You don’t want to make Ray Liotta mad–especially if he’s producing your film.
In his latest, the gritty indie Narc, Liotta stars as a veteran narcotics detective whose partner is killed and who soon finds out his new partner (played by Jason Patric) assigned to help track down the killers has a few demons of his own.
Liotta, who first made his mark in the dark comedy Something Wild and went on to star in such high-profile films as Goodfellas, Hannibal and Field of Dreams, dons the producer’s hat for the first time with Narc–no easy feat. Here he tells us how aggravating it was getting Narc to the big screen but how he managed to use that ire to help fuel his character. The end result is something Liotta is very proud of–and it’s a good thing, too.
Narc is certainly an intense film. Did it read that way on the page?
Liotta: I just read the script and it was like whoa! It was really raw. It reminded me of a ’70s kind of movie. If it could be done right, it could make an impact. You just get caught up in this thing and then there’s the great twist in the end. My wife read Narc as well and was really into it. She really liked [my] character and just thought it would be a great thing for me to do. And she was persistent. So finally I said, why not?
Is this the kind of movie you like to do?
Liotta: I think I’m pretty savvy about films and scripts…all of a sudden I got Hannibal, Heartbreakers and Blow and I was in a good position movie-wise. I sort of got out of that little funk I was in.
What happened when you first met first-time writer/director Joe Carnahan?
Liotta: I just really liked his sensibilities. I wanted to give him a shot. What I was thinking when I read the script was exactly what he wanted. We had to keep this thing as raw and as real as what was on the page. We couldn’t compromise and that was music to his ears–and to mine. I just wasn’t sure if he could do it. Because who knows?
Were you a little worried working with a novice, having worked with such big-time directors as Scorsese, Jonathan Demme and Ridley Scott?
Liotta: Well, he obviously had a great vision but I didn’t know that at first. After talking to him, he is just really bright. I think I just wanted to encourage him, come in extremely professional, and he picked up on it. Sometimes you could tell he felt overwhelmed but we helped him to get through that. I just really set an example. I like to prepare myself extremely well so when I come in, it’s ready to get it done. And he understood that.
So what makes your character, Henry, tick?
Liotta: The script told me that [Henry] loved his late wife deeply. He says the best place in the world was in laying his head on her lap. Henry is just a really good guy who is sick of the system. Reminded me very much of The French Connection. I grew up with ’70s movies and they were grayer then. Now it seems [movies that are made] are so motivated by money that the appeal is broadened for everybody. Hopefully, this film will break through.
To play a “guy on the edge” you changed yourself physically, gaining weight and such. Was it the first time you’ve ever done something like that for a film?
Liotta: Well, for Blow I had to age from 20 to 60, starting out in shape and then later putting on fat pads. For this movie, I gained 25 pounds. For some reason Joe wanted me to have a goatee, so I grew one. But it made sense for [Henry], his wife dies and he loved her so deeply, he just lets it all go. He didn’t care anymore. If he was the first guy in the door and got shot, it didn’t matter; he was still going to go after the bad guys. Like [Henry] says, “I became a better cop the day she died.” I figured a guy like that, he’d let himself go. I shaved my hair back, put on the weight, wore three-inch soles in my shoes to make me walk differently.
Why do you think drug movies are so appealing?
Liotta: I don’t know if it’s drug movies per se or more about a certain element of society who are doing them. I think drug movies free the director to make intense films. I know when I go to a movie I want to experience something, whether to laugh, to cry, to feel bad. But you want to feel. Not like Chinese food, where you eat it and then you feel hungry an hour later. You want to have an experience and people can relate to these kinds of movies–whether they’ve done drugs or not. I think people like watching edgy things.
I have to admit after seeing you in Something Wild way back when, it took me awhile to get over your psycho-guy persona. You were so very scary.
Liotta: You know what it was, that was my first movie. It was coming out of nowhere; no one had an idea about me. I was on a soap opera before that for three years, where I was the nicest guy on earth. Suddenly playing the charming bad guy was my thing.
But then Goodfellas erased that psycho from my head. You were OK again.
Liotta: Field of Dreams too [in which Liotta played baseball legend Shoeless Joe Jackson]. Interestingly, a lot of people didn’t put it together that [Jackson] was me. I never understood that.
And now you’ve enter the wonderful world of producing. Was Narc closer to your heart, being one of its producers? Did you feel like it was your baby?
Liotta: Not really. I was ready to have my opinions about this, story-wise and my character. But Joe knew what he wanted. We shot in 28 days, which is really short. As rough as it was shooting in Canada, we found good people. But they kind of love us and hate us [in Canada]. They like that we are there but they don’t like how intense we are about moviemaking. For them, it’s just a job. It’s a very weird dynamic. I think Robin Williams made the joke that Canada is like the loft above the party. They want to be invited down but they are really pissed off there’s a party going on.
What was the hardest part about producing?
Liotta: When the money dried up. It was tough keeping it all together. We forwent our salaries because we felt like if we stopped to demand our money it would take the momentum out of everything.
What happened then?
Liotta: Well, two weeks into it, people weren’t getting paid. We were persistent, my partner and I, and every night after shooting we’d have to beat the s**t out of this little weasel [the original financier]. At first no one wanted to make the movie. Joe sent it around before I became attached and everybody said no because he was a first-timer. Then I attach my name to it and we were able to get a couple million bucks. So, fine, we’ll make it for a couple million bucks. We’ll do real guerilla filmmaking. But then the money just suddenly stop showing up. Ended up we needed $70,000 just to make it to the end of the week, to pay the Canadian crew. The checks weren’t coming and there were rumbles. So then we are scrambling, and people are saying, “We’ll give you the money, but we want to be a producer on it.” Hence, there’s a s**tload of producers [getting credit]. And they had nothing to do with it but just sign a check and hand it over to us.
So, the whole thing was a brand-new experience for you.
Liotta: Totally, yeah. I don’t think it’s the way you want to go into [producing]. You don’t want to have to do it when the money doesn’t show up. And then it still didn’t come almost two to three months after we finished shooting! I finally had to take a lien out on the movie. And poor Joe, who directed what is really his first feature film and he’s staying up at night worrying if we got the shots or were they in focus? Because they weren’t paying the lab, we never saw the dailies.
How did that affect your performance?
Liotta: Hey, I had to be pissed off throughout most of the movie, and [the money problems] got me plenty pissed off. I mean I’ve played these kind of guys before but that’s not really who I am at all. But I’d wake up at 8:00 in the morning to start shooting, and I really didn’t need much motivation at all because I’d been up the night before, exhausted from chasing down the money. When’s it not coming and are they lying to you about when and if it’s coming or if it’s not coming. Trying to keep this thing together, it was draining. And it pissed me off.
But then you hit the festival circuit and Narc was nominated for the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance. What was that like?
Liotta: It was great. We sort of got validated for all that trouble we had getting the film made. Joe and I have this joke where there are two agents walking down the hall and one says to the other, “What did you think of that script?” And the other one says, “I don’t know. I’m the only one who read it.” I mean the fact everyone said no to Joe at first, then I came on board, we get it done and get it out there. At Sundance, suddenly everyone was seeing it, talking about it. Then Paramount Pictures wanted to buy it and Tom Cruise saw it and came on board to executive produce it. A film that was so hard to keep together for 28 days comes to this. Pretty amazing.
Narc opens nationwide Jan. 10.