Ray Liotta doesn't only play cold-eyed, purse-mouthed sociopaths who would sooner put a bullet in your head than shake your hand. "The next movie I'm doing is a preacher," he told The Huffington Post. "I've done a lot of other kinds of movies. For some reason, the bad guys stand out in peoples' minds."
Maybe that's because Liotta's villains are the stuff nightmares are made of. He had three movies at this year's Toronto International Film Festival, and in two of them he plays the kind of guy who scars your whole family for life just by showing up on the doorstep. In Derek Cianfrance's "The Place Beyond the Pines," which was picked up by Focus Features, Liotta strikes fear into the heart of Bradley Cooper as a crooked cop who really, really doesn't like snitches, and in Ariel Vroman's "The Iceman" he portrays Gambino crew boss Roy DeMeo, who hires -- and, ultimately, faces off against -- a humorless hit man named Richie Kuklinski (Michael Shannon). Kuklinski's utter lack of remorse, coupled with his habit of freezing his victims, earns him the nickname The Iceman, but DeMeo is the one man in the movie who isn't scared of him. (Liotta's third film, Nick Cassavetes' "Yellow," is a different animal: Liotta has called it "the weird one.")
Of course, Liotta is still best known for his portrayal of Henry Hill in Martin Scorsese's iconic rise-and-fall Mafia movie "Goodfellas." So HuffPost Entertainment seized the chance to talk to him about what it's like to play villains on-screen, and interact with them in real life.
Michael Hogan: You play pretty menacing characters in "The Place Beyond the Pines" and "The Iceman." Is there a secret to playing that kind of villain?
Ray Liotta:No. I think the most important thing is the script. The script tells you what to do and then you just submit to it. So there's no secret to it. It's just part of playing pretend, whether you're loving killing people or you're loving people that you love.
Bryan Cranston, who makes a transformation to a menacing villain in Breaking Bad, recently said it's tempting sometimes to try it on people. To lower his voice, lower his eyes. Do you ever get tempted to do that?
No. I've never been in a fight. That's just not who I am. I'd be too afraid that someone would challenge me at it. I don't like violence.
Do you have a sense of why you're thought of for these roles? Obviously, "Goodfellas" is an iconic movie and people are going to think of you in connection with that.
You know, for every person that wants you to do something like that because they've seen you do it before, there's someone who doesn't want you because they've seen you do it before. The next movie I'm doing is a preacher, and I've done a lot of other kinds of movies. For some reason, the bad guys stand out in people's minds.
What did you do to research the role?
Roy DeMeo's son wrote a really good book about his dad to maybe get rid of some of the other books out there. He was one of the first people to start chopping up bodies and really nasty things, but his son didn't see that side of him. He knew his dad was involved with things that were illegal, but I don't think he knew to the degree how bad he really was. He killed as many people as the Iceman did. And I think that's what Ariel wanted -- he wanted to make sure whoever was playing Roy wasn't afraid of Kuklinski. If anything, Roy felt that he was controlling Kuklinski, and did to a great degree, until [Kuklinski] crossed the line and killed somebody that was close to him. And that's when we had the scene in the car, where I'm really pissed off that he did that. So yeah, it's almost like, "What, you think you're the only person who's killed somebody?"
What was it like doing those scenes with Michael Shannon?
They were really good. He's a really committed actor, and he does his homework, I do my homework and then we meet in the middle. There wasn't a lot of rehearsing in this movie, which was fine with me because I like to do so much homework that I'm pretty much ready to go when they say, "Action." I don't really work it out there on the set. And he works that way. But everybody was on their toes in this movie, from David Schwimmer to Wynona to Chris Evans. Not people that you would normally [expect to see] in movies like this, and I thought everybody did a great job.
It was fun seeing Chris Evans play so against character.
Yeah. I don't really know his work that well. I don't think I've seen anything that he's done, or if I did I didn't know it, but I knew what he looked like, so that was really -- he was totally different.
And Schwimmer, too. You're like, Wait, that's David Schwimmer?
But Schwimmer looked like Schwimmer. But the other one, I didn't put it together.
You were born in Newark, New Jersey. Did you ever meet wiseguys like these ones growing up?
No, no, no. I mean, there were a couple guys in high school that turned out to be -- whether they were true wiseguys or half-assed wiseguys, when I found out what they did I wasn't surprised. "Oh, yeah, well, that makes sense. He did seem kind of edgy at school." But no, I've never really met -- and usually, if anyone's really doing that stuff, they're not wearing it on their sleeves. They're just keeping it contained and don't want people to know.
When you were making "Goodfellas," did you come into contact with folks like that, for research?
Oh, yeah. They gave me a guy in particular that was taking me around and showing me the ropes, who was actually a cop, and then I think there was a relative or a close family member that was in the Mob and he ended up going in that direction. And then there was a cop cop, who was an extra, who I started talking to one day. He was a really imposing guy, and he turned out to be someone who was doing hits for the Mob and he's now in jail for it, but he was showing me pictures of crime scenes, of dead mobsters and the brutality, the cutting out of the tongue or the eyes. Just brutal. Just brutal, and then he ended up being -- I remember I was reading the paper and I said, "Wait a second, I know this guy."
Was there anything in particular that stood out, meeting these guys?
That they're nice. I was an actor in a movie, so they weren't acting tough, and I hadn't done anything to them. If I said something that they didn't like, I'm sure I would have heard it. But a lot of these guys, they don't wear that viciousness on their sleeve. It only comes out when they have to or they're threatened or they're in the middle of doing some kind of job.
I thought it was interesting that Roy is the one guy who doesn't have a thick wiseguy accent. Was that a choice on your part?
It's funny you said that. No, but I'm from New Jersey, and I don't know if it's because I've worked at it -- sometimes it comes out, and sometimes it comes out in terms of my energy, but just because you're from New York doesn't mean it's all heavy-handed and thick. My dad was born in Brooklyn, you'd never know it. There's people you see from the South that aren't talkin' all twangy. Although when I go home and hear my sister, it's like, "Whoa." "You want some cawfee?"
Henry Hill, whom you played in "Goodfellas," passed away recently. Were you close to him?
No. I would see him every now and then, because he lives in L.A., but not much. Maybe four or five times since we did the movie, which was 20-something years ago.
You said the wiseguys you've met are nice guys and then they have this other side, and I feel like that's one of the key themes of the film. That the Iceman is trying to be a family man and compartmentalize that part of his life, but he has this dark side.
Yeah, definitely. And even if you're a good cop, you're not going to bring around what happened -- that you pulled dead bodies out of a wreck today, or you saw some abused kid beaten. The best ones leave it at the job and then go home and try to be as normal as ever. I'm sure there's some cases that plague on you, but I have a 13-year-old daughter. If I have a bad day and hear, "How was your day, Dad?," I don't go off about how horrible it was. You just don't do that to people.
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