Actors Talk About How They Prepared To Play Criminals

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Vote up the fascinating stories behind our favorite criminal portrayals.

For many actors who play gangsters, playing a mobster character is one of the most challenging jobs of their careers. When a character is based on a real-life person, such as Al Capone or Frank Lucas, an actor has a larger-than-life reputation to live up to. But even if a mobster character is fictional, mob movies often require characters to behave in such extreme ways that it takes a special kind of preparation to get into character. On top of that, actors have to find ways to make mobsters sympathetic, even if they're also capable of doing terrible things. 

Every actor has a different inspiration for how they portray mobsters, and they all have different approaches for how they inhabit them. Here are 12 actors who have discussed how they prepared to play film's most notorious criminals

  • 1
    120 VOTES

    Ray Liotta Listened To The Tapes Of Henry Hill Telling The Story That Inspired His Performance In ‘Goodfellas’

    In order to prepare for his role as Henry Hill in Goodfellas, Ray Liotta first read the book on which it's based, Wiseguy. Then, after meeting with writer Nick Pileggi, the writer gave Liotta the tapes from his interviews with Hill so he could get a sense of his cadence and vibe.

    Liotta listened to them repeatedly while driving in his mother's car. Director Martin Scorsese didn't allow Liotta to meet with the real Henry Hill, though Liotta did get to meet him after filming:

    I got a call out of the blue. He said, “Hey, this is Henry Hill. I’d love to sit down and talk with ya.” I said, “OK. I’ll meet you.” And the first thing he said was, “Thanks for not making me look like a scumbag!” And I said, “Serious? Did you see the movie? You cheated on your wife, you were dealing drugs when your crew told you not to.”

    Thirty years later, Liotta had very positive recollections of filming Goodfellas, telling New York Post, “I don’t know where my keys are right now, but I can remember just about every scene and what happened that day, because a movie like that just had such a big imprint on you.”

    120 votes
  • 2
    100 VOTES

    Joe Pesci Pulled The ‘How Am I Funny?’ Scene From ‘Goodfellas’ From An Encounter He Had With A Wiseguy As A Waiter

    One of the most memorable scenes in any movie is the "Am I funny to you?" scene from Goodfellas, when Henry Hill (Ray Liotta) compliments Tommy DeVito's joke-telling ability. Offended, Tommy asks Henry if he thinks of him as a clown. The scene was partially improvised and based on a real-life encounter Joe Pesci had when he was working as a waiter at a restaurant.

    It played out pretty much like the scene did - Pesci complimented a mobster, and the mobster got angry. The other actors in the scene didn't know the moment was coming, because director Martin Scorsese wanted to get their genuine reactions. 

    100 votes
  • 3
    80 VOTES

    Chazz Palminteri Based The Scene In ‘A Bronx Tale’ Where A Kid Witnesses A Mob Shooting But Keeps His Mouth Shut On His Own Life

    Like several other actors on this list, Chazz Palminteri grew up with mobsters, although he wasn't associated with them himself. When he was 9 years old, he witnessed a shooting outside his family's apartment. His father took him upstairs and told him not to tell anyone what he saw.

    Years later, Palminteri used the moment as the inciting incident for a one-person show, which would later be turned into A Bronx Tale

    80 votes
  • 4
    58 VOTES

    Johnny Depp Reached Out To The Real Whitey Bulger Before ‘Black Mass,’ Believing Everyone Has Their ‘Humanity’

    The 2015 crime drama Black Mass is a fictionalized account of the life and crimes of infamous Boston-area mobster James "Whitey" Bulger (Johnny Depp). To inhabit the role, Johnny Depp watched FBI surveillance footage and listened to taped recordings of the mobster. Through the course of his work, Depp found many things about the mobster to be endearing.

    “There’s something poetic about what he was able to do in his work, and at the same time, be of that very proud Irish immigrant stock who was loyal to his neighborhood, who was a great caregiver to his mother, who was very, very close with his brother, who was a very upper-echelon politician," Depp said.

    Depp even attempted to meet with the real-life Bulger in an attempt to capture his humanity and pay respect to the story and those involved, but Bulger's attorney declined.

    58 votes
  • 5
    47 VOTES

    Margo Martindale Based Mags Bennett From 'Justified' On A Real-Life Kentucky Bootlegger

    Margo Martindale Based Mags Bennett From 'Justified' On A Real-Life Kentucky Bootlegger
    Photo: FX

    The primary villain on the second season of FX's Justified is Mags Bennett (Margo Martindale), a criminal bootlegger matriarch who often does her enemies in by serving them poisoned moonshine. Martindale based the character partly on a historical Kentucky moonshine runner named Mags Bailey. Like Martindale's character, Mags Bailey had several sons and sent them all to law school so that she would always have access to legal defenses.

    On Justified, Mags Bennett's sons aren't quite that bright. Martindale plays the character of Mags Bennett as a calculating criminal with a strong intellect, which is based on the real Mags. 

    47 votes
  • 6
    50 VOTES

    Harvey Keitel Actually Shadowed A Pimp In New York City To Play One In ‘Taxi Driver’

    During Taxi Driver, Travis Bickle eventually becomes infatuated with an underage sex worker named Iris (Jodie Foster), who works for a brutal pimp nicknamed "Sport" (Harvey Keitel). At a panel for the 40th anniversary of the film, someone asked Keitel if it was true that he walked around with an real-life New York pimp for weeks to prepare for the role, to which Keitel replied, “Is the statute of limitations over for that yet?”

    Keitel went on to confirm, "We improvised a couple of weeks together, me and this fellow. He taught what it was like to play the role of the pimp. I played the girl, he taught me what the pimp would do... We had a good business together.”

    50 votes