While early in his career his performance in “Something Wild,” earned him a Golden Globe Award nomination, Ray Liotta actually shot to fame as a result of his role as real-life mobster Henry Hill in Martin Scorsese’s classic film “Goodfellas.”
Since then he has had roles in 60 feature films and although he is most noted for playing psychopathic characters, this intense actor is equally at home doing lighter roles such as in “The Muppets…Again,” and Judd Apatow’s comedy “Wanderlust,” but always played with the same amount of that potential volcanic eruption.
He has had roles in “The Place Beyond the Pines,” “Date Night,” “Observe and Report,” “Smokin’ Aces,” “Hannibal,” “Blow,” and the baseball fantasy, Oscar-nominated “Field of Dreams,” which starred Kevin Costner.
One of Liotta’s latest films is “The Iceman” in which he plays ruthless mob boss Roy Demeo.
Directed by Ariel Vroman, the film is based on the notorious contract killer, Richard Kuklinski and stars Michael Shannon as Kuklinski and Winona Ryder as his wife Deborah. Other members of the cast include Chris Evans, David Schwimmer, Danny A. Abeckaser, John Ventimiglia, Robert Davi, and James Franco.
Liotta recently sat down with a select group of journalists to discuss, among other topics, his role in “The Iceman” and the following has been edited for content and continuity.
Ray, you seem to enjoy playing sociopathic characters and you’re really great at developing those characters…. (Cuts off question)
Liotta: I don’t know if I enjoy it. That’s kind of an assumption.
I’m sorry. I’ll rephrase. So, what draws you to those characters?
Liotta: It’s what’s offered. They’re fun. I’ve never been in a fight in my life so it’s fun to play something that’s different. Luckily there’s been other kinds of movies but bad guys seem to stand out. I like acting. I like playing pretend. You know, it’s no more or no less than that. It’s exhausting. It’s harder than you would think to be all wound up at 6 o’clock in the morning and you’re the first scene up and you gotta’ be this intense character. It’s exhausting.
So how do you decompress at the end of the day?
Liotta: You don’t totally – it kind of stays with you every day. In the beginning, it was real method and then you realize, as you get older, that if you just use your imagination, it’s gonna be there. But, I just keep to myself. I don’t go out. There’s a lot of people who after work go to dinner but I just like to go home and get room service, watch some TV, some mindless stuff, and just get ready for the next day.
You’ve been getting a lot of work. Do you want to keep working this hard?
Liotta: I must have a good manager (laughter). A lot of my roles are supporting parts like this one and there are different ones. I just did one with “The Muppets,” I did one where I’m a preacher. I did something in “Sin City.” They’re all different. I like to work. I have responsibilities. There’s the realities of life. I would love just to do one or two (films) and make what I have to make in order to survive and call it a day. But, careers in this business is challenging.
What do you love about acting?
Liotta: Playing pretend. It’s an interesting challenge to make something that doesn’t exist appear like it’s happening and to do it in a real way that the audience, for two hours, is lost in a movie and not looking at your cell phone or thinking about what you had to eat. The point is to get lost in the movie experience. It’s like reading a book. I love gettin’ lost in a book where time just flies. It’s just a fun way to make a living.
In the film, you are Richard Kuklinski’s boss. Michael Shannon is quote an imposing man and his character is steely. Were you ever intimidated by him?
Liotta: What are you f….. nuts? (laughter) No. First of all, it’s make believe. I’ve been very fortunate to work with great actors like Robert Duvall, Gene Hackman, De Niro, Tony Hopkins, and Pacino.This was early on and you see them forget a line or you see them frustrated, or you see them come up with an idea that doesn’t make sense. Behind what you guys see, or what the image of the actor is, you see the human being, who happens to be an actor, and if you take it from that point of view, they’re just people. I’m sure you guys think of that. You might think he’s so intense that I’m afraid and then when he leaves the room, you might think that’s some of the stupidest stuff I’ve ever heard and the veil is lifted.
You’ve worked with some of the most famous directors in the world. When they give you a script, do they leave you alone and let you work, or do they give you a lot of character direction?
