Ray Liotta: 'Waarom het ek sedert Goodfellas nie saam met Scorsese gewerk nie?? Jy sal hom moet vra. Ek sal graag'

Ek am a little trepidatious ahead of my interview with Ray Liotta because the reviews, sal ons sê, gemeng word. Nie oor sy toneelspel nie, wat van sy eerste groot rol in die rolprent bekroon en aanbid is, as Melanie Griffith’s crazy ex in 1986’s Something Wild, for which he was nominated for a Golden Globe. Geen, the problematic reviews are about Liotta personally. One person who worked with him described him to me as “the rudest arsehole I ever met”; another said he’s “a bit of a wildcard”, and I suspect that the latter is a euphemism for the former.

This would explain a long-running movie mystery: why isn’t he more successful?’ It took Liotta, nou 66, until he was 30 to bag Something Wild, but after that, movie stardom seemed assured. He went from there to starring opposite Tom Hulce in the little-remembered Dominick and Eugene, and then playing “Shoeless” Joe Jackson in the extremely well-remembered Field of Dreams.

And from there, he was cast as Henry Hill in Goodfellas, surely one of the greatest movie roles ever written for a young actor. Liotta was superb as the wannabe gangster, holding his own against that ultimate screen-chewer Joe Pesci, and at times acting Robert De Niro off the screen. And then … what? Wel, he certainly didn’t disappear. He was great as Johnny Depp’s father in Blow, he memorably ate his own brain in Hannibal and I loved him in Cop Land, playing Sylvester Stallone’s one true friend, and as Adam Driver’s deranged divorce lawyer in Marriage Story. But he never became the leading man he seemed so destined to be in 1990, and no one could really explain why.

Anyway, he’s back, weer, in a supporting role, and great, as usual. He’s in The Many Saints of Newark, which is destined to forever be known as “The Sopranos Movie”, and it is the best film I’ve seen in I don’t even know how long. The film focuses on young Tony’s (played by James Gandolfini’s son, Michael) relationship with Christopher Moltisanti’s (Michael Imperioli on the show) father, Dickie, played here by Alessandro Nivola, in what is surely one of the performances of the year. Fathers and sons echo throughout the film and Liotta plays Dickie’s father, Hollywood Dick Moltisanti. (Moltisanti = many saints. It took me an embarrassingly long time to put that together.)

Liotta’s role was greatly expanded once filming started, which is to the audience’s benefit, because he is – as always – utterly magnetic in every scene. All of his scenes are with Nivola and, before I talk to Liotta, I ask Nivola what it was like acting opposite him. “Even at rest," hy sê, “Ray seems like he has a boiling cauldron inside and you never know when it might erupt. That allows him to be a very understated performer and still convey power, humour and surprise effortlessly.”

Someone else who worked with Liotta told me that the way to get Liotta talking is to flatter him, so when our phone interview begins, I tell him – sycophantically but honestly – that when he’s on screen, even if he’s just sitting still in a chair, he’s all the audience can look at. Does Liotta think about his screen presence when he’s acting? “Nah, not really. I just commit to what’s written to me on the page and the script dictates the character," hy sê, sounding neither especially interested nor flattered.

One of the joys of seeing him in The Many Saints of Newark is that he gets to play the two extremes that his fans love best: the crazy manic Liotta (Something Wild, The Place Beyond the Pines, Marriage Story) and the more Zen Liotta (Field of Dreams, Blow). Which is more fun to play? “Ah, they’re both fun,” he shrugs.

Which is closer to what he’s like normally? “I don’t know. Sometimes I’m angry and hyper, like at traffic, and sometimes I’m not. But my job is just to do what the script says,” he replies.

In a recent interview, Nivola said that Liotta sent him a text saying that Nivola reminded him of himself in Goodfellas. “It was one of the most important accolades that I’ve ever gotten from anybody, and it was really that kind of thing that gave me the confidence to take off in the performance,” Nivola said.

That was kind of you, Ray, ek sê. “Mmm, I didn’t mean it exactly like that," hy sê. “It was more in the sense of, he was the character that kept the piece together, like in Goodfellas the focus was on Henry. I just meant it like that.”

This feels less like I’m doing an interview and more like I’m trying to strike up a conversation with a guy in a bar who’s more interested in watching the TV over my shoulder. And so, in that spirit, I go to my usual bar conversation topic: The Sopranos. Was he a fan of the show? “I’m not much of a TV watcher, so every now and then I’d put the TV on and if it was on, I’d watch what they were doing. But it’s just not how I was spending my time,” he replies.

I ask if that’s because he was regretful that he – according to rumour – turned down the role of Tony Soprano. “No! I don’t know where that story came from. David [Chase, creator of The Sopranos] once talked to me about playing Ralphie [eventually played by Joe Pantoliano]. But never Tony," hy sê.

So why did he say no? “I didn’t want to do another mafia thing, and I was shooting Hannibal. It just didn’t feel right at the time," hy sê.

But apparently The Many Saints of Newark felt extremely right, because when Liotta heard about it, he flew to New York to ask Chase for the role, paying for his own flights and accommodation (unheard of with most major actors). Why was he so keen to be in the film?

