Ray Liotta: The Empire Interview

Ray Liotta, Empire, October 2012

by Simon Braund |
Updated on

Ray Liotta appeared in well over a hundred films and TV shows, and in 2012 he sat down with Empire for an in-depth look back across his then thirty-year career. There was Goodfellas , of course, and Something Wild , Field of Dreams and the new-at-the-time Killing Them Softly , but the wide-ranging conversation also turned to some of his lesser-known or less appreciated work... Just a decade later, with the sudden and unexpected news of Liotta's death , here’s a look back to that evening in a Los Angeles restaurant, when a movie world without him seemed unthinkable.

This feature originally appeared in the October, 2012 issue of Empire.

Ray Liotta recently had the opportunity to see Goodfellas on the big screen with his 13-year-old daughter. They were together at the Aruba International Film Festival, where Martin Scorsese's 1990 masterpiece was receiving a special showcase. It was the first time she'd seen it. "Dad," she said, as the lights came up, "were you a heartthrob?" Of course, true to his Newark, New Jersey, roots, he demurred. In fact, Liotta was, and is, something more rare and valuable than a mere heartthrob: he's a superb character actor with the charisma of a movie star.

Liotta graduated from the University Of Miami and began his professional career on the TV soap Another World. He broke into movies relatively late, only making an impression at the age of 32 with 1986's Something Wild. But what an impression it was. His portrayal of Ray Sinclair, Melanie Griffith's psychotic husband, is one of the most memorable of the decade, establishing his reputation for seething on-screen menace. He proved his versatility with the underrated indie Dominick And Eugene the following year and hit the jackpot in 1989 by landing the role of mobster Henry Hill in GoodFellas, one of the finest gangster films ever made, thanks in no small part to Liotta's electrifying performance.

Since then, his career has taken its good and bad turns - as he freely admits - but, no matter the quality of the material, Liotta is never less than riveting, investing even more subdued roles with quiet intensity.

Having met with him in Aruba, Empire rejoins the actor in Los Angeles, and to maintain the GoodFellas vibe, we talk over dinner at Hollywood's legendary Musso & Frank's restaurant. It proves the perfect setting; it's easy to imagine Henry, Jimmy and Tommy shooting the shit at one of its dimly lit red leather booths, or propping up the bar with a lethal martini or two. Appropriate, too, given he returns to the genre so impressively in this month's Killing Them Softly.

Liotta's lived in LA for years now, but there's still something of the edgy New Jerseyite about him. He talks a blue streak and when he laughs his trademark maniacal cackle, his face distorts into that familiar rictus grimace. He's a terrific raconteur and - yes- a funny guy.

You began acting at the University Of Miami. Did you go there to study drama?

No. I was going to take liberal arts, but I had to take history and math, which I didn't want to do. I was in line for registration and - typical actor's story - I saw this girl in line for drama. I knew if you took drama you didn't have to do history and math, so I got in line. We got talking and she said, "Are you going out for the play?" I said, "No." She said, "What are you in this line for? It's all about doing plays." I had done a drama class in high school, just messing around, and I hated it. But because of her I went out for the play. I became a singing waiter in Cabaret. To this day I don't know how I did it. I remember the audition, the director was yelling at me, "You should be dancing!" I'd seen this group Freddie And The Dreamers, so I just started doing The Freddie.

Were you bitten by the bug?

No! It was horrible! I played Friedrich in The Sound Of Music, with the lederhosen and everything. Horrible! But there was one acting teacher they called Buckets because he used to play basketball. I enjoyed working with him and doing scenes in class.

And you obviously had talent

I guess. I just responded to playing pretend.

Soon after college you landed the role of Joey Perrini on the long-running TV soap Another World .

I got an agent and I was auditioning, coming out here for screen tests. And then Another World came along. I was like, "No way I'm gonna do a soap, are you kidding?" I wanted to do movies. But my dad, being a Depression baby, said, "You gotta do it; it's a living." So I auditioned, I got the part and it turned out to be a great experience.


Yeah, because there were some really great actors in it. I learned so much, and once I committed to it, it was all I thought about, all I wanted to do.

Why did you quit?

I'd done three years. I was 25 years old and I still wanted to do movies. I'd gone to college with Steven Bauer, who at that time was married to Melanie Griffith. Melanie let me have her place out here when she and Steven moved to New York, and she turned me on to this acting coach, Harry Mastrogeorge. And I really responded to him. You know how some people become gym rats? Through Harry I became a theatre rat.

