Ray Liotta plays real-life mobster Roy Demeo in Ariel Vromen’s crime drama, The Iceman, based on the story of notorious contract killer Richard Kuklinski (Michael Shannon) whose career prospects expand when Demeo offers him the opportunity to earn a living as a mob enforcer. The role marks the second time in 30 years that Liotta has played a real-life mobster since his acclaimed performance in Martin Scorsese’s gangster classic, Goodfellas.
At the film’s recent press day, Liotta talked about getting back into that world again, why he likes playing pretend, how he researched his larger than life character, what it was like working opposite Michael Shannon, how he’s met real life mobsters, why he was reluctant to play Frank Sinatra in The Rat Pack, and why he tries to avoid typecasting and chooses roles that are diverse and challenging. He also revealed his upcoming projects including playing himself in The Muppets…Again!, a hitman in the crime thriller Pawn, a preacher in The Identical, and a guy cheating on his wife in Sin City: A Dame to Kill For. Hit the jump to read more:
Question: You’ve played a number of Mafioso characters throughout your career. How come you keep gravitating back to these roles?
Ray Liotta: I‘ve only played one other Mafia person. That’s it. I’m not gravitating to it. This is only the second one. I’ve played a lot of bad guys. I’ve played bad cops, but this is only the second time in 30 years that I’ve done this kind of character, a Mafia character.
How was it getting back into that world again?
Liotta: It’s fun to play pretend. I’ve never been in a fight in my life. I’m not a maniac. It’s fun to be in charge of things. At least you think that you are for a minute. I like doing what I do, playing pretend. Those are fun, too – baseball guys or Mafia guys or whatever. I just did a movie with The Muppets. I did not kill one.
Did any of them try to kill you?
What do you do in The Muppets…Again!? Do you play yourself or do you play a character?
Liotta: No, I played myself. (shows us a photo of himself snuggling up with a female Muppet) Who’s the bad guy? It’s my first movie romance.
When you get to play someone like Roy Demeo, a larger than life character with a very checkered persona, do you do any extra research to get into that role?
Liotta: I read about him. There are biographies on A&E on a bunch of Mafia guys. They have stuff so you can get it on the computer. I read books. His son wrote a book about him which was fascinating. There are some other books that have parts. The whole book was on all different kinds of people. It wasn’t just focused on him. So I did that. You know what your job is, and what the director and the story ask of you, and you just do it.
Before you got the role, did you know about the characters?
Liotta: Not Roy. No. I knew Kuklinski. I only knew him though because I watched that HBO documentary (The Iceman: Confessions of a Mafia Hitman). HBO used to do a lot of America Undercover. There seemed to be more documentaries. I think they’re coming back. I had seen that and I was really fascinated with the guy, because he was so reserved and wouldn’t allow himself to laugh or cry or anything. He was a really interesting dude.
Having been in one of the seminal mob movies, have you ever had that experience of running into organized crime figures and meeting the real made guys?
Liotta: Yeah. With Goodfellas, Marty (Scorsese) had me go with someone that I was going to be able to talk to. He was very open about it. He used to be a cop, and then his family was in the mob, and he ended up doing that. There were certain people that would come up when we were shooting. There was one guy. I don’t know if you remember this guy Esposito. He was a New York cop. This is true. He and his partner used to do hits for the mob and they got caught. I remember him coming up to me. He was a really nice guy, but he opened up his trunk and said, “Look at these pictures.” He showed me all these decapitations and eyes [gouged] out. Why he kept them in his trunk, I have no idea. There are some, ones that are like mobsters, and you might get a sense, but they’ll never say that this is what they do.
You’ve been working continually for decades now and you have such a wide range from Corrina, Corrina where you sang a little ditty to doing voiceovers in kids’ animated films, and then you have Pawn, Michael Chiklis’ production company’s first film, coming out.
Liotta: I’m a hitman in that.
And then there’s Killing Them Softly which has one of your best performances ever as Markie Trattman. What do you look for in the roles you choose? Is there something that has a specific appeal to you?
