ACTORS // Harvey Keitel

Interview With Actor Harvey Keitel

harvey keitel

I met with the renowned actor twice in January of 1992 to discuss his career and, more to the point, his philosophy about the actors' craft. Though not often given to granting interviews, Keitel had just received the New York Film Critics' Circle award for his work that year (including BUGSY and THELMA & LOUISE), and was a favorite for an Oscar nomination. He seemed eager to talk, and proved to be both reflective and excited about discussing the "mystery" of acting.

Initially meeting at the somewhat starchy Restaurant 211 on West Broadway, we soon regrouped at the nearby Socrates Coffee Shop, which seemed more fitting not only for discussing the inner life of a thoughtful artist, but also in capturing a New York ambience that — like Keitel — has stood the test of time.

Morgan: In thinking about your recent parts, such as in BUGSY, LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST, TWO JAKES, THELMA AND LOUISE, I sense that you seem to play the voice of reason. There's a protagonist who's lost his or her sense of direction, and your character tries to give that direction. That was certainly true in BUGSY, and when you played Judas. Yet my perception of you from your earlier roles was that you were more of a wild character, you were the one who had to be restrained. Now I wonder first of all whether you agree with that, and secondly how conscious a decision is that for you to seek out roles that are straighter — characters who give forth wisdom and advice?

Keitel: You've had more time to plan this question than I have to answer it! The roles are not really a conscious choice for the character elements you are describing. The roles are more a choice of the best roles available, and a desire to participate in projects like THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST. And to compare characters who have this wild element with those who have this element of reason, again that was not conscious on my part, but the way you describe it seems that on the surface it would appear that way.

But then again, you know, the pimp in TAXI DRIVER has this reason, given the environment he was living in. I mean, it's sort of hard to crystallize, in one sense I'm talking about acting, talking about a philosophical approach to life, but then to contrast that with LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST which is a film which puts an epic, historical, present-day meaning, it's hard even to compare them all. As I'm looking at you now I'm trying to answer your question; I'm thinking LAST TEMPTATION far outweighs any of the other films in terms of its importance. It's almost difficult for me to sit here and talk about the other films when you reach THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST, which had this far-reaching effect on people.

What effect did it have on you, both to participate in it, and then to see the finished product?

It had a profound effect on me. To read first the script and then Kazantzakis's novel, uhm, it sort of came at a time when I was questioning my own approach to knowing who I am, what I am, to knowing about my spiritual side. It sort of opened a door for me to question in a more profound way the Biblical account of our history. He brought imagination to the story of the Creation.

He also made it very intimate, too, without a cast of thousands.

You didn't hear the angels singing. It was brought down to Mother Earth, which is where it should be. And that led me to a lot of other reading. I'd done a lot of reading in preparing for the role, but it led me to a very important novelist by the way, Elaine Pagels. Her writing's about Christianity and Judaism and the Garden of Eden myth, and uh, I'm trailing off somewhere. Stop me! I'm getting wild !

The notion of belief, to believe for instance that Judas for a certain amount of money betrayed Jesus was always something I could not . . . it did not sit well with me. It seemed like something else had to take place. And then little by little I began to notice certain things: Judas was from a wealthy family — he certainly didn't need that amount of money, to take for betraying Him. And then to read in one dictionary, the definition for [Judas] was "The man who betrayed Jesus," and that was all there was to it.

And reading Kazantzakis's interpretation of the history, that close relationship between Judas and Jesus, made more sense to me than anything I had heard or read, and it sort of allowed me to use my imagination more in terms of my own belief about religion, about God, and frankly to see, to get a better perspective on the limitations of the teachings of the Church and of Judaism. It opened up a whole new area for me. Like I said, Elaine Pagels took it even further with her few books; she wrote "The Gnostic Gospels." And "Adam and Eve and the Serpent" is another of the books which I recommend intensely to anyone interested in religion and Biblical history, and the Garden of Eden myth.

Now, you want to go shoot some pool?

Let me ask you about Mickey Cohen, from BUGSY: a reasonable figure?

Yes, what about him?

What was your attraction to this character, because you were trying to steer this guy [Siegel] who was all over the place, and it was almost a hopeless cause. What fascinated you about Cohen?