And it all paid off when you made your screen debut in 1983's The Lonely Lady.

(Cackles with laughter) Yeah, raping Pia Zadora with a garden hose! That was bizarre. I had to audition for it in Harold Robbins' office (the film was based on a Harold Robbins novel) and I did the scene with the casting agent, sitting there with her head in the script while I'm pretending to rape Pia Zadora with a hose. I spent three weeks in Rome, then I came back and, nothing, I was back to class.

That year you also played Sacha the bartender in the TV spin-off of Casablanca , starring David Soul as Rick.

That was a nothing part. All I really remember is David Soul liking his Budweiser and sleeping in his motorhome because he was going through a divorce.

Very much not a nothing part was Ray Sinclair, Melanie Griffith's psycho hubby in 1986's Something Wild. That movie put you on the map. Did it come to you or did you fight for it?

I'd heard about the role in class, guys asking me whether I was up for it. I talked to my agent but he couldn't get me an audition. My parents were both involved in politics and they said, "You've got to make some calls." It turned out Melanie was already on board, and she had some say in casting, so I finally called her. That was hard; I wanted to do things by myself, but she called Jonathan Demme (director) and said, "I really want you to meet Ray. So I met with Jonathan and he had me read. He called me back to do a scene with Jeff Daniels. That night I was watching Johnny Carson and Jeff was on promoting The, and he'd just done Terms Of Endearment with Debra Winger and Jack Nicholson. I'm doing my push-ups, getting ready and getting nervous. But I went in and I was ready! I did everything Harry taught me and everything Buckets taught me. I did a scene where I was just raging at him. I walked out and I felt good. I got a call from Jonathan that day asking me to meet him for lunch. It was Super Bowl Sunday and we met at Hugo’s on Santa Monica. He said, "I've got it narrowed down to a couple of people, you included, and I'm going to make a decision the middle of the week." Monday comes, I'm already getting anxious. Tuesday to me is the middle of the week so I'm thinking, "I guess it didn't work out." Wednesday, and still nothing. I'm like, "Fuck it. Here I am, 30 years old, haven't even done a movie yet." Thursday I get a call and Jonathan tells me I got it. I think I cried.

You got noticed in Something Wild. Did it open doors?

That's where things really started for me; it was such a great role. But I was aware of typecasting. I was being offered some really good movies, but I didn’t want to play that part again.

Is that what attracted you to Dominic And Eugene?

Yeah, because it was totally different. I played a medical student. Tom Hulce played my brain-damaged twin brother. It was just a beautiful story, and Tom was unbelievable, how he didn’t get nominated is beyond me. But it was a little independent movie that never really caught on.

Was that a disappointment, having turned down some big movies to do it?

Yeah, no question.

Your next major role must have been some consolation: baseball legend Shoeless Joe Jackson in Field Of Dreams.

I read the script and thought, "Okay, this guy builds a baseball field and these ghosts come out of the corn. Hmm..." But Kevin was already cast and I knew him because a group of us - me, Kevin, Steven Bauer and Andy Garcia - used to play paddle tennis together. James Earl Jones was cast and so was Amy Madigan, who I'd done a TV movie with. So I thought, "Okay, dead baseball players, but this has got some really great actors in it - never mind Burt Lancaster!”

That was one of his last movies; did you get to talk to him?

I didn't have any scenes with him, unfortunately. But the first day he came to set I came down specially to watch him - my God, it was Burt Lancaster! I was still a young actor, just taking it all in.

Next up was the role of a lifetime: Henry Hill in GoodFellas. What was your first inkling Scorsese was interested?

My agent set up a meeting with Marty, who'd seen me in Something Wild. Every actor in town wanted that part. I was nervous, but you didn't have to read for him. We just sat and talked.

Why did he pick you?

Dominick And Eugene was at the Venice Film Festival. I was at the Excelsior Hotel looking down into the lobby, and there was this commotion. Turned out it was Marty. He was there with The Last Temptation Of Christ, and because of the controversy he had bodyguards. I didn't know if I was still in the running for GoodFellas, but I'd sent him a VHS of Dominick And Eugene so I wanted to make a connection. I was running towards him shouting, "Hey, Marty!" and his bodyguards grabbed me and shoved me away. I was like, "No, no. I'm sorry, I just wanted to say hi to Marty." He told me later that was the moment he decided to cast me.

