Ray Liotta comes off like a regular guy. Unlike a lot of actors, in conversation, he uses the word movie instead of the more pretentious film; after 25 years as an A–list star, the New Jersey native’s take on his profession is refreshingly rooted in reality. He refers to himself as a “journeyman.”
Liotta is being honored Oct. 30 by the Savannah Film Festival; he’ll be introduced at the Trustees Theater prior to a screening of his latest effort, the crime drama The Son of No One.
The picture stars young hunk Channing Tatum, with Liotta, Al Pacino, Katie Holmes and Juliette Binoche rounding out the over–the–title cast.
Liotta’s massive filmography includes more than a handful of classics. In Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas, he played mob informant Henry Hill; in Field of Dreams, he was baseball great Shoeless Joe Jackson.
He had major roles in Blow, Hannibal, Wild Hogs, John Q, Cop Land, Article 99, Heartbreakers, Smokin’ Aces, Youth in Revolt, Unforgettable, Observe and Report and dozens of others.
He memorably played Frank Sinatra in the HBO movie The Rat Pack.
He voiced Tommy Vicetti for the video game Grand Theft Auto: Vice City.
He won an Emmy for a guest spot on the TV drama E.R.
Liotta made his major film debut in Jonathan Demme’s Something Wild (1986), playing Melanie Griffith’s hot-tempered, violent ex–husband.
He was so intense, with his steely gaze, tight lips and explosive rage, critics and crowds took note; Liotta was nominated for a Golden Globe.
And an image was born.
He’s very aware that the public perception of him is as an edgy, volatile man with squinty eyes and a simmering temper.
His resumé, when you really look at it, puts the lie to that. And, as he says in our interview, it’s all about “playing pretend for a living.”
Coming soon from Liotta: The Details, with Tobey Maguire; Derek Cianfrance’s The Place Beyond the Pines (with Ryan Gosling), and Cogan’s Trade, opposite Brad Pitt and James Gandolfini.
You’re coming here ostensibly to plug The Son of No One. But you have five films in post–production, and two more you’re just starting. Are you ever not working?
Ray Liotta: Yeah, there’s periods. A lot of the work that I’m doing now is more supporting parts, so it’s not months of doing stuff. A couple weeks to maybe a week of doing things. You just take things as they come. So sometimes when it rains it pours, and then you can go for six months not doing anything.
What about The Son of No One?
Ray Liotta: That one was a longer run. And it’s a really good movie. And this new one, Snowmen, I’m really, really proud of. It’s a beautiful, beautiful movie. It’s a family story. My son thinks he’s still sick; he’s not, but he thinks he might die and he wants to be remembered. He’s 12 years old. We’re in Utah. So he decides that the best way to be remembered is to get into the Guinness Book of World Records. He wants to build the most snowmen ever built. And he realizes at the end of the day that’s it’s more how you live life, and how you treat others, that you’ll live on forever, by the people that you touch in a positive way.
Speaking of family films, I may be the only adult who saw Operation Dumbo Drop in a theater. Is this the sort of thing you like to do once in a while to prove to people you’re more than that edgy bad guy?
Ray Liotta: No, because I’m not like that as a person. Those are just parts that I tend to get. From Dominick and Eugene to Corrina Corrina to Dumbo Drop to Heartbreakers, I’ve done a bunch of movies like that. I’m in a movie with the Muppets. It’s just that people tend to remember the bad guys.
I’m not really out to prove a point, or dispel what somebody might think of me. It’s just I love playing pretend for a living, and the ultimate in that is to play as many different characters in different kind of movies.
Do you think that perception started with Something Wild?
Ray Liotta: But right after that was Dominick and Eugene, and that was a really beautiful movie. It’s just a matter of what movies are popular, what resonates in the box office. There’s so many movies out there. I’ve done over 80 movies now, so you can’t expect everybody to see every one of them.
I used to be on a soap opera. Some people just know me from that, where I was the nicest character in the world!
You once said that Goodfellas defined you as a screen persona. That’s the sort of role that people remember.
Ray Liotta: Yeah, but to really do it justice, Henry was the nicest guy out of all of them. Everybody else was killing; Henry didn’t kill anybody, he was just doing illegal activities. The only violence really occurred when somebody messed with his fiance, and he beats them up. It was Joe (Pesci) and Bob (DeNiro), they were the ones that were killing everybody.
So I’m not sure how it defines me, per se, maybe to be a part of a movie like that. Personally, I’ve never been in a fight in my whole life, so to me it’s something that I play, and it’s fun to do things that aren’t you.
If anything, I’m kind of flattered that people think that, because obviously it’s the pretending that they’re buying into. But at the end of the day, they’re just characters and movies that I’ve been cast in.
I remember Corrina Corrina, a tender drama with Whoopi Goldberg. That was right there in that pocket around Field of Dreams and Goodfellas, wasn’t it?
Ray Liotta: Yeah, what happens is people remember the bad characters, the bad guys, more, just because they’re doing bad things. And thank God that’s not part of what everybody does in life.
I’m not comparing in any stretch, but if you think about Gene Hackman, Robert Duvall, DeNiro or Pacino, any of those guys, you don’t remember the sweet, nice guys they played. It’s always the edgier kind of characters. Bob’s done Stanley and Iris and other movies where he’s played that.
And right away with Pacino you think of edgy characters from The Godfather to Scarface, but you know, he did Author, Author and Revolution and a bunch of other movies too. It’s just that the bad guys stand out in people’s minds.
How do you decide what you’re going to do? Is it big money, great director, great co–stars ...?
Ray Liotta: All of it. It depends on what’s going on in your life, where you’re at in your career ... now that I’m in my 50s it’s taking a whole different shape and form than what it did before. The types of movies that they’re currently making have a lot to say in terms of the choices you’re making. The fact that they’re not making as many independent movies, which I find much more interesting than some of the other ones.
You just kind of shape the career as you go along. There was no real game plan.
Let me ask you about playing Frank Sinatra in The Rat Pack. Was that a tough one for you?
Ray Liotta: Yeah, yeah, I turned it down a couple times because it was just too much to take on. He was still alive at the time, and everybody had an impression of him. But I just kinda let go of any kind of pre–conceived ideas that people might have, and decided to just go with it. And I’m so glad I did, because it was a great experience.
Any regrets? Dumbo Drop?
Ray Liotta: Naw, it was just a bad title. It was a good movie.
Ray Liotta Tribute
Sunday, Oct. 30 at 9:30 p.m., Trustees Theater
Screening: “The Son of No One”