November 4, 2002|Taking notes in the lobby of Denver's Brown Palace Hotel, I was surprised to look up into the vaguely terrifying gaze of actor Ray Liotta, in town to promote his latest film and first foray into producing: the gritty, harrowing Narc. Unfailingly polite, Liotta impresses most with his candour and forthrightness--a breath of fresh air in a business that too often resembles a mutual admiration society of professional spin-doctors and overripe hucksters. I was disarmed more than once during our conversation (punctuated occasionally by his trademark laugh) by the careful attention Mr. Liotta afforded my questions. I'm far more accustomed to being a sounding board for folks with something to promote, questions be damned. I began by asking Mr. Liotta why he chose at this stage of his career to begin producing.
RAY LIOTTA: I wasn't crazy about the way things were going. I wanted to be a little more proactive with my career instead of waiting for something to come to me, so I formed a production company with my wife [Michelle Grace] and a partner, Diane Nabatoff, and changed agents--I really just wanted to clean house and start fresh. The first script I got was Narc and I really responded to it. It reminded me of a '70s type movie, I really liked the characters, I didn't anticipate the ending. I wanted to go that way and really get proactive with my career--take some control in it and redirect it in a direction that I liked.
FILM FREAK CENTRAL: It's interesting that you mention the '70s movies--I thought of Sidney Lumet films as I was watching Narc: Serpico a little, but more an '80s film, Prince of the City, and a '90s one, Q&A.
Yeah, I really wanted a French Connection feel to it. Paramount bought the movie, Tom Cruise is another producer on it, and Sherry Lansing, the head of Paramount, is married to William Friedkin and he saw the movie and loved it and said that it was the best cop movie he'd ever seen. Coming from the guy who did French Connection--and this is a producer saying this, I realize--that was really a huge compliment.
You changed your appearance for this film.
I put on about twenty-five pounds, there were pads, and I grew a goatee that kind of spread the face out--a lot of make-up under the eyes to make them seem puffy and lined. I wore three-inch heels, a big overcoat that added a lot, and gloves--I just thought it was important for the guy based on what was going on. The guy's wife had died, I was sure he wasn't cookin' for himself--lots of pizzas and burgers--and he'd be obsessed with finding out who the bad guy was so he'd be haggard.
Did you model the performance at all after Nolte's turn in Q&A?
No, no--nothing at all. The one thing that [writer-director] Joe [Carnahan] wanted me to do was he wanted me to have a goatee and to look totally different. That's pretty general so I broke down the screenplay for all the clues to how he's supposed to look--the way it should be when you figure a guy's tired, tunnel-visioned, and on his own.
Tell me about that period in the late-'80s, early in your career: Something Wild, Dominick & Eugene, Field of Dreams--and how these roles led to Goodfellas.
Something Wild was my first movie. I was in an acting class and on a soap opera ("Another World" -Ed.) for three-and-a-half years in New York--I moved to L.A. at 25 and nothing was really going on for like a five-year period. I was still in acting class, I was in class all through Goodfellas actually, and I talked to some of the guys and they said, "Are you up for this movie, Something Wild"--and I said, "No." But I decided I really wanted to be up for it even though [Jonathan] Demme had already narrowed it down to three people. I'd been to college with Melanie Griffith's then-husband Steven Bauer and I called her up and said, y'know, can you get me in and I felt weird about it, but here I am, thirty years old and I haven't done anything yet and I'd read the script and felt like I could do that as well as anyone out there so why not me? She got me in, she insisted that Jonathan see me, and it just worked out with me.
That Demme connection didn't have anything to do with Blow did it?
No... I think that Ted [Demme] was already familiar with my work. He'd offered me a couple of things before. We have a common friend, I did a movie (laughs) Operation Dumbo Drop with Denis Leary and Denis was good friends with Ted--and Ted really started getting things going again. The Rat Pack was the piece that really kicked me out of that little funk that I was in and then Ted called me up and asked me if I wanted to be the dad in Blow. At first, of course, I was thinking I should be the Johnny Depp role, but I liked Ted a lot and I really responded to the script and to Johnny. I'm getting older, I wanted to have that opportunity to play someone who goes from his twenties to someone dying of cancer in his sixties. It was a good acting thing to do.
Your scenes with Depp were the best things about that film.
Well, thanks. That movie...that movie took a lot of hits partly because I think people saw it as a rip-off of Boogie Nights and Goodfellas, though Boogie Nights was really a rip-off of Goodfellas--uh, I still thought it was an interesting role, but the truth of it is that at that point I really needed to get back on the map, change things around. I realized I needed to take supporting parts in high-profile movies and that fit into the plan.
Your roles in Something Wild and Dominick & Eugene couldn't be more different--was that by design?
Totally. I had read so much about other actors and typecasting. In college, I started out doing musicals and Shakespeare...
One of the Von Trapps in "The Sound of Music", right?
(laughs) Right, Sound of Music, West Side Story, South Pacific, Dames at Sea, a lot of different things--Taming of the Shrew, Streetcar Named Desire, Of Mice and Men--that kind of variety was really my want for my career and on "Another World" I was the nicest guy in the world, so then there was Something Wild and suddenly I was getting all these "heavy" roles so I just decided to wait and read things until Dominick & Eugene came across my desk.
Tom Hulce was pretty hot at the time, too.
Oh man, he was great. I remember meeting him for the first time and he was already in character--he was just really great. I was so happy when I got that. Whatever happened to him?
No clue. I read somewhere that you were surprised by the success of Field of Dreams--is that an accurate statement?
