exploded. Some people had died and somebody thought they’d found a body part. So the first thing was looking for this body part and finding it. And the cops wanted to take pictures. Their adrenaline was going and there was this body part in a bag and they’re putting their arms around me and taking pictures. After that, it was just going around with the sirens running.”

Has he ever had a gun pulled on him?

“No. Thank God. I would hate that. That must be horrible. You?”

Er, no.

“But they were chasing some guys and they had me wait in the car. I was wearing a bullet proof vest and they went chasing somebody around the house and that person came out and saw the car and saw me sitting in the car, not knowing if I was a cop or not. I just sat there and he looked at me and I looked at him, and he saw I wasn’t making a move and he just continued going. That was a little hairy.”

If he’d recognised him, he could have taken Liotta hostage.

“Yeah. Really! It was in 77th, south central in LA, which is a pretty nasty area. Definitely got your adrenaline going. It was a rush.”

Another rush was playing Frank Sinatra in the TV movie “The Rat Pack” in 1998. Liotta was initially sceptical, as he was still hoping for a few career saving movies to come through, but eventually he swallowed his pride and fears and leapt straight in.

“That was brutal. It was fun when I finally let it go and accepted it but I had to go into it dragging my feet. I’m not an imitator and I didn’t feel that was the best way to do it. Frank was, aside from the typical Jersey mannerisms, less cliched than Sammy or even Dean. They’ve got a certain rhythm. Frank was a mercurial man. He was up, he was down and he was all over. I didn’t want to do the typical imitation and I knew I was going to be target for anybody that thought they knew him. So the only thing I had was an east coast quality, because I’m from a town that’s only twenty minutes from where he grew up. It was scary. I didn’t know anything about him and part of it was, ‘well if I can do that, I can do anything’. I really believed that. Because the anxiety that I put myself through, reading all the books about him and listening to all his music and watching his films. It was challenging.”

Did Liotta meet Sinatra?

“No. he died right after we finished.”

Has he met people who knew him?

“Yeah. Talked to a couple of agents that represented the Rat Pack. We had a premiere in Vegas and a lot of people there knew him. They were kind with their words. In general, it seems to be accepted. I think I dodged a bullet.”

It seems amazing that someone who was the lead in arguably the finest gangster movie of all time should feel insecure about his abilities as an actor, but Liotta’s been struggling to escape from the shadow of “Goodfellas” for almost a decade and a half now. Does he think he’s done anything to match it?

“I think [‘Narc’] does. ‘Goodfellas’, you’re playing a guy that goes from twelve to forty. It’s a very colourful, full part and those kind of parts are few and far between. You’re working with Marty and Bob and Joe. It’s a very unique, once in a lifetime experience, maybe twice. I’m waiting for my second. So you’re comparing apples and oranges just by the nature of that movie, what it covers and the amount of time and the experiences of innocence to being a drug dealer user. [‘Narc’] is a really great part. Because it’s very grey. It starts out one way and you think you know who this guy is and as the movie evolves it changes. The play’s the thing, it really is. And if you get the right play it makes you look good as an actor.”

So what does Liotta want to do now?

“I don’t know. I’d like to do something more romantic than my scenes with Miss Piggy. I’d like to do a straight out big action movie where I’m the hero. Now I’m just waiting. I feel like with these movies, ‘Hannibal’ and ‘Blow’ and ‘Narc’, I’m back on track.”

And that the ghost of Henry Hill has finally been laid to rest.

Ian Watson
Music, film, comedy and travel journalist based in London

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