INTERVIEW: Goodfellas Ray Liotta: and how I learned that you should never steal from a wise guy

by Andrew Phillips

Blood strewn, my hands grasp upwards, beating desperately against the door. Lost in the rush, my eyes didn't catch the year, but I know I'm in the trunk of a Cadillac. And I definitely know I've been messing with the wrong kind of people. I hear voices. Are they arguing about who's gonna bury me? I hear movement and the door lifts above me. I pull my eyes tight as the mix of moonlight and the sight of my own blood crash upon me. I fall to my knees. Slowing raising my head, I survey the faces of my attackers. In the blur I see sketched outlines of Ray Liotta, Joe Pesci and Robert DeNiro. I gasp the words, "Come on guys, I swear, I thought they were free, complimentary ... I mean how could I have known that they belonged to ..."

"Sure ya did kid." I feel the smack of steel against my skin and I lay flat. Oh god, how did I end up like this?

Ever since I was a kid, I wanted to talk to Ray Liotta. God of the gangster genre, he blew me away in Scorcese's Goofellas. I never quite shook off the intensity of that performance. Now, a more portly version of my idol is trotting across the screen in Paramount’s N.A.R.C. and I’ve got the chance to talk to him. Reeling with pride I hit the Ritz Carlton lobby 20 minutes early. Breathing the warm, scented air of the world’s most posh hotel, I slowly walk into the interior of the downstairs lounge. Swinging into a corner couch, I grab an ashtray from a table. I take slow drags of a cigarette, blowing uniform rings into the air. Through the smoke I’m approached by a hotel type, one of those duck suit guys.

“Here you are sir,” he says, and lightly places a pack of Marlboro Lights in front of me.

“God I love the Ritz,” I mutter, quickly pocketing the unforeseen freebie.

Minutes later I’m sitting in front of Liotta himself. He’s slimmed back down, eschewing the ballooned appearance in N.A.R.C. and instead sporting his slinky but strong Goodfellas look.

Before my customary, “so how long have they had you doing this today,” can escape my lips I’m cut off. Ray booms, sporting the perfect Jersey accent, “Hey you.”

A promotional agent approaches.

“Where are my cigarettes? I sent a guy back for them like 20 minutes ago. See if you can find him.”

I feel a chill across my legs, and a sudden burning in my pocket. A few minutes later the man in the duck suit emerges, walking straight to our table. My body tenses as I sense the presence of a three-foot shadow looming over me. I turn quickly expecting to find Joe Pesci lumbering over me with a golf club. To my relief it’s just a bit of the shrubbery straying from its roots. I turn back to the duck man, glance at Ray and hold my breath. I can’t believe I stole Ray Liotta’s cigarettes.

“I’m sorry sir, I must have misplaced your cigarettes, given them to the wrong person.” The duck man leans over handing Ray his smokes. Duck man vanishes and I’m left alone with my secret. Ray’s smiling, and I’m safe, or so it would seem.

Hatchet: You look great man. Did you gain all that weight for the movie?

Ray Liotta: Yeah I put on about 25 or 30 pounds. I shaved my hair back. It just felt like it was right for the role.

H: How could you alter your body like that? That’s crazy.

RL: I know. It was a little crazy. But it was just right for the part. I put on about 25 because I had done something before for HBO where I wore fat pads. I said ‘You know what, you could have fat pads, but if you’re face is still angular you look stupid.’ I just went for it. I just put on the weight.

H: Have you ever found it tough to play a truly messed up character?

RL: I remember one movie, Unlawful Entry, where it was really brutal, what I was doing to people. I remember really feeling sick and guilty after beating up a black guy. It was right after the whole Rodney King thing. It really made me see – it’s acting. That’s not who I am at all. I’ve only been in one fight my whole life and it was in seventh grade.

H: I read you were approached, I’m not sure when, to do some work on HBO’s “Sopranos.” You decided you didn’t want to do that.

RL: Having done Goodfellas, I mean that’s pretty much the ultimate in Mafia everyday life. And that show is pretty much structured around Tony Soprano. There was no way I was gonna shine. Tony says, “do this” and I race “oh, OK Tony.” Fuck you, you fat bastard. It just didn’t seem like the right thing to do. I love him as an actor. I think he’s great. But my ego’s as big as anybody’s. If it were DeNiro, I’d be like “OK Bob.” To go and do television is almost a step backwards.

H: Do you get approached to play a lot of mob characters?

RL: No, that genre seems to be dried up for awhile. I would, if the right project came along. At the beginning of my career, if I played a bad guy, I’d want to play a good guy. I’d heard about typecasting. Now, if another bad guy comes along, so be it. I just want to work. It’s what I do.

H: So you aren’t afraid of being typecast now?

RL: No. I have my Corrina Corrina. I have my Dominique and Eugene. I got to play Johnny Depp’s dad in Blow, who was a really nice guy.

H: And you got to hang out with the Muppets.

RL: Yeah. I had a scene with Miss Piggy. I did a Disney movie, Operation Dumbo Drop. I have enough other things. I think people always remember me for the intense characters. You eat your brain in Hannibal, and that gets a lot of attention.

H: I can’t imagine why. You’re a big influence on the African American community, especially with rap stars. They’ll allude to you in their songs.

RL: I’ve heard that. It’s flattering to be a part of pop culture. I didn’t plan on that. Goodfellas seems to be a rapper’s favorite.

H: Do you enjoy playing tough guys more?

RL: I’m not really a mean person. It’s always fun playing someone that’s soulful. I can relate to loving somebody and having confusion about relationships because we all go through that. So to play the bad guys, the tough guys, the ones that if you look at somebody they got to listen to you.

H: Then how do you psych yourself up to be that character?

RL: It’s pretend. It’s all really a state of mind. It really is.

H: Do you have a tough guy state of mind that you get in to?

RL: Yeah. Totally. You just play pretend. I know what my obligations are as an actor.

H: Do people think that you’re a tough guy, when they’re meeting you?

RL: I think at first they did. Now, thank God for cable and DVDs, people are seeing the other movies. I could be having the sunglasses on, wearing a leather coat being like, ‘What kid, what? Whatever, why are your hands crossed?’ I could play a whole thing. I’m just an actor and bad guys are just some of the guys that I get to play.

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