Shades of Ray
Interview with Ray Liotta
interview by KJ Doughton, 10 January 2003

As Henry Oak, the seething human grizzly bear from NARC, Ray Liotta shoots, pistol-whips, and punches many of the filmís unlucky supporting characters. Some of the worst punishment is dealt out to Busta Rhymes and Richard Chevolleau, who play two drug-dealing thugs enduring a brutal interrogation from Liotta while shackled to chairs.

Circling his quarry like Roger Ebert closing in on a buffet table, Liotta hurls verbal and physical intimidation in the aggressive manner of Ted Nugent slinging arrows at a black-tail buck.

Reclining on a leather couch in a cavernous corner of Seattleís Four Seasons Hotel, Liotta is sipping from a bowl of soup. Despite being weary from two straight days of fielding press questions, the New Jersey-born actor is more gregarious and welcoming than most of his high-strung onscreen characters. Heís dressed in black, a gold chain around his neck providing the wardrobeís only hint of color.

The neutral clothes only accent his striking, blue eyes, which blaze with the same intensity they reflected in Something Wild and Field of Dreams. When amused or giggly, Liotta tilts his head forward and pushes out a mischievous, throaty snicker. Meanwhile, heís lean and fit, a healthier, more upbeat shadow of NARCís mammoth crimefighter Oak.

"I gained 25 pounds and used several movie tricks to look bigger," he reveals of the role, slurping down another spoonful of broth. "Iím seen wearing a coat much of the time, which added a lot. I put makeup under my eyes to look tired and worn out. Shaved my hair to make it look thin. Even in the way I moved, I wanted to make him very self-assured and strong. After all, his name is Oak."

The resulting transformation is one of the most astonishing examples of onscreen shape-shifting since Liottaís fellow accomplice in Goodfellas, Robert DeNiro, ballooned into a grotesque human whale for the final frames of Raging Bull.

Thereís more to Oaks than heft. Heís also a deeply conflicted crime fighter grieving the deaths of both his wife and his police partner. Like Lethal Weaponís Martin Riggs, or John Travoltaís mourning agent in Face-Off, the characterís losses intensify his rage and focus on the job. However, donít look for the slick, comic-book approach of directors John Woo or Richard Donner when NARCís opening scenes flash from the screen. As its star is quick to point out, NARC instead embraces the herky-jerky, warts-and-all realism associated with such seventies classics as The French Connection, Serpico, and The Onion Field.

"When I talked to Joe Carnahan, the filmís director, I asked him how he wanted to shoot," explains Liotta. "Joe said he was going for the rawness of seventies police films. ĎThe French Connectioní was very cutting edge when it came out. Very brutal and very real. And it established a certain type of antihero, who wasnít all good, and wasnít all bad."

In contrast to Oaksí angry Goliath is NARCís other key character, the understated Nick Tellis (Jason Patric), who reluctantly returns to police work after being suspended from the force. Following his involvement in a harrowing, gory drug bust in which a pregnant woman is shot, Tellis nurses his emotional wounds at home, assisted by a loving wife and new baby. The familyís growing financial problems eventually motivate Tellisí return to the narcotics trenches, after being offered his badge back.

At its core, NARC is a psychological thriller, following Oak and Tellis as they investigate the murder of another narcotics officer. Accented by hand-held camerawork and a washed out, faded color scheme reminiscent of Traffic, the film is a striking antidote to goofy, juvenile crime outings like XXX. With its gritty, minimalist production values, you could almost call it The Blair Witch Precinct.

Meanwhile, its tormented duo has more in common with the Popeye Doyles and Frank Serpicos of the world than they do with Vin Diesel. The complexity of its law enforcers distinguishes NARC from other special effects dominated police films of recent years.

During a key scene, Officer Oaks confides in new partner

Tellis from the driverís side of a parked patrol car, revealing how his wifeís death from cancer has impacted the copís police work. Without this great love to anchor him, Oak explains, he has become a more effective crime fighter.

"I kinda figured that he had met his wife in junior high, and never touched anyone else once she died," explains Liotta. "It all became about work, and the obsession about getting bad guys. Thatís how he took out his anger.

"He became the first one in the door, and he didnít care if he got shot or not. Losing his wife was devastating for this guy, but he wasnít about to kill himself. Heíd save that for the other guy."

