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It appears now to have been both a help and a hindrance to Harvey Keitel that he should first have been widely seen, finger poised over the flame of hellfire, as Charlie in Martin Scorsese's infernally charged rock opera, Mean Streets.
It was no simple scenario of a star is born, since he was pitted against the dangerous energy of Robert De Niro in the more overtly volatile role of Johnny Boy. In fact, Keitel’s performance is as detailed and febrile as any in the film, with his sharp-suited appeal for respectability among the Little Italy mobsters wrestling with an internal desperation to be liked by his street buddies. If Charlie and Johnny’s backroom banter about gambling debts is, as Scorsese has said, the hub of the film, then Keitel was playing the most complex straight man in the history of comedy.
It has been a measure of Keitel’s success since then that he rarely fails to live on screen as someone who just is. He has proved to be one of the most exciting vindications of the Method school, an actor who slips into his role’s clothes, environment and attitude without any distractions of actorish business. Keitel’s merging with his chosen characters has placed him neither as an identifiable star (in the way that Cary Grant always was, simply and subtly, Cary Grant), nor as a chameleon who blends into the frame. He is not the obvious stuff of stardom physically, either; a well-developed body of average stature is topped by an almost brutal, tightly packed face that can switch from fierce aggression to sunny warmth in the blink of an eye.
Perhaps it’s not so surprising, therefore, that Keitel has frequently been cast on one or other side of the law: good cops (Thelma & Louise) and twisted cops (Bad Lieutenant); smart criminals (Bugsy) and weak hoods (Reservoir Dogs). Keitel clearly takes pride in bringing out the humanity of street scum and the scuzzy side of ordinary folk. If that infamous range comes from a daunting seriousness in his craft, so be it. Not every director might relish his dogged pursuit of motivations and character backgrounds. But when the chemistry works — as it has with Scorsese, above all — then the rewards vibrate on the screen.
Keitel has been willing to take extraordinary risks in subject – think of the romantic aggression of his piano-playing debt collector in James Toback’s Fingers, surely now due for revival – and in his choice of collaborators. The list of first-time directors is impressive: Paul Schrader, Alan Rudolph, Ridley Scott, and most recently, Quentin Tarantino with Reservoir Dogs. Furthermore, he has willingly shifted between mainstream Hollywood fare and numerous European productions (particularly in Italy). He has also supported such disparate independently-minded auteurs as Abel Ferrara with Bad Lieutenant and Jane Campion with the forthcoming The Piano Lesson [The Piano].
Keitel was born in Brooklyn in 1947 to parents who ran a refreshment stand on Brighton Beach. After a three-year spell in the Marines, he attended both New York University and the Actors Studio, where he studied with Stella Adler, Frank Corsaro and Lee Strasberg. After making his stage debut in Summer Stock in Edward Albee’s The American Dream, followed by off-Broadway productions, he answered an ad and became the lead character in Martin Scorsese’s first feature, Who’s That Knocking at My Door? He appeared on Broadway in 1975 as Happy Loman opposite George C. Scott in Scott’s production of Death of a Salesman, and in the mid-80s with William Hurt in David Rabe’s Hurly Burly, directed by Mike Nichols. But the theatre has taken a back seat to his intensive film work, for Keitel – to his own disbelief – has already notched up some fifty roles in cinema and television films.
When I met Keitel in November, he was in London acting in The Young Americans, a Working Title production in which he portrays a US drugs investigator on special assignment. Typically, it’s another film by a first-time director, Danny Cannon, whose self-penned script was sufficient to attract Keitel. For his next film, he plans to be reunited with Amos Poe in Snake Eyes, co-starring Madonna. Keitel gives few interviews, though he clearly felt a special obligation to promote the wild talent of Tarantino, as well as the bleak vision of Bad Lieutenant. The latter may be an indigestible example of what Variety might call a “grungefest”, but there’s no denying Keitel’s own terrifying presence. Few actors would have dared deliver such naked self-abuse. But then few are as fearless as Keitel.
David Thompson: What inspired you to become an actor?
Harvey Keitel: I was a teenager when people like James Dean and Marlon Brando began their careers. As growing up has its difficulties, we look for heroes to help us through that shadowy forest. The work these people did, Kazan and Cassavetes too, represented a struggle to cope with the difficulty of being that stimulated and gave hope to me and my friends.
How significant were the three years you spent in the Marines?
Myself and two of my best friends at that time, we were three young men in search of an identity, in search of our heroes, trying to become our own heroes. There’s that great line in Dickens’ David Copperfield: “Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show”. I had my introduction to mythology in the Marines. The first instruction I had was in night-combat class – hundreds of us were huddled together in boot camp on Paris Island, and this Marine instructor said to us: “You’re scared of the darkness because you’re scared of what you don’t know. I’m going to teach you to know the darkness”. A profound statement.