What fascinated me mostly about Mickey Cohen was that he, in his later years, hired someone to help him to comprehend literature, to help him to read better, to understand words better. He had this desire to know, and that gave me a hook on him that I needed to understand him and what his drives might be. What his identity might be. He had a need to know, to know and to understand.

And he always had an opinion about everyone else and gave it freely.

Well, he was a very forceful figure, a very independent guy. The account in BUGSY is pretty much exactly what it was; he was an independent, who hooked up with Ben Siegel because he was asked to do so by . . . I forget, Lucky Luciano or one of those powerful bosses, but he was very much an independent person. He ran the show in L.A. He was a Jewish guy who had Mob guys working for him.

And he was a married man and he stayed married for a long, long time, and he was a hardworking thug, you know — came from a poor family, no father, a mother who worked. He found out later on in life by the way, I guess under some psychoanalysis, I don't know whether he went or someone with some psychoanalytic background [told him], he had this habit of always washing his hands, and it's in this book that [the reason was] he was always trying to get the ink off his hands, from the print of the newspapers that he had to sell on the streetcorner as a boy to make some money. Interesting.

And I guess from there comes a desire to be more than just a guy selling newspapers on a corner, but to know, to understand, to be valued, to have a value. A guy like that could have been anything in life — had he had the right guidance he could have gone anywhere in life because with his drive, his intellect . . . it was all there.

So his success was assured although his direction wasn't.

As long as he wasn't gunned down (which he wasn't), I should think his success was assured because of his qualities. I grew up with a lot of guys, some of them are dead, some of them are this and some of them that, and some of them very, very powerful, bright young men, who became this instead of that simply because of a lack of guidance — that's all. That separated them from early deaths as opposed to success as something else.

And you had that guidance when you were young?

No, I didn't.

You had to find it yourself?


Was that difficult for you?

Everything is difficult, and everything worthwhile is difficult. A certain need, a need not unlike Mickey had: to know, to understand, and I had that need to understand and to know. And if you have that drive and you have whatever it takes to fulfill it, you have a chance then to, to what?

To keep going?

Well, I'll let someone else finish that sentence. To do a lot of things. Because your world will be vast, as opposed to local.

How is that need cultivated and nurtured so that it will grow, as opposed to simply left withering on the vine?

Well, you sort of get out of the pool room, you get out of the Marine Corps, you get out and read some literature, you become involved with people who also want to know and are ready to share some ideas about literature and thoughts, and it becomes nourished that way. You go from thing to thing to thing, hoping that there's not too far a gap between thing and thing.

How do you personally nourish it, though reading, music, artwork? Are there other creative outlets you have apart from your work, if you wish to call it work?

Well, my standard work is very exciting for me, and I'm surrounded by friends who are deep thinkers. It's nourished in those ways. My daughter, daughters.

What ages are they?

Six and twelve. You're working on being a father, so that is something that when you experience it you'll understand the profundity of wanting to protect something dear to you.

But also those are the ages when they're becoming more aware of a world outside of themselves. How are you affected by that?

Well, I'll just tell you one story about them, I think that will answer it. When my oldest girl was maybe around four and a half, her name is Margeaux, and we were playing "Baby and Mommy." I was cradling her in bed. And she said 'Okay, Baby' — I was the Baby — 'Take the titty,' And I took her titty. Then she said, `Okay, I'll be the baby and you be the mommy.' And I was struck, I thought for a moment, I wasn't certain what to do, and I said to her, `I can't, because I'm a Daddy.' And she said, `It's just pretend.' And I said, `Okay, it's just pretend. Fine. Suck the titty.' And I learned something in that moment which continues to nourish me greatly.

The thing that impressed me about TWO JAKES, and I thought your performance was the best thing about that film —

I thought Jack's directing job was the best thing about the film.

— Okay, that's the second best thing. But what I liked was how your character had such dignity when he resigned himself to his death. He felt that that's something he accepted and he did it in a very calm way, it's again going back to this voice of reason.

Well, there's so much in that film that is so important to my living, you know? So many issues raised in that film, one of them you just mentioned. Having so much devoted himself to someone that their well-being becomes as important as your own, even more important, was a form of devotion that appeals to me — to be that giving, to be able to give that deeply, that someone else's well-being becomes as important (if not more) than your own.