The edges of Liottaís thin lips raise into a grin as he says this, his head again tilting forward before another smart-aleck cackle escapes the actorís mouth. His mannerisms are darkly charming, bringing to mind the comment made by Lorraine Bracco while playing his onscreen wife in Goodfellas. After his character beats a bullying neighbor boy to a pulp, she confesses of his sinister charisma, "I had to admit Ė it turned me on."

Like Tom Sizemore, Gary Oldman, and Dennis Hopper, Liotta has used this dark magnetism to play a smorgasbord of seedy, unsympathetic souls. The airborne, jet-stalking psycho from Turbulence. His crooked Man in Blue from Unlawful Entry. Melanie Griffithís unstable boyfriend in Something Wild. When asked how heíd define such lowlifes, heís quick to coin a term.

"Combustible?" Liotta offers with a barely audible sigh. Clearly, heís been through this line of questioning before, and quickly makes reference to the lighter side of his acting resume.

"I would like to think that I was good in Dominick and Eugene, Corinna Corinna, Muppets from Space, and Operation Dumbo Drop. For some reason, people are quick to cast me in villain roles. I also think that the bad guys stand out in peoplesí minds."

Asked if he stayed up nights rifling through vintage police films for acting inspiration prior to NARCís filming, Liotta shakes his head.

"No, I didnít use anything to shape the role. I donít like to do that, because I donít wanna subconsciously borrow from someone else. I wanna create my own stuff. I was certainly influenced by those kinds of movies. Thatís why I wanted to do this. But the script was Joeís take, and itís my job to fulfill his vision. I didnít rely on any past characters, though."

Alongside his onscreen work, Liotta is also associated with NARC as a producer. Having recently started his own production company, Tiara Blue Films, Liotta has three other films in pre-production, and an HBO television series on the way.

"I just wanted to do more things on my own," he explains of Tiara Blue Films, also helmed by his wife, Michelle Grace, and Diane Nabatoff. "I wanted to be more pro-active. As an actor, you often wait until someone gives you a script, and hope that they hire you.

"There was a period awhile back where I wasnít too crazy about the scripts I was getting, and ĎNARCí was the first one to come across our desk after the company was formed that we really liked."

Meanwhile, video game aficionados can hear Liottaís voice work while playing Play Station 2ís Vice City.

"It was something Iíd never done before," he explains of the game. "I like to spread my wings and try new things. It was fun."

One thing Liotta doesnít associate with fun is providing commentary on special edition DVDís.

"I donít like that stuff," he confesses bluntly. "Iíll do it every now and then for certain movies. I guess itís good for students and people who wanna know, but you lose some sort of magic, by revealing all of the secrets."

"Could we get out of here?" Liotta suddenly requests, fanning the air with a hand. "Itís getting too smoky."

Indeed, the Four Seasons lounge is quickly resembling one of the hazy, cigarette-filled gangster bars from Goodfellas, the Scorsese epic in which Liotta starred as Mafia kingpin Henry Hill. Finding a less cough-inducing table space in the hotelís airy, vast lobby, Liotta explains his grass roots approach to promoting NARC.

NARC is a special kind of movie, one that requires two people to tell two more people. Iím hoping that if we show it to enough people who like it, word will spread. Itís not your typical Hollywood story, and itís told in a very realistic way."

Realistic, indeed. NARC pulls no punches as it guides viewers into the den of a disease-plagued junkie picking at his privates and begging for a hit of freebase. Later on, we follow the filmís brave protagonists as they stumble upon a bloated body floating in a bathtub, green with age.

Will audiences be ready for such uncompromising images? Liotta is optimistic 

"Itís gonna be some peopleís cup of tea, but wonít be for everyone. I heard a story once about ĎGoodfellasí being screened, where a few people walked out. Marty (Scorsese) was there, and was asked about how he felt. He said, ĎGood. That means that they were effected. They were moved

"This movie is similar. Itís definitely raw and goes to the edge. If you prefer Sweet Home Alabama or My Big Fat Greek Wedding, you may not get there. However, NARC is ultimately a thriller, and I think an audience will always be around for that kind of film."

Noticing a publicist approaching the table, Liotta checks his watch and stands up. "Time to go?" he asks her, preparing to answer yet another series of questions with yet another Seattle-area journalist.

"Sorry," he explains apologetically. "Iíve gotta do another interview, then get on a plane."

The rushed actor gives a quick, firm handshake. Then, like the ghost of Shoeless Joe Jackson vanishing into Field of Dreamsí Iowa cornfield, Ray Liotta vanishes from sight.

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