'Humphrey Bogart said if you are in one movie that people remember after you're gone, that is a really good career'
It has been 30 years since Ray Liotta starred in Goodfellas, and 40 since his screen debut. As his new film Marriage Story arrives on Netflix, he tells Laura Harding that he never intended to be a star
Ray Liotta never planned to be an actor. He only signed up for drama classes in college in a bid to dodge the more academic subjects, and didn't make his first film until he was 30.
"I didn't want to take math and history, and right next door was the drama department," he remembers with a deep, throaty laugh.
"I had done a drama class in high school so I said, 'All right, I will act for a year'.
Liotta is 64 now, and that one year of acting has stretched out to more than 40.
Along the way have been roles in Goodfellas, Something Wild, Field Of Dreams, Hannibal and Blow, but he started off in a very different medium.
"That first year, all I did were musicals. There was this great acting teacher, Buckets, who was a guy's guy, he liked what I was about because all I did was play sports. I didn't know anything about acting or how to do it.
"A lot of the guys had been in ballet shoes since they were three, so I was a different kind of personality for him and I responded to him," he says.
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His latest role is in Marriage Story, a heart-wrenching and powerful love story about a couple (played by Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson) going through a divorce.
It was written by the director Noah Baumbach, who was inspired by his own divorce from actress Jennifer Jason Leigh, and Liotta plays Driver's ruthless lawyer Jay.
He adds: "I've played doctors and baseball players and bad cops, good cops, but to play a lawyer was interesting, especially a lawyer who was really good at what he did.
"I found it interesting, when you are really trying to manipulate people, but by using the truth."
It also gives him the opportunity to go toe to toe in a courtroom with Laura Dern, who plays Johansson's lawyer, in one of the more excruciating legal battles shown on film.
"It's Noah, it's all his writing," Liotta says modestly. "He's one of those directors, you have to say every single thing, you have to dot every i and cross every t.
"What he wrote is that she volleys and I volley. I throw it back and hopefully serve harder."
It's a different role from many in his varied career, but he denies he was seeking out something unusual, and has in fact been burned by that before.
"I looked for it too much in the beginning of my career," he says.
"The first movie I did was Something Wild and that was a wound-up character, so I didn't want to be typecast.
"If I played a bad guy, I wanted to play a nice guy next.
"I remember when I met Marty (Scorsese, who directed Goodfellas), all he saw was Something Wild, he hadn't seen Dominick And Eugene or Field Of Dreams.
"So he wasn't sure if I was a maniac or not and Henry Hill (his character in the 1990 gangster film) was anything but a maniac. The only reason he got as far as he did is he was an errand boy for them, he could never be made and he knew how to make money for them."
His pursuit of variety led him to play a string of different roles after Henry Hill, in movies that had varying degrees of success.
"It might have been personally satisfying at first because I was playing different characters, but if you've got a bunch of those and you don't make money, you go down to a different list, and it takes a long time to get out of it.
"It's like an ocean liner turning around."
If he could do it again, would he make different choices?
"Yes, idealistically, but based on what was coming my way at that time, in the position that I was in, I did the right thing.
"Some of it becomes economical, there are some things where you are like, 'I can't believe I've got to do this', but you just chalk it up as like an acting class.
"I have never phoned something in, but sometimes I knew from the get-go, 'This director doesn't know his ass from his elbow', and just hoped it would never get released.
"There are one or two I would definitely want back. But, you know, you make the best of where you are."
He is certainly proud of the work he is doing now, and Marriage Story has already been showered with praise and awards, with Oscar nods surely to follow.
And he is determined that his 21-year-old daughter Karsen, who has joined him on this trip to London and is currently enjoying a lie-in upstairs in the hotel we are sitting in, will learn a thing or two from his own journey.
"The way I've been taught, all the information you need is in the script.
"How they want you to be is in the script, and that teaches you self-reliance.
"My daughter didn't want to go to college.
"She wanted to act and she started getting movies really young, as opposed to me - I didn't get mine until I was 30.
"I said, 'All right, fine, but you have to go to Harry (Mastrogeorge, the legendary acting teacher), if you're going to do it'.
"And thank God he's still teaching, because you've got to become self-sufficient."
Next up for Liotta is The Many Saints Of Newark, the big-screen prequel to the HBO crime drama series The Sopranos, a role that might owe a little something to Henry Hill.
"I had a really nice part in it," he says, "where I was more the glitter than the glue.
"In Goodfellas I was the glue, and everybody else was the glitter."
That film again. It's been 30 years and it is still following him around.
"Thank God!" he laughs.
"The shelf life that has, really.
"Humphrey Bogart said if you're in one movie that people remember after you're gone, that is a really good career.
"If you're in two movies that people remember, that is unbelievable."
- Marriage Story is in cinemas and streaming on Netflix now