Ray Liotta is a tough guy. At least that's what the world seems to think.
Over the years, the actor has played notorious gangsters ("Goodfellas"), troubled cops ("Narc") and unbridled psychos ("Something Wild," "Unlawful Entry"). But he insists his reputation for portraying only volatile, unhinged characters isn't deserved.
"When I was in a soap opera [‘Another World’], I played the nicest character in the world, Joey Perrini," says the 48-year-old actor, who makes his Broadway debut this month in Stephen Belber's new play Match at the Plymouth Theatre. "Even in 'Goodfellas,' Henry's not the tough guy. He gets by because he's kind of quiet and lets everybody else, Joe [Pesci] and Bob [DeNiro]'s characters, do all the beating up and killing . . . so I don't know how all this started up."
In Match, Liotta's once again been cast as the tough guy (opposite Frank Langella and Jane Adams). But his hard-nosed cop is not who you think. Over the course of the play, the character's brusque, volcanic anger quickly gives way to tenderness and vulnerability as he faces the emotional scars of his past. "When I read the piece, it just grabbed me and shook me. The writing is so spectacular. You just don't see writing like this very often, in either theatre or film," says Liotta.
Belber, an up-and-coming playwright whose credits include Tape, The Death of Frank and associate writer on The Laramie Project, is known for employing unexpected plot twists to explore questions of truth and memory. And Liotta says even he was caught off guard by the turns in Belber's script. "I have to consider myself a sophisticated reader of plays and movies — and I didn't know what was coming. So, hopefully, neither will the audience."
Like the play, Liotta's career has had its own array of twists and turns. After a steady climb early in his career with films like "Something Wild," "Dominick and Eugene" and "Field of Dreams," the actor snagged the part of a lifetime: Henry Hill in Martin Scorsese's gangster epic "Goodfellas." Although it's a modern classic, the film did not produce an immediate payoff, and the years after it were somewhat fallow. That's when he began to alter his acting choices, going after key supporting parts in films like "Hannibal," "Blow" and "Heartbreakers," as well as producing films like the inventive thriller "Narc."
"There was a period there where I wasn't getting the types of writing, the parts and groups of people who I wanted to be working with. So I decided to try and change things around. It's been a slow process, but it's eventually paying off."
Right now, though, he's focused on his Broadway debut and his first stage role "in 25 years . . . . I'm excited. I'm nervous in a good way, just to keep the juices flowing all the time. It's a great challenge to be taking on, and I'm really looking forward to it."