Because his bodyguards roughed you up?

Because of how I reacted. He'd seen Something Wild and thought I might be too aggressive for Henry. Henry was kind of an errand boy, he was never a made guy; he'd never have got anywhere with an attitude like Ray Sinclair’s.

You were still relatively unknown. Was there any opposition from the studio?

Well, Warners, as studios do, wanted the hottest name they could get. When Bob (De Niro) signed on I guess they had their hook. They had Bob and Joe (Pesci) and Marty, the people who had done Raging Bull, so they had the freedom to cast me.

GoodFellas quad poster
©Warner Bros.

Is it true Scorsese didn't want you to meet Henry Hill before you started shooting?

I asked him if I could meet with Henry and he said, "No, let's stick with the script." But I met with Nick Pileggi (author of Wiseguy, on which GoodFellas was based). I went to his apartment and asked him a thousand questions, and he had all these tapes of Henry talking. I studied and studied those.

What did you get from them?

I remember one thing was real annoying: he was chewing potato chips the whole time, this really loud crunching noise. And he had absolutely no pretence, casually relating things you or I would find horrifying - "Yeah, Tommy got pissed off so he whacked the guy, and that was that." It was all matter-of-fact to him. It's like when I played a heart surgeon (in Article 99), you find out those guys listen to the radio when they're doing open heart surgery. It's just routine for them, same with Henry.

And you did meet him after the movie came out?

I got a call saying he wanted to meet me, so I met him at a bowling alley in the Valley. He was there with his brother, this huge scary-looking guy. They both sat with their backs to the wall; I guess he could've got whacked any time. We joked around and he said, "Thanks for not making me a scumbag." I was like (under his breath), "Did you see the movie?"

How did he strike you?

He seemed a little defeated. He didn't have that swagger he has in the movie. And by then he was into drugs and partying hard. I saw him years later at a photo shoot. They wanted actors who had played real people. They shot me and Henry in an alleyway with a Cadillac. And he was just looped, reeking of booze, kind of a loud, rowdy drunk. I saw him one more time after that. I was going to a restaurant in Venice with a friend and I hear this voice, "Ray! Ray!" and it was Henry, slumped against a tree, just fucked up. He tried to talk but I couldn’t understand a word he was saying. That was the last time I saw him.

It looks as if there's going to be a GoodFellas TV show. Lorraine Bracco has said she thinks there's a story, and that she'd consider a cameo. How about you?

I don't think there's any more to be told. I don't even know what he did after GoodFellas. Maybe it's a series about a guy who's drunk as a skunk against a tree in Venice. Maybe that's a compelling story, I don't know.

Heading up that cast and working with Scorsese must have been quite an experience.

It was incredible, and Marty's enthusiasm is so exhilarating. But it was offset by the fact my mom was really sick, in the final months of her life with cancer. She died halfway through the shoot.

That must have been devastating.

It was. But the movie got pushed back so I was out in New Jersey waiting to start, and I got to spend a lot of time with her.

What are your memories of the 'Funny how?' scene?

That wasn't in the script. We were sitting around in rehearsal and Joe, who is a great storyteller, told us about this time he was with some guys who were 'in the business'. One of them said something and Joe said, "That's a funny story," and the guy turned on him, fucking with him. Marty though it would be great to put it in the movie. We rehearsed it, me and Joe improvising, and then Marty wrote it out.

Did you realise at the time it was destined to be one of the greatest scenes in cinema history?

No, not at all (laughs).

Joe Pesci hasn't done anything in ages.. .

He did that thing about the Bunny Ranch with Helen Mirren (Love Ranch). And he did a Snickers commercial, which was great!

Are you disappointed when Scorsese makes a movie and doesn't call you?

Sometimes (laughs). The Departed came my way but I couldn't do it because I was committed to something else. And there was a part in The Aviator that, again, I couldn't do. I get a little jealous, especially of Leo. But apart from those two there hasn't been anything I was right for.

Not Casino ?

There was, but it would've been too close to home, and that was Bob kind of doing the Henry part.

What impact did GoodFellas have on your career?

Not as much as you'd think. You know, it didn't really open that big. It opened okay, but back then if your movie did ten million over the weekend it was a big deal.