How did this experience translate itself into your work at the Actors Studio?
The craft is a way to penetrate emotions, and the only way to be fearless is to go through fear.
So it’s more than the fear of standing up in front of people?
Yes. I’m talking about fear in terms of existing, of having to wake up in the morning and saying, what do I do now?
How has that affected the many roles you’ve played?
Stella Adler, who’s a great teacher, remarked that the analysis of the text is the education of the actor. I try to engage only in projects through which I will deepen my awareness, and for the most part I’ve been lucky: I’ve only had to do a few commercial films to make some money from time to time, and mostly I’ve worked with profound people.
Your first film, Who’s That Knocking at My Door?, was a long time in the making, as it grew from a student film into a feature…
Only over five years!
…which must have been a strange initiation?
I didn’t know any other way. I was working off-Broadway at the same time at the Cafe La MaMa. Had I known different, I would have complained. I think it was fate that Marty and I met up at the beginning of our careers. I vividly recall sitting down together to watch a scene that had been cut. It was inside the church, when the title song is played, and I was aware of being in the midst of some extraordinary experience… I was deeply stirred by a whole cacophony of emotions, and I felt I was in the right place.
In that film and in Mean Streets, was it a special problem for you to be playing the part of an Italian American, given your own background?
I grew up in Brooklyn and went to school in Coney Island, so my friends were everything: Jewish, Catholic, Irish, a real melting pot. It didn’t matter that I was raised Jewish and that Marty was raised Catholic, our place was beyond local religion.
I understand Scorsese had to fight to have you play the role of a redneck cowboy in Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore.
I was supposed to get $10,000 for the role – I was beside myself! But then the studio didn’t want me, so they said to Marty that if he wanted me, I’d only get $3,000. It was my first job after Mean Streets, and nobody else would hire me. I had done a couple of television shows – I was a guest on the first Kojak and then I did an FBI episode – and they wanted me to do more in Hollywood. But I went back to New York and the Actors Studio because I wasn’t being fulfilled. It was almost a year later that Marty offered me Alice.
Do you regret not doing more stage work?
I haven’t done a play now for five years, but I’m looking to do another. It’s difficult to get a movie career going unless you’re one of the top bankable actors, in which case you don’t have much say in your career. I want to do more theatre, though I don’t like doing eight shows a week – I think it’s a mechanism created by theatre owners to make more money. The one day off is only a day to recuperate, and if it weren’t for the unions, you’d probably have to do nine or ten performances a week.
I believe you played a large part in developing the role of the pimp in Taxi Driver.
Marty handed me the script and said, “What part do you want to play?” I read it and said I’d like to play the pimp. He thought I’d want the campaign worker – the pimp only had about five lines – but I was still living in an area where pimps worked, so I had them in my consciousness every day. He was described as an Italian guy standing in a doorway, and I just took it from there. I created the character with a guy who taught me about the pimp’s life – we worked together for a couple of weeks doing improvisations, and then presented it to Marty. Then Marty wanted me in another scene, so I had the idea of me and Jodie dancing to a song I wrote. It showed that he genuinely cares for this girl and will do anything for her, an extraordinary relationship I’m not sure I comprehend even today.
James Toback’s Fingers was the first film in which you were at the centre. How much did you contribute to that character?
The script was entirely written! hardly anything was improvised. Jimmy’s a friend of mine, and we worked together very closely to understand who the character is, especially his relationship with his mother and father. I couldn’t play the piano, so I studied a lot, I practised a lot, I watched tapes of Glenn Gould, who was a phenomenon. Preparation is very hard to talk about, because it involves the actor’s craft, that is, analysis of the text, improvisation and sensory work, which is part of the tool we use in the Method. If it works for you, you use it, if it doesn’t, you don’t.
The character in Fingers is an extraordinary romantic, isn’t he?
If I were to comment on that, then I would be defining the character, and I think watching the film defines it better than me speaking about it. But of course the best characters are those who are impassioned – just look at Shakespeare or Ibsen.
You’ve demonstrated numerous times that you ‘re willing and eager to work with first-time directors.
My agent at one time also represented Ridley Scott, and he pleaded with me to see his commercials reel because he wanted me for The Duellists. I said, “I’m not interested in working with a commercials director,” but he bothered me so much that in the end I looked at them, and I realised each one was like a little, well-made film. I learned not to be so quick to judge people, that l owed it to them to sit down with them, so I’ve never made that mistake again.
How was working with Ridley Scott different from American directors?
