A 'tough guy' tires of the typecasting

Interview with actor Ray Liotta

He was a violent boyfriend in "Something Wild" and a gangster who loved the high life in "GoodFellas." He was a ballplayer who threw the World Series in "Field of Dreams" and a victim of Anthony Hopkins in the gruesome "Hannibal."

So which role does Ray Liotta think comes closest to reflecting who he really is?

"I did a scene with Miss Piggy in 'Muppets in Space.' That's probably me more than anything," he jokes, recalling a scene where he falls under the glamorous Muppet's spell.

While Liotta has played a wide range of roles from loving fathers to amoral criminals, his role as a homicide detective in the gritty "Narc," opening in wide release Jan. 10, marks an attempt by the actor to finally take control of his career.

"I wasn't happy with some of the scripts I was getting. I've been having one of these up-and-down careers. I wanted to be more proactive," he says, while promoting the film on which he also served as one of the producers.

In a competitive business, there's only so much room at the top, and even box-office success or critical kudos provide no guarantees. Then there's the problem of typecasting. Actors who are trained to play a variety of roles find they keep getting offered variations of whatever their most notable part was.

"The acting doesn't drive you away. It's the business," he says. Liotta received his first job on the television soap opera "Another World," playing a character named Joey Perrini from 1978 to 1981.

"I was the nicest guy," he recalls, leading casting directors to tell him that he couldn't play a tough guy. Then came "Something Wild," his big-screen debut.

The quirky 1986 film starred Melanie Griffith and Jeff Daniels. Liotta played an old boyfriend with a dangerous and violent past. Liotta's performance was praised by critics, and he was named one of the best supporting actors of the year by the Boston Society of Film Critics. Suddenly, he was hot.

"After my first movie, they were offering me a million dollars," says Liotta, who decided to hold out for a part that would showcase his range and tell a compelling story.

That film was "Dominick and Eugene" (1988), where he played a young doctor devoted to his mentally retarded brother, played by Tom Hulce. That in turn led to his key supporting role in "Field of Dreams" (1989) and then the lead in Martin Scorsese's 1990 gangster film "GoodFellas."

One would have thought his career would have been made at that point, but then the former "nice guy" got pigeonholed as just another tough guy. He was turned down for a movie about the Alamo on the grounds that he was "too urban."

Liotta continued to work through the '90s, but he decided it was time for some changes. He got a new agent, and in 1999 set up Tiara Blu Films in order to produce the sort of movies he wanted to act in, in partnership with his wife, actress/producer Michelle Grace, and producer Diane Nabatoff. His new career course included taking supporting roles in a number of recent major Hollywood features like "Hannibal," "Blow," and "John Q."

Director Nick Cassavetes, who works out at the same gym as Liotta, got him to take a small role in "John Q" with one sentence: "All of your scenes are with Robert Duvall."

In "Narc," Liotta again gets to demonstrate his range, playing a homicide detective working on the unsolved murder of his partner. A former cop played by Jason Patric is assigned to the case, and the film explores how some officers are hurt by spending their days dealing with criminality and depravity.

Liotta put on 25 pounds and grew a goatee to look more menacing, both of which he has since shed. "It's easy to put on," Liotta says of the weight gain. "You go for more pasta and meat. You eat a lot of salty food." Taking off the weight required old-fashioned discipline: diet and exercise.

As one of the film's producers for "Narc," Liotta took on additional responsibility. It became his problem when one of the investors came up short and checks started coming in late. But Liotta learned that independence does have its privileges.

"One great thing about it was that because it was independent, everyone left us alone."

It allowed Liotta to choose a new director who might not have gotten a break from the studios. It also meant he could pick a part regardless of some casting person's preconception of him based on his last movie.

"As a producer, I have a lot more power," says Liotta, sounding very much like an actor ready to go into a new phase of his career.

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