Interview: Ray Liotta

words by Matthew Schuchman
| Tuesday, November 27th, 2012

Ray Liotta in "Killing Them Softly"

Everyone and their mother is clamoring over the idea of Brad Pitt playing a no-nonsense killer in the upcoming crime film, Killing Them Softly. While being a crime story at heart, Killing Them Softly is specifically an allegory likening the American political system to the world of organized crime, and it all kicks off with actions of one man: Markie Trattman.

I sat down for a small round-table interview with Ray Liotta, the man who brings the sad life of Trattman to life. While Ray has been in his fair share of criminal and corrupted cop bad-ass roles, he’s the one at the shit end of the stick this time, as two low-level thugs give Markie the beating of his life.

Was it funny to see the American gangster story filtered through the Australian point of view? [Born in New Zealand, director Andrew Dominik lived in Australia since he was two.]
Theirs is brutal. I guess this is not a mafia movie either, though. People keep saying it’s a mob movie, but it’s not. They’re bad guys, but they’re not mobsters.

This is probably the most mentally beaten-up character I can remember you playing. When you consider a project, do you make a choice based on what you like about the character alone, or is the whole piece more important to you?
The whole piece. The most important thing is the story, and then the people you’re working with, starting with the director and then the actors. This was a combination of all three.

What I liked about it was that it was different. It wasn’t me going around beating on people; instead, it was happening to me. I found that interesting, and then, once I was there, I really wanted to make sure that I did all of it. I didn’t want a stunt guy doing it.

With all the films that you’ve been in that have dealt with the criminal culture, do you find that you have a certain understanding of that culture, or does it mystify you even further?
I always see them as little boys. They’re just little boys — they can’t have something, so they’re going to take it from you. With mobsters, you always hear excuses to why they get into a fight. “Well, I didn’t like the way he looked at me.” Kids do that; “Why’d you hit her?” “She took my toy.” There’s a lot of that you see.

How did it feel to be the victim, instead of the one who is doing the kicking?
Well, there’s not much to understand, except that you are over-matched.

What lessons do you think you would have for your character?
It’s probably safer to work in a 7-11. (laughter) It’s better working with those guys than working with criminals. It’s a nasty world.

How did you shake off this role, emotionally and physically?
You know, the more you do this, the easier it is to let it go and then pick it up. Earlier in my career I was much more of a method actor; I’d let it stay with me all the time, and when we were done with work, it was constantly on my mind. Then, after you do it for awhile, you realize that you’re almost stronger when you do put it aside. You hear about actors who stay in character all the time, and I can relate to that because I did, but it’s easier now to just let it go and play pretend.

Was there any sort of on set camaraderie? I know Brad [Pitt] has a house in New Orleans — did he take you to any places?
No, because his family was down there, so he spends a lot of time with them. I actually played poker, a lot. My hotel was right across the street from Harrah’s. One of the biggest poker rooms in the state was right across the street.

How are your chops?
I’m okay. I don’t like losing money, I don’t even like driving fast; it just doesn’t make sense. I learned, I became friends with some of the poker guys — they are pros, they’ve been doing it for a living. In return, there is a scene in the movie where I have to crack up, I have to laugh. It’s always easier to do something when you’re with some people who can crack you up. So I asked them to come be in the scene, because they always asked me about work, thinking like, Oh you’re an actor, how hard can that be?

They came, and I was just going to joke around with them, just like when we played poker — and they froze. Which in turn made me laugh more, just seeing them scared as soon as they said “Action!” Then, when they said “Cut,” they would go back to being themselves — but as soon as the camera was on, they couldn’t do it.

