Actor Ray Liotta passed away much too soon this week at the age of sixty-seven. I interviewed him in early 2003 when he came to Seattle to promote his new film Narc, which was his debut project as a producer. At the time I was a film critic for a Seattle alternative newspaper called Tablet which is both gone and forgotten.
Narc was great and so was Liotta. I spoke to him at a point when Narc was critically acclaimed and his gamble to self-produce his own film was really paying off. He was both reflective and enthusiastic, and it was a real pleasure to spend some time with him.
Here’s the article, rescued from the memory hole. I think it’s a good read.
The Glitter and the Glue
Actor Ray Liotta made a big first impression when he burned his way through Something Wild. With his wiry intensity and starburst eyes, he was by turns funny, cool, and terrifying. In Scorcese’s Goodfellas he turned up as mobster Henry Hill, delivering the second great performance of his career. Movie buffs tend to point to DeNiro and Pesci’s work in that film as the most memorable, but Liotta transcended the violent mob shenanigans with a portrayal of a real guy who takes one step after another towards disintegration. His hungry, angry, but sympathetic voiceover in Goodfellas is one of the best such efforts in film. Liotta has been working steadily in film after film in the years since Goodfellas, a reliable supporting actor.
But Ray Liotta has had enough. He and his wife decided to get into the movie-producing business, so Liotta could deliver the kinds of performances in the kinds of parts he was born to play. Their first producing effort, Narc, is in theatres now — and it gives Liotta his third acting masterwork in film.
I spoke with Ray Liotta when he came through town to promote Narc. After seeing him bulked-up and blustery in that film, I was surprised to find Liotta his old wiry, energetic self. The guy is a great talker, and we had a great talk.
Tablet: Seen any good movies lately?
Ray Liotta: No, I haven’t. I have a three and a half year old and I like to be hands-on with her, so basically the movies I see with her are like Spider-Man, Lilo & Stitch. There are a lot of good movies out now but I’ve been busy with Narc and haven’t really had time. Have you seen Punch-Drunk Love?
RL: How is it?
Tablet: I liked it a lot. It’s a very strange movie and very off-kilter and so forth. I think it’s really sweet. I saw it again last night.
RL: Just for the hell of it?
Tablet: Some friends of mine were going to see it so I went along. The film makes me happy, actually.
RL: I’m really looking forward to seeing it. I really like Paul Thomas Anderson.
Tablet: Yeah, it’s good stuff. So one thing I wonder about right off the bat is: why become a producer?
RL: I wasn’t really pleased with some of the stuff I was getting and I wanted to be more pro-active. So I changed agencies and formed this production company with my wife, Michelle Grace, and a partner, Diane Nabatoff, to start looking around.
I told my new agency to just give me any scripts they had that were unattached. I didn’t mind if there was a director or writer but I don’t want any producer or studio attachment because that’s too many cooks in the kitchen.
It just happened that the first thing across my desk was Narc. I really responded to it. I loved the story. It really reminded me of a 70’s movie with the anti-hero thing, it wasn’t just black and white, it was brutal, it was honest. I liked the idea of taking on a character like that. I knew physically what I would have to change to look different and I liked that aspect of it. Also, it moved me. I cried at the end. It really affected me. I met up with Joe Carnahan, the writer-director of the project, and I really liked his sensibilities.
Then all of a sudden I got parts in Hannibal, Heartbreakers, Blow, and John Q, so my career was coming back around. There was a period there where I wasn’t very pleased with the stuff I was coming across but you gotta work on your craft and make a living. Now I thought: you know what, I’m protected because I’m doing these big studio movies, so I can spend some time making Narc happen.
I just couldn’t get that script out of my mind. My wife really responded to it too and just wouldn’t let it go. So when I started into the usual machinations of loving something, and then doubting it, questioning it, all that bullshit actors go through, I just said fuck it and did it.
Tablet: What was it like talking to studios as a producer with your own project, instead of as an actor?
RL: There were no studios. Joe tried to get this thing made before and was turned down everywhere. Nobody knew him, so he was just rejected by everybody. I came on board, and my career wasn’t exactly on fire at that time, so we basically decided to just go off and make this movie on our own for three million bucks.
Then the money dried up and there was this whole horrible thing two weeks into it, people weren’t getting paid, I wasn’t getting paid, so we decided to forego our salaries. And that’s why there are so many producers credited on the thing, because we had to go out and raise money to keep the shoot alive, and everybody that puts up money wants something in return, they want their name on the picture as a producer. [Narc’s credits list fourteen executive producers.] But we had good momentum going on the set, and who knew what was going to happen, so we didn’t want to stop for three months and try to start up again.
As it turned out, the new producers we got were really busy with another film in New York at the time that was having a lot of problems, so nobody said anything to us about our film! What you see up there is what we wanted, what Joe had in mind.
Tablet: Your character has got this really amazing physicality to him. Whenever he’s on screen he’s like the biggest thing in the room. How did that come about?
RL: When the agent gave me the script, he obviously talked to Joe first, and Joe said he thought I’d be great as Oak. So I was reading it and I’m thinking oh man, this Oak is a bad guy, although I realize too that one minute I’m putting a pool ball in a sock and beating the shit out of somebody and the next I’m telling the guy if you hurt your wife and kids again, you’re dead. So Oak’s a really complicated, interesting man.
Joe said, “I want you to have a goatee and I just want you to look different.” And it’s like when a director says, “I want you to do this faster.” You know, what the hell does that mean? So I broke down the script. There’s that scene where I’m talking in the car about how I became a better cop the day my wife died, because I didn’t give a shit anymore about anything else. I realized he was like that about everything, he was so intense and wound up, just looking for the bad guy. That’s why I put these bags under my eyes, looking tired, because he probably slept three or four hours and then went back to his obsession.
