Interviewing Ray Liotta was a unique experience - he was an actor without pretence

When I phoned Ray Liotta last September, to interview him about his genuinely astonishing performance in the (underrated!) Sopranos prequel film, The Many Saints of Newark, I was braced for the worst. Phone interviews are pretty thankless at the best of times, as it’s impossible to get a sense of a person down the phone line, and Liotta was rumoured to be difficult, truculent, rude. I didn’t care, because I was such a fan of his acting, but his acting provided few reassurances, at least from an interviewing point of view. He was ominously convincing playing psychopaths in movies such as Something Wild, Goodfellas and The Many Saints. But he was just as convincing as Gary Figgis in Cop Land and the mysterious ghost of “Shoeless” Joe Jackson in The Field of Dreams. With some movie stars – Tom Hanks, say, or Meryl Streep – we may not know what they’re REALLY like, but you’re pretty safe assuming that they’re going to give you a good interview. With Liotta, I had no idea what to expect. His baffling career (why HADN’T he become a leading man after Goodfellas?) only added to the mystery. Who was this guy?

Well, after talking with him on the phone, I can say this: he was, and probably always was, totally himself. This might sound like a bit of a non-answer, but it’s very rare to interview an actor who doesn’t bullshit you a little. After all, they’re trained to perform, to be liked, to get applause. Liotta was utterly uninterested in any of that to an occasionally comical extent. I asked, attempting to butter him up, if he was aware of his amazing screen presence. “Nah, not really.” He was adopted but found his birth mother as an adult – did that change his sense of self? “Not really.” What’s his approach to acting? “Just play pretend.”

Liotta wasn’t your typical actor. In fact, he told me, he’d always thought he’d go into construction. And maybe it was his lack of pretension that allowed him to be such a gifted actor, one I thrilled to see every time he was on screen. (My heart sank when his character died early in Many Saints. But then …) He wasn’t an air-kissing kinda guy, and perhaps that hampered his career a little, stopped him from being the leading man that everyone assumed he’d be after Goodfellas. But that’s OK. He was great at giving the funny, in TV shows such as Modern Family and Just Shoot Me!, as well as doing double duty with the Muppets in Muppets from Space and Muppets Most Wanted, and also the too-little-seen Observe and Report. But he’ll always be known best for psychos, because he totally committed to the role. He wasn’t a psycho on the phone, but he was a straight talker, because he, rightly, saved his performances for the screen. It is a tragedy we won’t get any more when he, clearly, had so many more to give.

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