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Tough guy Ray Liotta would like to clarify that he's not a tough guy

The actor has a scene-stealing role in "Marriage Story" and a handful of movies on deck for 2020

Adam Graham
The Detroit News

Ray Liotta walks into a conference room in Toronto's posh Shangri-La Hotel, has a seat at a table and takes a sip from his green smoothie. 

Wait, tough guy Ray Liotta drinks green smoothies? 

"Where are you getting 'tough guy' from, the movies?" he asks, in his unmistakably gravelly voice.  

Ray Liotta in "Marriage Story."

Well, yeah. For more than 30 years, Liotta has played a string of tough guys, gangsters, psychopaths and crooked cops, from his breakthrough role as an ex-con in Jonathan Demme's "Something Wild" to his iconic role as Henry Hill in "Goodfellas," on through to roles in "Unlawful Entry," "Turbulence," "Cop Land," "Narc" and the recent NBC series "Shades of Blue."

In "Marriage Story," which hits theaters Friday before landing on Netflix next week, Liotta is a different kind of tough guy. He plays an L.A. divorce attorney with a shark's instinct who advises his client, Charlie (Adam Driver), to go after his wife, Nicole (Scarlett Johansson), with everything he's got. It's an uproarious comedic role, and Liotta hits the screen like a bolt of lightning.

But Liotta swears he's not a tough guy. "I've never been in a fight," he says. 

He then immediately checks himself. Turns out there was that time as a 7th grader in Newark, N.J. when another kid challenged him to a fight after school "over something stupid," Liotta says, "our grammar school is better than your grammar school," and Liotta did what he had to do. "I beat him up," he says, "but, like, a 7th-grade beat up."

ReviewDriver, Johansson heartbreaking in 'Marriage Story,' the year's best movie

Now 64, Liotta is still fighting. Not with his fists, but to work in the types of projects he wants to be involved in, "good stories with good people," he says.

Liotta is the first to point out he doesn't always play rough-and-tumble types; in "Field of Dreams" he played the ghost of baseball player Shoeless Joe Jackson, he was a father raising his daughter after the death of his wife in "Corrina, Corrina," and he was a heart surgeon in "Article 99." "I did a movie with Danny Trejo and we were dancing with the Muppets," he says, referring to 2014's "Muppets Most Wanted."

Either way, it hasn't all been rosy. "I’ve had an up and down career," he says. The highs have been high; he refers to "Goodfellas" as "the gift that keeps on giving," and says he often wonders what would have happened to him had he not starred in Martin Scorsese's 1990 gangster epic. 

"Goodfellas": Ray Liotta, Robert De Niro, Paul Sorvino, Martin Scorsese and Joe Pesci.

The lows? "It’s horrible, it’s horrible," he says, because he wants to be working with the best people and be at the top of the business, but it's difficult to get to that level and even harder to stay there once you do.

"It’s just the nature of the beast unless you’re really smart, like what Leo (DiCaprio) is doing. He’s really smart with choices," Liotta says. "But also when half your movies are with Marty (Scorsese), it’s hard to go wrong."

Liotta was adopted at a young age and was raised in Newark; several of his childhood friends from the old neighborhood are still his best friends to this day. He studied acting in college at the University of Miami and worked on soap operas and television in the late '70s and '80s before landing "Something Wild" in 1986. 

Ray Liotta in "Something Wild."

Early on, he didn't have a publicist or a team advising his career; he says after "Something Wild" he met with Tim Burton for what would have been a role in "Batman" but he had no idea what it would become. "'Batman?' That’s silly," he remembers thinking. He still regrets it. "I should have listened to my instinct, because I really liked (Burton's) one that came before that, the one, what the hell was the name of it? Where you say his name… 'Beetlejuice!'" 

But then came "Field of Dreams" in 1989 and "Goodfellas" in 1990, and those minted his place in Hollywood. "I think it was Humphrey Bogart or one of those guys from then that said if you have one movie that people remember you’ve had a good career, and if you have two or three, that’s a really good career," he says. With those two projects he got there, he says. 

Ray Liotta in "Field of Dreams."

Liotta landed the role in "Marriage Story" because he shares an agent, Jeremy Barber, with director Noah Baumbach. Barber put a bug in Baumbach's ear about Liotta, and when the three of them had a meeting about the part, Liotta came in hot.

Barber was going through a divorce at the time, "and I kept going like at him and telling him what he has to do, and Jeremy says, 'whoa, back off a little,'" Liotta says. "And I go, 'Jeremy, I’m auditioning, shut up!'" 

Liotta is earning good buzz for the role, and he has at least five projects on deck for 2020, including comedies with Adam Sandler ("Hubie Halloween") and Charlie Day ("El Tonto"), as well as the "Sopranos" prequel, "The Many Saints of Newark." "It’s one of those things they don’t want me to talk about, so I’m going to respect that," says Liotta, though he hints his character may be the grandfather to Michael Imperioli's Christopher Moltisanti.

Right now, things are looking up for Liotta. "You know, it comes in waves," he says, and he's riding this wave, having learned mistakes from earlier in his career. "I don’t care if I do four bad guys in a row, where before I was a little too precious," he says. 

Before he gets up, he clarifies one more time that he's not, in fact, a tough guy.

Then he balls up his fist and cocks its back like he's ready to throw a punch, laughs that unhinged Ray Liotta laugh, grabs his green smoothie and exits the room. 

'Marriage Story'

Rated R: for language throughout and sexual referencesRunning time: 137 minutes

In theaters Friday, on Netflix Dec. 6