Robert Horton is a Scarecrow board member and a longtime film critic. He will be contributing a series of “critic’s notes” to the Scarecrow blog—a chance to highlight worthy films playing locally and connecting them to the riches of Scarecrow’s collection.
Ray Liotta died this week, age 67. He never lived life like a schnook.
I interviewed the actor in 2003, when he came to Seattle to promote Narc. As I say in the piece, I recall him sitting down in the room in the Olympic Hotel and asking me whether I liked the film. Such was the actor’s energy that I felt as though if I hesitated in any way, I was liable to get a beatdown right there and then. He wasn’t threatening, exactly, but very present, shall we say. Here’s the interview, which is not exactly revelatory, but was the best I could do at the time.
After putting on “25 or 30 pounds” to play the intimidating police detective in Narc, Ray Liotta is back to his usual fighting weight. That’s the way he looked when he visited the area for a publicity tour, anyway.
With the extra weight, he looks brutish and bull-like on screen. In person, he was dressed all in black and radiated the kind of wired energy he showed in GoodFellas and Something Wild. Narc is the first movie from Liotta’s production company, so he has a special reason to promote the picture.
In fact, when he asked me, “You liked the movie, right?”, it sounded vaguely like a threat as well as a question. Hard to shake those GoodFellas associations.
Narc was the first script that came across Liotta’s desk after he formed his company, Tiara Blu. He responded to it, he said, because he grew up on Seventies crime movies with strong anti-heroes, and this was right in line with that tradition. “It’s so riveting and different,” he said, “it just grabs you. But as raw as it is, it’s also emotionally powerful.”
Writer-director Joe Carnahan had only one feature to his credit, but Liotta liked his take on the material. “Some directors get in the way,” he said. “They want to prove they’re directors. So I tested him. I asked him, ‘How do you want this to look?'” When Carnahan started talking about The French Connection and the grittily realistic films of John Cassavetes, Liotta knew he had his man.
Still, the film was shot in a quick 27 days for $3 million, a tiny sum. At one point, the production actually ran out of money, but they plowed ahead anyway. After Narc was screened at last year’s Sundance Film Festival, an encounter with Tom Cruise helped seal its fate. Cruise was an enthusiastic fan, and his production company got involved to help cover costs and secure a distribution deal with Paramount.
Liotta talked more about acting than producing. He relished the physical transformation needed to become the character—even the detective’s name, Oak, suggested bigness. “He just physically let himself go,” said Liotta. “He was obsessed by the memory of his wife’s death.” The result is convincing—with his face lined and baggy, and a gray-speckled goatee jutting out, Oak looks like a battered warrior gone to seed.
As much as Liotta felt simpatico with his director, he didn’t want to psychoanalyze the character too much, preferring to work out the details himself. Jason Patric, who plays the central role of a conflicted cop, was more of a talker. Liotta decided to make their different acting styles work for the picture.
“My guy is wound so tight, I thought it was better just to show up on the first day and let him (Patric) have it,” Liotta explained. “I kept my distance. I got a little Method-y on him, but he’s a really good actor, and I knew he could handle it.
“I don’t like to rehearse. I do my homework and have my guns loaded.”
May 27, 2022
Robert Horton is a member of the National Society of Film Critics.