Ridley was always really open, with a great sense of humour. I remember we were shooting a scene inside the war room after Napoleon’s defeat, and I was playing a general planning our strategy with his colonels. In walks Edward Fox, and in the rehearsal he sits on my desk. I took Ridley aside and said, “He shouldn’t sit on my desk, because he’s a colonel and I’m a general”. He went over to Edward for a private word, and then came back and said, “Well, Harvey, in those days they did that”. I said, “How do you know, were you there? I was in the military, and I’m telling you it’s not done”. Ridley said, “I feel we should do it, Edward needs it”, so 1 said, “OK, go ahead”. So action is called, Edward walks in, he says “Sir!”, I turn around, he sits on my desk and I said, “Get your arse off of my desk!” And Edward, like the wonderful actor he is, stood up.
You made a lot of films outside Hollywood in the 80s. Why was that?
I simply couldn’t get any work in Hollywood, for the most part. But it turned out a blessing, because I worked with some great people. For example, Bertrand Tavernier is a man for all seasons; the space he occupies is an environment I knew well, he is a profound man, who is involved in witnessing his own conflicts.
Deathwatch was made in English. But what about films like That Night in Varennes, where all the cast were different nationalities?
Marcello Mastroianni speaks English, Jean-Louis Barrault only spoke French. But the weight of the project and the people involved overcome any technical problems. I came to Rome to meet Ettore Scola, and he asked if I wanted an interpreter because he didn’t speak English at all well then. I said no, no interpreter, so we sat stumbling through three evenings without being able to understand each other. But on another level, we were in the same place, especially as he had hired me to play Thomas Paine.
Though you say you’re not “bankable”, you have nevertheless been able to use your name to help get films made.
Yes, that has happened now, but look at the size of the budgets! I’m not looking a gift horse in the mouth, and I’m very proud of films like Reservoir Dogs and Bad Lieutenant. But their budgets were just over $1,000,000, which shows you how much I seem to be worth in Hollywood’s eyes.
How did you become producer on Reservoir Dogs?
I read the script, and was so impressed I called the producer, Lawrence Bender, and said I wanted to do it. Quentin wanted me to play Mr White, and after three months I was able to make up my mind to take that part. I financed – at no great cost – their trip to New York, because I wanted them to have the benefit of seeing New York actors. After that auditioning process, they generously felt I deserved to be credited as a co-producer.
Watching your performance in Reservoir Dogs, I was very struck by your business with the lighter, clicking your fingers in that obsessive way…
Tim Roth’s son does a great imitation of me doing that.
I wondered how important that gesture was to you in forming the character, and how it came about?
The lighter wouldn’t light. These things just occur. Actors who know their craft understand this, they expect it because when you create a living organism you can’t dictate how it’s going to behave, so there will always be surprises. Then again, every actor has his own way. It could be a physicality, one time it might be a smell, another time it could be a fart.
Was the relationship that evolves between your character, Mr White, and that of Tim Roth, Mr Orange, in the original script?
What you see there was in the text, nothing was added. I felt Quentin was writing about mythological themes, universal themes of betrayal and redemption, and Mr White needed to be a hero to the younger man. And Mr Orange, who represents the law, has to seek redemption for carrying out what the law demands of him.
You often seem to be playing parts on one side or other of the law. When you’ve played cops, I believe you’ve done a great deal of research into their work.
I worked closely with Larry Mullane on Mortal Thoughts, and on Bad Lieutenant I hung around with Dennis O’Sullivan and his detectives. Policemen are people I have a great deal of respect for, and once you’ve been with them on their rounds, your admiration for their work and courage can only be deepened. Until you touch what they have to touch, i.e. a dead body, you can’t know what they go through.
Did they know the film was about a cop steeped in corruption with an appalling drug habit?
No, in that I told them the story, but there’s no way they could know it completely until they see the film. But it’s not a film about the police department, or even about a policeman. For me, it’s about a man who is a father, and he’s losing his soul and becomes aware of it and tries to do some good. What I feel is that we have to write our own Bible, and not just rely on the experiences of our ancestors. I feel that’s true of The Last Temptation of Christ, too. Unless we deal with our own inner conflicts, then we will leave that legacy to our children to cope with because we failed. I am aware that Abel Ferrara is the father of two adopted Indian children, and I am a father of two children, so I feel a responsibility to show the difficulty of doing what’s right, of getting out of hell.
Even if that means remorselessly showing yourself in character as wrecked by drugs, and possibly alienating the audience?
I was very proud when someone said it was the best anti-drugs film they had ever seen, because there was no moralising in it. I answered to the call in my brain. With Abel and Zoe Lund I made a story, and I hope it will do some good. We made the film that way, even though we knew it would be an NC-17, that it wouldn’t wind up making any money. I believe it’s a religious film, because hell is here now and so is the opportunity to know heaven.
Sight and Sound September 2022
In this issue: Quentin Tarantino on tape, the best film podcasts, Baz Luhrmann on Elvis, Warren Ellis on composing for film and Panah Panahi on Hit the Road. Plus: Black Film Bulletin, James Caan, Georges Méliès and more.Find out more and get a copy