Decades ago, Ray Liotta established himself as a legend within the mob movie genre with his iconic portrayal of Henry Hill in Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas. Fast forward to 2021, and Liotta has reestablished himself in the mobster genre, this time in David Chase’s The Many Saints of Newark.
Production began on the much-anticipated prequel to The Sopranos back in 2019, and the film was originally scheduled for release by Warner Brothers in the fall of 2020. The COVID-19 pandemic interfered with that plan, forcing fans of The Sopranos to wait an entire year to find out David Chase’s vision of the Sopranos’ story before Tony took charge.
Although The Many Saints of Newark is subtitled “A Sopranos Story,” the movie will go down in film history as a great gangster flick independent of the landmark television series. Many Saints has everything you’d expect to find in a mob movie, along with incredible performances and an amazing script layered with the kind of depth you expect from David Chase.
Liotta stars alongside Alessandro Nivola, who plays Dickie Moltisanti, father of Christopher Moltisanti from the TV series; Michael Gandolfini, real-life son of James Gandolfini, who plays a young Tony Soprano; Vera Farmiga who plays Livia Soprano; and Corey Stoll as Junior Soprano. Fans of the TV series will not be disappointed by this casting, finding it takes no effort to accept that any of the characters in Many Saints are just younger versions of the players we knew from the series.
The characters in Many Saints are depicted navigating the tumultuous times where the mob world meets societal upheaval. The 1967 Newark riots are the backdrop and catalyst for much of the action. Many Saints resonates because it uses an organized crime story as a launching pad to illuminate viewers about violence, race and familial tragedy.
We sat down with Ray Liotta to talk about his role in The Many Saints of Newark, which is scheduled to be released on October 1st of this year.
Cigar & Spirits Magazine: There’s been a lot of buzz about The Many Saints of Newark, some mystery about your role. Are you excited that Sopranos fans will finally get to see what you’ve done in this film?
Ray Liotta: Well, number one, I think they’re going to enjoy the movie. You don’t have to have seen The Sopranos, the series, in order to enjoy the movie. It stands on its own. For those who have watched it, you’ll see how things got started; specifically how Tony grew up as a young kid and then became what he became.
There’s a lot to dig through psychologically.
Sure, but hopefully the biggest thing is you want people to be entertained. I think it’s a good movie. It’s just so hard because I’m so close to it, but I thought it was good.
We’ve been sworn to secrecy regarding a piece of your participation in the movie. Omerta. You’re familiar with that term…
[laughs] Oh yes! Without saying too much, I loved playing it.
Were you a fan of The Sopranos?
I wasn’t much of a TV watcher back then, but I knew what he [David Chase] was doing and I read stuff. I saw the first season, not religiously, but I would watch it when it would come on. Then the first few episodes, if I was home and I was flicking the channels–if it was on–I’d stop just because it was so compelling and everybody was so great.
You would have been a great fit for The Sopranos.
Yes. David came to meet me in Virginia. I was shooting the one where I eat my brain. [laughter] I was shooting Hannibal. He came to Virginia, and there was a part that he wanted me for in The Sopranos. It didn’t work out. It just wasn’t the right thing at the right time for me, but I always liked the show.
Along came The Many Saints of Newark many years later. What was it about David’s script that made you want to be a part of this film?
Because it’s David Chase. I just wanted the chance to work with him. I told my agent that I want to meet him for this, even if David didn’t want me at all for the role of…Oh, what’s my name? I always forget the names of the characters in my movies afterwards. [laughs]
Aldo “Hollywood Dick” Moltisanti.
[laughs] It was for that role that I told my agent, “We’ll let’s see if we can get a meeting.” He said, “Well, they’re not coming to LA.” I said, “Well, fine. I’ll fly myself to New York to meet him.” There was just something about it that made me want to work with him. We had lunch with him and the director, Alan [Taylor]. By the end of the lunch, they asked me if I would do it, and I obviously didn’t hesitate to play the role.
The way it’s constructed, your performance is phenomenal.
Thanks, man. I think it worked out. It adds a nice edge and a nice psychology to the whole thing, aside from just people beating each other up. [laughs]
You mentioned the insight the movie gives in terms of how Tony became Tony.
I thought Michael [Gandolfini] did a phenomenal job playing his dad. I didn’t have any scenes with him. I see him every now and then when we’re doing publicity, but not enough to sit down. I would love to sit and talk with him and ask him what he was thinking. How did it feel, because it was pretty effortless. He did what was called for with the role, and it’s terrific.
Regarding Alessandro Nivola who plays your son, sometimes when co-stars have a push-pull relationship in a movie, it can go either way–to intentionally keep a distance from each other, or they become really close. Did you have that experience with Alessandro?
No, not really. I didn’t really hang out with him. I didn’t try to manipulate him or his part of the dynamic of who we are in the movie. I keep to myself and do what I have to do.
What would you say was the most challenging aspect of conveying that particular father and son relationship on screen?
I was what my son [Alessandro’s character] became–I was in charge of the family. I think everybody has different ways of doing things. I think the way he goes about doing what he’s doing probably frustrates him, and I’ve just become an edgy old fucker. Sometimes I like doing it so much to my son in the movie–that I like to get under his skin–get him pissed off–and I got him too pissed off. I guess there were some outcomes to that.
It’s a very intense movie as most mafia movies are. A lot of people are obsessed with The Godfather, Goodfellas and many other movies in the genre. Why do you think people connect to these types of stories?
It’s mindboggling. It’s the same reason why I love watching Dateline or 2020 or 48 Hours. All those shows are usually about people who do bad things to other people. I just think it’s so different than what they know, people get intrigued with it. It’s like watching a car crash. You don’t want to look, but you want to look. It’s just a safe way to look at some things. You know, that people do really bad things to other people.
Growing up on the East Coast during a certain era, were you exposed to any mobster stuff?
In my upbringing, I didn’t really come across it at all. [Union, New Jersey] was a typical suburb. All I did was play sports. There were a couple people that we called “hoods.” The guys who wore the high-roll shirts–I knew a couple of people that weren’t doing good things, but not in the sense of a mafia-type person.
Legend has it with Goodfellas there were certain guys who tried to work their way into the movie.
Oh, yes. We were at Rao’s, this great Italian place–the type of place where you have your reservation in a day and that’s all there is to it. Marty [Scorsese], Lorraine [Bracco] and I–it was official that we had the parts–so we went to dinner. Once the coffee and desserts came out–these guys just came around the table and started saying, “I knew a guy who did this, that and the other thing.” Then the next one came over, “I knew a guy who did this, that.” You knew they were talking about themselves, and each one was trying to top the other one. It was just an interesting dynamic to watch.
Unreal. Just to finish with Many Saints, what do you think a viewer will take away from the movie?
First and foremost, you want people to feel they got their money’s worth from watching the movie. It shows people going on the wrong side of the tracks and what can happen. As a parent, there’s lot of father-son stuff. You always have to be aware that your kid can do whatever. You want to try to keep them on the straight and narrow.
Audrey Pavia has authored twenty-three non-fiction books. She is an award-winning writer and editor living in Southern California, and a frequent contributor to Cigar & Spirits Magazine.
Randy Mastronicola is the Editor-in-Chief of Cigar & Spirits Magazine.