These days the hair is tousled and longer, the drawl is relaxed and deep, the gear - loose green shirt, black jeans, bulky Nike high-tops - off-duty. But the eyes still have it - tiny chips of an almost unnatural blue that can disarm or distress according to taste. In his latest film, Unlawful Entry, he plays a Los Angeles cop who goes off the deep end after Kurt Russell rejects his idea of community policing (he offers Russell first chance with the night-stick on a cornered burglar); he then begins a campaign of intimidation against Russell and his wife, Madeleine Stowe. Liotta seems to work off a very short fuse, though he wearily insists he's no street-fighting man: 'I've only been in one fight in my whole life, and that was in seventh grade. I've done other movies where I didn't play a psycho - I know this probably sounds defensive, but did you see Nicky & Gino?' I reply that I did, though this doesn't stop him asking me the same question 10 minutes later: he just wants to make it absolutely clear that he can do the ordinary Joes, too.
He hit paydirt two years ago as wise-guy Henry Hill in Scorsese's mob masterwork GoodFellas, a part he risked grievous bodily harm to bag. A chance meeting with Scorsese clinched it: 'Marty was in Venice promoting The Last Temptation of Christ, I was there for Nicky & Gino. I really wanted the part of Henry - but there were tons of actors up for it. Anyway, I spotted him - he was under guard because of Last Temptation - and as I was walking towards him the bodyguards threw me off. So I said, 'No, wait, I just wanna say hello to Marty', and he later said that was the moment he decided to cast me.' Liotta's mild reaction seemed to chime with the director's conception of Henry. 'I guess he expected I was gonna react negative, get all macho and say, 'Don't touch me'.'
Hill is the focal point of GoodFellas, the voice that accompanies us through 30 years of Mafia rule; and, as is often the way with a narrator, he was one of the least interesting characters. Sandwiched between Joe Pesci and Robert De Niro, both in ballistic mode, Liotta was required to earth the movie and rein in his own mercurial tendencies: He did get one great sequence to himself, however, towards the end of the picture. Coked to the eyeballs and clean out of luck, Henry spends the day in a feverish juggling act - not only does he have to make a drug delivery while the cops and his former confreres breathe down his neck, he needs to keep his mistress quiet and cook the family dinner. A bravura set-piece of paranoid hilarity, it kicked the film into a final, unexpected gear.
Like Hill, Liotta is from Irish-Italian stock in suburban New Jersey, but he's plainly tired of the parallels. Wise-guy Henry, like his Ray in Something Wild, like his maniac cop in Unlawful Entry, it's all pretend. 'My job is to act,' he says with faint exasperation. 'I don't let my personality be known through interviews - it's an impossible situation, so I don't like to get in too deep with questions about personal things.' He checks himself, perhaps realising that he might be sounding a little defensive. 'I mean, ask whatever you like . . .' Er, thanks. It might be wariness, or just weariness, but Liotta's pre-emptive strikes are something of a dampener - I mean, given his profession, couldn't he act interested?
At 35, he has had to pay his dues in the lower divisions. After the University of Miami, where he won his spurs in a variety of roles, he did a five-year stint on the daytime TV soap Another World ('I played the nicest guy in the world,' he says wryly). Was it a frustrating time? 'Yeah, no question about it, though in retrospect I can say I'm glad it's happened the way it has. I remember hanging out with Andy Garcia and Kevin Costner, none of us could get a break; then all of a sudden Kevin took off, Andy started to get noticed. I was the last one, so sure, there was a frustration and jealousy there.' How did he cope with that? The ghost of a smile. 'I just went back to acting classes and said, 'One day I'm gonna get those mothers' .' Looks like he meant it.
'Unlawful Entry' (18): from Fri at Odeon Leics Sq and around the country on 6 Nov.
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