You got to work with De Niro again on 1997's Cop Land****__ . That was a great movie and a terrific cast, but it was Stallone who got all the acclaim. How did it feel being schooled by Rocky?

(Laughs) He's not really Rocky. He's a great guy, funny as shit. It didn't surprise me what a good actor he is; the surprise was more that he was cast in that role. You don't think of Sly as an insecure, overweight cop wannabe. But he gained the weight and he did what he had to do, and it worked!

In 1998 you played Frank Sinatra in the HBO film The Rat Pack, a role you'd previously turned down several times.

I was offered it a few times by Sinatra's daughters, but I had no desire to do it. And I turned down The Rat Pack a bunch of times, too. Basically, I was afraid of what people would say. But I remember Harold telling me that what really messes an actor up is worrying about what people are gonna say. They offered it to me again, and nothing was happening for me at the time, so I thought, "Why not? I'm from New Jersey, I know how to say 'Fuck you'". I didn't have to sing, and Sinatra was intense so I took it on.

What kind of reaction did you get?

I remember we were doing a scene and all of a sudden the director brings in this fake horse's head, like from The Godfather . Everyone's really tense and I'm getting nervous, like, "Oh my God, am I gonna get..." It turned out Tina Sinatra had sent it as a joke. I looked at it and there were all these signatures of big actors who Tina had fucked with. So I signed the horse's head. That was really the only reaction I got. Sinatra was dying at the time, so I didn't hear anything from him. We did the premiere in Vegas. Angie Dickinson, Quincy Jones and all these Sinatra friends saw it. They came up and said stuff, but who knows if they mean it.

Your career has had its ups and downs. Most people would pinpoint Operation Dumbo Drop as a low point...

And it's a good movie! Horrible title, but it was a good movie, and it did good business. (Cackles) I was in Vegas one time and went backstage to meet Don Rickles; never met the guy in my life. As soon as he saw me he said, "Nice move, Dumbo Drop." Sometimes you've just gotta pay the rent. Life goes on, careers change. I'd hate to be a young actor starting out now. I remember Tim Burton wanted to meet me for Batman. I was like, "Are you fuckin' kiddin' me?! I'm a serious actor, I'm not playing fucking Batman!" But at some point you realise it's all playing pretend, whether it’s Batman or GoodFellas or Dumbo Drop.

Things took a real upswing for you in the early 2000s...

Yeah, I did Heartbreakers with Gene Hackman, Blow with Johnny Depp, Hannibal for Ridley Scott...

In which you became the only actor in history to eat his own brain on screen.

Unbelievable scene! People walked out of the theatre when they saw that. It made me sick.

What were you actually eating?

They asked me what I wanted and I figured it had to be something repulsive, so I went for dark-meat chicken.

In 2002 you also did Joe Carnahan's Narc which is, arguably, the best of the bunch.

A great movie. I had changed agents and the first day they gave me that script. I thought, "Wow!" That twist in the end, I didn't see coming. And it moved me emotionally. I met with Joe and he'd only done one movie, but you knew he had it down.

With Killing Them Softly, do you feel you're on another upswing right now?

Yeah. I met Andrew Dominik after Chopper came out, and we met up over the years; I was doing a movie in Calgary while he was shooting Jesse James . Killing Them Softly came up and I read for it. I don't care about auditioning. If there's something I want to do, I'll audition. I know so many actors who won't. They have to have an offer and they lose out on things. So I read for it and it came my way, and thank God for that. It's nice because everyone else is the bad guy, not me. They all come to beat the shit out of me.

A bit of a role reversal.

That's why I liked it.

How do you view your career these days? Are you still precious about roles?

Yeah, but there comes a point where you realise the chances of certain things happening and certain things not happening, and you just go about it for the work. Maybe I shouldn't have been so precious to begin with; maybe I should've taken more roles like_Something Wild_. You never know. I'm much more open now. And I'm as hungry as I ever was. But you've got to play the game. You can be as artsy as you like, but you've got to play the game to beat them at the game. I'm sure there'll be another Dumbo Drop , but as long as it gets me another movie, I don't give a shit.

If you were offered a big superhero now, would you do it?

In a second!

Would you do a Snickers commercial?

(Laughs) Probably, if the money was right.

Finally: what did your daughter think of GoodFellas ?

She thought it was the best movie she's ever seen.

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