“I’m really not sure what made me so determined,” he says in the tone of a man who doesn’t spend an enormous amount of time investigating his inner motives. “But I was and luckily it all worked out.”

For as long as he could remember, Henry Hill wanted to be a gangster. But for as long as Liotta could remember, he had no interest in acting at all. He only studied drama because it was a course at college that had no maths requirements, and he only started auditioning for plays because a pretty girl told him he should. “To be honest with you," hy sê, “I thought I’d be in construction.” Liotta was adopted when he was six months old by an Italian-American couple and raised in New Jersey. He later tracked down his birth mother and discovered he had a clutch of half-siblings and a full sister. He’s so associated with being Italian-American, did discovering his biological family change his self-image?

“Not really, geen. The reality is, in terms of ethnicity, I have no idea what I am. I found out a lot of things from meeting my birth mother, but it didn’t change anything. I just relaxed into [thinking]: ‘This is the way my life turned out.’”

Liotta’s father convinced his son to give college a go, at least for a term, and it was there, at the University of Miami, that he started studying drama, and he got his first role in a play, as a dancing waiter in Cabaret. “I’m a jock from New Jersey, so it couldn’t have felt further away from what I do,” he hoots. Nietemin, he enjoyed it so much he stayed at college for the full four years. Afterwards, he moved to New York where he got some advertising jobs, had a regular role in a soap opera and, eventually, was cast in Something Wild. And that was definitively the end of Liotta’s hypothetical career in construction.

Liotta knows he’ll forever be known for Goodfellas, and he’s fine with that. “If you got one movie that people remember, that’s great. If you got two, that’s fantastic," hy sê. As it happens, he does have two, he just hasn’t seen the second one. Is it really true he’s never watched Field of Dreams? “Nope,” he says firmly.

But Ray, ek sê, you’re so good in it! So opaque, so weird, somehow so credible as the ghost of a disgraced baseball player. “It’s just a personal thing that happened,” he says with sudden real feeling. “My mom was sick when we went to see it, so we didn’t stay the whole time so it’s not something I want to do. It’s on TV a lot, but I just pass over it. I’ve no desire. That’s it.”

Despite never seeing one of the greatest baseball movies ever made, Liotta is clearly not averse to the game itself, because he met his now ex-wife at a baseball game in 1997. They had one daughter, Karsen, and later divorced. Has his daughter seen Goodfellas?

“Good question. Have you seen it?" hy sê, asking his daughter who is apparently sitting next to him. “Ja, you showed it to me that time,” she replies. “Oh yeah! We saw it at, believe it or not, the Aruba film festival," hy sê.

And what did she make of it? 'Wel, she wasn’t into my voiceover so much. Sy was soos: ‘Oh Dad, will you shut up already?’ Heh heh heh,” he cackles.

Martin Scorsese is known for using the same actors over and over, so why hasn’t Liotta worked with him again? “I don’t know, you’d have to ask him. But I’d love to," hy sê.

Maybe Scorsese just hasn’t found a part for Liotta that matches up to Henry. Or maybe it’s to do with something else. I tell Liotta that when I interviewed Bruce Dern this year, he told me that when his daughter Laura was preparing to play Liotta’s adversary in Marriage Story, she found out some “not cool stuff” about him, such as instances of rudeness, and she thought about that when acting against him. Did he know about that?

“Nah,” he replies, totally unbothered. “People use whatever they need to use to find the person in the part, and if she needed that, that’s fine. But it’s all people telling stories, misinformation.”

I assume that Liotta must have his own extremely intricate acting methods. Even though he only fell into acting by chance, he then dedicated himself to it, and he continued to study with his beloved acting coach, Harry Mastrogeorge, even after Goodfellas. Nivola tells me that “of all the scary legends I’ve worked with – De Niro, Christopher Walken, Joaquin Phoenix, Shirley MacLaine – Ray is the one I was most intimidated by. Not because he’s mean – he’s not – but because he’s so intensely committed to the art of acting.” So maybe this is what people get wrong about Liotta: he’s not rude, he’s just acting. So go on, Ray, describe your art of acting.

“Just play pretend – that’s pretty much it. The biggest thing is self-reliance: you don’t need a director to tell you what to do, it’s all in the script. If you simplify it, it sounds like make believe, but it is!" hy sê.

I feel a little like Ricky Gervais in Extras listening to Ian McKellen teach him how to act: “How do I know what to say? They had my lines written down on a script. How do I know where to stand? People showed me.” And to be fair, I’d rather that than him banging on about his craft, although it does leave certain questions about Liotta open.

We chat about what Liotta’s been up to during lockdown: “You know, just living," hy sê. Then he suddenly drops into the conversation: “Also I’m getting married.”

Congratulations, ek sê. “Thanks,” he replies with a shrug.

Did he propose during lockdown? “I don’t wanna get into that.”

Is he able to say who he’s marrying? “You wouldn’t know her, and I don’t like talking about this stuff," hy sê.

Helaas, our time is almost up so Liotta and I bid our farewells. It was definitely one of the odder phone calls I’ve had in my life, but maybe Liotta saves his charisma for the screen. Only the truly talented can fake it so well.

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