Harvey Keitel: Master of His Domain

It’s 5:30 p.m. and Harvey Keitel has just entered the lobby of the Clift Hotel in San Francisco after a very long day of airplanes, press conferences and awards ceremonies, (he is in town to accept the San Francisco International Film Festival’s first Peter J. Owens Award, presented to an actor whose work exemplifies “brilliance, independence, and integrity”) and it ain’t over yet.

He has about an hour to clean up and be downstairs at the banquet in his honor before he flies back to L.A., and I know he probably feels about as much like being interviewed right now as having his head shaved with a cheese grater. He’s extremely careful about the way he reveals himself outside of his work and has done very few interviews during his career, so I feel doubly privileged that he gamely shakes my hand as we get on the elevator together to go to his room. On the ride up Harvey makes small talk with his mini-entourage, which includes his amigo, the fine character actor Victor Argo, a man who looks like he has a chronic case of indigestion, and his publicist, the gracious Susan Culley. After we enter the room and the others make their exits, Harvey sits down to face the music. There’s silence for a moment as I load the tape recorder, and it occurs to me that one of the world’s greatest actors looks as if he expects me to break out the blindfold and offer him his last cigarette. At that moment, appropriately enough, Brian has the good sense to whip out a little leather case and go through the formality of asking “Harvey, can I offer you a Cuban cigar?” It was like the governor calling. Harvey brightened up, lit up, and in the lobby four floors down, they could hear me sigh.

 

Tim Rhys (TR): You’re well-known for your willingness to work with first-time directors. Has working with first-timers ever been a source of frustration for you?

Harvey Keitel (HK): Never. In a word. But the first-time director experience we’re talking about we must remember comes as a result of me reading a text, or hearing an idea. Usually, in reading that text or hearing that idea I will learn something about the quality of the person.

TR: What you’re saying is assuming the director is the writer, which is usually the case, right?

HK: I think it’s been the case every time I’ve done it. But he would not have to be the writer. What I’m saying is you meet the person, you get a feeling about the person. It’s not just willy-nilly, every first-time director is so wonderful. Or that every experienced director is so wonderful. What I’m saying is in my experience, I read the text. Well, let’s think back. Scorsese, Alan Rudolph, Quentin Tarantino, Ridley Scott, James Toback…

TR: The reason I’m asking you this is I’m curious if this willingness to work with first-timers has ever been by design. In other words, is there something that you can get out of a performance working with a first-time director at the beginning of his journey as an artist that you maybe don’t get later on in his career?

HK: Let me answer that I’ve never thought about it in those terms. Is there something I can get out of a first-time director that I couldn’t get from, say, Ingmar Bergman? I wouldn’t think so. I’m trying to make a point.

TR: Is the first-time director’s possible intimidation by the technical process — I interviewed Paul Schrader last week in L.A. who’s admitted he didn’t know what the hell he was doing when he did Blue Collar — that never gets in the way as an actor?

HK: No, because you set out on the journey together, as a team. One’s lack of experience doesn’t get in the way. You help each other along. That can even be inspiring.

TR: We screened all your movies in the past week, and one line which struck me, and did again when they showed your clips today before you were presented with your award— your Judas said to Jesus (in The Last Temptation) “I struggle. You collaborate.” Does that in any way characterize the actor/director relationship to you?

HK: (Long pause) No.

TR: You both struggle? You both collaborate? Do you feel like you struggle more sometimes? In an Abel Ferrara film, for instance, you don’t feel like you’re doing the bulk of the work?

HK: No more so than Abel. Absolutely not. After all, Bad Lieutenant was his idea. That came from some inner struggle of his own.

TR: Yeah, but you’re the guy who has to writhe on the church floor.

HK: We are both doing it. We are both doing it. And the crew. We had an excellent crew headed by Ken Kelsch our cinematographer, who was equally involved with me and Abel. Very important, by the way, for your first-time directors. Very important that the cinematographer not only be technically great, but spiritually even greater. And if there was a choice, I would sacrifice the technology for the greater spirit any time of the day.

Brian O’Hare (BO): On that note of spirituality, Harvey, you and I share the same background in the Marine Corps.

HK: Is that a Marine Corps ring you’re wearing?

BO: Yeah, it is.

HK: I thought so, I thought so.

