Keitel - a man for all seasons

Youth star Harvey on Sorrentino, Campion and Scorsese.

by Richard Mowe

Harvey Keitel: 'I’d seen Paolo Sorrentino’s Il Divo and The Great Beauty and I wanted to work with him'
Harvey Keitel: 'I’d seen Paolo Sorrentino’s Il Divo and The Great Beauty and I wanted to work with him' Photo: Film Servis Karlovy Vary
There is an aura about Harvey Keitel, one of cinema's roughest diamonds, that cannot be easily explained. He sports crumpled features atop massive shoulders, his frame bulky and short, it would make an effective human battering ram. His brow carries perpetual furrows of inner contemplation. And at 76, Keitel, has a reputation, rivalled only by Robert De Niro, for being a notoriously tough interviewee.

He agrees, however, to be the perfect charmer for his appearance at the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival which closes its 50th edition tonight (July 11). He chatted intently with fans at the Festival’s Vodafone series of talks and introduced screenings of Paolo Sorrentino’s Youth, in which he plays a director looking to make his swan song, opposite his friend Michael Caine, a composer who refuses to perform – even for the Queen.

Keitel believes in pushing himself to the limit psychologically and physically, while guarding a place in his world for gentleness and concern. His sensitivity, married with machismo, was one of the reasons Australian director Jane Campion latched on to him for The Piano. He undertakes Hollywood studio excursions, and TV advertising (for Direct Line car insurance, reprising his role from Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction to allow himself the luxury of being able to afford single-minded commitment to the risk of the unknown.

During a previous interview, he to used a quote from the Bible to explain his position. ''Sure, taking risks brings satisfaction - which also means I accept life on its own terms, rather than how I would like it to be. There is this informative line in the Book of Job, which I happen to be reading in a new translation, which says Job has been visited by all these horrible things - his children killed, his crops destroyed, and his body visited with eruptions of the skin.

''His wife suggests he should curse God so he will relieve him of this suffering. Job responds: 'Am I only to accept the good from God and not the bad? ' So it is a very small thing for me to accept the compromise of doing some commercial films.''

Harvey Keitel: 'I am always in the ascendancy…'
Harvey Keitel: 'I am always in the ascendancy…' Photo: Film Servis Karlovy Vary
He relished the experience of working with Sorrentino. “I’d seen Paolo Sorrentino’s Il Divo and The Great Beauty [which won a Best Foreign Picture Oscar] and I wanted to work with him. Those are two of the most beautiful movies I’ve ever seen. The script came along, and I said to my new agent, John Burnham at ICM, ‘I’d like that part.’ And I got it – or rather, he got it.”

Next up could be a return to work with Wes Anderson (for whom he made The Grand Budapest Hotel). He reveals intriguingly that the director has asked him to voice a dog in his next film.

Keitel, the son of Orthodox Jewish immigrants (mother from Romania and father, who ran a snack bar in the scruffy Brighton Beach end of Brooklyn, from Poland), claims his quest for original challenges goes right back to his early days in the New York theatre when he was a disciple of Method gurus Lee Strasberg, Frank Corsaro and Stella Adler, although it took a struggle to convince them of his potential. ''I became involved because of a need to have experience... to try to find out all I could about the conflicts I was going through and my friends were going through. The theatre answered me and gave me what I was looking for.''

He had parts so far off-Broadway they scarcely figured on the map. Later, he and his contemporaries used to put on plays ''in places where you would be afraid the roof would collapse on the audience - and one time it did, luckily before the show. I have never stopped looking for those experiences - and when these young film directors give me the chance to tell their stories I recognise that they need support and nourishing. I like to get things done my way.

''Greed is bad, but to serve the self is not bad as long as you are not a greedy person. I have been lucky to have worked with some great talents and been involved in some great stories and these have reflected stages in my own growth. This is the only way to learn: to engage yourself by taking the risk of going some place you are frightened of.'' Certainly Keitel's cinematic catalogue has been a scary place to be. The cinema gave him hope as he grew up in Brooklyn. He was a clever student, who had to contend with a stutter - but he fell into bad company and was thrown out for truancy.

