Ray Liotta interview: ‘You’re playing pretend. That’s basically what I do’

The actor who was almost Tony Soprano stars in a new prequel to the television series

Ray Liotta was almost Tony Soprano. He was showrunner David Chase’s first choice to play the New Jersey mob boss, but Liotta chose to focus on his film career, leaving E Street Band guitarist Steven Van Zandt, Anthony LaPaglia and Michael Rispoli in contention. Two of those actors would appear in different roles in the show.

Despite storming out of an early audition, the lead finally fell to the late James Gandolfini. That actor later appeared with Liotta in Andrew Dominik’s Killing Them Softly, a neo-noir starring Brad Pitt as one of two hitmen sent to find the three small-time crooks who rob a poker game run by Liotta’s mobster.

“We didn’t have any scenes together but I would see him over the years and blah, blah, blah,” recalls Liotta about Gandolfini. “I can’t say that I really knew him. But he was a really great actor. It was unbelievable what he did with The Sopranos.”

Two years ago, in a circuitous development, Liotta was cast in The Many Saints of Newark, a prequel to the six-season television series.

“I’ve always wanted to work with David Chase,” he says. “He came to Virginia to ask me to be a part of The Sopranos. And I just didn’t feel it was just the right time, or whatever. At that time I didn’t watch much television. But I always liked him. So when this came up I talked to my agent and told him to get me a meeting with David. There was no guarantee that I was going to get anything. So when I heard what David and the director Alan wanted me to do I was like, whoa.”

The Many Saints of Newark stars Michael Gandolfini – son of James – as the young Anthony Soprano, a high schooler, who idolises his suave uncle Dickie Moltisanti (Alessandro Nivola), a key mob player at a tumultuous historical moment.

“I just want to say how good Michael [Gandolfini] is playing the dad,” says Liotta. “I just wonder what that was like, for him, What memories that he brought up? But he is so good. And he just went for it. He just went for it. That must have been a hard thing to do.”

Various characters – including Jon Bernthal as Giovanni “Johnny Boy” Soprano, Corey Stoll as Corrado “Junior” Soprano Jr, and Vera Farmiga as Livia Soprano – are resurrected in younger guises. Unfortunately, spoiler etiquette – and an NDA – prevents Liotta from going into detail on his work for The Many Saints of Newark. Suffice to say, the film provides a terrific showcase for the actor.

He shrugs off the early awards season chatter. The actor rarely watches the films he appears in: “Literally, you just sit home and imagine,” he says. “It’s no great secret. You’re playing pretend. That’s basically what I do. I sit and think about the part, or what I’m feeling or why I’m saying something. It sounds simple but there’s a lot to it.”

Liotta’s first film role was in The Lonely Lady, an unlovely Pia Zadora vehicle from 1983. Three years later, his much-admired psychotic turn in Jonathan Demme’s Something Wild was shortlisted for a Golden Globe. He was a lot more Method during those early years, he recalls.

“At the beginning of my career, you know, I played a heart surgeon, so I would go to open-heart surgeries,” says the 66-year-old. “And I mean, I went so much that the doctor asked me to scrub up and stand next to him when he was doing a bypass. There’s this woman there, with her chest wide open, and I’m staring at what’s really inside. They turned to me and asked me, ‘Did you want to touch her heart?’

“I’ve done things like that. When I had to play baseball for a role, I learned all these different technical things. I played a coroner. So I would go and watch autopsies. That kind of preparation is fun. But at the end of the day, you still got to come back to the script and ask yourself what the script represents.”

Born Raymond Julian Vicimarli to an Irish mother, baby Ray was adopted at six months by Alfred and Mary Liotta in 1955. In 1987, he hired a private detective and tracked down his biological mother. It was a relief to know she had wanted the best for him but he was certain of his own place within his Italian-American family.

Both his parents ran unsuccessfully for the Democratic Party but he enjoyed political rallies while growing up. Liotta remains faithful to his blue-collar New Jersey origins, and the four Newark chums he’s known from kindergarten. A gifted high-school athlete, he excelled in varsity soccer and basketball while working part-time in his dad’s auto supply shop.