BO: And I’m an actor myself. Getting out of the Marine Corps three years ago, I remember it was about September of ’93, when your cover interview in Esquire came out. I’m sitting there thinking, ‘What the fuck am I doing?’ (Harvey laughs) People are telling me I’m crazy because I want to become an actor. How do I start, what do I do? And that interview with you was such a revelation. I hadn’t known about your background as a Marine. And the number of times that you cited the Marine Corps as being an inspiration to you. And around that time I screened The Dangerous Game, and there’s an improv scene in there where you say you’re this pissed-off kid out of Brooklyn; you wanted to kill somebody, what did you know about the world. And you’re trying to explain it and it echoed many of the conversations I’ve had with Tim and other close friends of mine, trying to explain what it is, this spiritual thing that goes on and the spirituality of that brotherhood, or experience, and it’s very hard to explain. It’s sort of like you had to have been there. So specifically, can you elaborate on that a little more — how does that experience affect your art now? If it does at all.

HK: Well, I have to believe that there are other people who share a sense of it with us. In their own way. You can pretty much tell the people who do understand. They don’t
understand our experience, but they understand their own, which might have a parallel place. You’re a Marine. I am. Our motto is sempre fidelis. That says it all. Always faithful. That’s something you’re not going to find often in life. With friends, with women.

TR: Does that mean to yourself? Always faithful. I mean, is that open to interpretation? Always faithful to country, to God, to self?

BO: All those things. To each other, I think, most importantly. To your brother Marines. I think that’s the core.

TR: It’s gotta be broader than that, though, I would think.

HK: It means you’ll never let the other guy down. It means if he needs you, you will be there. That’s something you don’t find often in the outside world. You find it amongst Marines. But I’m not so sure you find it amongst them outside the context of being a Marine. We had a saying in the Marine Corps: the only thing you could trust a Marine with was your life. (Laughter)

BO: So does that directly affect some of the choices you make when creating a character?

HK: Every experience I have affects my choices in life. The Marines was one of those experiences. Certainly the elevation of spirit that I encountered in the Marine Corps influenced me. I spoke about that Marine instructor at the night combat school. He spoke about the darkness, how we’re all afraid of the darkness. We’re afraid of what we don’t know. He said “I’m going to teach you about the darkness so that you will learn not to be afraid of it.” That is probably the most important philosophical question to ask oneself. What is the darkness? How do I learn to live with it? I heard that when I was 17 years old, and I never forgot that he said it. And it appealed to me. I wanted to learn to live with the darkness. At that time I didn’t know what the extension of that idea was. I know now. It took me years to understand it, but I sensed it. So that came out of my experience of being a Marine. And I’m always a little sensitive about this area because I don’t want to give the idea to other young men, Hey, go Marine! It’s sort of a dangerous thing. I’m very concerned about a man in my position having the discussion I’m having with you now that will appear in print.

BO: I understand, the information is out there and you’re not giving an endorsement.

HK: No, I mean I can’t hold back either, and not speak about what my experience is. But don’t take what I’m saying literally. I wound up there because of a set of circumstances. It served me well. There are a lot of other young Marines who are not well-known actors like I am. There are a lot of other young Marines who are dead.

TR: For someone else that spirituality can be found through something else.

HK: I’m glad you said that. Well said.

TR: How do you adapt to different directing styles when you’re on a set? Or do you, as an actor?

HK: Well, much is made out of that. And there’s really not that much for the actor to adapt to. An actor adapts to the quality of the director. Style is something that’s almost a physical thing. The actor’s technique does not change because a director’s style changes.

TR: How about in the sense of the rehearsal process. Are there certain ways that–

HK: –Let me say, blanket, that nine out of 10 Hollywood directors do not know how to rehearse. And most actors do not know how to rehearse. The rehearsal process is a very important part of the creation. And it will do directors and actors a lot of good to study the craft to learn how to rehearse. To learn how to do their homework. To learn what to do as homework.

TR: Specifically, how does one rehearse?

HK: Are you asking that?

TR: Yes, I’m asking that.

HK: Oh, I could not answer that.

TR: You say they don’t know how to do it. Speaking to any young directors reading this magazine, what would you tell them?

HK: Okay. They have to go out and study. Your friend over here, Brian, was saying it’s difficult for him to relate to his friends the experience of being a Marine. Well I cannot teach a class here now on acting. They have to immerse themselves into it. I can tell you that if you do not take the training that a Marine takes, and you are thrown into the jungle, you’re probably going to die. If you do not take the training an actor needs to take when you are put into that human jungle of cement and palm trees, you are going to die. You need your craft to support you, to guide you, to sustain you. I can only advise your directors to study acting. And your actors to study acting.

