‘Awards Chatter’ Podcast — Ray Liotta (‘Shades of Blue’)

“I was serious as a heart attack about making it as real as a series could be,” Ray Liotta says of Shades of Blue — NBC’s hourlong drama about corrupt cops in which he stars opposite Jennifer Lopez and which was recently renewed for a second season — as we sit down to record an episode of the ‘Awards Chatter’ podcast. The 61-year-old actor, a great storyteller with a thick New Jersey accent, says the show’s creators didn’t disappoint him. “I read the script and there were a few surprises in there that really blew my mind.”

(Click above to listen to this episode now, or click here to access all of our episodes via iTunes. Past guests include Steven SpielbergAmy Schumer, Louis C.K., Lady GagaWill SmithKristen Stewart, Harvey WeinsteinBrie LarsonJ.J. AbramsKate Winslet, Samuel L. JacksonJane Fonda, Aziz Ansari and Michael Moore.)

Thirty-plus years ago, Liotta was a struggling New York actor. His acting-class classmate Steven Bauer‘s then-wife Melanie Griffith secured him an audition for the part of a vengeful husband in Jonathan Demme‘s Something Wild (1986), in which she had already been cast, and, he recalls, “I was just on pins and needles. Remember, I hadn’t done a movie. I was 30 years old.” When Liotta learned he’d landed the job, he admits, “I cried like a baby.” Something Wild put him on the map, but also got him typecast as “intense,” which is “one of the reasons why I waited so long to do a second movie,” he says. “I had offers to play tough guys, but that’s not who I am — I mean, me personally, I’ve never been in a fight in my life, and yet here, now, I’m getting stuck with this tough guy stuff.”

His next three films couldn’t have been more different: Robert M. Young‘s Dominick and Eugene (1988), in which he plays a sensitive guy caring for his disabled brother; Phil Alden Robinson‘s Field of Dreams (1989), in which he plays Shoeless Joe Jackson, the “he” in “If you build it, he will come” (and which he’s never seen in its entirety because it brings back painful memories of his mother, who was dying while he was making it); and, most famously, Martin Scorsese‘s Goodfellas (1990), in which he plays Henry Hill, and which — thanks in no small part to a long tracking shot and a “funny” scene in which he appears — quickly came to be regarded as one of the greatest gangster movies of all time. (He shares a great story about a run-in he had with Scorsese’s bodyguards at the Venice Film Festival that convinced the director he was right for the part, and also of a meeting he had with Hill after the film was finished.)

The ensuing years were more of a rollercoaster ride, with some very dry patches. Highlights included his Emmy- and SAG-nominated portrayal of Frank Sinatra in the TV movie The Rat Pack (1998), which was released while “Ol‘ Blue Eyes” was still alive, and his Independent Spirit Award-nominated portrayal of a narcotics detective in the indie film Narc (2002), the first release of a production company he and his then-wife started. But something he never even considered, for most of that time, was doing a television series, which “wasn’t as respected as it is now” and meant that “your career was over.” By 2015, however, the industry’s attitude toward TV — and his own — had changed.

Lopez, who sold Shades of Blue to NBC as a project she would executive produce and star in, “was basically known for her romantic-comedies, so they wanted somebody who was known for doing edgier, intense kind of parts,” Liotta says. He liked that Bob Greenblatt, who had specialized in edgy drama while running Showtime, was now in charge of the Peacock network. He was pleased that Barry Levinson, a director he reveres, was committed to direct the pilot. And he was intrigued to discover that his character, Lt. Matt Wozniak, is “a very complicated kind of guy.” (Woz turns out to be bisexual; of a much-discussed scene in which he grabs Michael Esper‘s crotch and kisses him on the lips, Liotta says, “I just put my big-boy — my pink big-boy — pants on and did what they asked me to do.”)

“The question for me was Jennifer,” the actor confesses. “I mean, I liked her, I thought she was great in her romantic-comedies, but I kinda said, ‘Well, I guess I’m gonna have to believe that ‘Jenny from the Block’ is really Jenny from the Block.” He continues, “Can I be really honest? The hardest thing about this show is that it’s being produced all by Jennifer’s people, right? So you’ve got her manager, you’ve got her best friend/head of her production company, you’ve got some other girl — I don’t know where she fits in. Everything is through Jennifer. There’s no ‘Ray producer.’ So the biggest thing was to fight for — ‘Wait a second here, I didn’t sign on to be in The So-and-So Show; I came in to be a part of a show that also has me, as well as you and other characters.'” He adds, “To their credit, that’s exactly what they wanted, and it never turned out that way. I can’t say enough about how they have been.” (He also dismisses Lopez’s reputation as a diva: “I was much more of a diva — I out-diva’d her tenfold!”)

Liotta, whose young daughter is now pursuing an acting career, is excited to get back to work on Shades of Blue — “I’m really looking forward to seeing where they’re gonna go next season” — and emphasizes that even after three decades in the business, he has a lot he wants to prove. “I still feel like I haven’t gotten my shot,” he says. “I still have so much more I want to do.”

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