Ray Liotta has dimmed the eyes for lunch.

Those fierce baby blue strobes, which can light up -- and unnerve -- a multiplex to the very back rows, are now in screen-saver mode, thank goodness. Watching a man eat soup who might at any moment send the waiter reeling with a homicidal glare is no way to enjoy the admirable food at the Ritz-Carlton Washington. At their most maniacal, Liotta's eyes are the kind you want to see only through the back-seat window of a police car or the one-way mirror of a psych ward. But on a gray November day, the actor picks at his mixed greens as placidly as any of the murmuring World Bank types at surrounding tables. If his hair is a little mussed -- and those eyes a little dulled -- it's only because of the rigors of too many interviews in too many cities.

Liotta is in Washington as part of a full- scale, five-alarm, 76-trombone movie rollout. "Narc," a gritty, much-buzzed-about cop flick co-starring Liotta and Jason Patric, opened nationwide on Friday to all the hoopla Paramount Pictures could generate.

"It's brutal," says Liotta of the publicity tour. "It's a necessary evil, all the running around. But as tiring as it gets, I don't mind doing it if it's good for the movie."

Especially, he readily admits, if the movie in question is being talked about as one that could pull him out of a prolonged slump and set him climbing back up the A-list. "Narc" -- which was shot as a small-budget independent project, only to be championed for major distribution by the likes of Tom Cruise and Dustin Hoffman -- has been accumulating positive chatter at film festivals and screenings. Liotta's performance, in particular, has been hailed, garnering a best-supporting-actor nomination from the Independent Spirit Awards and a long-shot spot on some critics' early Oscar predictions.

Liotta's portrayal of the stocky and volcanic Henry Oak, an aging Detroit police detective on the trail of a cop-killer, is an impressive stretch for an actor who remains boyish and slim at 47. He packed on 25 pounds for the role and looks onscreen more like a high-octane Brian Dennehy than the fit-again Liotta, who, in a sky-blue sweater and black slacks, is now sipping cranberry juice. "There's no mystery to it," he says of his metamorphosis. "You see a doughnut lying around, you eat it. Thank God for Krispy Kreme."

After the February 2001 shoot in Toronto, he shed the weight by playing basketball a couple of times a week and following a regimen of no carbs after noon. He's trim, taut and busier than he's been in a long time.

"I feel like I'm getting back in the game," Liotta says. "The past few years have been up and down. But now things are heating up. I'm seeing some better scripts. People are talking about me again. More importantly, they're talking about the movie. It's horrible, but the reality is that it's not how good you do in a movie, it's how good the movie does. We really think 'Narc' is going to do well."

He pauses. His eyelashes are so thick he could be wearing mascara, a look simultaneously glam and innocent. "Unless everyone is lying," he finishes.

Quick. Name a Ray Liotta movie.

"GoodFellas," right? You said "GoodFellas."

C'mon! That was 12 years ago! And that, of course, is Liotta's problem precisely. It's been a dozen years since Liotta pole-vaulted onto the marquee as Henry Hill, the apprentice wiseguy in Martin Scorsese's masterly take on modern mob life. ("GoodFellas," of course, was the template for the Godfather-Knows-Best genre that "The Sopranos" has parried into a cable-cult phenomenon. Liotta himself was offered a role on the HBO hit but turned it down as too close to "GoodFellas." "I love the show, but it didn't feel like the right thing to do," he says. "It's so much Tony's show, and I don't take orders very well.")

And before "GoodFellas," it was way back in 1986 that Liotta turned heads with his debut in Jonathan Demme's dark comedy "Something Wild." As the lithe young thug who torments Melanie Griffith and Jeff Daniels, he seemed to be bursting not just out of his tough-guy T-shirt but out of his very skin. It was the prototype for the menacing, laser-eyed heavy that would become Liotta's stock in trade.

"He's one of my favorite actors," says Demme. "I haven't seen 'Narc' yet, but just coming off that amazing look on his face in the ads, it is on the top of my must-see list."

But, "Narc" aside, what has Liotta done for us lately? He has been making movies -- 25 films in 16 years amounts to steady work. He recently had his brains sauteed and eaten by Anthony Hopkins in "Hannibal," and he was the impatient police chief in "John Q." He also did a string of guest appearances on NBC's "Just Shoot Me" and provides the narrator's voice in the popular video game "Grand Theft Auto: Vice City."

In all, though, there's no denying that the bright aura surrounding Liotta after "GoodFellas" never materialized into a boffo track record. And all too often, the roles on par with Henry Hill have gone to other actors. "I've been busy, but I haven't been getting some of the better scripts," Liotta says. "I really wanted 'L.A. Confidential,' for example, but Russell Crowe got it. I've always been competitive, and to lose out doesn't sit well with me."