You’ve been working in film for awhile now, but you started working first on TV. Did you ever think about going back and doing TV again?
I like making movies — [but] I wouldn’t mind doing a cable show. I think there are some really great shows in cable; the commitment is not the same. Usually, any show that is a series, unless it’s like a soap opera, could works. Unless if it’s a procedural — I know some people who have worked on procedurals, and [though] they may have been making a lot of money doing it, they hated it. It’s just 22 episodes of someone who did something bad to somebody, and the rest of the show is them figuring it out — like the “CSI” shows. Good shows, but I know some people who are on them who say it’s just brutal.

You can go on “The Walking Dead” — they’ll kill you after two episodes and then you won’t have to worry about it.
You know I haven’t seen any of those — “Mad Men,” “The Walking Dead.” “Breaking Bad” I heard is a really good show.

Have you ever thought about directing?
I have a strong desire to do it, but it’s not something I’m specifically aiming to do. If I read a script and it moved me [to the point] where as soon as I read it, I would know visually what I would want to do with it (though I usually don’t think in terms of the visuals — it’s more about the words for me), I absolutely would. But if I never [direct], I wouldn’t feel incomplete.

Did you have any specific physical preparation for this film, specifically since you get beat up?
The fight itself was demanding. As much as I’ve been in fights in movies where I get hit, I usually have to do that a couple of times to sell it. You just have to make it seem like it’s really happening.

Is there a character you’ve played that you have a certain affection for?
Yeah, I just played a preacher in something, a movie called The Identical, which is just a beautiful, beautiful story. Aside from the preaching, it’s all about my relationship with my son, who I adopt. It’s a pair of twins during the Depression whose family has no money. The father knows I’ve been having trouble with my wife and having kids, so he gives us one of their babies. I have a special connection with that.

What do you think turns a gangster film into a classic?
Just standing the test of time. Not to be corny, but really it seems a classic is something that just hangs in there, that people respond to. I get people coming up to me all the time — almost every day — because Goodfellas plays all the time. Someone will come up to me; even teenagers will come up to me because they just discovered the movie.

How tough is it for you to separate yourself from that character? It’s such a well-known performance worldwide — do you feel that you have to separate yourself from it to keep working on different things?
Well, luckily for me, with Goodfellas — though there was a lot of violence, it wasn’t Henry who was doing it. Henry was really well-rounded. He was in love with somebody, he was enterprising; yes, he did beat up the guy across the street, but Joe and Bob, they were the killers, and they were the bad guys.

So it’s not really that bad, and it’s a great movie with so many incredible people, so I’m not really trying to distance myself from it. Now, because of movies on TV, the cable channels, or DirecTV, people see a lot of the stuff you did. (chuckling) I don’t mind being associated with Goodfellas.

The economy is a big part of this film — has it impacted you at all?
Well, just in terms of our business, they don’t make as many independent movies as they used to; they’re harder and harder to come by. When you do find those kinds of movie, they do it for hardly any money, whatsoever, which means they don’t take as many chances. I’m lucky I work. I feel bad for actors who are just starting out; it’s nothing but superhero movies now. There aren’t those ’70s types of dramas and anti-heroes with complicated characters like they had for a few years.

Do you have any thoughts on this film putting someone like Brad Pitt in that anti-hero hitman role?
I think it’s smart. The thing about him is — I don’t mean this as a negative — he’s a big movie star, but name a big movie he’s been in — aside from the Ocean movies, the movies he picks are really good and really interesting. I don’t think Moneyball was — no pun intended — a home run. That was an interesting character, this is an interesting character. He doesn’t hide behind a cape. He’s a casual guy, he’s not affected. He’s a normal guy, just like the guys I grew up with. He’s just a nice, fun-loving guy who loves his family. There was a nonchalance about this part that he had. It’s the fact that he knows he’s a hitman, like Gandolfini. He doesn’t have to play at being a hitman, he just was. He didn’t strain or force anything.

What’s next?
I got a movie called The Icemen, and then A Place Beyond the Pines.

Matthew Schuchman is the founder and film critic of Movie Reviews From Gene Shalit’s Moustache and the contributing film writer for IPaintMyMind.