One of the benefits of a four-decade acting career is having a wealth of real-life research from past projects at your fingertips to take into new roles. And when you’re a go-to tough guy like Ray Liotta, you have had plenty of experience playing both sides of the law: Cop Land. Unlawful Entry. Smokin’ Aces. Narc. The Son Of No One. Revolver. Goodfellas.
“I remember I was hanging out with a unit in Queens for one of those projects,” says Liotta. “They were gearing up to go on a drug bust, loading up and putting on the body armor. One of them asked me if I wanted to come along and of course I said yes. Sadly, someone talked to the boss and they put a stop to it.” Liotta laughs. “That would have been fun. The real takeaway from those situations is the fact that people are people, no matter what they do for a living.”
So when the role of Lt. Matt “Woz” Wozniak on NBC’s gritty cop drama Shades of Blue arrived on Liotta’s desk, there was a familiarity, but there were also enough new elements. Men’s Journal sat down with the actor to find out more about his iconic performances, playing both sides of the law, and more.
How did you feel about the show when it first came to you?
This is a really interesting character, a bisexual cop who is on the take. There is so much to this guy. Of course, when we first had the meeting, I’m sure they were thinking, “Ray is just looking for more airtime.” Perhaps, in a sense, I was, but it was because I saw what was possible with this guy, and to Jen’s [Lopez] credit, she let us do it. Her schedule is so busy; she had a very limited amount of time that she was able to film per week. I think they started to really understand that they could go as dark as they wanted with me. I thought the darker the better. That is why I was hoping that we could continue doing the show and just taken it a little further. I would have enjoyed taking it to somewhere like The Shield.
Do you find yourself drawn to roles that are gray rather than black or white?
I have played a lot of nice guys who are also scumbags. I really find that kind of character more interesting, because it is probably the closest to real life. The more you read about guys who were serial murderers or arsonists, the more you hear about how they could be completely normal at times, maybe even nice. They don’t come with a sign on their forehead. I have read about serial murderers and you hear that, once they get that need satisfied, they normalize. That is, until they have that desire to do that horrific and unforgivable act again.
Did you link up with any cops before this project?
I have done ride-alongs with cops before. It has always been an interesting experience. I remember the very first time I went with this sergeant who was a real cowboy for a patrol around South Central. Our first visit was to a little apartment complex that blew up and we were looking through the wreckage for body parts. There were a lot of domestic abuse reports that we rolled up on. These are obviously uncomfortable situations to be in, but you get to see that the officers are just regular men and women. I break up their day like they break up mine. They aren’t used to hanging out with someone whose movies they watched.
You have gotten to work with some legends. Is there anyone that was especially exciting?
It was really cool working with Al [Pacino]. I think he sensed that I was following him around like a little puppy dog, even though this was just a few years ago. I would ask him questions about the work and he was really open about his process. I started acting because I didn’t want to take math and history. Back in the ’70s, they were making some great movies, and I was glad I got to work with some of those people that I grew up watching, like Gene Hackman, Robert Duvall, Al Pacino, Vanessa Redgrave, Anthony Hopkins, and Robert DeNiro.
Speaking of DeNiro, Goodfellas had its 25th anniversary a few years ago, and people still talk about it. How does that feel?
That was a pretty momentous moment in my career. The fact that Scorsese was directing. All of a sudden Bob came into the project. I was living in Los Angeles at the time, but I moved here for the shoot, which was getting delayed a while. My mother was sick with cancer and died in the middle of us filming. The fact that that was going on made me less intimidated by the situation, I believe, because I was thinking, “My mother is dying of cancer. I am going to come here and be afraid of a guy who is an actor?”
What kind of research did you do to get ready for it?
I listened to cassette tapes of Henry Hill talking with Nic Pileggi. All I can really remember is Henry was eating potato chips the entire time. After the movie, I got a call to meet [Hill] at this bowling alley in the Valley. I remember the first thing he said to me, “Thanks for not making me not look like a scumbag.” I am not sure we were watching the same movie.
How does it feel to have a movie that is a favorite for so many?
It is great. I don’t know if people would know what I did if it wasn’t for that movie. There was an actor who said back in the day, “If you get one movie that people remember past the time that it is out, that is an amazing thing.” I got really lucky with Goodfellas. It is funny, I have been walking the streets here and I have been running into these same street cops every day. On the third day, they finally got up the nerve to ask me to take a picture.
How do you feel when people approach you like that?
People ask if it bothers me, and not at all. An actor does it because they love what they are doing it. All you are doing is playing pretend for a living. There are people out there in the industry who for some reasons are all pretentious about it. I mean you’re fucking acting. That is it. As much as it is a great, fun thing to do, that doesn’t change the fact that you are playing a child’s game just as an adult. It’s a pretty good gig.
Shades of Blue airs Sunday nights at 10 p.m. on NBC.