Harvey Keitel began acting in the early days of La MaMa and Caffe Cino and first came into prominence in the early films of Martin Scorcese having done some of his best work with him: Mean Streets, Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, Taxi Driver, and The Last Temptation of Christ. He has worked with many important American and European directors, and his theater roles are equally impressive including: David Rabe’s Hurly Burly and Sam Shepard’s A Lie of the Mind. An active member of the Actor’s Studio, he is perhaps most respected by his peers, evident in his job starring opposite and having been directed by Jack Nicholson in the Chinatown sequel, The Two Jakes. Since this interview, Harvey has completed four films: Moroccan Ben Braka’s Drums of Fire, Italian Augusto Caminito’s Great Hunters, Alan Rudolph’s Mortal Thoughts, and Ridley Scott’s Thelma and Louise.
Harvey and I met through family and theater, two things very important to both of us. Our initial conversations before this interview consisted of “notes” regarding Positive Me, an educational musical about AIDS written by Lisa Edelstein that I directed at La MaMa last Fall. Harvey’s ten-year-old stepdaughter, Margaux Guerard, was in the show and his wife, actress Lorraine Bracco, was involved with the production. So the familial and work connections run deep. The interview took place one afternoon at Harvey and Lorraine’s house in Upstate New York. What you won’t find in the following interview are the Talmud discussions (the new edition) and his four-year-old daughter Stella’s show and tell.
Ethan Silverman I want to explore the idea that the actor is there to tell the story and everything that the actor does, in his performance, in relation to other actors onstage, and in what he brings to every scene past, is an aspect of story telling.
Harvey Keitel I’m not clear. Do you mean the story of my character? Or are you talking about the story of the play?
ES I’m talking about the story of the play, not the story of the character.
HK How else do you know what to do with the character unless you understand the spirit of the play?
ES I agree with you. But a lot of actors . . .
HK In other words, their own performance comes first. Is that what you’re saying?
HK And so what is the question?
ES Let’s say that you reached a point in rehearsal where you felt that what was true for the character at that moment wasn’t necessarily right for the telling of the story.
HK Then it must go. Because the story comes first. Not until recently, by the way, did I experience exactly what you’re talking about. I won’t name names or anything, but some actor was creating a very emotional moment in a scene—this is the director in me—that I felt did not belong. This actor’s emotional choice was self-serving and had nothing to do with the story. The important thing is, there’s an event in a scene. You must speak to that event, and everything the actor does must be to fulfill that event. Then all the other events in the scenes add up to the play.
ES I want to pose a problem for you, then. Not knowing the way you work but knowing what your background is . . .
HK You should know the way I work, because you are a director. I need you to know the way I work. Otherwise already there’s a conflict between us.
ES I only said that as a preface, because I don’t want to assume too much about you as an artist.
HK Oh, this is an assumption with a question?
ES Yeah, it’s an assumption for the question. I’m assuming that you start from an internal place. I’m just posing a hypothetical question—but if you are being very honest in your mind to the truth of that specific character, don’t you think that sometimes that can be a conflict for the other characters and for what the director’s vision is? And if you are working with total commitment towards your character, it might even be in conflict with what’s written. Now, to what degree are you gonna fight for the character? Are you gonna fight for what’s right for the story and the production?
HK Well, it’s a very good question, because the question goes to the whole essence of what me and you are here to talk about: acting, directing, theater, films. There’s no one easy answer. Let me say a few things. Conflict? By all means conflict. Plays are made up of conflict. But the director and the actor should never be in conflict in terms of the fulfillment, the realization of the play. We may disagree and have conflicts on that level, which are healthy. Because by challenging each other, in a healthy way, in a creative way, we will come to certain understandings, perhaps together, perhaps separately. But the concept will remain, and there will have to be compromises made.
ES When people ask me how specifically do I direct a scene—by beats, do I block every moment, or do I let the actors find those moments, and is there a bit of improv in there, etcetera. I’ve found not only does it range from play to play and project to project, but from page to page. Certain pages in a play I will work with the actors so scientifically, picking up the cigarette, lighting it, taking a breath. And a page later, I’ve never even blocked a moment, and it just breathes every time it happens.
HK Absolutely. It could vary from sentence to sentence.
ES And you’re comfortable with that?
