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Actor Ray Liotta plays a shark of a litigator opposite Laura Dern, who is also a litigator, for a couple undergoing a divorce in Marriage Story.

RICH POLK/Getty Images

Tell Ray Liotta that he’s funny, and you might find yourself accidentally wandering into a scene in Goodfellas.

You know the one – it’s the most famous, and famously terrifying, moment in the Martin Scorsese film that made Liotta’s name a household one. Midway through the gangster epic, Joe Pesci’s hothead criminal Tommy DeVito is interrogating Liotta’s Henry Hill after the latter calls his friend funny. “I’m funny how? I mean funny like I’m a clown?” Tommy asks, his gaze narrowing, grin curling downward. “I amuse you? I make you laugh? I’m here to amuse you? Waddya mean ‘funny’? Funny how?!”

I feel that I’ve walked into the same trap after I tell Liotta that his performance is one of the funniest parts of Marriage Story, Noah Baumbach’s new movie about love, family and the dissolution of both.

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“Everybody I’m talking to today mentioned chuckles during the screening. But what was funny?” he asks. “How was I funny?”

Marriage Story focuses on the ugly breakup of actor Nicole (Scarlett Johansson) and theatre director Charlie (Adam Driver), who fight for money, respect and custody of their young son, Henry (Azhy Robertson). Liotta plays Charlie’s lawyer, a shark of a litigator who is eager to chomp down on Nicole’s counsel, an equally take-no-prisoners carnivore played by Laura Dern in full Big Little Lies mode. When you’re not holding your breath worried about the future of young Henry, though, you’re laughing out loud over Liotta and Dern’s hungry performances – twin master classes in ferocious scenery-chewing wit. Liotta’s delivery is equal parts gut-punch and gut-bust.

So I stumble a bit while sitting across from Liotta during the Toronto International Film Festival this past September, when Marriage Story enjoyed a rapturous premiere. Hoping the awkward moment doesn’t escalate to Pesci-esque heights, and sparing the poor Shangri-La Hotel staff the task of mopping up my blood, I reply meekly, “You know, um, you bring such a level of humour to the character. It’s the pit bull nature of your character against the milquetoast energy of Adam.”

"Well, good!" Liotta replies with a smile. "Because a movie like this could use some laughs."

It certainly could, although Liotta surely knows by now that he’s something of a secret comedy weapon. At 64, the New Jersey-born actor is best recognized for his more dead-serious performances as criminals (Goodfellas, Turbulence, Killing Them Softly) or the police (Smokin’ Aces, Hannibal) who hunt them. Or sometimes the police who are, in fact, criminal (Narc, Cop Land). Yet the actor has an equally long, albeit less celebrated, career exploiting his intimidating presence for laughs.

There was his breakout role, his first real big-screen role ever actually, in Jonathan Demme’s Something Wild, where Liotta played a fiery ex-con who terrorizes Jeff Daniels’s straitlaced banker to darkly comic heights. Or his supporting performances in comedies Observe and Report, Muppets Most Wanted, Bee Movie and Date Night. There was even his two-episode run on the mostly forgotten NBC sitcom Just Shoot Me!, where Liotta played an exaggerated version of himself who was crazily obsessed with Christmas. (I mention this gig to Liotta, mostly to reassure myself that I hadn’t hallucinated the whole thing; I hadn’t.) Just as Liotta can be a menacing onscreen presence, he can deftly undermine that same energy to deliver moments of high comedy.

"I've been hearing that, but for me it's all in the writing," Liotta says. "It's all about how committed you are to what you're saying, and what you're doing. You don't try to look for the laughs. They're there on the page. I'm a big believer in that it's all in the script."

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Early in his career, it was more about the method. Or the “Method,” as Liotta took to complete immersion in his characters, following the school of acting associated with Konstantin Stanislavski. “It wasn’t to the point of, say, I had to beat someone up onscreen, so I was actually going around beating people, but I could hold onto an edge for a long time,” Liotta says. “After a while, you just start trusting yourself and knowing it’ll be there. I still have to stay in the framework. I don’t talk to people much. What I usually do is my own standing-in when they’re setting up the shot. So I can stay in the mindset.”

So, tasked with playing a divorce attorney in Marriage Story, Liotta didn’t feel the need to go shadow a lawyer. Or even mine the emotions of his own divorce, which he says neither he nor his ex-wife contested, and was thus not nearly “as brutal as some tend to get.” (Liotta separated from actor Michelle Grace in 2004; the couple have one daughter together, actor Karsen Liotta.)

“You know, I didn’t get my first movie till I was 30, which is pretty late in this business, so I wasn’t going to let go of it,” Liotta says, emphasizing the importance of Method, or Method-y, commitment earlier in his life. “But to the point I hear where some actors stay in character for 24 hours? I don’t believe it. You can use an accent all day long. But, say, somebody who is extremely Method but yet had a headache? They’re going to ask for an Aspirin, even if Aspirin wasn’t invented in whatever year they’re playing.”

Asked if, say, Robert De Niro stayed in character 24/7 during Goodfellas, Liotta laughs: “No, not at all. If anything he was on the phone all the time. We’d do the scenes and then, boom, everybody dispersed to their trailer. Which is what I like to do, too. I still like to keep it like that: contained and within the framework of what the day’s work is.”

Frequently, that day’s work has been increasingly on the small screen. Liotta recently came off filming three seasons of the Jennifer Lopez-led Shades of Blue, an NBC series where he played, yep, a cop. But what once may have seemed like an industry demotion today feels like just another step in a long, varied and remarkably busy career (116 onscreen credits, so far) for Liotta.

“The business is always changing. When I first started out, I wouldn’t think of doing television, and now, what you want more than anything is a show to get you to 10 episodes or whatever, and then you’re able to do movies,” he says. “I’m willing to bend with it. If I want a part, I’ll go for it.”

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Which is how Liotta secured one of his most exciting gigs, if contractually secretive, in recent years: a critical role in The Many Saints of Newark, a feature film that will act as a prequel to HBO’s The Sopranos.

“I wasn’t part of the conversation originally with [series creator and writer] David Chase, so I asked my agent, ‘Will they take a meeting with me? I want to go fly and talk with them.’ I hadn’t read a script at that point, but when I was doing Hannibal, David came to Virginia and wanted me to do something on The Sopranos. It just turned out it wasn’t the right thing, but I wanted to work with him,” Liotta recalls. "So they said, ‘Fine, we’ll meet, but let’s be clear: it doesn’t mean you’ll be cast.’ But things opened up for me.

“I don’t know what they want me to say yet, they’re very secretive with the script and who sees it,” he adds, when asked about who he’s playing. “But suffice to say, had my character lived to [The Sopranos], he would be Michael Imperioli’s grandfather. Dickie Moltisanti’s father.”

In the meantime, Liotta will keep himself as busy as ever – including a comedy or two (he’s wrapped roles in the Adam Sandler vehicle Hubie Halloween and Charlie Day’s comedy El Tonto).

"If you want to keep going," he says, "you have to play the game to beat the game."

Marriage Story opens Nov. 22 in Toronto, Ottawa, and Montreal; Nov. 29 in Vancouver, Edmonton, Victoria, and Calgary; and Dec. 6 on Netflix

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