Just like co-star Jason Patric, Ray Liotta's treading familiar ground as a police detective in the the dark crime drama Narc (in select theaters). But though Copland and Unlawful Entry taught him how to hold a gun and talk like a man of the law, Liotta notes that gruff and damaged Detective Henry Oak demanded a completely different, more nuanced performance. And judging by the high marks he's getting from critics — and the Oscar buzz reverberating throughout Hollywood — the 47-year-old actor more than rose to the challenge.

"This is a much more real human being," he says of his Narc alter ego, who is searching for the perp who murderered his partner. "With my other cop roles, one was a drug addict, in Copland, and the other was a total nutjob, in Unlawful Entry. [Henry Oak] is also the first real man that I've played. I think it's the concerns that he has, the fact that he is doing things for other people; that's a very manly thing to do."

Liotta, who also co-produced the movie with his wife, Michelle Grace, decided that in order to play this often brutal, "manly" man, he needed to look the part. "I put on about 25 pounds for it... and used padding," he explains. "The life of a cop is kind of rough — always on the run, a lot of fast food. I don't think he was the kind of guy who went home and made a salad after work."

As much as he's aware of the hardships of being a crime fighter, Liotta understands why people so eagerly join the force. "I'm sure it's a very exciting job on the surface," he says. "I think most people become cops to do good. A lot of people do it because it's in their family; it's the only thing they know. It's a very righteous job."