Who’s Afraid of Harvey Keitel?
A psychiatrist once called Harvey Keitel very intense. Although the actor took it as an insult at the time, that adjective shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone who has seen him onscreen. Since his debut in 1968 in Martin Scorsese’s Who’s That Knocking at My Door? and his breakout performance opposite Robert De Niro in Scorsese’s Mean Streets, Keitel has embodied one volcanic character after another, serving up equal helpings of intensity in action (Reservoir Dogs, Bad Lieutenant) and emotion (The Piano, Holy Smoke!). He has also, over the years, been dubbed another word he doesn’t like—”difficult”—by some in Hollywood and the press.
But on this chilly late-December afternoon, in his lower Manhattan office, Keitel—who still, at 65, has a powerful, compact frame that calls to mind a pit bull—is quite relaxed. Perhaps he’s more comfortable on his own turf—his office is filled with his books, photos, and assistants—or maybe he’s simply content with life these days: National Treasure, in which he has a small role, is flourishing at the box office, and his wife of three years, Daphna Kastner, gave birth to their son last August (he also has a 19-year-old daughter with ex-wife Lorraine Bracco). And the Red Sox, for whom he openly rooted while growing up in Brooklyn among Dodgers and Yankees fans, are on top of the world.
This month, he costars as a shady music producer in Be Cool, the sequel to Get Shorty. Not only does he dance a little jig and do an impromptu rap in the film, he is reunited with his Pulp Fiction cohort John Travolta. As
Keitel discusses his own love of music (including rap) with almost giddy excitement, he seems no more intense or difficult than anyone else. Maybe, to use a word he’s much more fond of, that’s all “nonsense.”
How was it working with Travolta again?
I’m a big fan of John Travolta. I mean, who isn’t? He really uplifted me through many depressing times in my life. I’d run home and get invigorated watching Welcome Back, Kotter. And certainly Grease is a great piece of work that should be put in a time capsule.
Looking around your office, I can see that you love books. You must have enjoyed doing an adaptation of an Elmore Leonard novel.
He’s a good writer, but I stopped reading novels about fifteen years ago. I turned to mythology, fairy tales, and anthropology.
Fortunately you read the trade papers in 1965 and spotted the ad Martin Scorsese posted: a casting call for his student film, Who’s That Knocking at My Door?
It was just one of those fortuitous meetings. I was a young actor bumming around New York, trying to find work, and I wound up getting the part after three auditions.
Didn’t you two later become roommates?
I lived in Hollywood with Marty for a couple of months early in my career. We would buy pies at the House of Pies [near] Hollywood Boulevard, go back to the apartment, and eat them while watching Johnny Carson.
How did you meet Robert De Niro?
I was going to a session at the Actors Studio, and there was a friend of mine and her boyfriend standing outside with Robert. And one of them said, “Robert, this is Harvey. Harvey, Robert.” We looked at each other and started to smile. We just kept laughing and shaking our heads in acknowledgment of something; I guess we found out later what that was.
Another of your films with Scorsese was Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, in which you play a philanderer with a violent temper.
Marty really went to bat for me because the studio didn’t want me. They thought I couldn’t play a midwesterner. Marty just insisted. I remember him saying, “You’re going to make a lot of money on this film, probably ten thousand.” I was excited because I was totally broke. But because they didn’t want me, I think I was paid three thousand.
Costar Ellen Burstyn said that while you two were filming your final scene together, she was genuinely frightened by your behavior. Have you ever scared yourself while in character?
It’s not difficult for me to scare myself. I’m scared all the time. What’s more difficult is to cope with the fear. That’s been a journey.
Soon after came another scary performance, as the pimp in Taxi Driver. Didn’t Scorsese originally want you for a different part?
I was offered the role of the political campaign worker that Albert Brooks played. But I asked Marty if I could play the pimp. I actually worked with a former pimp for a few weeks, and we created that [dancing] scene I have with Jodie [Foster].