HK One has to be that way until you discover the moments. I mean, we have a phrase in acting called, “living moment to moment.”
ES When you accepted the role in The Two Jakes, did you feel daunted—did you ever feel that you had to recreate the magic of Chinatown? Or did you feel that you were starting from the beginning on a creative project?
HK I always feel I’m starting from the beginning, ’cause I am the beginning. I am the person beginning to work, and I am the beginning. If I have something great to refer to, how wonderful for me. If I had the work of Chinatown, the work of a Brando, the work of a Kazan, the work of a Cassavetes, etcetera, to refer to, how wonderful for me.
ES What was it like working with Jack Nicholson as a director?
HK Well, Jack is an actor who has knowledge about acting, knows what acting is, how it is, understands its value and respects it as much as any man I’ve ever met. And that’s how it was to work with Jack Nicholson.
ES Did you ever find split focus? Do you feel that you got both his full attention as an actor in a scene and as a director setting up the scene for you?
HK Yes, yes. Because he’s an actor’s actor. Anyone who is an actor’s actor will give you full attention in a scene, even if they’re acting opposite you, because they have a deep respect and awe and value of acting.
ES He had the advantage of a fully developed character that he had worked on a number of years ago, successfully. So a lot of his acting work, let’s say, was already done. Do you think if that hadn’t been the case that he would have been able to do as good a job?
HK Yes, I think so. John Cassavetes has done it, time and time again, Woody Allen . . . You know, actors basically direct themselves. There is no actor that comes to a project without some ideas about its direction. And then he or she works it out with the director as to how the director himself sees it.
ES Did you rehearse?
HK Me and Jack did rehearse a lot. We started by poring over the script together, by doing little improvisations together.
ES Was that structured before shooting ever began? Or ongoing with the shooting schedule?
HK Approximately three weeks before shooting began we met at Jack’s house—it was a pleasure to work with another actor in this manner. He was the boss here. The whole creation, the whole process, is guided by the boss. By the boss I mean the director, the producer, who’s in charge. Here you had a man with a deep respect to acting who was the boss. He’s an artist, Jack. Some people will get angry at me for using the word “artist.” I don’t want to just let it go at that. He’s an artist—by that I mean, he understands the nature of acting, of directing—of creation. Goethe said this, “One who is a master at something understands what it is to be a master at anything.”
By the way, to get back to something that you asked me perhaps a while ago, me and Jack had a disagreement about one scene in particular. But wonderful that we had a disagreement. Terrific. It was conflict about the interpretation. Our goal was the same. Like two Marines who have an objective. They might have different ideas about how to get there, but they have the same objective in mind.
ES Do you feel that you work any differently if you’re in a style piece as to let’s say, on the streets of New York? Do you feel that your style, your approach changes, at all?
HK The approach never changes. The technique remains the same. You might have a darker piece, a lighter piece.
ES But you approach it the same whether you’re doing a David Rabe play or a Robert Towne script?
HK The approach remains a constant.
ES Do you think Jack Nicholson approached Gittes the same way he approached the Joker in Batman?
HK This is just an opinion based on observation. I would say his approach is the same. The technique remains the same.
ES The last time you talked to me, you said, “There’s something that I do that only I can do that’s very special and I’m hired for that reason. I’m hired to do what Harvey Keitel could do. I’m not hired to do what Peter O’Toole can do.”
HK Maybe I put it a little differently. It’s not what I can do; I’m hired for the essence of what I am. Because I could do many things. But one will hire me—as one should—or hire any actor for the essence of what they are, or what they can bring to a role.
ES Do you think that if more young actors had that knowledge about themselves that they’d be better off?
HK The answer has to be yes. But beyond that, more importantly, is that the young actors have a knowledge of the technique, have a knowledge of what the work is and how it is. By the work I mean the work of acting. From my observation, most don’t know.
ES You have a lot of integrity in your work and the projects that you choose. I have a thought about it—and don’t get mad at me—which is that you are known, particularly, for a certain style of acting—you work with Scorcese and you have a very contemporary kind of tough, street, very real, gritty approach to acting.
HK I wonder why you know me only as that. You particularly I’m speaking about.
ES Not me particularly.
HK You’re speaking about the public in general? Well, I would have to agree with that, as far as the public in general goes. Why it is, is another matter, which I’m not sure about.
ES You talk about Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, David Rabe plays. They’re of a certain ilk.