And also the extreme he went to, to protect his family appealed to me. That is something to weigh of course — morally, ethically — but he killed this man who was going to hurt his wife; at least he threatened to do so. And what this man might have done, might have hurt his wife in some irreparable way, and the man was a greedy man, he didn't care about this character's family or about him or his wife. So did [Jake] have a right to stop this man from hurting his wife, or didn't he? It was an interesting question for me to weigh. What would I do, if faced with that same situation? Were my family threatened by an outside force, how far would I go to protect it?

And does it happen when, getting into a character to try and understand why they would behave or act in a certain way, and it goes against the way you think you might behave in that same situation . . .


Can you still find a way to play it?

Absolutely! Stella Adler said a wonderful thing: "The analysis of the text is the education of the actor." It's not difficult to find a way to play a character once you find out who that character is. And it's always fascinating to put yourself in some other circumstance to see how you might behave other than you would.

But then how are you surprised by yourself? Say for example, in a situation where you feel, 'I would not stoop to that behavior' . . .

Right . . .

Or, ' I could not rise to that level of behavior' . . .

Right . . .

And then you act it out — does that give you either the strength or the horror of knowing that you indeed might be capable of such behavior?

"The analysis of the text is the education of the actor." The Devil and God, I believe those two elements are in us, are in me — not up in the sky, not down below the Earth, but right here in me, My Heaven and my Hell are right here in me. And in order to not stoop to do Evil, I have to know what I am capable of. And what Evil might be in me, what Devil might be in me, and what goodness might be in me. To play the role of the pimp in TAXI DRIVER — I would never be a pimp. I would never sell another human being's flesh and soul to another human being. But it was interesting to investigate what a man who lives in poverty, who knows no other way but what he is taught in the environment he lives in to perform, what his role models are, what he might do, what I might do if I was born into that element. It's fascinating; it gives me a chance to see many aspects of myself. I'm no Devil, and I'm no Angel!

You're keeping pace in the middle?

[Laughs] Well, I try to do what's right. The only way is if I know both. Both the horror of things and the beauty of things. I try to do what's right; that's the important thing.

How about THE BAD LIEUTENANT? I understand that's about similar issues, of a man facing certain moral issues of redemption.

Yes, yes. It's a very, very fascinating story for me, cause it's about a man who's been doing bad; bad things. And he's a father of four children in parochial school, he's a lieutenant of detectives, but he's in conflict with himself and with trying to do what's right. He's been doing so many bad things, but his soul is aching for him to do something that's right and he comes to a crisis in his life where he's going to die, where he feels death from doing so many bad things, and he tries to redeem himself, tries to find what's good, what can he do that's right, so he can feel good about himself. He has a need to be loved, after all the bad he's done.

But also a need to love himself.

You can't love yourself until you have a feeling of doing what's right. If you don't respect yourself you can't respect anybody else. It begins with your "self" — Capital S. So it's a very fascinating story in a way, his story, and where it takes him.

How was it working with Abel Ferrara? I liked KING OF NEW YORK very much; is this comparable to that?

I can't compare it to anything. Someone said "Comparisons are odious," and I believe that, I do. This story was Abel's idea, written by a woman named Zoe Lund, but it's a very important story for Abel, he was very much acting in the movie with me. I never felt I have before felt so enormously close with a director as in creating THE BAD LIEUTENANT, as I did with Abel. It was like he wasn't directing, but he was in the scene with me, playing the part with me.

And what's the final outcome of the story?

I can't tell you that! What I can tell you is this man struggles; he struggles with the Devil, with Hell and Heaven, with the Devil and the God in him, he's struggling. It's a struggle worthwhile knowing because we all should be struggling with those elements in ourselves to do what's right, and it's a struggle, cause there are temptations to take us in all different directions. Unless we admit that and come to know that, there's no chance of doing what's right. We're all sinners! The only difference is those who want to do what's right and those who don't give a shit about it.

Maybe it's all about conscious — Conscience. To have a conscience you need to be conscious! You have to strive for consciousness.

In terms of other recent films, such as RESERVOIR DOGS, which you also co-produced —

Yes, also I'm a third-owner of THE BAD LIEUTENANT. I'm a co-producer of that.

Did you help develop that? Did you find the property, or did it find you?