Liotta: Most directors say that the big part of a movie is the casting. That’s why it’s such a long, arduous process sometimes. If they cast the person with the right kind of energy and ability that the actor can put into the role, then you might have some have rehearsals. Some you never have rehearsals. You just talk maybe over the phone. You show up and you do it. The biggest directors I’ve worked with are the ones who are the most excited and enthused in creating this make-believe situation. The energy they have and the passion, especially the best directors; it’s catchy when you see how excited they are.
Did you always want to be actor?
Liotta: No. I had no idea what I wanted to do. I played sports in high school. I didn’t want to go to college. My dad said go to college and take whatever you want so I got into the University of Miami because basically, you just needed a pulse to get in there, at least at that time. I was just going to take liberal arts and when I got up to the line in registration, I saw that you had to take some math and history. I thought there’s no way I’m taking math and history. I don’t even want to be here. Right next to it, was the line for the Drama Department for theatre. I had a class in high school that me and my friend Gene took and we just kind of messed around and it was goofy and wasn’t challenging. I’m not proud of this, but that’s what it was. So I said I’ll be a drama major because I figured I was just going to be there for a year. Anyhow, there was this really pretty girl and she asked if I was auditioning for the play and I say no. She said it was all about the plays and that I had to do the play. She said she was going to be there so I went and auditioned and got in and the first thing I did was a dancing waiter in “Cabaret.” Because I didn’t want to do it, I didn’t care what people thought. I didn’t know anybody. There was an acting teacher by the name of Buckets and they called him Buckets because of basketball – put it in the bucket – he was like a guy’s guy. He had dark colored glasses on, not rose (referring to your reporter’s glasses). I loved his energy and what he had to say. Anyway, I decided I liked it (acting) and just kept coming back and here I am.
When you were at the University of Miami, were they teaching a specific discipline like Stanislavsky?
Liotta: Yes. Stanislavsky. But then, when I graduated after four years, I got on a soap opera really quick. After three-and-a-half years, I quit the soap and moved out here (Los Angeles). I was 25 or 26 and there was an acting teacher that really solidified it for me – Harry Mastrogeorge – and I stayed with him for like 12-14 years. I mean even once I started working, as soon as I finished the movie, I was right back in class.
What was his discipline?
Liotta: We were just playing pretend. We were playing a children’s game but at an adult level, but with children’s rules. A lot of teachers teach with the assumption that you can’t do it so because you can’t do it, I’m going to give you a method to do it. Harry’s whole thing was if a kid could do it, like Shirley Temple or Drew Barrymore pretending that ET is a thing, then adults should be able to do the same thing. How much experience did they have? And, then if you have kids or grandkids or whatever, you watch your kids play. I used to watch my daughter play with her friends who would pretend they were supermarket shopping with their babies. They had the carriages and they were going around and I swear to God, I almost wanted to come by and get like a sandwich from the make believe people they were talking to. And really, that’s all it is.
Your daughter is 14. Do you allow her to see the films where you play a violent character?
Liotta: She wanted to see “Goodfellas” (laughter). But she was of age so it starts and I start with the narration, and then there’s the whole thing with the kid and I narrate, and then there’s some other scenes and I’m narrating it and then they finally show the shot of me and I start narrating it and she says “Oh my God, would you shut up already?” (laughter). Like I wasn’t even in the room – like she didn’t give a crap about it. She likes some of the perks but I don’t make her watch my movies or anything like that.
Is there one character in particular that lingered a while after the shoot?
Liotta: Yeah. There was one. Officer Pete Davis in “Unlawful Entry” was like that because the character I played was a real racist. I remember coming home from work and just felt horrible about the stuff I had to say and do. When that was over with, it wasn’t like all of a sudden I was a racist or something because that’s not me at all, but that one was a particularly nasty character. Sometimes when you play bad guys, especially early on in my career, I held on to things longer and tighter, it gets a little obsessive.
You’ve been famous for a long time. Would someone come up to you or would they be intimidated?
Liotta: Earlier people would sometimes get like that. Last night, I went to pick up my daughter, and she was with all these kids. She had told me that certain friends of hers wanted to meet me because they see me in the movies. So, there’s like 20 kids and all of them put their heads in the window and they all just wanted to meet me but they were kinda’ a little intimidated. “Hi Mr. Liotta.” But they’re of the age where they’re affected, but it’s gonna be great because probably Karsen will never date, which is good for me (laughter).