There was a time when actor Ray Liotta would never have considered taking a role on television. "When I first started, television was kind of like the wasteland," Liotta tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross. "It [was] like, 'Well, things are over now. Now you do television.' "
But the Goodfellas and Field of Dreams actor acknowledges that times — and TV — have changed. "Now television is very respected and people consider that when they're casting for movies. ... I thought, well maybe doing a show, a 13-episode type show, would be a smart move to make."
Liotta, who has a reputation for playing cops and criminals on the big screen, plays both in the new NBC drama series Shades of Blue. His character on the show, Matt Wozniak, is a corrupt New York City police lieutenant who runs a squad of detectives who take bribes, plant evidence and shake down drug dealers in their precinct
The actor, who turned 61 in December, says the role is an extension of a personal goal to keep growing and evolving as an actor. "I really believe you never stop learning and you never really ever get there — just like in life," he says. "The older you get, you don't arrive. ... It just keeps going, you're constantly learning things if you're the type of person who stays open and current."
On the different kinds of roles he's played
The first thing I ever did was a soap opera, and I played the nicest character in the world, Joey Perrini [in Another World]. ... About six months out of college I got the soap. I did it for three years and then I came to LA and for five years nothing happened. Then the first thing I got was Something Wild, so that kind of put me on the map because that was kind of a crazed character. But then I waited about a year until I found something different, because I knew about the typecasting type of things that happen. Then I did Field of Dreams, where I was a nice guy in that, and then along came Goodfellas and maybe that kind of started it. But Henry Hill, the part I played [in Goodfellas], it wasn't that violent — everybody else was kind of crazy around him.
On listening to author Nicholas Pileggi's tapes of mobster Henry Hill to prepare for Goodfellas
When he was writing the book ... [Pileggi] talked to Henry for hours and once I got the film I went and talked to Nick to just to start doing my homework. And he said, "Here, listen to these tapes." I listened to the tapes of Henry and I listened to them every day — and that was back when everything was on cassette, so I just put it in my mother's car and listened to Henry for hours.
The problem was all he did was eat potato chips. And if you've ever listened to anybody eat potato chips — for like hours — as he's talking, it's an extremely annoying thing. But that's basically what I did. That told me a lot about Henry — he was just going to do what he wanted to do. ... The biggest thing that I learned from it was just how casual they were; how casual Henry was about what happened. It was just like he was telling a story of what his kids were doing, how they played in a park, except they were talking about people getting killed or beaten. It was very, very casual.
On meeting Hill in real life
I got a call from him after he saw the movie. [Director Martin Scorsese] didn't want me to talk to him at all — "We're just going to go by the script." I got a phone call that he wanted to meet me at a bowling alley ... with his brother. I said, "Oh boy, what the heck is this going to be?" So I went and he was there and I met him for the first time. He had just seen the movie and basically he says, "I wanted to meet you. Thanks for making me not look like a scumbag," to quote him. And I'm thinking, "Oh my gosh, did you really watch the movie? You pretty much were a scumbag. You ratted on your friends, you're doing all this blow, you're beating people up." ...
He had a rough life toward the end of his life and I would see him a lot of times in [Los Angeles] and he was just out of his mind. ... I would see him leaning against trees or just sleeping on the beach and I would bump into him once in a while.
On working on Goodfellas at the same time that his mother was dying
My mom passed away in the middle of the movie and they told me on a particular day, during a particular scene that I really had to get home that night because things took a turn for the worse. And I broke down. I went into my trailer, I had to get myself together, because we had to get ready and still do the movie and I had a scene to shoot.
On how he started acting
I never, ever wanted to be an actor. It came time to go to college; my dad said, "Go wherever you want, take whatever you want." He just really believed in getting out and being exposed to different things, and maybe it would help you decide what to do with your life. I applied, I got into the University of Miami. This was 1973 and at that time, basically, all you needed was a pulse to get in there. I got into the University of Miami. I had no idea what it was that I wanted to do, so I was just going to take liberal arts. I had no idea. ... I got to the head of the line [to register for classes] and they said, "Because you don't know what it is that you want to do, you're going to have to take math and history." And I said, "Oh my gosh, there's no way. I don't even want to be in college, I'm not going to take any math and history!" ... Right next to the line that I was in was [the line] for the drama department. I said, "Oh my gosh, I'll be a drama major!"
On the ups and downs of his career
My career has been up and down and I like it much better being up. And when it's up, part of that is people coming up to you and saying things. I remember when I first started — "I'm an actor. I don't want that sort of thing. It's all about the work," and that's just a bunch of BS. You want people to watch what you're doing. What's the point? There's a personal side to me — of challenges as an actor that I like to take on myself. And I do certain things that maybe nobody else knows why I'm doing [them], but it all has to do with [wanting] to grow as an actor.