Should Regina King win the best supporting actress Oscar for “If Beale Street Could Talk” – as Vegas oddsmakers expect – Mike Liotta will be the happiest invisible man in Hollywood.
That would cap a triumphant trifecta for King, who got a 2018 best actress Emmy for the miniseries “Seven Seconds” and a 2019 Golden Globe for “Beale Street.” Behind her, in the shadows where publicists prefer to stand, Liotta has helped create buzz around the 48-year-old actress at the top of her career.
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The former Charlottean (Providence High School, class of 2001) expected to become an agent or manager, so he headed to Los Angeles 14 years ago after graduating from UNC Chapel Hill.
UNC’s internship program let him “bounce around Creative Artists and William Morris,” says Liotta. “I did extras casting at Central Casting in Burbank from 8 p.m. to 2 a.m. I’d get a last-minute breakdown on a project and wake people up to say, ‘They need you to be a poisoner on ‘Bones’ tomorrow.”
Soon he landed at Pariseau Yorke Raymond Public Relations and realized he was home. He has stayed there for his entire professional career – a rarity in the industry – rising through the ranks to vice-president, as the company changed its name to True Public Relations.
Liotta started as an assistant to Marcel Pariseau, spending a year with him before a sudden promotion to publicist when a co-worker left.
“Most assistants sit on a desk for a couple of years, so I hadn’t had a chance to build proper contacts,“ he recalls. “Marcel took me under his wing and let me sit in on new client meetings. I learned how to give a meeting, and that gave me the tools to become a signer. I started to have the right relationships with talent managers, who’d refer up-and-comers to me.
“It’s rare that I go after talent. I may be hot about somebody and find out who their reps are. But if you don’t have a relationship with the manager and agent, they’ll say, ‘You’ve never taken me to lunch. I don’t have a relationship with you. Why would I send my talent to you?’ People have to know you, like you and think you can do the job.”
He quickly learned protocols. First, pilfering a star from another publicist may pay off in the short term but costs too much in industry goodwill. He meets actors only if their publicists are “on notice to go or already gone. Los Angeles Is a super-small town, and I don’t want to be seen as a poacher.”
Second, don’t be star-struck. If you’re at a party with a client who has a role in “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” and you realize you’re hip-to-hip with Brad Pitt, don’t gawk. (Liotta was and didn’t.)
Third, there are no such things as billable hours. “I am connected 24/7,” he says. “You may see emails from me at 4 a.m., because I am troubleshooting for a client. Even on vacations, I don’t have the heart to put away my phone, because people depend on me. I try to answer every single email, even if I pass on something. The more you’re accessible, the more time-sucks you get, but you’ll want to ask those people for a favor someday.
“The dream is to have a few clients who are such A-list stars that they need you all the time. Mostly, it’s a (cyclical) business: Someone might work on a movie for two years, then not make another for three. You’ll see me with a lot of clients on (the reference database) IMDB Pro, but if I worked for all of them all the time, I would be super-rich – and dead.”
Right now, he’s focused on King, whom he shares with Pariseau. She’s part of the reason he’s in this business: King played the wife of Cuba Gooding Jr. in the 1996 “Jerry Maguire,” opposite Tom Cruise as an agent desperate to sign his first big sports client. “That movie holds a special place in young Mike’s heart,” Liotta says. “It planted the seed about wanting to represent talent, and I still pop it in when I’m sick at home. It helps me envision what my job should be.”
King’s now in so much demand that he can’t keep up with requests, especially while she’s shooting HBO’s “Watchmen” in Atlanta. (“It’s a champagne problem to have.”) She gamely takes on as many publicity assignments as possible, from the cover shot for Vanity Fair’s 2019 Hollywood issue to the Hollywood Reporter’s annual Actress Roundtable, alongside Lady Gaga and Rachel Weisz.
And Liotta, who has worked with her for a decade, goes along. He’s even become event publicist of the annual fundraiser for the I Have a Dream Foundation – Los Angeles, which he discovered through King’s participation.
“This is my first Oscar campaign, hitting every award show on the circuit,” he says. “There’s a learning curve, and I am lucky to have Marcel as my safety net. You need to know that the chairman’s award at the Palm Springs International Film Festival often goes to someone likely to get an Oscar nomination. Oscar handicappers at GoldDerby said Sylvester Stallone was supposed to win a supporting Oscar for ‘Creed,’ but he didn’t present at the BAFTAs (the British Oscars) and ended up not winning. So we presented at the BAFTAs.
“The studio sets up screenings and receptions and Q-and-As in New York and Los Angeles, and you try to do a ton of appearances. Some actors won’t do the handshake tours, but she knows it’s good for her career and puts butts in seats for ‘Beale Street.’ At the same time, you try not to overcampaign, because you can’t be seen as begging. There always has to be a balance.”