''In the cinema there were people talking about the conflicts I was feeling, but which were not dealt with by the community at large. This drew me to watch movies and eventually to theatre. Everything I do for the most part reflects something of my experience in my life, and my need to learn something about it. Stella Adler used to say that analysis of the text is the education of the actor, but I would continue that and say the creation of the part is also the education of the actor.'' Through his acting classes the stutter disappeared, Keitel continued his education in the marines. Under President Eisenhower's regime he joined up with two friends at the age of 18. He did what he was asked with youthful idealism about serving his country. He was posted to the Lebanon before returning to the Lower East Side to work as a shoe salesman and then a stenographer for Manhattan Criminal Court. The Marine Corps motto was sempris fidelis - always faithful - which he admits has been an important quality.

''I grew up having great friends and loyalty was and is fundamental to me,'' he says. The image of Keitel as a stenographer stretches the imagination almost as much as he feels obliged to stretch himself. He explains: ''I was looking for a place to be left alone and be quiet - it was the wrong choice, but it had benefits. Most of my peers were waiters or bar tenders and had to work long hours for a few bucks. I could work just a few hours as a freelance court stenographer and make enough - and then spend the rest of the day seeking work as an actor or going to classes. And I learned how to type which I have found extraordinarily useful. I advise any of your readers to learn how to type.''

Festivals can be so exhausting … Harvey Keitel has a foot massage in Karlovy Vary
Festivals can be so exhausting … Harvey Keitel has a foot massage in Karlovy Vary Photo: Film Servis Festival Karlovy Vary
He bursts into a rare and conviviial smile. At 26, in the mid-Sixties, he came to the attention of Martin Scorsese, as both their careers were taking a few faltering steps to first base. Having made his theatre debut in a Sam Shepard play, he answered an ad which led to him being cast in the director's first feature, Who's That Knocking At My Door, playing a youngster from the wrong side of the tracks harbouring a tormented passion for a WASP girl. In Mean Streets he also played a young man afraid of commitment, but that picture was stolen by De Niro's astonishing debut. Scorsese, despite being an Italian Catholic, had found a soulmate in Keitel.

“He was very much like me. We became friends and found we had the same problems. Both our families expected us to achieve some sort of respectability.'' And Keitel says of Scorsese: ''We were one and the same being in many ways.'' Yet the relationship has had its rifts: Scorsese gave De Niro the lead in Taxi Driver, although Keitel invested his marginal character - Jodie Foster's pimp - with an eerie and memorable presence. It was Keitel's first psycho. He walked off Scorsese's King Of Comedy, while Francis Ford Coppola fired him from Apocalypse Now after seeing the first rushes, eventually replacing him with Martin Sheen. Meanwhile, De Niro was making The Deer Hunter and Raging Bull, winning an Oscar and carving the kind of niche to which Keitel can only now lay claim.

The period in the late Seventies and early Eighties was hardly auspicious. Keitel took bread-and-butter earners like the sci-fi drama Saturn 3, which caused him such grief that he declined to re-record dialogue after script changes. People kept writing him off with alarming regularity, although Ridley Scott cast him in The Duellists opposite Keith Carradine, the tale of a 13-year feud between two French officers. Even Keitel began to harbour doubts about his future, although work kept coming through from Europe - such directors as Betrand Tavernier (Death Watch) and Ettore Scola (That Night At Varennes), plus Hollywood scraps, helped to keep the wolves at bay. He found time to help another young director get his start - James Toback offered him the role of the pianist son of a mobster in Fingers, a box office disaster, which was noticed by some critics and included Keitel's first nude scene - in the final image, his character stands alone in his apartment, naked like a caged animal.

Harvey Keitel in Reservoir Dogs:  ''I have played people in conflict who have a need sometimes to commit violence. I examine it in that position, constantly.'
Harvey Keitel in Reservoir Dogs: ''I have played people in conflict who have a need sometimes to commit violence. I examine it in that position, constantly.'
Keitel's redemption really arrived with Reservoir Dogs, for which he took a chance on the unknown Quentin Tarantino. He helped to get the film made, raised finance and contributed some money of his own. He remains unrepentant about the violence, insisting that he has never played a violent character. ''I have played people in conflict who have a need sometimes to commit violence. I examine it in that position, constantly. It's probably my biggest motivation for making films.''

