“I’ve never been in a fight,” Ray Liotta confessed at an often hilariously blunt public Q&A session (and earlier press conference) at the Aruba International Film Festival yesterday, demystifying his movie tough-guy image. “The guys I knew in high school just laugh their balls off.”
Liotta was in Aruba for a special screening of his 1990 gangster classic GoodFellas, a movie he hadn’t seen since it first debuted 22 years ago. The actor was proud to be accompanied by his 13-year-old daughter, who was viewing the film for the first time. “She thought it was the best movie she’d ever seen,” he beamed, “and she’s the first to say, ‘Dad, that was horrible.’”
For Liotta, memories of the making of GoodFellas are bittersweet, since his mother was dying of cancer during the shoot. To prepare for the part of mobster Henry Hill (who died last week), Liotta would drive around in his mother’s car listening to tapes Hill had made recounting his career in crime. “But he was always chewing potato chips,” the actor recalled. “It drove me nuts.”
Director Martin Scorsese discouraged Liotta from meeting Hill before the film, to avoid biasing his performance. But the actor later encountered Hill in a bowling alley in the San Fernando Valley. “He said, ‘Thanks for not making me a scumbag.’ I said, ‘Did you see the movie?’”
Many years later, Liotta saw Hill again, passed out on the lawn outside a Mexican restaurant. “He was a really messed-up guy,” his cinema alter-ego concluded. “Maybe he’s finally at peace.”
GoodFellas’ celebrated “You think I’m funny?” scene came out of a rehearsal improv, Liotta revealed, inspired by co-star Joe Pesci’s own encounter with a Mafia hothead. Liotta has recently worked with improv-loving comedy directors like Jody Hill and David Wain, but he cautioned, “Improv needs to be within a structure.”
Method acting and other navel-gazing approaches to the craft are not Liotta’s thing. “It’s all about playing pretend,” he said several times during the session. In the audience were a father and his 12-year-old aspiring-actor son who had watched GoodFellas the night before. (“You’re an irresponsible dad,” Liotta chided.) Asked to provide some acting advice for the youngster, Liotta reiterated, “All it is is pretend. Don’t let people say it’s more than what it is.” After a pause, he added, “You got that, little fucker?”
Liotta swore he never wanted to be an actor. He was a student at the University of Miami where “you just needed a pulse” to get accepted. “I took a theatre class just to fuck around,” he recalled, and he tried out for the school play (a musical, he soon learned to his horror) just to get closer to a cute co-ed. A decade later, his friendship with fellow student Steven Bauer helped him land his breakout role in Jonathan Demme’s Something Wild, which starred Bauer’s then-wife, Melanie Griffith. Liotta didn’t want to use his connections, but his dad, a politician, encouraged him to make the call to Griffith that got him his decisive audition.
Liotta has worked with such top directors as Scorsese, Demme and Ridley Scott, and he said the measure of a great filmmaker is that he’s “passionate about a make-believe situation.” Liotta never wanted to direct himself, but said he would now consider it “after a lot of half-assed directors I’ve worked with.”
Liotta said he feels bad for young actors today whose options are more limited to superhero parts and fewer films with an independent sensibility. (Indeed, when he first broke through in the late ’80s, he dismissed the idea of working in Tim Burton’s Batman with “How stupid is that?”)
The actor isn’t concerned that he’s best remembered for so many villainous or criminal roles; people tend to overlook Al Pacino and Robert De Niro’s more sympathetic performances too, he argued. “There’s something about bad guys that stands out.” Still, he admitted, “I would like to kiss a woman [onscreen] without having to choke her.”
Another Monday highlight in Aruba was a screening of a restored print of Dutch director Pim de la Parra’s 1976 film Wan Pipel (One People). When the movie was introduced as “a masterpiece of Suriname cinema,” the filmmaker immodestly (but quite justifiably) corrected his host: “It’s a masterpiece of Caribbean cinema.” This wonderful comedy-drama concerns Roy, a young black Surinamese studying economics in Amsterdam and living with a white Dutch woman, who journeys back home to see his dying mother. There, he’s invigorated by the robust culture he left behind and soon begins an affair with a lovely Hindu woman. That relationship prompts outrage from both his rigid father and the girl’s devout parents. The clashing of the black and Hindu communities, complicated further when Roy’s Dutch lover arrives in Suriname, is handled with a light comic touch that doesn’t neglect the dark undercurrents exposing the tensions that keep Suriname’s many cultures from merging into “one people.” The very vocal Aruba audience loved this 36-year-old movie, which de la Parra argued is as timely as ever. “What you see still exists,” he declared, with a downbeat addendum: “It will never change.” Here’s hoping for some North American exposure for this masterpiece of not just Caribbean but world cinema.