Not so much surprised as when I first read the script I thought it was dumb. I didn't see the bigger picture, that there was a whole underlying message to it--I just took it really literally where here's this guy with a cornfield and he's making money on it and then a ghost comes--I just couldn't wrap around it, y'know. But y'know, Kevin [Costner] was attached to it and then James Earl Jones and then Burt Lancaster so I figured that there must be something to it that I didn't understand about the script and I was willing to accept that and go with it--I would've been silly not to do it. Once I saw it all put together, the success of the film didn't surprise me, but I just couldn't wrap my mind around the script.
"The only thing I have in common with Sinatra is that we're both from Jersey. I don't look like him, I don't sound like him. But Rob Cohen didn't really want an impersonation. I mean, if he wanted that he could've hired Joe Piscopo or something."
You say that Something Wild was your first film--wasn't your first film really The Lonely Lady with Pia Zadora?
(laughs) That was, uh...(laughs) Luckily a lot of people don't do their homework like you do. Y'know what, I was in town, it was within my first year of moving to L.A., so I needed to break in and so I went for the audition, pretending I was raping some person with a hose. (A feat that Liotta's character Joe hilariously, distastefully performs in the film -Ed.) Uh--it was a great experience. (laughs) Really though, it was like three weeks in Rome for four or five days worth of work and she was great, I mean, she was approachable and nice. She was in the midst of a lot of controversy at that time, she'd just won the [Golden Globe's] Newcomer [of the year] award (for Butterfly, over Kathleen Turner's performance in Body Heat! -Ed.) and there was a lot of controversy about that, but she was great.
How big a chance did Scorsese take with you on Goodfellas?
Huge. He felt I could do it, I guess, but at that time I'd only really had Something Wild, Dominick & Eugene, and Field of Dreams: of the three only Field of Dreams was considered a hit. I know I was the first person he met and it was a long, horrible process. I mean, everyone in town wanted it--everyone from Val Kilmer and all the new guys to, like, Alec Baldwin, everybody, and I think the studio would've wanted anyone but me. It was the lead, y'know, and Marty kept pushing for it and holding out, and, man, he definitely took a chance on me. I felt like I could do it, but until it happens... I think when Bob came on board, the studio suddenly had their hook and their marketing plan, right, the first time those guys [De Niro, Pesci, Scorsese] were together since Raging Bull, that really paved the way for me to get that role.
Any plans to reunite with Scorsese?
(laughs) Aw, y'know, I chase him down whenever I can with everything. I called him up during Gangs of New York, y'know, to congratulate him on his baby and I was happy for him, of course, but every opportunity... Marty's the kind of person who, when it's right, it's right. He's very specific about what he wants. Interesting you mention that because on November 13th, they're having a screening of Goodfellas for a charity or something and Marty's gonna come and [screenwriter] Nick Pileggi, Bob and Joe probably will come. I haven't seen Joe in years.
Tell me about the preparation for playing Frank Sinatra.
('phew's) Man. It was brutal. It was brutal. The daughters offered me the mini-series once before but I turned it down. It was just too intimidating. Then they offered me Rat Pack and I said "no" again. I was wanting to get a movie but I wasn't exactly on fire at that time and my agent at that time told me to give it a couple of weeks--unbeknownst to me, she knew already that those movies weren't going to work out, so she really insisted that I do Rat Pack. The main reason I didn't want to do it was that it was just too intimidating--I'm not a mimic, the only thing I have in common with Sinatra is that we're both from Jersey, y'know, I don't look like him, I don't sound like him. But then I talked to director Rob Cohen and he didn't really want an impersonation. I mean, if he wanted that he could've hired Joe Piscopo or something. He wanted more of the essence of the man and I said "to heck with it"--instead of being afraid of it, just embrace it. For me, it turned out to be a wonderful thing as an actor--all that research: the movies, the music, it was really scary but I'm glad I took it on.
Your next project, I.D.,reunites you with James Mangold.
When I read Copland, I really wanted Stallone's part. I was really one of the first people he met for the film and he's a really intelligent guy, a really smart guy. He asked me to be in I.D. and I was finished with all my movies, with Narc, and I knew Jim and, y'know, it's a down-the-middle scary, hopefully, movie. It's a little like "Ten Little Indians"--it's ten people who show up at a hotel in a rainy day in Vegas where they can't leave and then all of a sudden they start dying. It's a very commercial thriller-type movie--[John] Cusack was great to work with.
After working with so many accomplished and even legendary directors, were you nervous working with a first-time director on Narc?
Joe is just a unique individual. Before I met him, he'd done this one movie that he'd done for like seven grand on weekends called Blood, Guts, Bullets, and Octane and it was, y'know, it was good but it didn't scream "Narc" to me. But I went in to talk to him and I liked him, I liked his passion and I liked his sensibilities: the way he already knew how he wanted to shoot it. He really had this vision for his piece--a Cassavetes style with a French Connection overtone to it--a real fly-on-the-wall kind of thing. It wasn't a "Hollywood Movie" movie, and that was what I was looking for, too. Then my career started changing, I got Hannibal and Heartbreakers, Blow and John Q, so I felt really comfortable taking that chance with a first-timer. I figured that even if it doesn't work I at least have these other movies to surround it, but as it turns out as soon as I got there, we just were rockin' and rollin'.
The irony of it is that Narc is probably the strongest of all those films.
Yeah, Hannibal was what it was, Heartbreakers was this comedy, but in terms of overall movie and, I don't know if it's career-changing, but Narc was just such a great part with the physicality and places that it went. I'm in my forties now, too--one of the great things about those movies was the chance to work with Robert Duvall, Gene Hackman, and Anthony Hopkins. Those are people who...I hope I'm still kickin' like that going into my seventies.