You were cast as the lead in Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, but two weeks into production you were fired and replaced by Martin Sheen. What were some of the reasons for your exit?
I was in the Marines for three years, so I was the only one there that had some military experience. [For one scene] Francis wanted me to wear a helmet while on a mission. I respectfully argued that my character would not wear a helmet because if you drop it in the jungle, it would make noise. That’s why you see all the special forces wearing bandannas. In that one instance he gave in. But long-term, he didn’t really give in because if he had understood the real value of my contribution—having the experience of three years as a Marine Corps rifleman, squad leader, fire team leader—the separation wouldn’t have happened.
Have you two ever discussed what happened?
No. But a long time has passed, and Francis and I both have had a whole life’s worth of experiences since Apocalypse Now. We’re grown men today, and we’re certainly friends.
After Apocalypse Now, good offers stopped coming and you had to resort to movies such as the bizarre 1980 sci-fi thriller Saturn 3, which starred Kirk Douglas and Farrah Fawcett and was directed by Singin’ in the Rain’s Stanley Donen.
I loved working with the robot, which is not to take away from Kirk Douglas, who is obviously one of America’s treasures. But I was a bit obstinate in those days and didn’t enjoy what I was asked to do on that film.
Your voice was dubbed; were you sorry not to be heard reciting such campy dialogue as “You have a great body, may I use it?”
I must have said that sometime in my life. Many times, perhaps. [laughs]
Before you started acting, you sold shoes to pay the bills. What did you learn from that occupation?
I learned what the term “pitch” meant. When a shoe salesman said “Pitch, aisle two,” it meant the girl in aisle two was lifting her legs up a little too high and you could look under her skirt.
For nearly a decade, you were also a court stenographer. That’s just about the polar opposite of working on the stage or screen.
Well, there’s something about sitting down behind a desk in a room filled with people and just not mattering in a way. It’s like being almost part of the furniture. But I would have my plays with me, so during a break I would study a scene that I was doing in acting class.
In 1988, you starred in Scorsese’s adaptation of Nikos Kazantzakis’s novel The Last Temptation of Christ, which explored faith and history.
I was always troubled by the way Judah—Judas is the Romanization of Judah—was portrayed: that he “betrayed” Jesus for X pieces of silver. I thought, “This can’t be all that there was to the story.” But I was afraid to mention it because I thought I would be looked down upon. Then when I found out that Kazantzakis thought the way he did, I was so relieved. It was an affirmation that I was thinking correctly. It wasn’t heresy.
Have you seen Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ?
Yes, and I think I’m glad that he made it because it caused all this discussion and argument. I think we’ll come out in a good place as a result of The Passion. Not for its orthodoxy, but by our examination of the orthodoxy.
Being Jewish and having played a much more sympathetic Judas, were you offended by The Passion?
There were moments that I was offended, yes. I mean, it’s an easy line to follow, to preach the orthodoxy. There’s more truth than is presented to us in The Passion. All Jews did not look like that, and I’ll show you a bunch of Jews that would knock the shit out of those Romans.
You earned an Oscar nomination for your performance as gangster Mickey Cohen in 1991’s Bugsy. After more than 20 years in the business, that must have been very rewarding.
How should I say this? The people making the movie were telling me, “You’re going to get nominated, you’re going to get nominated.” And I’m wondering, why are they saying this? It’s such a small role, and I’ve done so many other things. Well, I was naive at the time. I didn’t realize what they were really talking about, which was that this time I was doing it in a big-budget Hollywood film, so I would get nominated. They were right.
Was it disappointing when Jack Palance won for City Slickers?
I wanted to win, because it would have helped me gain box office position. But I’m not disappointed that Jack won because he was a hero of mine.
You were impressed enough by ex–video store clerk Quentin Tarantino’s script for Reservoir Dogs to star and produce. Didn’t you also help get him the gig as director?