TR: You studied at the Actors Studio, with Stella Adler, Elia Kazan, people like that, but I interviewed Tim Roth a while back and he said he didn’t believe in training. Would you say that most actors should be formally trained, or do actors primarily require a sense of self-knowledge? Is that what makes them great actors? What would you say about the training process?

HK: That works for Tim. My experience is that most people need the craft. I have seen them at the Actors Studio. I saw De Niro work there. I saw Pacino work there. I saw Strasberg direct there, Kazan direct there, Frank Corsaro, Ellen Burstyn. You tell me people whose work you respond to and I’ll tell you they’ve probably studied for years.

TR: I get the picture. And how effective is improv, do you think, after doing Blue in the Face not too long ago.

HK: Improv is a very important tool for the actor’s technique in order to put him closer to himself. Improv is a way to discover how to get from here to there. It’s also away to bring you closer to what the character is going through. As a matter of fact, we improvise most of the scenes, even though they’re written. We improvise scenes that never even took place in the movie, but took place the moment before the scene begins to again bring us closer to the character and to ourselves.

TR: You’ve been an incredible friend to independent filmmakers. What would you say to other actors of your stature to encourage or support independent film or filmmakers? Not many have done what you’ve done.

HK: To other actors of my stature I don’t have to say anything. They know.

TR: But they don’t. Most haven’t given anywhere near the support to independent filmmakers that you have.

HK: Well, I can’t very well sit here and lecture them. I can only do what I do and be responsible for what I do. And they, in turn (for what they do).

TR: You said one of the only reasons you do interviews now is to impart the knowledge you’ve gained to the next generation of filmmakers.

HK: Well, let me correct that by saying the experience I’ve gained and let’s hope it’s translated into knowledge. (Laughs)

TR: This is a very broad question, so let me apologize in advance, but what are some of the most important lessons you’ve learned as a filmmaker?

HK: Let me begin somewhere. I’ve learned a great respect for cinema in that it is the successor to the theater, to the ancient theater, in which plays were put on by people of conscience in order to share with the citizenry the conflict that was going on within the polis, the city. And back then the wealthy people paid for tickets for those who had no money to come to the theatre. Theater began with the celebration of Dionysius in ancient Greece. Some people began dancing around, a lot of them were drinking, and they began saying words out of a need to express something. Out of the elements of those first few words while they were dancing in celebration of Dionysius, the words began to be written down. And then scenes were written down, and then plays. In the cinema we are the successors, the heirs, to that ancient common need to express and share with each other the content of that expression.

BO: What about some of the mindless fare you see the studios making today, the Dumb and Dumbers and such. Do you think some of the movies that got made 20 years ago like Taxi Driver, for instance, could see the light of day today?

HK: Why couldn’t that see the light of day today? I don’t know that that’s true today, I’m just saying.

BOJust by seeing what’s getting produced, it seems like Taxi Driver would’ve had a helluva time getting made today.

HK: It had a helluva time getting made then.

BO: But it just seems like there was more of that sort of thing available then and now it’s increasingly less. And it sort of ties into what you were saying, cinema being the successor to the Greek tradition of bringing what was going on in the polis to the citizenry. I mean Dumb and Dumber was just huge. And cinema quality, as you alluded to earlier today— there’s no forum for that. Including visions from other countries, other directors.

HK: There are many wonderful films being made today, and there are many incredible stories that do make it to the screen; we have to acknowledge and respect that also. I don’t know what the balance is today, frankly. I don’t go to the movies that often. I know that I liked Dumb and Dumber or one of those films that I saw. They make me laugh. So they have their place. I only hope they don’t outweigh the stories that mean more to our evolving as human beings.

TR: Harvey, Jane Campion characterizes your work as both tender and masculine, and certainly you’ve always seemed extraordinarily comfortable showing physical affection toward other men. Without putting you before that “camera” that Native Americans talked about — without taking anything away from yourself, your tools — can you talk about how an artist can rid himself of the self-censoring impulse. Paul Schrader says he did it by drinking. How do you?

