By Lauren Smart
By Jane R. LeBlanc
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But Liotta pretty much had to take a chance on a $3 million movie. He was down in the valley, he'll tell you--"never below the surface," he says, but just out of eye level. His luck improved in the new millennium--Hannibal, Heartbreakers, Blow and John Q gave him proud paychecks--but still, he was a bit player in those movies, fourth or fifth or sixth on the bill, a glorified cameo in old-man makeup or a bad guy without half a brain after Tony Hopkins got through eating it. He'd been at the top, then started the slow slide to the middle that happens to all talented actors not possessing pretty faces and blank stares. It's often been said of Liotta he's too intense for his own good; hell, even his Shoeless Joe looked like the kind of guy Kevin Costner shouldn't have left alone with his wife when he went looking for James Earl Jones. So he got typecast as crazy cops and psycho killers, and nobody took him seriously when he tried to play softies. Bad things just happen when you're a butcher's blade in a drawer full of butter knives.
About Owen Wilson, then. Turns out Liotta now loses parts to guys like Owen Wilson. Happened just recently: There's a script floating around in which an FBI agent poses as a movie producer to catch a bad guy infatuated with the movies. It's a comedy, of course, and Liotta and Wilson were up for the part of the agent. Guess who the studio wanted. "But who knows after I Spy, since that wasn't too good," Liotta says, chuckling.
What irks Liotta, among other things, is that most of what's been written about Narc doesn't have much to do with Liotta. It's been turned into a business story, that of the little indie that became a major-studio release after Tom Cruise saw it and decided to lend his name to it as exec producer and get it a wider release than Lions Gate could muster. It's now a Paramount movie, this $3 mil indie, celebrated not for its performances but for the, ahem, risk Cruise took by lending his name to someone else's finished product. It's a better story that way: Like the writer said in the New York Times Magazine not long ago, it's not like Liotta's exactly Vanity Fair cover material. Not like Cruise.
"Yeah, that pissed me off," Liotta says. Pause. "But it's true. Vanity Fair, what they do is, they need to sell magazines. I would think it's more interesting to read about somebody that you don't know about than have the usual suspects that just rotate covers. It's the same people, but the nature of the business is that's how they think, and they're not going to take a chance. Everybody, they spend too fuckin' much, they want too big of a piece of the pie, so what they do is they compromise their magazine and they compromise movies because it's the same, it's the usual suspects. Well, ha, look at what I Spy did. So, you know what, it serves you right because you fucking went with the usual suspects. Good for Owen, because he's the new guy in town, but they went for the usual fucking suspects.
"Now, if Narc does well and we get nominated for stuff and it does a lot of money, then that's going to change, and then someone's going to be saying, 'Oh, fucking Liotta, of course, you know, why not me?' And then they'll hate me. I can't wait to be hated. Because that just means success is kicking in."
Ray Liotta's the kind of actor you want to root for; for too long he's been the underdog, the punch line, the superstar rendered character actor by studios and filmmakers who have no idea how to harness his force. He's failed nobly (Article 99, a dramedy set in a VA hospital, ranks high on the list of great Liotta performances seen only by viewers of late-night cable), turned down the chance to cash in on cultural phenomena (he refused a part on The Sopranos, because "why the fuck would I want to be in The Sopranos after having done GoodFellas?") and gone out of his way to prove himself adept at being goofy when everyone else wants him to play crazy. It was his idea to play himself on NBC's Just Shoot Me, in an episode in which Liotta is too much in love with Christmas. He did it once more, and he'd do it again and again and again just to prove to a studio boss or a director or just other actors that he's capable of doing anything. The veteran will still try out for a spot on the team. All the bastards have to do is ask.
"It's based on the ball and the bat that they have: If you make money, you're going to get the better parts or whatnot," he says. "It's kind of like a 'Fuck you, I'll show you. You don't give me this? You don't think I can be funny?' Monthly, that stuff comes along and you do it. If it's a $30 or $40 million movie and it's the lead, I'm probably not going to get it. But in a sense, it's kind of like, you know, 'I'll show you,' I still have that, I still have as much passion and as much 'fuck you' to them as I always have. But right now, it's like that whole Pia Zadora thing: As long as they're talking about you, that's what's good. There will be an interest."
Uh, Pia Zadora?
"You know, you remember Pia Zadora."
Sure. Uh, weren't you in a Pia Zadora film?
"Yeah, yeah," he says, flashing that crazy grin. "Raped her with a hose. Somebody had to."