Still, Liotta doesn't seem consumed with regrets over what might have been or with rage at the star system. Maybe it's because he senses a turnaround underway, but he's almost cheerily frank about his own missteps.

"I may have been managing my career a bit too much," Liotta says. "I was an idiot with 'GoodFellas.' I didn't want to play a bad guy [again] right away, so I let some good things go by before I finally played a good guy." (Namely, a heart surgeon in "Article 99," an overwrought expose{acute} on the evils of the VA health care system that went almost straight to video.)

"I didn't even have a publicist. I was still growing up, and it was like, 'You don't do interviews, you don't do publicity, you don't take just any part. You're an actor. It's all about the work."

And now?

"[Expletive] that," he says emphatically, drawing out the first word and sounding very much the New Jersey-ite he is. "The guys who kept that up are still doing . . . commercials. I just want to work for a while -- back to back to back."

Liotta's slump may have even helped keep him grounded as the all-around nice guy he remains, according to those who know and work with him. He makes a point of being on time to shoots and doesn't try to make every restaurant and rope-line encounter a tantrum of celebrity hubris.

"Some actors, you know they are [jerks] as soon as they sit down, wearing sunglasses and leather jackets inside, smoking in the no-smoking section," Liotta says. "Hey, I've been through down periods where people don't recognize me. It's a lot of effort for someone to get a babysitter and go see a movie I'm in. I appreciate it."

Liotta's re{acute}sume{acute} may be short on blockbusters, but plenty of his performances have won good reviews. His role as Johnny Depp's understanding father in "Blow" (2001) has its fans ("I based that in part on my own dad," Liotta says), as does his portrayal of a widowed 1950s father who falls in love with Whoopi Goldberg in 1994's "Corrina, Corrina." And he is chilling as a cop-turned-stalker in "Unlawful Entry" (1992).

Joe Carnahan, who wrote and directed "Narc," compares Liotta to Michael Caine as an actor who can shine through a bad film. "Even if the movies have been less than spectacular," he says, "Ray's never been bad in a movie."

Liotta summarizes his career this way: "I came out of the box really strong. And I think I've made some good movies. But for every 'Unlawful Entry' there's been an 'Operation Dumbo Drop.' "

In "Narc," Liotta is back to the clenched-jaw intensity. By the end of the movie, Liotta's character is such a tempest of sweating, spitting fury, you could set him outside as a lawn sprinkler. But for all the scene-chewing, the weathered and ferocious Henry Oak is no tough-guy caricature. Liotta infuses him with enough ambiguity -- even softness -- that you're never quite sure whether he's a good cop gone bad or a bad cop gone good.

"When I see Oak, I see almost nothing of Ray," says Carnahan. "None of his mannerisms, none of his look. Ray is an incredibly warm soul, a funny, affable guy. We aged his eyes and grayed him up pretty good and he just completely inhabited this character. I learned more about the craft of acting watching Ray than probably anybody in my career."

In the upholstered calm of the Ritz-Carlton dining room, it's hard to imagine how Liotta generates the klieg-like intensity of his higher-voltage roles. Although he was a longtime student of Los Angeles acting coach Harry Mastrogeorge, he is a disciple of no high-concept theory of the craft.

"All we're doing is playing cowboys and Indians," he says. "We're just pretending. My homework is to sit down and think. I spend a lot of time trying to imagine what is going on with this person.

"Sure, when I'm working, I probably don't go five minutes out of the day without thinking about my character, and that's kind of Methody. But I don't stick pins in my arm to show pain. If I only drew on my own personal experiences, I could only do about three things, mostly play basketball. I can't relate to these [bad] guys in any way."

Liotta says he's only been in one actual fight in his life -- in seventh grade. "If anything, me and my friend Gene would've been chased by guys like that."

A few days later, on the phone from Los Angeles, where he lives with his wife (producer Michelle Grace) and their 4-year-old daughter, Liotta seems even further removed from his underworld portrayals. "Ack! You have got dirty hands, young lady," he interrupts himself as he is describing the inner motivations of a rogue cop. "Go and wash your hands. Right now."

Has fatherhood cramped his style at all? "Are you kidding me?" He lets fly that rat-a-tat laugh of his, simultaneously contagious and menacing. "The world I'm most familiar with is 'SpongeBob SquarePants.' "

Liotta's own childhood was in Union Township, N.J., near Elizabeth. His father was an auto parts retailer, and his mother a Democratic Party activist (an exposure that soured him on politics for life, he says).

