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"There's a method to my madness." Ray Liotta on a life in movies

Career-defining movie moments don’t get much more iconic than Ray Liotta in Goodfellas. He talks us through a remarkable career – and why he isn't in The Irishman...

"Er, what was your question again?" Ray Liotta is a master of the meandering anecdote, but in its unfolding he is somewhat prone to losing his way. An answer may start off heading vaguely in the right direction, but on its journey tends to bounce off the curb, lose a hubcap, veer into the opposite lane and ultimately park itself just a little too outside of the lines.

Take, for example, his response to whether he found his formative years on the soap opera Another World at all educational.

“Totally. I’d never even wanted to be an actor. I’d walked out of my SATs, a test you do that gets you into a good college… I walked out of them. My dad said go to college for a year, take whatever you want. Oh fuck – I didn’t even want to go to college. I got into the University of Miami, which at that time you only needed a pulse to get into. I was just going to take Liberal Arts classes, but I get to the front of the line and they tell me I had to take math and history.

"I really thought I’d go into construction, and my dad had a chain of automotive stores and I found out later he wanted me to take over that, but I just hated the smell of tyres. I used to have to work there and hated it. So I really had no idea. But there was the drama department – I’d done that in high school with a friend and we just fucked around and it wasn’t really challenging. I figured I’d do it for a year, but I started liking it. But that was mainly because of an acting teacher called Robert Lowry, who we called Buckets.

"I was a jock in school – basketball, hockey, soccer – all the time, every day, I was all about playing sports, but I knew there was no way I was going to become a professional. I knew nothing about acting at all, but luckily he really knew what he was talking about, and he was encouraging. The first year all I did was musicals, and that was fucking horrible – I was a jock from Jersey. But it was just fun, so because of Buckets I went back and started getting leads. I was getting nice feedback and reviews and stayed for four years. I thought, ‘I’m gonna do this, I’m gonna give it a shot.’ So I got the soap, then nothing happened for five years, but I went to an acting class twice a week for five years, and then I continued going – I was with this guy for 12 years. Er… what was your question again?”

Divorce is a horrible thing. In the beginning, hugs and kisses all the time, blah blah blah… and then it could end like this

But then this is Ray Liotta, a man worth getting lost in an anecdote with. His face may have softened over the years since he ran with the mob in Goodfellas and scared the bejeezus out of his ex’s new boyfriend in Something Wild, but his eyes still pierce like a Jagdkommando blade, and when he smiles it’s hard to tell whether he wants to shake your hand or squeeze your throat. Or possibly both.

It’s an attribute he’s managed to put to good use throughout his career, spreading his particular brand of menace over nearly 40 years of movies and television shows, most recently in the Noah Baumbach heartbreaker Marriage Story, out on Netflix on 6 December after a brief theatrical release.

Marriage Story tracks the devastating breakup of Nicole and Charlie, played by Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver, with Liotta meticulously embodying the hardline, all-business, in-for-the-win lawyer Jay. Liotta, a divorcee himself, could empathise.

“It’s a horrible thing, right?” he says of divorce. “In the beginning, hugs and kisses all the time, holding hands, like the same songs, blah blah blah… and then it could end like this.”

Liotta’s seven-year marriage to producer and actress Michelle Grace ended in 2004, and by Marriage Story’s standards it ended relatively amicably – “the key word is prenup” he adds as a cautionary coda – but he’s in no hurry to step back under the Arbor. “I’d never fucking do it again,” he says, leaving little room for doubt about his feelings. “I don’t even want to live with anybody. And I was lucky with my divorce – there wasn’t any ugliness. Well… yelling and screaming, definitely, especially towards the end. But it wasn’t that kind of ugliness.”

The couple had a daughter during their marriage, now 19-year-old Karsen, which – as Marriage Story shows – adds a whole other level of misery and complication to a couple wanting to go their separate ways. “The gloves are off during a divorce and a lawyer has got to go as hard as they can for their client, especially if there’s a kid. For a couple, if there’s no kid, then it’s kind of like, ‘Fuck you, fuck you, catch you later.’”

Ray Liotta: Square Mile cover
Ray Liotta: Square Mile cover

Don't call it a comeback 

With the Oscar buzz surrounding Marriage Story, and a slate of movies lined up for next year – including the shrouded-in-secrecy Sopranos prequel The Many Saints of Newark – there’s a distinct feeling that Liotta is back.

It’s not that he hasn’t worked consistently: the man has shot more than 80 movies, and most recently appeared alongside Jennifer Lopez for three seasons of the network TV show Shades of Blue. However, his three most notable movies – Goodfellas, Something Wild and Field of Dreams – were back in the 1980s, and he never truly capitalised on their enormous success and enduring appeal.

