Ray Liotta undoubtably knows his way around criminal thrillers, most famously recognized for his role as Henry Hill in Goodfellas, but can be most recently found portraying a seedy poker game runner named Markie Trattman in Andrew Dominik’s Killing Them Softly. I recently had the chance to sit down with Ray and listen to him discuss the rigors of playing such a beaten down character, what he thinks about any Oscar buzz surrounding Dominik’s film, and how it was working with an actor like Brad Pitt. Liotta joked that he wasn’t as “interesting” as Australian personalities director Andrew Dominik and actor Ben Mendelsohn, but I can assure you that was not the case by any means.
For those of you who haven’t seen Killing Them Softly, Markie Trattman is a physically demanding character who takes quite a walloping, a very different role for Liotta because he usually embodies the bruiser. When asked about getting in Markie’s victim mentality, Liotta responded saying “There’s not much to understand as opposed to just being overmatched,” which is completely understandable considering the brutally violent scene. “The fight itself, that was demanding,” he went on, saying “As much as I’ve been in fights in movies where I get hit, I usually have to do that a couple of times to sell it as opposed to the hit. It’s a little easier once you understand what it’s doing and where the cameras in the right spot, you just have to make it seem like it’s really happening.” Makes sense. Selling something is typically harder than delivering something.
“To sell a punch is a whole different thing, and you can’t anticipate too, because if someone’s throwing a fist at you, you’re going to be like ‘Oh, well I don’t want to get hit.'” At this point Ray mimicked [safely] throwing a fake punch at one of the other round table participants, and he reactively flinched, because why wouldn’t you flinch when Ray Liotta throws a punch your way? Working with the characters doing the fighting was a little laborious as well according to Liotta, saying “They had to really work with them just to make it look like they weren’t throwing a baseball with their opposite hand. There was always something physically wrong with them, one guy’s back, the other guy with ‘Oh you’re too heavy, can you help me?’ No I can’t help you, I’m passed out practically.’ There were little challenges, but it worked out.” I’d say it worked out, considering I flinched just watching every bone crunching punch and kick.
But I could tell that’s why Liotta picked the character, being someone who usually presents himself as the “tough guy.” When asked if he chooses movies based on characters or entire cinematic pieces, Liotta expressed a little of both, saying “The most important thing is the story…What I liked about [Killing Them Softly] was that it wasn’t me going around beating on people, but it was happening to me. I found that interesting.” But then Liotta took everyone off-guard by saying “I’ve got 5 scripts that are great that I want to do. The parts that I want to do are all more heartfelt, loving kind of movies.” I guess you can only get in so many Hollywood tussles before you decide to turn a new leaf?
Now, playing a physically abused character on-screen is one thing, but escaping the crushing mentality of being thrown around like a rag doll after shooting can’t be easy. Mentioning how he once used to utilize the Daniel Day-Lewis method of character acting, Liotta now has a different type of thinking. “The more you do this, the easier it is to let it go and pick it up…Earlier on in my career I was much more method. I let it stay with me all the time when we were done with work, it was on my mind. After you’re doing it for a while, you realize it’s almost stronger when you put it aside. You hear about actors staying in character all the time, and I can relate to that because I used to do it, but it’s easier to just let it go, then just play pretend.”
For those that didn’t get my hint before, director Andrew Dominik hails from New Zealand, and we were curious to hear if there were any differences in their gangster culture. Liotta smirked and could only respond with “Theirs is brutal,” again seen through Dominik’s cringingly realistic visuals. Setting the record straight though, Liotta chimed back in saying “This wasn’t a mafia movie either, a lot of people are saying this is a mob movie, but it’s not. They’re just bad guys, they aren’t mobsters.” A valid point because the words mob and mafia movie were thrown around a lot, and Killing Them Softly is anything but that. It might be a little governmentally preachy at times, but the story simply boils down to people making a living in tough economic times at all costs. Describing mobsters especially, Liotta jested “I always see them as little boys…You can’t have something? Then I’ll just take it from you. You always hear mobsters, ‘Why’d you get into a fight?’ ‘Well, I didn’t like the way he looked at me.’ I mean we don’t do that, kids do that. Why’d you hit her? She hurt me, she took my toy!”
Getting back to the rough and tumble nature of Liotta’s characters, it’s no surprise Ray wanted things to be authentic as possible. “I really wanted to make sure that I did all of it. I didn’t want a stunt guy doing it. I thought for one, I know these guys and I know how vicious those two characters are, so there’s a fear, and two, what you don’t see a lot in movies, guys get hit you don’t see them really hurting, that real deep fear about getting the shit beat out of you.” Well Mr. Liotta, I’d say you nailed that pretty damn well.
Talking about Markie’s poker game, Liotta shared a fun little anecdote about some of the extras you can see in the actual card playing scenes. His New Orleans hotel was right across the street from one of the biggest poker rooms in the whole US, which is where Ray spent a lot of free time. Asked how his chops were, “I’m OK, I don’t like losing money, just like I don’t like driving fast, it just doesn’t make sense.” While playing though, he became friendly with a group of regular sharks who joked about his acting profession, saying “Oh you don’t work, you’re an actor, how hard can that be?” Liotta made them an offer in return, saying “There’s a scene in the movie where I had to crack up, I had to laugh, and it’s easier to do something when you’re with people who can crack you up, that can make you laugh…so I said ‘why don’t you come?'” Thinking he’d be more comfortable and natural around the outsiders he’d been having loads of fun with already, the poker pros showed up to shoot the scene, and once the cameras started rolling, they found out how easy acting really way. “They froze. Totally froze. Which in turn made me laugh more, probably deeper than I would have, seeing them scared as soon as they said action, and as soon as they said cut, they’d be talking and interacting, but as soon as the camera was on, they couldn’t do it.” I guess Liotta made them put their money, or his money, where their mouthes were.
Now Killing Them Softly is very heavy with social commentary about our economic state and the election of Barack Obama versus John McCain, so we asked Ray how he thought the current economy was hitting Hollywood. “They don’t make as many independent movies as they used to, and they’re harder and harder to come by.” Can you not agree? “Then when you do those kinds of movies, they do it for hardly any money whatsoever, and they don’t take as many chances.” The impact is especially felt by actors just trying to break into the spotlight and make a name for themselves because of such scenarios. “I’m lucky I work. I feel bad for actors just starting out because there’s nothing but superhero movies and stuff like that. There’s not a lot of 70’s type dramas and anti-heros and complicated characters like what they had for a few years.”
But forget independent films even, what about the lack of serious films directed at adults? “Adults don’t go. [Studios] want to make the killing. They want to make the big hit, and big hits are teenagers. Even the movies that do get awards, how many last year never made money? There’s a bunch of them people still haven’t seen.” Again, as an avid movie watcher, it’s hard to argue with the point Ray Liotta makes.
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