I never would have guessed that Ray Liotta hasn't seen "Field of Dreams," in which he plays Shoeless Joe Jackson. It's true that some actors don't enjoy watching their own performances, but "Field of Dreams" is an extreme example because that's a really hard movie to avoid. I also never would have guessed that Frank Sinatra's daughter sent a horse's head autographed by Warren Beatty to Liotta before he portrayed the Chairman of the Board in "The Rat Pack." Then again, these are the kinds of things you learn when you spend a healthy amount of time talking about a film -- in this case, Andrew Dominik's quite excellent "Killing Them Softly" -- with a veteran actor whose role isn't all that terribly large. (Even Brad Pitt, the star of the movie, doesn't show up until 30 minutes in.)
In "Killing Them Softly," Liotta plays Markie, a man who is entrusted by the mob to protect a high-stakes illegal poker game. Of course, Markie abuses that power by secretly robbing the game himself. When the game is robbed a second time, Markie becomes suspect No. 1 -- and it's up to a hitman/enforcer named Jackie Cogan (Pitt) to clean up the mess. I met a notably relaxed Liotta in his Midtown Manhattan hotel room as he was watching television while finishing his lunch. "Notably relaxed" in the sense that Liotta seemed up for discussing pretty much anything, including the ups and downs of his career -- and that time as a young actor that he starred in "Casablanca." (No, not the one that you're thinking of.)
Ray Liotta: Hey, can we turn the TV off?
Mike Ryan: Maybe that can be our interview? You and I just quietly watch television together.
Didn't I just talk to Huffington Post in Toronto?
That was my editor.
For "The Iceman."
Oh! That was "The Iceman," that's right.
It's odd asking what appealed to you about "Killing Them Softly," because the answer is probably, "It's a great movie." But, you did just also play a mobster in the aforementioned "The Iceman," too.
Nah, I didn't really consider this a mobster. I'm just a guy who watches over the poker games, you know? What I liked about it is -- the variation on it -- is that instead of me being the aggressor, it's them. So it's them coming after me. But I had met Andrew Dominik right after "Chopper," years and years ago, but nothing was there to do. Then I heard about this and I read the script ... and I was actually thinking of a different part.
Oh, which one?
I forgot the character's name. He just has that one scene, I think. It's the guy that was on "The Sopranos."
No, no, no. There was another one. [Vincent Curatola, known for his role as Johnny Sack on "The Sopranos," plays a crooked dry-cleaner named Johnny "The Squirrel" Amato in the movie.]
I liked how I assumed that you forgot James Gandolfini's name.
[Laughs] Yeah, right. And then [Dominik] wanted me to read for this part, so I said, "All right, I'll audition for it. I don't care." And then it happened.
Your last scene in the film, which makes an appearance in the trailer -- was that as complicated to film as it looked?
In the car?
Yes. Or is that all "movie magic"?
Well, it's hard because they put you on this gimbal and it's spinning around -- so they are literally spinning you around as they do it. And then they wanted the slow motion and the glass and everything just right, so that it looks good. They obviously don't use glass; they use this plastic stuff. So, it's just very technical. And the fact that they're doing it in super slow motion [meant] you had to do things a certain way. So it was challenging in that aspect. The fight was more challenging.
Oh? How so?
Well, I wanted to do all of it. I didn't want to use the stunt guy. Because I just think you get drawn in more. But it's a lot different being the guy who is getting hit than the one who is hitting. If anything, I think it's harder.
I just assumed it was hard to pull a punch and make it look real.
Yeah, but that's just the angle. And you go across. It's more selling the punch, like you're getting hit. And, believe it or not, it's not rough on the body, but you're doing things that you're not used to doing. Like snapping the head back and doing all that kind of stuff to make it look like it's really happening.
In movies, people get punched and often it doesn't seem to affect them much. Getting punched in the face hurts, and you do look like you're in a lot of pain.
It was fun doing that. It was a different dynamic; a different challenge than doing the hitting.
What roles do you look for now in your career? There are movies like this, but then you show up in an episode of "The League."
Just different opportunities. You know, it's always fun to do something comedic and goofy. You know, I think at the beginning of my career I handled it a little too delicate. If I was playing a bad guy, I'd wait until I could play the nice guy, then do a bad guy if it came up -- just try do as many different things as you can. But then, after a while, you just want to work. No matter how much thought you put into it, you don't know if the movie's going to hit or if people are going to see it. So you just look for really good stories and good parts -- good people. I just did a movie where I played a preacher that's just a beautiful, beautiful script. Just beautiful.
When you used to go back and forth from nice guy to bad guy, is that why we saw you go between movies like "Field of Dreams," "Goodfellas" and "Unlawful Entry"?
Yeah, I was waiting for opportunities. The thing is, sometimes it's a long wait. Which is fine, but I like playing pretend. And if your movies aren't big, financial successes, the things that come your way, sometimes it slows down. I mean, I've definitely had an up-and-down career. The choices that I made were good for me as an actor. I was stretching and doing different things -- a heart surgeon, a good guy, a hero guy, a bad guy -- but if they're not successful, if things slow down ... you know, you've got to live. You've got to eat. You have a family and you've got obligations that you have to do. So a lot of different things come into the mix as you get older.
During a slow period, was there a specific role that you wish you'd taken?