Whereas Keitel looked to the likes of Marlon Brando, James Dean and John Cassavetes as role models, a whole new generation of actors and filmmakers now regard him in the same light. He is prepared to get down and dirty in a way that few stars would even contemplate. Tim Roth, who appeared with him in Reservoir Dogs, says: ''One of the reasons I became an actor is because I thought guys like Jack Nicholson, Al Pacino and Keitel were amazing - especially Keitel. I'd seen all his films. Knowing he had casting approval on Reservoir Dogs and that he had chosen me was fantastic enough. Working with him was hysterical.''

Renegade director Abel Ferrara then provided him with a suitably visceral follow-up in Bad Lieutenant, in which Keitel plumbed the depths of his character's degradation and corruption, including a controversial masturbation sequence involving two teenage girls in a car. “'He's going to go where the character goes. He's not afraid - he's an ex-marine,'' says Ferrara. ''He said to me when we started filming, 'My sword is sharp, my boots are shined, just point me to the hill and I'll take it'.''

Ferrara suggests that Keitel expects nothing else from colleagues other than total commitment. ''He knows what great work is and he demands it in himself and others. If you're not doing it, then there are two options - step it up or get out of his face.''

Hollywood finally began to recognise his professionalism when his peers gave him an Oscar nomination for Bugsy, in which, as the manic Mickey Cohen, he stole the show from title star Warren Beatty.

Keitel's appearance in Holy Smoke, directed by Campion, made another huge impact on the Keitel revival. ''Jane is one of my favourite people,'' he said, then adds enigmatically: ''But I suppose, like experiencing any goddess, it is divine and hell at the same time.'' Campion describes the film as: ''a man's journey towards his heart. Of course, the journey to the heart is a painful one and so, we resist it. The whole of life can be spent creating an armoury that will lessen the pain, so that you can't be put in a situation where you will be humiliated or suffer. Harvey's character has reached the point where life has become uninteresting and he's suffering a kind of ennui. He's got to a point where it's more interesting to fail than to succeed.'' In this respect, the part of the ageing hipster who seduces Kate Winslet could almost have been written with Keitel in mind. Keitel has been much impressed with Winslet, especially with her decision, post-Titanic, to opt for two stories which deal with personal journeys (the other was Gillies Mackinnon's Hideous Kinky).

The idea for Holy Smoke came to Campion after she worked with Keitel on The Piano. At the end of the shoot, he said he would like to work with her again. She was keen to return the compliment. ''What I like about Harvey is that, as an actor, he is like a female fantasy projection - animal, great masculine energy, and yet somehow sensitive. Lots of men would have been put off by how female-oriented The Piano is. But Harvey identified it as a part for him. What starts out as exploitation (in the relationship between Keitel and Holly Hunter) turns into tenderness.

Harvey Keitel talks to the media at his press conference in Karlovy Vary
Harvey Keitel talks to the media at his press conference in Karlovy Vary Photo: Film Servis Festival Karlovy Vary
“I’ve been a fan of his since I first saw his work in the Seventies. I like the way he shows commitment and concentration. And, while he's very physical, he also has this emotional side. He may not have shown a lot of that because people haven't asked him, but he's obviously got it in bucket loads. Harvey always gives you the idea that something wild is going to happen that you couldn't possibly contain on camera. But I think that is a kind of fabrication of his own. He just needs to give himself room.''

The tenderness that Campion uncovered certainly is there when he talks about his daughter Stella. He broke up with her mother Lorraine Bracco two decades ago after a lengthy relationship. There was a long-running dispute over custody which was awarded to Bracco. There is also son Hudson (born 2001) from his relationship with Lisa Karmazin and subsequently he married actress Daphna Kastner with whom he had a son Roman, born in 2004. “Fatherhood was maybe the most glorious and wonderful thing that ever happened to me,'' he said, almost coming over moist-eyed.

Keitel feels much at home in his Lower Manhattan neighbourhood, wandering the streets freely and usually unremarked. Most of his friends live round about and often they'll gather to play pool of an evening. And for all those budding filmmakers beating a path to his door, he is not difficult to find.

Ask if the ageing process - he was born May 13, 1939 - have brought him to a level of maturity, and he begins to shift uncomfortably. ''No, never a plateau - I'm always in the ascendancy.'' Think forever upwards - perhaps that's the secret of the aura.

Youth, already out in Italy, will be released elsewhere later in the year.

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