by Jennifer Quail
photography by Roger Erickson
He has played some of the most sinister, charismatic and heart-wrenching characters that have come to the big screen in the past few decades. Roles that, in lesser hands, could have easily suffered very one-dimensional fates. But Ray Liotta’s talent lies in delving beyond the façade to what lies beneath. His portrayals are consistent reminders that good and bad are not simple words and that there is cause behind every effect. It’s the complexity of human nature that Liotta masters every time. He thrusts his characters’ very humanness at us so smoothly and flawlessly, that we feel for them, regardless of whether they’ve been labeled good or bad. Be they mobsters, doctors, cops on the right and wrong side, loving fathers of drug lords, dishonest immigration workers, or musical icons, Liotta infuses them with soul and raw honesty. And that’s where you begin to find him.
The real-life Liotta is disarmingly humble. He volunteers that his career has had ups and downs, and admits to getting “nervous” around other celebrities, feeling “uncomfortable” at industry events, and thinking it’s “nice” to tell others in the business that you like their work, although he realizes “some people are too cool for it.” He even apologizes at one point during the conversation saying, “I’m probably a horrible interview, right?” You get the impression he’s not exactly sure why anyone would want to interview him in the first place. And you wonder if it would be odd to ask if he is aware of the fact that he is Ray Liotta.
When we speak, Liotta is on location in New York, a city he called home in its grittier days of decades past. What does he think of the city of today? “Well,” he says laughing, “it’s definitely a little shinier, and people seem to be responding to that positively. I don’t look at [the old New York] in any romanticized way. I would rather it be nice than gritty.”
Though he currently resides in southern California’s Pacific Palisades, Liotta was born and raised in nearby northern New Jersey and is still an East Coast boy at heart. He says that these days, New York City itself would be “a little too much” for everyday existence. “I would love to live right around it though, in Connecticut or Jersey. I love the East Coast and I love coming back to visit,” he says, adding that he’s still friends with guys he met in kindergarten. A move back East, however, would never happen while his daughter, Karsen, is still young. “Right now, it’s all about her,” he says, sounding very much the proud father. “Really, it boils down to your friends and family and where they are.”
It’s one of the statements that give you a glimpse into the man behind the roles. He is not poised on a soapbox begging for headlines. He may have starred in The Rat Pack, but he doesn’t run in one. When asked what he likes to do when he’s in New York, he doesn’t drop the names of A-List restaurants or swanky private clubs, but says he likes to visit his college buddy who works as a bartender at City Crab. And he misses the rain.
“I love it when it rains here,” he says nostalgically. “In LA, it’s just very, very rare.”
You learn as much from what he decides to keep private as you do from what he shares. In an industry where preaching your politics to the masses is brandished as a right, Liotta is dedicated to keeping his ideas on such matters personal. That decision comes in part from having grown up in a politically active household and from watching his parents campaign for their party.
“I follow it all, obviously, and I have my beliefs,” he says, explaining why he’s never jumped on the Hollywood political bandwagon. “I think it’s because it was so hard for my mom and for my dad too… I saw the personal side of it. I will say that I’m really happy with the way things turned out in the last election. [Obama] seems smarter and like he doesn’t hide behind the politics.”
Quiet as he is on most charged topics, when asked what he thinks of California’s ongoing battle over gay marriage, he actually laughs. “Well, obviously they should be allowed,” he says. “I just think [the argument] is silly. It doesn’t make any sense. Of course they should be allowed.”
Politics isn’t the only topic where Liotta would like to see a little more discretion. The actor longs for the days when movie making was still a source of intrigue and magic. “I’m old school,” he says. “I just feel like there’s no mystery anymore. You’ve got the commentary on the DVDs, with the director pontificating about why he chose this angle and everything else. I guess it’s good if you’re a film student, but, I liked it when it was a little more low key. When everybody didn’t need to know everything.”
Liotta was adopted as an infant, another aspect of his childhood that weighs into his present. He likes to work with organizations that address adoption, such as Catholic Charities and The Felix Organization, which was co-founded by his friend, casting director Sheila Jaffe, and Darryl McDaniels of Run DMC fame. The group works to send children who are growing up without parents to Camp Felix, a summer camp in Putnam Valley, NY, that is packed with activities. Liotta, who is listed as a member of The Felix Organization’s Advisory Committee, likes that the group works with older kids, noting that potential adoptive parents are typically interested in adopting babies.
When asked about his own daughter, Liotta’s spirit audibly lifts. She is clearly a bright spot in his life and he is palpably awed and inspired by her very existence. So, does she want to get into the family business?
“Totally,” he says, adding that she recently started classes at a nearby theatre that puts together plays for different age groups. He admits, however, that while she’s young, he wants acting to remain a fun activity, as opposed to being a job. “What I don’t want is for her to go through wanting it now and worrying about getting parts when she’s so young,” he says, noting how upset she was when his TV series, Smith, was cancelled. “It’s just a hard business that way,” he says. “I just did a movie with a bunch of little kids and they were all great and you really hope everything will turn out okay for them, but you just don’t know.”
For himself, after a few decades and self-described ups and downs, Liotta’s love of the craft hasn’t faltered. There remains something truly exhilarating about a room full of people who are excited to “play make believe.”
“The acting part I love,” he says. “I love playing pretend, and the whole process. But the business can kiss my butt. And I’m one of the lucky ones, so to speak.”
Liotta, who stresses his belief that “the script is king,” notes with a little dismay that the trend for independent films seems to be fading a bit and that, with the big studios, “some of the choices that are made, I don’t know, it’s definitely not a meritocracy. I try to stay away from it. I’m kind of isolated. I like the people in general but, like everywhere, everybody just wants to keep their job. And the fight never stops. Even at the highest levels, it just never stops.”
And neither, it would seem, does Liotta. At present, the actor has several projects in the works which span multiple genres, as he has always done so masterfully. Among them are Youth in Revolt with Michael Cera, due out later this year, and Date Night, which is currently filming with Tina Fey and Steve Carell. Comedy or tragedy, whichever comes next, Liotta fans will surely be there to celebrate the man whose instincts they have come to trust, knowing full well the significance of Ray Liotta, whether he knows it himself or not.