05/06/2013 08:55 pm ET Updated Jul 06, 2013

15 Minutes With Ray Liotta

I'm sitting across from Ray Liotta at a round table in the Beverly Hills Four Seasons. He doesn't look happy. Is he having a bad day? Is he in a bad mood? Or is there something about me he just doesn't like? Intensity emanates from him. This is the iconic star of Martin Scorsese's Goodfellas, one of my -- and just about everyone's -- all-time favorite films. I've admired his work for years, and all I can think is, "What's this guy's problem? What's with the attitude?" And then I realize what's actually happening: As a Hollywood scribe, I've become accustomed to interviewing bubbling, young starlets, happy to be riding the publicity train and eager to have their names is print. Ray Liotta is a 58-year-old man of East Coast origin, who's been a legend in the movie business for decades. He feels no need to impress a journalist, and frankly, who can blame him?

Mr. Liotta sits at this table as part of a press junket for his latest film The Iceman, in which he plays the mafia boss of contract killer Richard Kuklinski (Michael Shannon). With The Iceman, Liotta turns in another of the exceptional performances for which he's known, but, in my short time with him, he doesn't say much about the film. He talks about his life as an actor known for playing sociopaths. "I love acting," Liotta says. "It's an interesting challenge to make something that doesn't exist appear like it's happening, and to do it in a real way. Acting is playing pretend, playing a children's game at an adult level, but with children's rules. It's fun to play bad guys. I've never been in a fight in my life, so it's fun to play something that's different. And bad guys seem to stand out."

The Emmy Award-winner's chilling performances continue to stand out, and have made him an instantly recognizable face and a household name. But his first step on the path to stardom wasn't exactly intentional. "I had no idea what I wanted to do," Liotta recalls. "I didn't want to go to college. My dad said, 'Go to college and take whatever you want.' So, I went to the University of Miami. When I got up to the line at registration, I saw that you had to take math and history. I said, 'There's no way I'm taking math and history.' And right next to it was the line for the drama department."

It's been many years since his time at the University of Miami, and Mr. Liotta has transformed himself into a bonafide movie star and Hollywood veteran. He's acted with the biggest names in the business, and has even watched the masters stumble. "I've been really fortunate to have worked with great actors like Robert Duvall, Gene Hackman, Tony Hopkins, De Niro and Pacino," Liotta shares. "You see them forget a line, or get frustrated, or come up with an idea that doesn't make sense. You get to see behind the image. You get to see the human being that happens to be an actor. The veil is lifted."

There are times when Liotta's menacing screen persona inadvertently spills over into his real life. Those who only know him from his films sometimes feel intimidated in his presence. Liotta recognizes the humor in this dynamic, and jokes about the way it may work to his advantage as an overprotective dad. "It's going to be great," the actor says with a laugh, "because my 14-year-old daughter will probably never date, which is good for me."