HK There’s Les Nuit Des Varennes, The Duelists, Alan Rudolph’s first film, Welcome to L.A., in which I played this corporation executive. There’s early work I did on Channel 13, in which I was an attorney, where we read the script of the trial of the Chicago Seven.
ES What is more indelible in my mind—in the general public’s mind—is the other stuff.
HK Perhaps because those films have been more successful. But also, perhaps—I don’t know why. What do you think?
ES I think that society accepts images and characters they are comfortable with and they are familiar with you doing that particular type of character. Do you find that reaction from people sometimes, that people are afraid of you?
ES Do you like at all that you can intimidate people? ’Cause I’m telling you honestly that you are an intimidating guy unless one knows you well.
HK If I am intimidating, I hope it’s because of the nature of what I have to express means to people. And if they find that difficult to deal with and find that intimidating, then I’m glad. ’Cause it will give them the opportunity to examine what they are intimidated about in their own selves, in their own makeup. I, in the beginning, was intimidated by the work of—I don’t mean to put myself in their category—but I was intimidated by the work of Kazan, Cassavetes—it scared me. It scared me, because it shook me up emotionally, made me look into myself emotionally, psychologically. I hope if I’m intimidating, it’s in a healthy, constructive way. And, frankly, that’s been my experience. I’ve had a great deal of pleasure out of people approaching me on the streets—things they’ve said to me, what my work has meant to them. I’ve gotten pleasure out of the way they’ve approached me.
ES You’re known for a certain type of character, coming from a very tough environment.
HK I would only have to say that if anyone has an opinion of me, an idea of me, and they are intelligent people, then they must see all of the work. If you see one or two things, don’t come to me and tell me what you think I am, because you only have a little bit of information. And there’s nothing worse than someone knowing a little bit of something.
ES Right. But the other side of that, Harvey, is the positive side, which is that the character is so memorable and the performance so convincing.
HK Yeah, yeah.
ES I mean, fair enough?
HK Yeah. Well, I’m not looking to be fair. I’m not looking to be fair; I’m looking to be right.
ES A lot of your characters, are not—let’s say characters that one would necessarily want to meet on the street, but you illuminate them in a whole different way.
HK I hope I am illuminating people in a way that they need. That would please me a great deal to know of that. And I have been fortunate to have that pleasure. I hope other people have it in their life. And what is it I do have to give? What is it any artist has to give? They have to give from their own experience, their own suffering, their own pain, their own need, their own love, their own dreams, aspirations. Their own God. Did I stop us here?
ES You definitely stopped a subject. Is there anything wildly different that you want to try? For instance, Jack Nicholson as the Joker was a spectacular operatic performance. Would something like that interest you? To be in a cartoon film?
HK Yes, it interests me. One of the favorite roles I’ve ever done, by the way—it was never seen here in America, unfortunately was produced by John Boorman and directed by a young French director, Arnaud, about eight years ago—a film called Dream One. A fantasy based on a cartoon character called Little Nemo. And I played Zorro in this children’s movie. And I enjoyed playing this Zorro character more than any role I’ve ever played. It was a child’s fantasy, and I was the child’s hero, and the hero to this princess that the child meets. And then, at a certain point, my Zorro unmasks himself to the princess and tries to kiss her. And she repels him and runs away and hides in the submarine, and Zorro runs after her, begging her forgiveness, pounding on top of the hatch of the submarine, saying, “Forgive me, please. I didn’t mean to hurt you. It’s just so lonely to be a legend.” (laughter) I think it’s one of the great lines ever written.
ES For me, no matter how serious the work gets or how intellectual, there’s a certain part that always wants to return to the school pageant: cardboard cutouts and primary colors and that kind of performance. When you were a kid, did you perform in school pageants?
HK Very, very little.
ES But that spirit . . .
HK Yes, that spirit’s wonderful. As we’re talking I’m reminded of another role I did, a film Bob Altman directed called Buffalo Bill and the Indians. I played Paul Newman’s nephew in this movie, this very nerdy comical character. So, again, getting back to images and all that, if people have not seen all the work, then they cannot draw a complete picture.
ES Let’s talk about Last Temptation. I know that it was a very long-term project Martin Scorcese had wanted to get done for a while, and it ran into a lot of trouble with Paramount before it went on to Universal. Were you Judas in the first version?
