Landing Ray Liotta in a starring role in Cocaine Bear was a very meta casting coup. The actor whose most famous role was playing coke-trafficking-gangster Henry Hill in Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas would be playing a coke-trafficking crime boss in director Elizabeth Banks’s buzzy ursine thriller.
But hiring Liotta, who died in May at the age of 67, proved to be much more than a nod to the seminal 1990 mob drama.
“I mean, I’m just so grateful that he blessed this movie that he trusted me as a director,” Banks, the actor-turned-filmmaker who previously helmed Pitch Perfect 2 (2015) and Charlie’s Angels (2019), tells us in a new interview as she paid tribute to the late actor.
“I’m a female director. I wanted to make a big [movie that] has a lot of action and CGI, and it’s a very muscular, masculine kind of a project. And I’ve been told by people [in Hollywood], ‘I don’t know if you can direct those things because I don’t know if male actors will follow you.’ And I say to that, ‘When Henry Hill follows you, you can make anything you want.’ So that was the gift that Ray gave to me. He gave me the confidence to know that I can direct anybody doing anything.”
Cocaine Bear’s premise is based on the very true story of an American black bear that ingested a duffel bag’s worth of coke dumped in the Georgia wilderness when its drug-smuggling pilot made a crash landing. The film imagines what could have happened afterwards, as Liotta’s midwestern drug kingpin sends his son (Alden Ehrenreich) and associate (O’Shea Jackson Jr.) to the Peach State to retrieve the narcotics, while various locals in the bear’s vicinity are terrorized by the coke-fueled animal.
Banks had previously co-starred with Liotta in the 2011 indie comedy The Details and convinced him to come aboard her film.
“He was really excited to do it,” she says. “He came very joyfully to this project. Very game. Actually, after he read the script, he asked for more jokes.
“I knew Ray a little bit from a project we’d done a decade ago, and I knew, first of all, what a consummate professional he was, that he was gonna come to set and he was going to be ready, which he was. And that he was going to commit to the bit. I mean, some crazy things happened to Ray Liotta in this movie. I don’t want to give anything away, but he was fully committed to that stuff from minute one. In everything, from the wig he wore to the clothes, he was just so game.”
“Ray was dope,” says Jackson (Straight Outta Compton, Godzilla: King of the Monsters). “Excellent trash talker. Great person to crack jokes with and to make laugh.
“You’re just kind of watching a piece of Hollywood [history] do his thing. You end up just watching the man work. … It’s an honor to be in [one of] his last film[s].”
Cocaine Bear opens Friday, Feb. 24.
Watch the trailer: