After twenty years of acting in feature films, Ray Liotta declines to treat his profession as a mysterious thing. In a recent Dallas interview to discuss his role in Joe Carnahan’s “Narc” as a rule-bending, tough-as-nails Detroit cop teamed with quiet, narcotics officer (Jason Patric) to solve his undercover partner’s murder, the 47-year old star explained his method of preparation in terms that might seem more than a little mundane. “I don’t want to trivialize it,” he said, “[but] I just do my homework…The biggest thing is to be prepared and know what you want to do…The more you do it, the more you start trusting yourself and the more you realize you’re playing pretend, and that it’s all about your imagination.” He added: “You get all your information from the script,” and described Henry Oak, his character, as “a really angry, complicated guy…That’s not who I am at all. To get yourself in that state every day is a challenge. [But] that’s what our job is.” He did, however, cite one scene in the picture as particularly telling of his current acting style–a conversation in which Oak explains to Patric’s Nick Tellis the events that changed his life: noting that he played it “very simply, hardly even moving,” he described the restraint as “a sign of my maturity as an actor…a sign of growth and trust in myself.” Liotta admitted, though, that there was one very difficult aspect to his performance–losing the weight he’d put on to play the role. “That’s probably harder than anything else,” he said ruefully.
Liotta did take on one entirely new part in “Narc,” however–that of producer. “I was looking for something on my own,” he explained. “I wanted to start producing and getting involved. I wasn’t happy with some of the scripts I was getting, so I decided to form my own production company with my wife and a partner, and changed agents–just wanted to start kind of fresh. This was about a year and a half, two years ago. And the first script they sent me was this [‘Narc’], and I read it and just was really moved by it…[It was] really well-written, edgy and raw…I liked the twists and turns, and it was a great character. I didn’t start acting until I was in college, which was in the ’70s, and I wasn’t into movies [before then]. The movies when I first started getting involved in acting were [those of] the seventies, and they were great movies–there was the antihero; it wasn’t black or white, there was a lot of grey; De Niro, Pacino, Gene Hackman, characters like that, they were the leads…This [script] reminded me of that period very much. When the agent gave it to me, he told Joe [Carnahan, the writer] first, and Joe said he would love me to play Oak. And as I was reading it I was saying, ‘Oh, man, it’s a bad guy. I don’t want to play another bad guy.’ And then the twist happens at the end that I just didn’t see coming…as much as it seemed edgy, there was also really a sweetness to this guy, a righteous, moral center. And when the twist happened at the end, it really moved me. I started tearing up when I read it.” He passed the screenplay along to his wife who, he remembered, “flipped out over it–she really responded to it in a positive way. And then I met Joe. I liked his sensibilities.” Liotta discovered that he and Carnahan shared a common vision for the material. “[Joe] said he wanted to shoot it like ‘The French Connection,’ with a Cassavetes-type style, using hand-held [cameras and] natural lighting. We wanted to be like a fly on the wall, making it very raw and real. And that’s what we did.”
But doing it was hardly easy. After a week of shooting in Toronto (the picture had a 27-day schedule and a $3 million budget), the funding dried up and the crew threatened to quit. “That’s why there are so many producers on this movie,” Liotta said. “We had to call friends and other producers.” But they were able to raise the funds and finish the project, with ultimately great success. “We finally were invited into Sundance, in the competition,” Liotta recalled, “and this buzz just started happening, where Joe and I started getting calls from Warren Beatty and Dustin Hoffman and Robert Towne and all these huge people, and it went on the Belaire circuit, where all the heads of studios were seeing it. At that same time Sherry Lansing, the head of Paramount who’s married to William Friedkin, saw it–Friedkin freaked out over the movie, Sherry saw it and gave it to Tom [Cruise]. Then Tom called us up and said, ‘I believe in this movie, I think it’s a great movie, I think it should get out there, I think people should see it…I want to lend my name and my support in any way I can.'” Cruise’s involvement was instrumental in persuading the distributor to give the film a theatrical release, and he’s now listed among the picture’s executive producers.
As for Liotta, his turn as Oak has already attracted some buzz about a possible Oscar nomination, and he was nonchalant about the possibility. “It’s flattering, it’s nice. I’d probably get upset if I didn’t hear it,” he said to laughter. “You just have to, like, hear it and let it go. Who knows?”
On February 11 we all will.
“Narc” is a Paramount Pictures release.