ES The discussions between you and Scorcese on Judas must have begun a long, long time ago.
HK Yes, they did.
ES So do you feel because of that, that you have made certain contributions to the film, that it has a special place for you, too?
HK Oh, absolutely. Me and Marty met many times going over the text, discussing meaning, the interpretation, trying to come to an understanding about the characters in the film, about Judas. It was the most extraordinary experience with a movie I’ve ever had. Now the question is why? What do you mean by that? I suppose the nature of the project itself, the importance of it, for me—the importance of it historically, in our time, the actors who worked on the film were extraordinary. We were an extraordinarily close group because of the nature of the work itself. We all felt its importance. We all felt a great responsibility toward bridging a gap between Judaism and Christianity. We thought the opportunity was at hand. And the opportunity was at hand. And the particular people that Marty chose were all greatly spirited, wonderful people.
ES How did you approach the language?
HK I’m glad you asked me that question, ‘cause I’m gonna get something off my chest; maybe here’s the opportunity. You know, oftentimes I think it’s incumbent upon us to speak up for what we think is right. I mean, us—the actors, the directors, the creative people involved. So you’re giving me an opportunity to set the record straight, for whoever might read this. The language was chosen. By that I mean, the form the language would take, contemporary speech, was chosen by Marty. The original language was Aramaic. You know, somewhat the sound of that if you know or have heard any Arabic at all. Marty’s decision was to use these accents. It was a creative choice. Anyone who differs with that choice is welcome to differ with it, but they must not encumber us, or the movie, with their own interpretation. They can disagree with us, but they must not impose what they would like to hear onto us. Some people never got past the language. I was upset with what some people said regarding the language.
ES Why, ’cause they thought it was too street, too contemporary?
HK Yes, they didn’t expect the choice. And so they got stopped right there and made no effort to deal with the larger issues, the interpretations of the Biblical characters. Some of them stopped at the language. Now, how shallow of them. Who are these people?
ES These people, Harvey, are people who have spent years seeing Biblical films. And Biblical films in the old Hollywood tradition, when you see a man in a toga and sandals in the desert preaching on the Mount, people have preconceived notions either from what they’ve learned in Sunday school or what they’ve seen from Hollywood. That’s where they’re coming from.
HK Ethan, we’re speaking about—I want to make this clear—about some people, not all of the people. Because so many people were struck emotionally by this movie all over the world—it’s one of the great pleasures of my life, The Last Temptation of Christ. One person in Spain said to me, “but the language, the dialect you spoke was so absurd, it was so ridiculous.” I said, “what accent would you like to have heard?” The person paused and said, “British.” The critic from The New York Times, Janet Maslin, couldn’t get past my accent in the movie. I wonder to this day if she understands that this was a choice made by the director of the film, one which I agreed with. She never got beyond the choice, the creative choice, of the accent to see the other elements I gave to Judas. And so none of the other qualities I gave to this important Biblical Jewish character . . . Now, she could have said, I disagree with the choice. I would respect her for that. But to get stopped there and not speak to the qualities Kazantzakis wrote of this historical character, and the qualities I tried to fulfill given Kazantzakis’s and Marty’s and my collaboration, is—I haven’t got the word, help me out with the word here—
ES It’s shortsighted.
HK It’s very shortsighted.
ES It’s limited.
HK Very limited of her.
ES And it’s prejudiced.
HK And it’s merely an opinion on her part: it’s not coming from a place of knowledge. And if she reads this, she’s very welcome to call me to discuss it.
ES I think, in this case, too much knowledge is not a good thing. You’ve got to put your knowledge away and walk in with an open spirit and an open heart. Does that make sense?
HK Absolutely. I’m very proud of that piece of work. I get upset with people who are shortsighted, limited in their knowledge about the work of the actor and the director, and that collaboration. And they are not dumb people; they’re ignorant of the work, and they obviously have mind-sets. What does a mind-set mean? Someone who sees something only one way will not deviate for fear of deviating and experiencing something else.
ES I’m gonna play devil’s advocate for a minute, Harvey, which is how a critic approaches something, and, frankly, it’s just their opinion.
HK That’s right. I would agree with you. They were right to like or not like something. But they also must be responsible. They are in a responsible position. We need critics.
ES Responsible to whom?
HK Responsible to the people, ’cause the people follow them. The same way we have leaders that the people follow, they must be responsible to the people. Responsible—what does that mean? Responsible to get the knowledge they need to do their work, to do their job.
ES How many critics do you think have an idea of what happens in a rehearsal process and who’s making what contribution?
HK I say we need critics, they’re very important. They should have a knowledge of the education of an actor, of the director. How else can they give to the public the depth, the information the public needs in order to grow?
ES How important is being popular to you?
HK As you know, that’s a great part of our culture, to be popular. Almost everyone aspires to be popular. Popular. Now, notice I’m saying popular. I’m gonna repeat the word: popular. Not necessarily to have a worth, a value, but to be popular. I know the meaning of that, too. I wanted that when I was a much younger man, until I learned what I really wanted. And then a friend of mine from Brooklyn appeared on a billboard and I thought that was it.
ES How about being a young actor and having dreams, let’s say, of being as famous as James Dean.
HK Yes. Now, of course, we’re talking about a journey that went on for ten, 15, 20 years, from early youth on. I wanted to be popular like my friend Bruce in that poster, you know, so I’d be liked. But people like James Dean came on the scene and influenced me in a different way. Yes, I still had the remnants of wanting to be popular upon seeing James Dean, but something else then began to creep in to my being, something else began to be awakened in me that Dean aroused. That was not so much to want to be as popular as him, but to want to be like him. Like him means what? Like him means to be able to have that courage to be that vulnerable, that innocent. Courage to be that revealing. And I began to change over the years in my attitude as to what I wanted. For instance, another great change happened in my life in my early days, in my early twenties, studying acting. Vietnam was just beginning then. And I remember sitting around a table and arguing with all my fellow actors—I was arguing for the Vietnam War. I was arguing for it.
ES ’Cause you were a Marine, right? You’re an ex-Marine.
HK Yes, I was, yeah. And I was arguing for the war, you know? Over the years—arguing with these people, listening to speakers—another friend of mine gave me a book called The Arrogance of Power that turned me around completely. But it took years for that change to occur. Change takes time, especially when you have a background that’s been—not a background, but especially when you’ve grown up a certain way. And your mind does become set. And it’s sad that too many people’s minds become set forever. I was fortunate; my mind was not set forever—it changed. And I became a protester against the war in Vietnam.
ES I want to change the subject for a moment.
HK Change it, change it.
ES If you don’t want to talk about this, it’s OK. How involved do feel you are in Lorraine’s career?
HK How involved in Lorraine’s career?
ES Yeah. Well, you’re married to an actress.
ES I mean, do you read . . . ?
HK I’m not involved in Lorraine’s career at all; I’m involved in Lorraine’s life.
ES OK. But on a more basic level, I mean, do you read the scripts that she’s working on? Do you talk about her characters?
HK Absolutely. We share our thoughts about the work.
ES Well, you are involved with each other’s life. I mean, I’d learned that from directing your stepdaughter Margaux.
HK The things that Margaux taught me about the power of the influence of the director. I was trying to guide her toward other things. Some she listened to, but very reluctantly. She was under the spell of the director. You.
ES Why do you think I love her? Why do you think I love her? It’s music to my ears. When I heard that she said she won’t change it, because that’s what Ethan wants . . .
HK That’s right.
ES . . . I accept what my director wants—music to my ears.
HK And I wanted to strangle her. (laughter)
ES It was great. I was very inspired by your family. It’s wonderful the way you all contribute to each other.
HK No, I was very glad that Margaux had the experience of working with you, frankly, because I know you are good. I was glad she had a director who was vulnerable and caring, sensitive to work with. Otherwise I wouldn’t have let her do the play.
ES Thanks. It’s nice how you’re all kind of involved. It’s like a little family downtown. Because I see that your friend, Robert DeNiro, came by with his son to see the play, to see Margaux. And Lorraine is in Goodfellas which is Martin Scorcese and Robert. It’s like a little group, a theater-movie family. It gives me some hope. What gives me hope is two things: one is that there’s people who are talented and involved in the film community and not leaving New York, and the other thing is that there’s people with commitment who remain loyal as friends and as coworkers.
HK We’re all involved in living, you know? And acting is a part of our living. It’s our work. And our work is part of our living . . .
—Ethan Silverman is a director working in New York and LA.