It was at the University of Miami that he took up theater arts as a way, he says, "of avoiding a lot of [nonsense] liberal arts courses." Liotta credits his teacher Robert Lowery with making theater manly enough for a high school jock from Jersey to take on such roles as a dancing waiter in "Cabaret" and a lederhosen-clad Friedrich in "The Sound of Music."

After graduation he went to New York and landed a commercial on his third day in the city (an ad for a "Love Songs of the '50s" album). Within six months he was on a soap opera, and he played Joey Perrini on "Another World" for three years. "The nicest guy in the world," Liotta says, almost wistfully. "Mothers remember that. Someone will say, 'You're always such a heavy,' and a mother will say, 'You never saw him as Joey.' "

Liotta broke into films with Demme's "Something Wild" in 1986, garnering a Golden Globe nomination for supporting actor -- and catching some very important eyes.

"I saw him first in 'Something Wild' and thought immediately he'd be great for 'GoodFellas,' " says Martin Scorsese. "I thought he'd be great for Henry. I had Joe Pesci for the other guy, and Bob De Niro, and he just felt right."

But it was a few years later, in Italy, that Liotta's unofficial audition for "GoodFellas" took place.

Scorsese had recently released "The Last Temptation of Christ," and with the controversy that movie generated, the director had bodyguard protection during the Venice Film Festival. Liotta -- at the festival with his movie "Dominick and Eugene" -- approached Scorsese in a hotel corridor and found himself quickly surrounded by large rent-a-thugs.

"He came toward me and the bodyguard pushed and Ray just moved away, saying, 'Easy, easy, it's all right, it's all right,' " Scorsese recalls. "Hands up. And I saw the gesture was just perfect, because he was careful. He was ready for conflict, but he wasn't going to pursue it. He just let them know he wasn't intending any violence towards me. A little bit angry, but that's good. And I looked at him and said, 'In New York! We'll talk in New York!' "

Scorsese laughs. "These were big guys!"

Indeed they were, Liotta says now. "Oh yeah, I was backing down as fast as I could," he remembers. "Marty might have been thinking I was really that kind of guy, some kind of tough guy. But Henry Hill wasn't a tough guy -- he wasn't like the others. He rose through the ranks because he was a nice guy who kept his mouth shut."

Liotta got the part. The reviews were raves, but "GoodFellas" fared poorly in the awards sweepstakes and Liotta went unnominated.

"He was so robbed in 'GoodFellas,' " says "Narc" director Carnahan. "His performance is the spine of that whole movie. If that's not Best Actor nomination, I don't know what is."

More than 10 years later, it was Liotta who gave Carnahan's "Narc" its key boost when he agreed to be a producer and take on the role of Oak. The movie ran into money troubles that were nearly fatal, but Carnahan and Liotta scraped together enough to edit a version to take to the 2002 Sundance Film Festival, where it attracted interest but no awards. Word spread that Carnahan had produced a worthy cop flick and that Liotta had delivered a strong performance. Eventually, Tom Cruise saw a print, agreed to come aboard retroactively as executive producer and persuaded Paramount to release it.

"I liked his sensibilities, and it was a great part," Liotta says of Carnahan, a director who had no major film to his credit. "When you go into a Scorsese movie, you just climb to the highest building and jump and you know he's going to catch you. With Joe, I didn't know how it was going to turn out, but he wrote a great script. It has worked out pretty good."

Liotta won't know for several weeks how well "Narc" will do at the box office or in the awards tourney. But already he's pleased with the uptick in strong scripts coming his way and the meetings with good directors. (He won't say who: "I'm too superstitious.") Just possibly "Narc" will boost his orbit back up to where "GoodFellas" launched him more than a decade ago, close to the professional nirvana he experienced working with the likes of Scorsese and De Niro.

"To do a gangster movie with Marty was just a great, great experience," he says. "I'd give my left [unprintable body part] to work with Marty again."

Scorsese says, in different words, the same thing.

"He was extraordinary to work with. I'd like to work with Ray again, soon."

Hmmmm. Ray, call Marty. Marty, call Ray.

"I feel like I'm getting back in the game," says Ray Liotta, whose performance in "Narc" is winning wide acclaim.GoodActa: "Even if the movies have been less than spectacular," says "Narc" writer-director Joe Carnahan of Liotta, "Ray's never been bad in a movie." Clockwise from top, the actor with his wife, Michelle Grace, at the premiere of "John Q" last year; with Robert De Niro in "GoodFellas"; waxing thoughtful during an interview; with Julianne Moore in "Hannibal"; and with co-star Jason Patric in "Narc."