Vanity Fare

Ray Liotta wants to know why he loses roles to...Owen Wilson?

As far as he can remember, he always wanted to be an actor. To him, being an actor was better than being president of the United States. Even before he first wandered into the high school auditorium for an after-school audition, he wanted to be one of them. It was there he belonged. To him it meant being a somebody in a neighborhood full of nobodies. Actors werent like anyone else. They did whatever they wanted. Theyd wear tights and nobody would ever give them any trouble. In the summer when they did Cabaret and West Side Story all night, nobody would ever call the principal. He was the luckiest kid in the world.

Far as hes concerned, he still is. No matter how many bombs he detonates, no matter how many good roles they hand off to some blond kid instead of him, they wont be able to take away from him what hes already done. His dad would remind him of it, tell the boy hes got two immortals to his credit, what else does he want. Ones called Field of Dreams, in which he played a friendly ghost in black socks. Others called GoodFellas, in which he got to play gangster dress-up with De Niro and Pesci, who wanted to know if he thought he was funny. They'll live forever, his dad would say. Everything else puts food on the table, so whats the problem? Like his old man told him: "At the end of the day, its a fucking movie. What ya complaining about?"

A lot, actually. You cant blame him; you cant stop him. And hes not doing it just to bitch, just to make noise. Ray Liottas always worked, ever since he was at the University of Miami doing Sound of Music in the mid-70s, dancing and singing as one of those kids who couldnt keep their Von Trapps shut. He was Joey Perrini on Another World for three years, 1978 to 1981. He made TV pilots after that, did a movie with Pia Zadora called The Lonely Lady. That was 20 years ago. Going downhill would be uphill after that. No wonder he doesnt mind talking about Muppets in Space, in which he got to sing with Miss Piggy. Hell, hes the one who brings it up.

See, everybody knows who Ray Liotta is. They just dont seem to care all that much. He possesses a reputable filmography, especially the early stuff, but hes no Brad Pitt, no Tom Cruise, no Tom Hanks, no Mel Gibson. He'd like to be--who wouldnt?--but never had the chance and never gets the shot. He lit the screen ablaze in his first major role, as dangerously nuts ex-hubby Ray Sinclair in Jonathan Demmes 1986 Something Wild. He laced up as Shoeless Joe three years later, went to work for Marty Scorsese the next year, then found the fire had turned to smoke had turned to soot. Of the 14 movies Liotta made in the 1990s and into 2000, maybe you heard of, oh, two. Counting Operation Dumbo Drop.

"The only thing that I want to prove is them wrong for not casting me in bigger and better movies," Liottas saying now, sitting in a Dallas hotel room. He sits almost perfectly still, but his voice moves all over the place; one minute hes speaking in a near-whisper, the next a pleasant bark. At the end of the day, I want to work with the best people. I want to be up on the list where I get the opportunity. "Now, I dont necessarily want to be Brad Pitt or one of those guys; I just want to prove that I dont like losing. I hate to be up for something and to lose it, not to Owen Wilson per se--nothing against anybody--but youve got to, you know..."

Hold up for a sec. Back up the tape to a moment earlier in the conversation. First off, the reason were in this hotel room is so Liotta can promote his new movie Narc, in which he and Jason Patric play--what else?--ratty drug cops looking to catch a cop killer, or so the plot synopsis goes till all hell breaks loose in the twisty third act. Liottas awfully proud of the low-budget picture, directed by a guy, Joe Carnahan, whose first movie was so awful its name cannot be spoken in polite company. Liotta produced Narc. He took a chance on Carnahan when smarter people than he would have passed, given his sketchy history. Nice, meaty role in a gritty 70s-styled cop crime movie? Smells like a Rush of a comeback, marinated in Serpico and served with a side of Denzel. Already hes been nominated for an Independent Spirit Award as best supporting male; hes not coy enough to deny hed like bigger, shinier prizes.

"Narc has given me my profile back again, and Im getting further up the list," he says, grinning. "Im getting back in the movies that were more successful. The heat that were getting on this is really great; were getting mentioned right now for end-of-the-year stuff and, you know, with the predictions. Not that that matters, but it helps with the profile."

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