Liotta: No, I just like playing pretend. I like what I do and it’s always a constant. They’ll definitely typecast you, and it’s a constant battle for them to see you in a different way. I got a movie coming out, The Identical, that luckily fell into my lap because this director was smart and realized that you’re not who your roles are. You’re an actor who does things. I play a preacher. It’s a beautiful story that takes place over 40 years. I want to do a little bit of everything. So, when these opportunities come up, [I take them]. And then sometimes, after a while you’ve got a family and you’ve got to work, and because people’s visions are smaller, they have only seen [some of your work]. I’ve done over 80 movies. You can’t expect everybody to see everything that I’ve done. I try to do whatever I can, and I like doing a little bit of everything.
You and Michael Shannon have something in common: you both play really good bad guys.
Liotta: That’s good.
You were so scary and good in Something Loud and at the same time you feel for those characters.
Liotta: That’s what got me, because that was my first movie. I did Dominick and Eugene after that, then Field of Dreams. People saw Field of Dreams, but they just didn’t equate that, and it’s a fight just like Michael Shannon is going to have to go through. He’s really good and he’s a great guy. He’s sensitive. He’s funny. It’s just a constant thing.
What was it like working with Michael? I understand he was in character for each day of shooting.
Liotta: All of us were to a degree. He didn’t take it home. You’d see him at dinner. We’d go to dinner sometimes, and he’d be telling stories. He wasn’t staring down people. He was very social. It’s nice to work with people who are really committed to playing pretend, whether they’re a good guy or bad guy. It’s a little easier if you’re in The Muppets. Danny (Trejo) and I were in character in a different way. We were just goofy, talking to The Muppets non-stop. They would say, “Cut,” and Danny was over talking to The Muppets, and then I’d ask a question to it. And then, we’re practicing our dance moves with everybody.
Isn’t it amazing when you talk to them how you immediately forget the people that are working them? You don’t see them at all. You’re just suddenly talking to Kermit.
Liotta: Oh totally. You totally forget. You get lost. Those guys are good and how they did the facial features and the way they moved their heads and things. But then, sometimes they were really funny, and one of the Muppets would come up and he’d pretend he was drunk. It was really funny, and the more we laughed. All our scenes were with at least 15 to 20 other guys because we’re all doing musical numbers with Tina Fey. We’re in a Russian gulag and she’s the prison warden so to speak.
Besides The Muppets and The Identical, is there anything else you have coming up?
Liotta: I did something in Sin City, the sequel to that. (Sin City: A Dame to Kill For.) I play a guy who’s cheating on his wife with somebody.
Robert Davi told us a great Frank Sinatra story and you got to play Frank Sinatra in The Rat Pack. Did you ever get a chance to interact with him?
Liotta: I never met him.
What did you find fascinating digging into his legend which is insanely huge for the role?
Liotta: It’s huge. I turned that down a few times. His daughters asked me to do the mini-series, but there was just no way. They offered me this. I said, “No.” And then they offered me that, and I started saying, “Wait. Why do I keep saying no?” It was because I was afraid of judgment and what people were going to say because everybody knows him. He was all over the place for years and the way he spoke. And then I said, “I’m just going to do it. Whatever happens, happens.” It was just too much of a challenge – the singing, the dancing, the depths of despair and the highs, the whole Kennedy thing with the election. But no, I never met him.
Did you try to or did you just hope you would?
Liotta: We were doing a scene in a nightclub and all of a sudden someone comes over with a big plastic horse’s head. I’m like, “What the heck is this? Why is someone giving me a head?” Everyone is in on it but me. I said, “Holy shit! What is that all about?” His daughter, Tina, sent it, but I didn’t know, and then, everyone laughs. They turn it over and they ask me to sign it, and there’s all these names that she sent the head to. So the closest that I got was maybe to Tina and that head.
Do you consider yourself your own worst critic when it comes to your performances?
Liotta: I don’t even watch. I very seldom watch the one I’m in.
Even after years?
Liotta: When I’m doing a scene, on the day, I do so much homework it’s ridiculous. If I feel like I haven’t gotten it that day, or after it’s done before we move onto something else, that’s when I’m the harshest because there’s so much out of my control. I have a movie out now, A Place Beyond the Pines, there were a bunch more scenes in that that made the character more understandable. Some of it is just beyond my control. I’ll watch it, but not a lot. I watch it once and that’s it. I think if it was on TV, I’d never ever. I have a couple friends who would have parties, “Oh I’m on TV. Come on over.”
Click here for all our coverage on The Iceman