“When you’re typecast like I am as somebody who’s choking people, it’s difficult,” he understates. “Those kind of performances stay in people’s minds more. If you ever look at Gene Hackman or Pacino or De Niro or Duvall, you just remember the heavier movies. They’ve done a little bit of everything, but those harder ones are more successful. At first I fought it and it probably did me wrong. I was handling it really delicately at first and didn’t capitalise on the momentum, and the movies where I played a softer character didn’t do as well. But the reality is I’ve done more than 80 movies and only played a gangster twice.”

With Henry Hill from Goodfellas seared into the national consciousness, it’s little surprise that the instinct to flinch whenever we see Liotta on screen – whatever he’s in – is so strong. Though he does make a passing, somewhat feeble attempt to reframe Hill in a less menacing light.

“Really, Henry Hill wasn’t so bad,” he begins, before perspective takes a grip. “Well, I beat that guy across the street because he was messing with my girlfriend, but other than that… OK, well I guess there was all the drink and drugs…”

Henry Hill may not quite have been the good fellow Ray would like to believe he was, but that’s not to say Liotta hasn’t embodied less menacing characters in his years in front of the camera. It’s hard to imagine now, but his first big break came in 1978 playing nice guy Joey Perrini on the long-running neighbourhood soap, Another World, a job he had very little interest in taking until his dad persuaded him otherwise.

“When I started this acting I was watching Hackman, De Niro and Pacino… those were the kind of movies I wanted to make,” he says. “So when they offered me the soap, I didn’t even want to go on the audition. But my father said, ‘Look, you did four years of college and all you did was plays. You’ve never worked in front of a camera, so this will be a great learning ground.’ And him being a depression baby, he said, ‘Look how much money they’re paying you – you start at $400 a day.’ If you’re working three or four times a week and you’re 21, 22 years old, that’s good money.”

So he signed on to film the soap for two years and eventually did four, all shot in New York. And the man who went on to work with Kevin Costner, Melanie Griffith, Jeff Daniels, Anthony Hopkins, Joe Pesci and his hero Robert De Niro counts his soap co-star as one of the greatest he ever worked with.

I’ve always felt that if so-and-so could do it, I definitely could

“This woman that played my mother, Kathleen Widdoes, to this day is one of the  top five people I’ve ever worked with in terms of her ability,” he says. “She was so loose and so natural and so committed to every word that she was saying. I thought, fuck, this is exactly how you’re supposed to do it.”

Watching Kathleen and his other co-workers – often plucked by producers from Broadway shows with the promise that filming wouldn’t interrupt their stage work – helped him hone his craft, and he plucked up the courage to leave the show and move to Los Angeles… where he failed to make an impression for five long years. Luckily, with four years of soap money in the bank, and with his dad handling his finances, he was able to survive in the city with very little fresh cash coming in. But what he lacked in finances, he gained in confidence.

“I had no doubt I would be doing it, not for a second,” he says. “I would watch and read everything I could about acting and actors, and I was in class with a great teacher (the aforementioned Buckets), and I always, always felt that it would happen. That’s not to say I didn’t have times of doubt – even now I still have it. I remember reading about Henry Fonda always thinking that he’d done his last job. It’s built in to what you do, but I’ve always felt that if so-and-so could do it, I definitely could.”

Ray Liotta with cat

Breaking bad

Liotta soon got his chance. He pushed a vague connection he had with Melanie Griffith and got himself an audition to play the somewhat unhinged Ray Sinclair in Something Wild, which couldn’t have come at a better time.

“Yeah, if I didn’t get that movie then I would have had to go to work because the money was pretty much spent,” he says.

Fortunately, Something Wild made casting directors take note, and two iconic movies would follow. The first was playing the ghost of Shoeless Joe Jackson in Field of Dreams, a fantasy baseball movie about a farmer in Iowa who hears voices and interprets them as a command to build a baseball diamond in his cornfield. Quite the idea, right?

“I felt this was the silliest fucking thing I’ve ever read,” he says. “This guy hears voices and he digs up his cornfield? Come on! I guess I can’t read these things well, and it turned into what it turned into.”

What it turned into was a movie that was recently selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant”. Not so fucking silly after all. More relatable to Liotta, however, was his next project, and the movie he’s intrinsically linked to: the Martin Scorsese-directed mob epic, Goodfellas. Any sense when making it how iconically it would end up being perceived?

I can remember certain scenes, especially the ‘you’re a funny guy’ scene. That was something that came about in rehearsal

“Not at all, no,” he says. “There’s nothing more exhilarating to me than to work with a director who’s so passionate and other actors who are so committed… about make believe! Though it’s also one of the things that drives me crazy about actors, when they’re all cocky – ‘slow the fuck down, you’re playing cowboys and indians, dude. What are you acting like that for?’

“But it didn’t open huge. It wasn’t like some big blockbuster – it really took on a life of its own. It was reviewed well, and both that and Fields were nominated for best picture.”
Any stand-out memories from making it?