I fought for Quentin to direct it. At one point, [executive producer] Monte Hellman was going to direct because we couldn’t raise the money with Quentin. But I said I didn’t want to do it unless Quentin directed it.
Are you going to let your six-month-old son play with the action figure of your Reservoir Dogs character, or do the two guns that are included make it too violent?
I objected to the guns, but the power of the dollar is more powerful than me.
But what about all those gun-toting miscreants you’ve played?
I will not sign pictures of me holding a gun. If you saw one, it was from a long time ago.
The role of the violent, perverted, drug-addicted cop in Abel Ferrara’s 1992 morality tale Bad Lieutenant is one of your most memorable. But he must have been a hard character to embody.
It may be the most spiritual film I’ve ever done. Abel Ferrara touched me in a very profound way, and I had a very deep connection with him. And I was very complimented by friends of mine, who said they thought it was a religious film and that it was the most antidrug film they’ve ever seen.
You also appeared completely naked onscreen.
I’ve done no nudity in my career.
What do you mean? Besides Bad Lieutenant, you do full-frontal nudity in The Piano and Ulysses’ Gaze.
An actor doesn’t do nude scenes. An actor plays an event and tells a story.
But it’s still your penis that millions of people are seeing.
It’s not about nudity, it’s about revelation. So if anyone wants to discuss nudity with me, they can forget about it because it’s not relevant. Any of my colleagues that I know would go all the way, just the way I did. I’m no exception. I just happened to have that part at that time.
Do you feel too much is made of an actor gaining or losing weight, or going “ugly” for a role?
Absolutely. It’s just nonsense. To the people who know the craft, for them, it’s just part of the craft.
You once said that you weren’t too fond of the word “actor.”
It’s not that I’m not fond of the word, I’m just not fond of the way some people use it. In ancient England, I think actors were not allowed to vote or own land. Some people have a way of categorizing actors in certain celebrity terms that I don’t care for. The role of the actor is much more serious and much more important to the culture.
Have box office results become far too important?
How big you are in the box office determines the variety of roles you have a chance to play. You’re not going to get [a role] because you’re so good-looking or talented. You’ll get it because you’re box office. It’s very frustrating, but it’s a fact of life.
And it can lead to typecasting.
We were doing a roundtable in Cannes for The Piano, and a journalist said to me, “How’s it feel to play a romantic part for the first time?” I said, “It’s not my first time.” They all looked at me with wonder. Then I said, “I’ve done it many times before in acting class.”
Your Piano director, Jane Campion, must have made a real impression on you—you’ve called her both mystical and a goddess.
I also called her a bitch at times. But isn’t every goddess? [laughs]
Your costar, Holly Hunter, is a bit of a goddess as well.
She’s this petite girl, deaf in one ear, and an extraordinary pianist, actress, force. I used her and Jodie Foster as role models for my daughter.
After The Piano, you became a sex symbol—Empire magazine named you one of the 100 sexiest actors of all time.
Well, all I can say is, Johnny Depp, eat your heart out.
Rumor has it that you were replaced by Sydney Pollack on Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut because of an incident that occurred between you and Nicole Kidman while you were filming a sex scene.
Nonsense, utter nonsense. When Kubrick stopped the movie, they wanted me to wait for months without getting paid, which I couldn’t do. My joke about Sydney is, what an insult—not only was I replaced, I was replaced by a director.
You’ve worked with a number of directors more than once . . .
I’ve been declared difficult by so many people in Hollywood. [facetiously] I’ve worked with so many directors more than once because I’m so difficult to work with, you see, and they love having a difficult time with me.
The idea that you’re difficult obviously bothers you a great deal.
I’m fine with my reputation. I say, “Here’s the list of the people I’ve worked with. Show me who you’ve worked with.” But I have a special dislike for rumor and gossip. It is likened to murder in the Talmud. Why colleagues of mine would feed into that is a mystery to me. But I must say, I read the gossip columns when I’m taking a shit.