Also, he’s not a guy who goes home and makes a salad for himself, you know? He eats burgers and pizza and lets himself go, he just doesn’t care. So I put on about twenty-five pounds and used little movie tricks. I wanted to be taller, the name is Oak, it just seemed big, so I had this long coat I always wore. Joe asked me to take it off for one scene and I said no, but he insisted, and when I took off the coat it all went away. It didn’t work. With the coat on and everything Oak was just hulking, plus he had those black gloves on all the time. I also shaved my hair back and made it thinner.
Tablet: Yeah, it looked like he was always nursing a hangover.
RL: No, I don’t think he was a guy who drank much. I think it was just lack of sleep and obsession.
Tablet: How do you think the film stands out from the usual Hollywood cop movies?
RL: We got one of the nicest compliments. Paramount bought the movie when it was done, and the head of the studio, Sherry Lansing, is married to director William Friedkin. Friedkin said it was one of the best cop movies he’d ever seen. I just wanted to throw that in there — it doesn’t really answer your question!
I think what makes it different from the usual is the whole style we did it in: the grittiness, the anti-hero character, everything’s gray, one minute I’m beating a guy with a pool ball and the next I’m crying about my wife, the big twist at the end. Now at its core, this is a cop movie, it’s a whodunit. But it’s smartly filmed with great twists and turns, and it’s got really great character work. Jason Patric’s character, he’s an ex-junkie cop and he’s been suspended for this awful shooting, and then you see him just holding his baby in the shower and it’s amazing, it’s beautiful.
When I asked Joe how he wanted to shoot the film, he said he wanted it like The French Connection, a sort of John Cassevetes style. We shot it hand-held, maybe 80% of the footage was shot off the cameraman’s shoulder, walking and moving around with us in the scene. We used natural lighting, low lighting, and gave it that blue kind of cold, lonely feel. Plus the music is really good, we got Cliff Martinez who does a lot of work for Steven Soderbergh, and thank God that Cliff did it for just a little money. Those guys usually get paid very well.
Tablet: Did you get involved in the casting process?
RL: Totally, totally. I’ve done it before as an actor where after you’re cast they test other actors with you to decide who else to hire. But this time I got to say yes and no. It’s nice as the producer to definitely put my stamp on it, though this is Joe’s movie and I supported him.
We didn’t know who to cast for the Tellis role. We met with some actors you would definitely know who just didn’t get it, they didn’t understand. Others had problems with the nature of the character, you know, everybody has places in their career where a character like Tellis fits or doesn’t fit.
Then Joe suggested Jason Patric, who hadn’t worked in like three years since My Friends and Neighbors. Once we met he was just such a good complement to what my guy is like that he was the right choice.
Tablet: On the set, what was it like working with Jason Patric?
RL: I’m not sure how he works. I was kind of methody on it. I just didn’t feel the need to become friends. My guy doesn’t really give a shit about him, he’s just using him to get knowledge about who the bad guys were. Jason likes to talk things out a lot so he spent a lot of time with Joe. I like to just be self-reliant and left alone. But it worked.
What’s great about Jason is he didn’t try to compete with my character. You know, sometimes you’re the glitter and sometimes you’re the glue. On Goodfellas I was the glue and Joe and Bob were the really flashy, extreme characters. This time I’m that way, and Jason didn’t compete or challenge. He knew who his guy was, he wasn’t confrontational, and he let my guy just steamroll over everybody. It takes a big actor to do that, and he did a great job.
And then aside from Busta Rhymes, the rest of the actors were from Canada. We were shooting in Toronto, and I don’t like shooting in Canada anyway. But now they insist if you’re going to shoot in Canada you have to use Canadian actors, and I’m like, fuck you, but it’s either that or leave. So the supporting cast were people we found up there. We had this little casting office up the stairs from this street with strip clubs in this really seedy area, and we just had these people come in and read and I felt really strongly about a few.
Tablet: You took this film to Sundance. Was that your first time there?
RL: Yeah, it was. Sundance is beautiful. I thought it was some big extravagant community but it was just this sweet little place. You can ski into town!
Sundance is where the movie really started to pop. Dustin Hoffman called us to say he liked it, so did Warren Beatty. There was this whole buzz that got going. Then Paula Wagner watched it and sent it to Tom Cruise, who’s her producing partner, and Tom called and said, “Anything I can do to help you guys,” and it was Cruise & Wagner’s involvement that got Paramount to see the film and they decided to buy it from Lion’s Gate.
Tablet: Did you feel a lot of pressure going into Sundance?
RL: No, no. We were proud of what we’d made. We thought it was a decent movie but had no expectations. We just didn’t know what would happen.
Lion’s Gate got involved back before shooting started, just based on the cast and the script, but they only put up half the budget and that was on completion, not up front. They made no guarantee whether it would be a theatrical release or an HBO movie or what. We really wanted a theatrical release and Sundance made that happen.
Tablet: And Paramount is releasing this for Oscar consideration for your performance, right?
RL: Yeah, Best Supporting Actor.
Tablet: The last thing I wanted to ask you about is a bit of a digression. I saw you just did the main character voice for the new Grand Theft Auto videogame.
RL: Yeah, yeah, that word’s out, huh? How’d you see it?
Tablet: I saw it in a review of the game. I played the last one.
RL: I’ve never played. I heard it’s a great game. I also heard it’s pretty raw. Well, I know it is, because I said the stuff! It’s out there. But I checked it out and saw there was a rating system like movies, so I figure people got the right to do what they want to do, and hell I did Goodfellas, it’s not like I haven’t done a movie that’s a little harsh. I figure as long as parents do their job then kids can do what they want.