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Interview with Ray Liotta

Feeling Deep

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Buy Ray Liotta Movies on DVD

Actor Ray Liotta is a living example of the "one-for-them, one-for-yourself" rule of Hollywood filmmaking.

In 2001, Liotta made three high-profile Hollywood films, Blow, Heartbreakers and the box-office smash Hannibal. As soon as Liotta found out that Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins) would be eating his brains, he knew the film would be "huge."

As a result, he felt "protected" and decided it was time to do something for himself. The outcome of his labors, Narc, directed by Joe Carnahan, opens tomorrow in Bay Area theaters.

Narc's writer/director grew up in Sacramento, attended San Francisco State University's film program and made his debut with 1998's low-budget cult film Blood, Guts, Bullets and Octane.

"It was worth taking a chance with Joe. It was a great story and a great part," Liotta said during a recent visit to San Francisco.

The great part Liotta refers to is Henry Oak, an experienced Detroit narcotics cop whose partner has been murdered. The department teams him with Nick Tellis (Jason Patrick), an experienced undercover cop who blew his last assignment. The two men begin searching for the alleged cop-killer, but in reality, Tellis suspects Oak of the murder.

Robert DeNiro once told Liotta that he likes to alternate between "glitter" and "glue" parts. Liotta explains: "in GoodFellas I was the glue, and Joe [Pesci] and Bob [De Niro] were the flash. Just like Jason is the glue in this and I'm the flashy-type part."

For the part -- a widower who has thrown himself into his work -- Liotta put on 25 pounds and wore padding to make him look about 60 pounds heavier. He also shaved his hair back, grew a goatee to fill out his face and wore special eye makeup to make more wrinkles under his eyes.

But Liotta wanted a reason for all these efforts. "Joe told me he wanted me to be bigger and he wanted me to have a goatee. But why? So I broke the script down and I found a reason why I would be bigger."

"You know what really helped a lot?" Liotta asks. "The coat. There's a scene where Joe said, 'take off the coat in this scene.' And I told him it wouldn't work. And I was right. There's something about this long, black coat that he wears all the time."

Indeed, the real point of Narc is not so much the story but the characters and the style. "Joe wanted to make a French Connection type movie with a Cassavetes style," Liotta says, referring to the gritty, personal way movies used to be made in the 1970s before the blockbuster system came into being.

According to Liotta, the Narc shoot was fast and light, never bothering with complicated camera setups or attractive lighting. When the budget ran low, Liotta and Carnahan would go out after each day's shoot to hit up their friends for more money. "It was really rough. That's why the movie has so many producers," Liotta says.

But their efforts paid off; very few movies enjoy the kind of buzz Narc has received. After a positive showing at Sundance, the movie made it to the "Bel Air Circuit," or the Hollywood players' private screening rooms. As a result, people like Warren Beatty, Dustin Hoffman and director William Friedkin (The French Connection) fell in love with the film.

"It harkened back to a 70s movie, and it really ignited something in them," Liotta explains. "Friedkin flipped out. He said it was the best cop movie he's ever seen."

Since then, no less a talent than Tom Cruise signed on as a producer and has used his clout at Paramount to get Narc a wider release.

Strangely, the film's punchy reality makes it seem as if the actors were more involved in their roles than usual. But Liotta insists that his job remains the same, whether he's making a severe Narc or a slick cop movie entertainment like Unlawful Entry.

"It's pretend. We're not making a documentary. We're not making a 'how to be a cop.' We're playing cowboys and Indians."

Liotta says he researched plenty of cop stuff for his role in the 1992 Unlawful Entry and didn't need to do much more this time around, though he says he had fun.

"I got addicted to it. I went almost every night, deep, dark into the underbelly. It was a lot of gang stuff. It was fascinating. Research is good to a degree, to learn how to hold a gun. You want to look like you know what you're doing and get a basic sense. But your imagination is all you need. They say that the imagination is more powerful than knowledge."

According to Liotta, an actor's greatest skill is not caring what other people think. Once you do that, and once you discover the depths of your own identity, nothing can stop you.

"I was always taught that the one who feels the deepest wins."

(January 6, 2003)

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