No. No, there are some that I wish that I had got. Although, if you ask me what they were ... I just know at the time I was like, I really wish I had gotten that. But these things seem to work out for the right reasons and something else comes along -- you kind of have to get philosophical about it.
When you're going through a slow period, do you ever think about doing something else?
No, no. There are always opportunities, it's just a matter of doing the types of things that you want to be doing. That you feel like you should be doing. Sometimes there are movies that you have a feeling that there's a good chance that they're going to go to DVD, but you have an opportunity to play the hero -- to play the good guy. And I know if they were doing this movie for a lot more money, there's no way I would get it. They would go with the people on the list that they feel are bankable at that time.
When you do a movie like "Youth in Revolt," a movie that should have done a lot better than it did, is that disappointing?
Oh, totally. Yeah, I mean, I don't care what anybody says. You might not do it for an audience, but you definitely want an audience to see it. There are a few movies that I've done that I wish people had seen. "Dominick and Eugene" was a movie that I did that a lot of people didn't see. I did a movie called "Observe and Report" that I thought was really funny and I thought it would do better than it did.
Right, with Seth Rogen. That's a really dark movie. I think that confused people because it came out right after "Paul Blart: Mall Cop."
Right! "Paul Blart," that came out first.
I think people might have thought it was a similar movie, which it's not.
It wasn't even close. Because they're not going to advertise the dark parts of it. It's the goofy, fun stuff that they think people are going to respond to. I mean, you always want people to come see what you're doing.
This isn't even a question, but I still cry every time I see "Field of Dreams."
Do you get emotional watching your own movies?
I've never seen "Field of Dreams."
Really? It's really good.
That's what I hear [laughs].
Will you ever watch it? Is that normal for you not to watch your movies?
That one was for a reason. My mom was really sick during that period, so it brings back other things. But, I mean, I definitely haven't seen half the things that I've done.
Is there a reason?
Well, this I've seen. This one I'll probably watch tonight at the premiere, but only because I'll be watching it with my friends who I grew up with, they'll be there. So that's always fun. Because they find it interesting and it will be interesting to watch how my friends respond to it.
I'm assuming that you've seen "Goodfellas," because you've done retrospectives on that movie.
Once! Well, twice, I've seen it now. Because I saw it about a year or so ago with my daughter at a film festival. It was on the big screen, so just to share that with her. But, no, if it's on TV, I'll pass it. I'll skip it. I don't stop and like, "Oh, my movie is on," and watch. Actually, "Something Wild" was on the other night -- that was the first movie that I did.
Did you go out of your way to change the channel?
Yeah, I don't want to see it.
I mentioned "Unlawful Entry" earlier. I have to admit, I don't think I've ever given an evil character more of a benefit of the doubt than I did in that movie. He just seemed so nice at first.
[Laughs] Oh, but that's why he got as far as he did! That's how he got to the girl! I mean, aside from "Goodfellas" and "Field of Dreams," people bring that up.
You played Frank Sinatra in "The Rat Pack."
I know Sinatra died the same year that movie premiered, but did you ever hear from him while filming. I only ask because I've heard stories that he was particular about that sort of thing. For example, the rumor is that he liked Joe Piscopos's "SNL" impression, but didn't like Phil Hartman's.
No, he was really sick, though. He died before it came out, but he was sick. I heard from the daughters, but it was more a joke. Tina Sinatra sends this horse's head that she sends around to people as a joke.
At first it scared me! I said, what the heck is this about? And everybody is in on the joke but me. So, when it came, it's a horse's head and it obviously represents that scene from "The Godfather." But, you know, after a minute where I was just stunned and I couldn't figure it out, then they let me in on the joke. And I signed it. If you turn over the head, on the base of it underneath it, there's all these people that she had sent it to. Then I signed it.
Who else had signed it?
I remember seeing Warren Beatty's name. There are just a bunch of people.
That's frightening, but is that also their seal of approval?
Well, they wanted me for a mini-series back when mini-series were big. And I turned it down -- I just didn't want to do it. I turned down "The Rat Pack" a few times. It was just too intimidating. Everyone knows this guy and I'm not like Joe Piscopo was. I'm not an imitator. I'm not good at that sort of thing. You know, I was really glad that I did it, but, at first, it was really intimidating. Just because he was so out there. So well-known. I think you'd find out with anybody who has played people that are in the public eye. Like, Shoeless Joe didn't matter. Henry Hill didn't matter, because nobody knew who they were. Sinatra? There were just so many books ...
When you were first starting out, you were on a show ...
The soap opera?
Well, I'm more interested in the prequel television series to "Casablanca." You played Sacha the bartender ...
Oh! Yeah, yeah! Isn't that crazy?
How was that pitched to you?
Well, then, I had just quit the soap opera and I had moved to L.A. and nothing was happening. For five years, nothing really happened. In that five-year period, that series came to me. And I remember meeting David Wolper and David Wolper at that time was huge -- he did "Roots." He was really the king of those mini-series. And it was, you know, it was an opportunity. I mean, who was I to say, "no," to it? David Soul played the Rick character. And Scatman Crothers was Sam, the piano player.
You don't really think of Hutch from "Starsky and Hutch" as Rick.
No. No. But I think it just ran for seven episodes. Or maybe three or four. They got rid of it quick. And I don't think I had more than only one line each episode.
Were they at least good lines?
I doubt it. "Do you want ice with this?"
Mike Ryan is senior writer for Huffington Post Entertainment. You can contact him directly on Twitter.