When most UM students think of famous alumni, people like Jim Kelly, Gloria Estefan or (to the administration’s disdain) Steve-O from Jackass pop into their heads. However, entertainment-savvy students may espy a different person altogether. Ray Liotta graduated from UM in 1977, and now has a reputation as one of the most dedicated and intense actors in Hollywood.
Liotta, the star of classic American films ranging from Goodfellas to Field of Dreams, was in town to promote his newest film, Narc, and talked with Life & Art at the swank Presidential Suite of the Ritz Carlton Hotel in Coconut Grove. What follows is a discussion that traces his beginnings as a singer/dancer in the UM theatre department to his accomplishments as a “made” man in cinema.
It’s important to note that I, your lovable writer, am about as cool as Screech from “Saved By the Bell.” I never know what to say or how to say it, and I lack that cocky interviewer attitude of “he’s no better than me.” Hell yeah, he’s better than me. He’s also richer than me, better-looking than me and most definitely stronger than me. So smoothness is not in my repertoire. For instance, I had to look up “swank” at dictionary.com for proper usage in the above paragraph – because you just can’t have a movie star interview without something being called “swank” (imposingly fashionable or elegant; grand).
The day before the interview, I watched the widelyacclaimed Goodfellas. If I were interviewing Mike Tyson, I would equate this to watching the “I’m gonna eat your children” speech in a continuous loop. There is something about the descent of Liotta’s character into a coke-dealing, murderous gangster that – while genius – did not ease my nerves. The butterflies were multiplying like Bebe’s Kids.
After a night spent in la-la-land getting beat up by a drug-peddling mobster, I finally awoke and drove to the aforementioned center of swankness in Coconut Grove. The Ritz played host to Liotta’s press stop in Miami – an area Liotta knew and still knows quite well.
At this point, my day had been going well. I woke up on time, threw on my underused formal clothes and mangled zero Bentleys on the way to the Grove. Still, somewhere in the back of my mind was an image of Liotta from the mega flop, Turbulence, homicidally pacing the aisles of a storm-addled airplane.
Liotta eased all fears by being a genuinely nice guy. Sporting a loose black shirt and those trademark squinty eyes, he broke the ice with a line he has probably used a thousand times, but was still rad to hear. Lying back on a colossal sofa and sensing my nervousness, he said, “Well, I’m just an asshole from Jersey.”
The conversation took off with the indie-drama, Narc, which I had seen a few days prior. Scheduled to open wide in January, Narc, which Liotta also produced, is a low-budget throwback to old film noir movies, spiced up with swift editing tricks and meaty dialogue. I’m glad Liotta inquired about my thoughts on this film instead of Operation Dumbo Drop.
“I loved it, Mr. Liotta. Especially the part where you had to shove the giant sleeping pill in the elephant’s ass! What a great family film!” Sarcasm aside, Narc is a superb film, with terrific performances from Liotta and Jason Patric (pretend Speed 2 never happened).
Liotta admits to regretting a few roles, but did not specify further. It’s nice to hear an actor confess to doing films for money and/or to fulfill contractual obligations, instead of the generic star who declares every work “brilliant.”
When speaking about Narc, Liotta exudes serious enthusiasm and pride – and for good reason. After reading a script from an unknown writer/director, he admired it so much that he signed on for a role and a producing credit. Liotta’s attachment helped raise money for the film, and positive buzz from a screening at the Sundance Film Festival brought even more star wattage onboard, including Tom Cruise (Narc’s executive producer).
During his high school years in New Jersey, Liotta grew fond of acting. He joined the drama group after getting into a fight with his basketball coach, and with lackluster grades, he enrolled at UM, when “you just needed a pulse to get in.”
He lathered himself in the “Suntan U” lifestyle, and eventually switched his major from liberal arts to drama because it seemed easier. For Liotta, acting at UM was a way to impress a girl he had met in line at a meeting for drama majors. A first role as a dancing waiter in “Cabaret” got him hooked, and from there on he was doing “all the plays, all the time” for the next four years. He landed a gig in the soap opera, “Another World,” and five years later took the leap into cinema.
The storybook lucky break came in 1986, with Something Wild, which earned him a Golden Globe nomination.
After a sluggish lull in the 90s, Liotta is once again being lit in lime, so to speak. Films like Hannibal, Heartbreakers, Blow, and John Q were all major releases – three of them grossing over $50 million theatrically. With the limited release of Narc in December, a wider release scheduled in January, and his next movie, Identity, with John Cusack, in the works, the ball is definitely rolling.
When he is not acting, he spends time with his three and a half year-old daughter, and enjoys working out and playing basketball. If he goes for more than a month without working he gets anxious. Leisure time is also dedicated to watching movies – his favorites belong to the same genres he is usually associated with. He mentioned The Godfather trilogy, The French Connection, Chinatown and Serpico, and Al Pacino, Robert DeNiro and Gene Hackman among his favorite actors.
According to Liotta, aspiring actors need to rack up as much experience as possible. “Luck is when preparation meets opportunity,” he says, and he feels that there is nothing more important than being fully prepared when a rare ray of luck shines in. He got his first acting gig by spontaneously repeating one of his UM monologues in an agent’s office.
Despite my limited experience as a journalist/critic, and my un-swank nature, Liotta appeared to be a real guy, giving heartfelt and original answers to questions he has no doubt heard from every reporter for the past 15 years. His advice to young actors was dead on, and he was legitimately interested in my thoughts about Narc.
With Identity slated for a release in April, Liotta looks to be a major force in the action/drama genre once again. Not bad for “an asshole from Jersey”.
Shawn Wines can be reached at