Ray Liotta: Ray of Lightning
Just about everybody likes Ray Liotta. He’s always good in whatever he’s in. Unfortunately, a lot of what he’s in isn’t very good. Which is probably why Liotta was never able to capitalize on the success of his first big lead role in Goodfellas. After years of ups and downs, Liotta had high hopes that his self-produced crime drama, Narc, could put him back in the limelight. Despite mostly good reviews, the movie didn’t click with audiences and was overlooked by the big awards. In this interview from the December 2002 issue of Movieline magazine, Liotta talked about the trials and tribulations of producing a would-be comeback vehicle.
IF YOU WANT TO KNOW THE DIFFERENC BETWEEN WOMEN AND MEN, ASK THE TWO GENDERS ABOUT RAY LIOTTA. Women will talk about the tender father he played in Corrina, Corrina and the caring brother in Dominick and Eugene. They’ll swoon over the dreamy baseball player that Liotta captured so well in Field of Dreams. If they have kids, they’ll surely recall how much they loved him in Muppets from Space. Then they’ll casually bring up his piercing blue eyes, and go on about that for a while. Men immediately smile at the mention of his name and talk about Liotta’s psychotic intensity in Something Wild, his creepiness in Unlawful Entry, his sadism in Cop Land. They’ll remember, fondly, his turn as a rogue agent in Hannibal. And then they’ll launch into a 10-minute spiel about how great he was as mobster-turned-informer Henry Hill in GoodFellas.
One thing everyone does agree on, though, is that Ray Liotta is a terrific actor whose career has taken some weird turns. One day he’s hot, hot, hot, and then he does a series of dreck films that make us forget how fine he is. For instance, after GoodFellas, Liotta starred in Article 99. He followed up Corrina, Corrina with Operation Dumbo Drop, Unforgettable and Turbulence. You get the point. Liotta gets it, too. The 47-year-old actor runs his hands through his thick, gray-flecked hair and nods. “You know, I’ve made some mistakes, that’s for sure,” he says. “I came out of the box really strong and then my career took some serious dips. What happened was I’d do a film like GoodFellas and then all I’d be offered was crazies. I kept turning them down because I didn’t want to get typecast. I was a schmuck, I guess.”
Things are looking up for Liotta once again. And this time, he swears he’s going to take it as far as he can. He left his longtime agent (“He was at one of the alphabet agencies,” Liotta says, “and I realized I needed someone who would work with me a little closer”) and decided to go into business with his wife, actress/producer Michelle Grace. The first movie they produced, Narc, stars Liotta and Jason Patric as undercover agents investigating the murder of Liotta’s partner.
“Michelle read the script and flipped,” Liotta recalls. “I’ll tell you, I have this weird way of reading a script, where I’m always looking for a reason not to do it. But Michelle’s got a good eye and she let me go through my machinations. This script was such a good read, and it had a great twist at the end that I didn’t see coming and I could not, for the life of me, figure out a reason why I should pass on it. And then we realized we could produce it.”
Narc, which screened at Sundance last January, is so tight that it leaves you breathless. Liotta, who gained 20 pounds for the part (“Chinese food and beer,” he says with a laugh), is his usual mesmerizing self. It’s a role he was born to play–part out-of-control, part loving friend, part who-the-hell-knows-what-he’s-thinking. It is sure to propel Liotta back into the limelight.
The film, which was made for about $3 million, almost didn’t get finished because the money kept drying up. But everyone decided to just keep working until it was in the can. Then people in the industry started asking to see it–Warren Beatty, Dustin Hoffman, David Geffen. Everyone liked it and kept passing it on to a friend. Sherry Lansing got a copy, loved it and showed it to her husband, director William Friedkin. They gave it to Paula Wagner (Tom Cruise’s partner), who adored it and gave it to Cruise. He loved it, and they both came aboard as executive producers, with Paramount releasing. Liotta can hardly contain his happiness. “Sometimes in life, all the right things come together,” he says, “and Narc is one of those times for me.” After Narc, he’ll make his return to a big budget film with the thriller Identity, in which he costars with John Cusack and William Lee Scott.
Liotta, who was adopted when he was six months old, says that being happy means he gets to spend more time with his wife and four-year-old daughter Karsen. He admits he was a homebody before he even had a family, and that he’s delighted to spend most of his time swimming with his daughter or pushing her on the swings at their house near Malibu. He remains close with his father (his mother died while he was making GoodFellas) and his sister, whom he helped pick out at the orphanage when he was three and she was six months old. Liotta began acting because a girl he thought was cute asked him if he was trying out for the play that night (this was at the University of Miami in the early ’70s). Having no experience didn’t stop him–he went in and sang a song from Pippin, the only show he had ever seen. He got the part and never looked back. “Acting came to me at the right time in my life,” he says, “and I have been blessed by being able to do it for all these years.”
Being blessed with big Hollywood jobs usually means being blessed with great fortune. What does he splurge on? “I like a nice car, with a really good sound system. I don’t really know anything about sound systems, but my father-in-law does, so when I got a four-wheel-drive BMW, he took it in and got this killer system installed.”
What, no power boats or mini-jets? “I’m not cheap by any means,” he says, “but there aren’t too many things I want. I think of my house as a good investment. I like fine wine, and I’ll always pay for that. And I like buying my wife nice pieces of jewelry. She looks great in them–she looks great in anything. Or nothing! And I buy her nice clothes. My dad was like that with my mom, and I saw how happy it made her.” Then Liotta knocks on wood two times, not wanting to jinx this wonderful new time in his life.
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