He knows what he’s good at, he does what he likes, and he doesn’t get in fights.
Recalling an altercation (which, he insists, wasn’t really a fight), from back in the 7th grade, he comments, “It was over nothing. Like all fights, it was stupid.”
It shouldn’t surprise you, then, that despite his conniving cast of characters – which range from the slightly-misguided to the borderline-psychotic, Ray Liotta is not a method actor. But the parts find him.
“I didn’t want to play another bad cop,” when cast in Blackwell. “To tell you the truth, Anthony Hopkins just kept calling and asking if I would do it because I did Hannibal with him and we have the same agent.” The agent was persistent, so finally, Liotta caved. “I just love Anthony; he’s such a great guy.”
When Anthony Hopkins is scouting you, it’s hard to say no.
Liotta’s nothing like the characters he portrays. With an easy smile and a gentle manner, he acts his part, and then puts it away. “I’m out of the building within five minutes from the moment they say I’m done for the day. I don’t do much method acting. I just keep it slow and steady.”
In fact, he says, even when he’s got an early call to play a pissed-off scene, he saves the role for the camera. “I always seem to get great drivers. I remember the conversation from the morning–this one guy I have now, he just bought his first house and he has two little girls. I work 12-14 hours, and I come back and ask, ‘So what color are you doing the walls?'”
But when he’s on, he’s on. Liotta is an actor’s actor. The emotion, the character, the flow is important.
“It’s really challenging for actors because these guys are really talented writers and most times, writers, they’re very much in love with their words.” He relates a story of life on-set. “In TV, I find it especially frustrating because, these motherfuckers, if you say ‘the’ instead of ‘then,’ they’ll let you finish the scene but then the script supervisor comes up and whispers, ‘You said “the” instead of “then.”‘ And I would just get livid. I exploded one day. I said, ‘Aren’t you guys getting what’s going on!? Aren’t you getting the emotion and everything that’s going on? Who gives a fuck if I said “the” or “then”!?’ Or I said, ‘Dey did that’ instead of ‘They did that,’ and I’m like, ‘I’m from the fucking East Coast and I’m a cop!’ These cops, they don’t go to Yale and then become a cop. You get out of high school and you want to become a cop. When you’re 20 years old, you go to the Police Academy.”
Okay, maybe he’s not gentle all the time.
But he’s got a respect for the actor’s gift, and with so many years in the industry, he knows how to foster it. Although he claims no interest in directing, he still likes an actor’s set.
“But what I do, I like having a say. I’ve been doing this long enough to know when this actor is better than that actor. So I like having the power to say, ‘No, we really should go this way,’ or if we’re running late, ‘Let’s not break this–she’s not going to be emotionally there to take lunch.’ It’s all about the work.
That’s what I like about it, is to let actors act. To let us do what we got to do.”
With his thespian’s view of his craft, heavily weighted toward what the actors are bringing to the table, you might never guess how Liotta broke into acting in the first place.
“I was adopted when I was six months old. I went home with my birth mother, and she already had a child out of wedlock and they didn’t have money and there was no way they could afford another child. I think a lot of my issues… the fact that I was with my mother, bonding for three months and then she was gone, that’s fucking deep. Every single day in the beginning, then boom! It has to be in there somewhere.”
But as the adopted son of a father who had a chain of automotive stores, he had some practical life lessons coming his way. “I was middle class, grew up in New Jersey. I was an average student. When it came time for the SATs, I had no idea what I wanted to do. Never thought about it. All I wanted to do was play sports. Soccer, basketball, baseball. Although I did quit baseball, because I got hit couple times and became a bit squeamish about baseball…
“I walked out of my SATs. So I think I got an 800, and you get a 700 just for writing your name. My dad said, ‘Go wherever you can get in.’ And his philosophy–it’s true–you get out there, you keep yourself open and you never know what’s going to happen.”
So, he got into the University of Miami, because, as he says, “at that time, all you needed to get in was a pulse.”
Still a wayward student with no particular direction, Liotta wandered from the Liberal Arts line into the Drama line during registration. Then the pretty girl behind him challenged him to audition. After getting a call back to sing and dance, he told the pretty girl (her name was Val), “all I did was play sports. I saw one play in New York when I was in high school and I was mesmerized by it, it was such a good show.”
Turns out, the show was Pippin. And the only song he remembered was “Magic to Do.” So Val dug up the sheet music.
“I go to the audition and walk past Dennis, the piano player, and I took the music with me. And he asked, ‘What are you doing?’ in a very high-pitched voice–if he had an apartment, it would be in Greenwich Village. He was really bitchy– and he said, ‘What, do you think I know the music? You’re supposed to have it memorized.’ I get up there, and I don’t remember a thing but the frame, ‘We got Magic to do.’ And they’re yelling at me, ‘You’re supposed to be dancing, too! It’s movement! You have to move!’
I’m 62. So there used to be this group called Freddie and the Dreamers, and they had a song called Le Freddie. It was a dance. So that’s what I was doing with my song. And I got the part. And I’ll never forget that move.”
You could say it was a comedy of errors that got him into acting. Or maybe it was just magic. But he was open to it, and people liked what he did. “When you do something and somebody likes it, it makes you feel good. It’s human nature.”
That motivation may not have changed over the years, but the acting scene certainly has. Nowadays, people know all about the actors they see on screen, and it can alter our experience of the scene. That’s why Liotta tries to keep to himself.
“Now, everybody is blowing up who they are and what they do. I don’t think that’s the way it should be. Because you’re not in the moment of watching it when you say, “Can you believe she’s dating that guy?”
Liotta doesn’t care for any of that. In fact, he’s glad he got all the craziness out of his system before cell phones and social media and 24/7 gawking.
“I’m okay at this stage in my life. My favorite thing in the world is being a dad.” Litter’s daughter, it so happens, is following in her father’s footsteps. Although, she is less likely than one would think to turn to him for help.
“I’m not forcing it. If anything, well…. ‘Do you want any help with this?’ And she says, ‘No, I’m good.’ And I’m like, ‘You know, I do this for a living. I studied for a really long time.’ And, ‘No, I’m good, Dad.'”
And yet, as the stream-of-consciousness continues, he betrays his wonderment at his daughter’s ability.
“She played Mary Poppins, and she walked out on stage, and the way she carried herself, her umbrella…I was floored. I said to my ex, ‘Michelle,’–because we’re friends–and she goes, ‘I know.’ Because we didn’t see this coming at all, and she was really good.”
He’s in an interesting position, weighing his passion for the industry with his devil-may-care genesis, and his awe of watching a new generation come up behind him.
“I still love doing what I do, although I hate the business. Playing pretend is great–even though sometimes you look at it and think, ‘Oh my God, I’m 62 and I’m pretending I’m mad at this person.’ But it’s fun to do; it’s fun to puzzle together if you just take it on and say, okay, let’s make this seem real.”
But the true goal in life? “No matter how old she gets, no matter where she goes in her life, I’d like to have a relationship with my daughter. That’s what I always hope to have, a strong connection with her.”
See, we told you he’s a softy.