HK: He thinks he did it by drinking. How would he know? (Laughs) Listen, you’re asking me a question that’s been asked of ourselves since time began. I read, I think, I play, I work. And all that thinking and playing and reading comes into my work. I couldn’t really sit here and delineate for you what the thought process is. I can perhaps say that literature, psychoanalysis, theater, have been very valuable experiences that have informed and nourished me along the way.

TR: You’ve been able to take something different from those experiences, though, than most people have. You’ve been able to remove that self-censoring mechanism; you’ve been able to expose a side of yourself that other people haven’t been able to. It’s very interesting to me.

HK: Well, Tim, I hope I’m exposing a side of you, and not just me, in the work.

TR: Well said.

HK: Because I think I am you.

TR: You’re Everyman in your work?

HK: Well, you know, I read somewhere once that we’re all made of star stuff. We are. We all come from the same place.

TR: I suppose we all have the capacity to be a Hitler or a saint, in a way. It’s all a part of us.

HK: I think so. Or we might say, to put it a little differently, we are all Hitlers and we are all saints. The actions we take are up to us and our conscience. That’s what we have perhaps the most to gain, learn, and consider. What is our ethic, what are our values, what shall we pass on? I know that Brian, sitting across from me, was a Marine. So I know right away what some of his values are.

TR: I like that. Can you elaborate briefly on these statements that you’ve supposedly made: “One’s ability to cope with the darker moments determines the heights he will reach.”

HK: That makes me think of Stella Adler again. If you want more, pay more. Reach deeper.

TR: Okay. “The exploration of your primordial feelings is what the entire journey is about.”

HK: An important aspect of the journey is about that. It seems to me we’ve gone too far in the direction of pretending, pretending, pretending to be civilized. We have cloaked our desires and our dicks in pretension to such a degree that our psyches suffer. And more harm is done by the suppression of these desires, these primordial desires … if we were left free to swing from tree to tree, to soil all over the street, I wonder how much killing we’d be doing all around the world, how much starvation we’d permit … if these so-called leaders of nations were allowed to piss and shit and scream on the street.

TR: It’s like that society of monkeys that fucks all day and they live in total happiness and peace.

HK: I don’t know about that, but that’s what I mean.

TR: Last one. “Accomplishment begins in your own room in the nighttime.”

HK: It’s self-knowledge again. These are no original thoughts of mine in one sense, because others have spoken about this and I have read what they have said. In another sense it is original because my experience is original to theirs. I was reading a play about F. Scott Fitzgerald and he was quoted as saying he was in the South of France and he was drunk and he was alone in a room and he was miserable and lonely and grieving for some connection, he felt totally abandoned, and he was raving, and he glanced at his watch and he noted that it was three o’clock in the morning. And he said “In the deep, dark heart of the soul it is always three o’clock in the morning.”

TR: I’ve read that your success as an actor has allowed you freedom to accept projects that are more risky. But it seems to me the opposite. Your success is due in part to your integrity as an artist and because you’ve had the courage to take on these kinds of projects. At the press conference they said simply and elegantly “Harvey Keitel is an actor we like.” I think that’s true. How would you characterize the reasons for your own success?

HK: Well, I think you stated it more accurately than the quote you were giving me. They had it reversed. What you said is a more accurate description of what my journey has been. Hollywood hasn’t permitted me anything. I permit myself. I say that not in a vain way, but we are all responsible for our choices. And sacrifice is a part of achieving anything worthwhile. Risk and sacrifice.

TR: But early on what gave you that courage to do that, to take on those lower-paying roles. You never sold out, Harvey. That’s really unusual. Why? Was it the Marine Corps, what?

HK: The Marine Corps was one experience along my own particular path. I had to do what I did. I couldn’t do otherwise. Yeah, I’ve taken a job here and there for money, everybody does. So what. But all the other things I’ve done was because of a need to do them. What was it that the guy said, “Why’d you climb that mountain?” And the answer was “Because it’s there.” Sounds corny, but nevertheless it’s somewhere in that area.

BO: Do you feel like you’re sort of on a solitary journey, with your own guidance mechanism, charting your own path, or do you see it as being a thing more connected with everybody else?

HK: I wouldn’t say with everybody else. I mean, not everybody becomes a Marine. But certainly a number of people are with me, and I’m with them.

TR: One more question. Would your work suffer if you ever came to know yourself completely; if the mystery were ever solved?

HK: (Laughs) I’ll tell you what, Tim — if I ever achieve that, you’ll be the first person I call. MM

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