At university, feted appearances in collegiate productions of Cabaret and The Sound of Music encouraged Liotta to continue acting. Within a year he had landed a role on the soap opera Another World.

“I didn’t know anything about acting but I guess my sister was pretty dramatic,” laughs Liotta. “I graduated high school, I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I thought I’d work in construction or whatever. When it came time to go to college, my dad said: ‘look, go wherever you can go.’ So I got into the University of Miami and I was just going to take liberal arts. And when I got there they said I got to take math and history. And I didn’t really want to take math and history. And right next to my line of registration was the drama department line. I took a step over.

“The first year was all musicals. And then in senior year, I was getting lots of leads in the plays. And it was just fun. So I decided I’d give it a shot. I moved to New York, I didn’t even go to my graduation. And things started happening very quickly. I did a soap opera for three years. Then I moved to LA because I was trying to get into movies.”

After the success of Something Wild, Liotta studiously attempted to avoid typecasting by seeking out sensitive roles in Dominick and Eugene and Field of Dreams. It was Goodfellas, Martin Scorsese’s magnificent crime drama, that would forever frame him as a movie tough guy, an image he has lampooned in Bee Movie, SpongeBob SquarePants and Muppets from Space.

Goodfellas’ Henry Hill proved a blessing and a curse. For much of the decade that followed, Liotta struggled to find satisfying work. The formation of his own production company and better representation turned things around, starting with John Carnahan’s Narc in 2002.

“I’d had such an up and down career,” he says. “For the first 10 years, I didn’t even have a publicist. Boy, was I dumb.”

Liotta has frequently decried the film industry’s obsession with opening weekends and numbers. “It’s not what I signed up for,” he says. “It’s been like that since Jaws,” he says. “And it’s killing the acting profession. I think of all the great actors in the early ’70s who made me want to act. Would they have found work in most of the films they’re making now? I doubt it.

“Everything is different now. My daughter wants to do this. She’s in her 20s. And she has to put herself on tape. For me, I love going into the office and auditioning. I have that competitive edge. If you want something, you just go and get it.”

Liotta will soon touch down in Ireland to make Cocaine Bear. The film, directed by Elisabeth Banks and starring Liotta and Keri Russell, is inspired by a 1985 news story concerning a bear who ate 40 plastic bags of cocaine worth $15 million that had been stashed in Chattahoochee- Oconee national forest.

“I never know how a movie is going to do,” he says. “But I think this one will be a commercial hit because the studio is putting a lot behind it. And I didn’t do it for that reason. I just wanted to be part of it. And I’ve always wanted to go to Ireland.”

In recent weeks, David Chase has expressed dismay that the long-delayed Many Saints of Newark will premiere simultaneously in cinemas and on HBO Max in the US. Speaking to Deadline, The Sopranos creator did not mince words: “I don’t think, frankly, that I would’ve taken the job if I knew it was going to be a day-and-date release. I think it’s awful. [I’m] extremely angry . . . If I was . . . one of those guys, if one of those executives was sitting here and I was to start pissing and moaning about it, they’d say, you know, there are 17 other movies that have the same problem. What could we do? Covid!

“Well, I know, but those 16 other movies didn’t start out as a television show. They don’t have to shed that television image before you get people to the theatre. But we do. And that’s where we’re at. People should go see it in a theatre. It was designed to be a movie. It was... beautiful as a movie. I never thought that it would be back on HBO. Never.”

Liotta, who memorably played Adam Driver’s slick lawyer in Marriage Story for Netflix, is more circumspect on the issue of streaming.

“Watching a movie on the big screen is just a different experience,” he says. “But I can’t see the studios making a film like Field of Dreams anymore. We’ll see what happens. I’m sure it’s all going to be about finances . . . They might not make Field of Dreams for theatres. But it might get made on a smaller scale for streaming. There are a lot of good things happening and getting made. But what venue will they be seen in?

“The business is changing. I don’t know whether that’s for the good or for the worse. But I suspect it’s a little bit of both.”

The Many Saints of Newark opens September 22nd

Tara Brady

Tara Brady

Tara Brady, a contributor to The Irish Times, is a writer and film critic