“I don’t even remember where my keys are right now!” he laughs. “I can remember certain scenes, especially the ‘you’re a funny guy’ scene. That was something that came about in rehearsal. We’d read the script, me, Joe (Pesci), Bob (De Niro) and Lorraine (Bracco), and we’d go over the scenes.

"You know, Joe was a storyteller. He was telling a story about something like that that happened to him once, and Marty (Scorsese) really liked the idea, so he said we should just play with it. ‘Tell him that he’s funny and we’ll see what happens.’ So we did it a few ways and Marty started shaping it more, and the last few takes we played around with it a little more, ad-libbed, and that’s what they used.”

Possibly the most surprising thing about the now iconic Scorsese/Liotta collaboration is that it was a one-off. Despite the feeling that Liotta is made of Scorsese’s world, the two have never worked together again.

“Well he did offer me a couple of things, like The Departed, but I was already committed to other things,” he says. “And then the other movies, when I watch them, there’s nothing in them where I thought, ‘Why didn’t he cast me in that?’ There weren’t places for me to go.

"I don’t know, maybe I’m just not his cup of tea. Who knows? I haven’t seen The Irishman, but it’s about guys in their seventies, so you know… I was too young to do it!”

It just feels like you should be in The Irishman, I suggest.

“Well thank you, I appreciate that, but you know… he’s not going over new ground. Goodfellas is really the benchmark, and Casino used the same device we did with the voiceover and the look of it and the period. But I know what you mean… I dunno.”

Back to the future

Which is not to say that Liotta’s career hasn’t made an impact; Scorsese aside, he’s made his mark in Cop Land, Hannibal, Blow, Narc, Smokin’ Aces and many more, though fans will be surprised to hear what he considers amongst his favourites.

“I loved doing the Muppets movies,” he says. “Me and Danny Trejo in prison. We shot that in England outside of Oxford – it was freezing but we were singing and dancing with the Muppets. And I did another Muppet movie where I fall for Miss Piggy… it was just fun doing that kind of stuff.”

Liotta has also popped up in guest roles on TV shows like Modern Family, Just Shoot Me, Young Sheldon and, er… Hannah Montana.

“That was for my daughter,” he explains. “I also did a movie with Zac Efron (Charlie St Cloud) just for her. But they were fun.”

He also found time to return to his TV roots with a cop procedural co-starring Jennifer Lopez, Shades of Blue, which recently wrapped after three seasons.

“I saw that the business was changing,” he says. “When I started out, if you were doing a TV series, that meant your movie career was over. I saw how things started to change and the only way to beat them at the game is to play the game. I was hesitant about doing it, but I started needing to get a higher profile, which a series gives you. So I rolled the dice. I was a little upset it didn’t get more attention, because it was a great part – a bisexual cop who was on the take, but who loved his crew and family. It was such an interesting part.”

While filming with Lopez he got a glimpse into the world of the modern celebrity and was shocked by the relationship with the paparazzi.

“From what I gather, someone would call them so they would be there to take pictures,” he says. “Some of these people who play make believe, if they’re not doing it, they don’t know who they are, so they keep their profile going by doing showbizzy-type things. Personally I don’t mind the break. I’m probably not as big as I’d like to be sometimes, but there’s a method to my madness. I don’t think an actor should be out there too much because it takes away the mystery of who you are. I think it’s better to stay under the radar.”

 I’ve only ever played two people who were in the Mafia. It’s only people like you who fucking make the link!

Which is just one reason you won’t find Ray sharing pics on Insta and Facebook.

“Yeah – what am I gonna do, take a picture of myself eating Cheerios? I don’t get it. Facebook? I don’t give a shit about people… I’m still friends with the people from grade school. I’m a different generation – I like talking on the phone.”

Which is just as well, as it’s been ringing off the hook recently; he’s already got five movies on the slate for 2020, including the aforementioned The Many Saints of Newark. Starring James Gandolfini’s son, Michael, as the young Tony Soprano, it’s a prequel to the hugely popular HBO series, and written by its creator, David Chase. Was he a big fan of the original, I wonder? Not so much.

“I saw the first season or two – I’m not somebody who watches series, especially all of these out now. I haven’t seen any of them – I don’t care. I don’t want to get caught up with having to binge watch and stay in all day.”

I try to make the point that all of this feels somewhat cyclical. Without Goodfellas there’d probably be no Sopranos, and now he’s going to star in a movie based on the TV show influenced by the movie he starred in. But he’s having absolutely none of it.

“Ah, it’s not cyclical,” he says, as we prepare to wrap up our interview. “I started on a soap opera – Goodfellas was my fourth movie. And I’ve only ever played two people who were in the Mafia. It’s only people like you who fucking make the link!”

Point taken. 

Marriage Story is out on Netflix from 6 December.

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