I'm really sort of a pseudo-co-producer, you know. But RESERVOIR DOGS for example, Quentin Tarentino wrote the script, it came through a colleague of mine at the Actor's Studio named Lillie Parker, who sent me the script saying she read it and thought I would like it, and I thought it was one of the best things I had ever read. And me and Quentin getting together got the money together for the script, raised the money for the movie. So I became a "co-producer" in that regard. As me and Abel coming together made me a third-owner of this movie. I guess they had no money to pay me, so they had to give me something!

I understand RESERVOIR DOGS has to do with a jewelry heist that goes awry. Jewelry heists in films are always going awry!

Well, it's such an intricate, beautiful script about eight professional robbers pulling a heist, and it deals with elements of betrayal, trust, instinct, and need for relationships. And Quentin got it all out of creating this event of the robbery that these eight men get together to perform. An exciting piece of writing. Quentin is a new talent on the scene.

Is this his first directing job?

Yes. And the second script I believe that he wrote. The first script (TRUE ROMANCE) is going to be directed by Tony Scott.

Now, working on what I would assume is a low budget film . . .

Both were; both THE BAD LIEUTENANT and RESERVOIR DOGS were low-budget films.

Having just come off of BUGSY, which is a huge, large-scale production . . .

Yes, well, what's the question? Did I eat better on BUGSY? Yes!

I'll assume that. But it's easier to get lost on a large film like BUGSY, where they put so much effort in recreating the 1940s in terms of sets, costumes, lighting, so the actor has to work harder to stand out from the surroundings.

I don't think about those things, really. I work hard on everything I do. Everything is a struggle, everything is hard, everything is difficult. I don't care if it's a one-line walk-on, or a lead in a movie, I work with the same intensity on the craft, on the creation, on the preparation. Mickey Cohen took as much work as the BAD LIEUTENANT and RESERVOIR DOGS to prepare for.

You had worked with James Toback previously.

Number of times.

When his script was coming together for BUGSY, once you had the role, did you contribute to the script at that stage?

No, I didn't. A little bit, not really much. I mean, Barry [Levinson] was very open to any ideas I had in terms of creating the role. I asked Barry for a certain makeup artist, cause I had an idea of how I wanted the character to look, and Barry got [him], he came to New York, we worked for about a week, and I told Barry we would send pictures of what we created. And he liked it, and me and Malio flew out there and did the makeup tests and that's the look that you saw in the movie. That's how an actor needs a director, that kind of collaboration, to work well.

I also wanted to ask you about the Jane Campion picture you're starting soon, and how that came about.

Jane wanted to meet me, we met, and she offered me the role.

Which is what?

It's a period piece, 1840s New Zealand. It's a very complex story about the awakenings of people's capacity for loving, and fear of it, and of burying things that they were in order to have something new grow, to let something new be born. It's a beautiful, beautiful piece of music, this script. It's called THE PIANO LESSON.

Are you a piano teacher in it or a student?

Uhm, I'm the one wanting the lessons! I don't want to say too much about it because I'd rather have you see the movie, but he's trying to find his music.

I just sort of see this sparkle about you when you talk about this character. This character has not truly been born yet, it's still in the planning stages, [so] it's like taking a sonogram against the womb — you know what the sex of the baby is, you know it's all right, so when you actually finally do it . . .

I am in that process right now as a matter of fact. You're right.

This is something that does intrigue me a great deal about the actor's craft.

I just want to ask you, have you ever studied acting? Because you seem to have an interest in it, in the craft.

A little in college, enough to know that I could never pursue it as a career. My direction has really always been writing. But the college I attended had a film program which was quite theoretical or analytical in a sense, and it gave me a more literary taste about how to approach films, how to analyze characters and relationships. So when I started writing about films and filmmaking, I think it was more through that discipline — character and story, as well as camera technique. And when I interview directors or cameramen I can really get into the technical aspect of it because I enjoy learning about it, but for me there isn't as much mystery to it as there is to an actor's contributions.

You're right, there's much more mystery in the actor's creation. There's a great deal of mystery in it.

And I'm intrigued by what actors themselves discover through the process of acting.

It's sort of always there.

Well, they can't just reach a certain point where they've learned everything there is to learn, because then they'd stop acting and become accountants or something.

Probably right! Well, it's a creation and it is a mystery. I mean the craft can take you so far, then you have to trust in mystery at some point, too. The craft can take you into that mystery.

It's similar to the mystery of writing, I think, because you're not exactly sure where the ideas are coming from.

I would think so. In the actor's case of course he is both the pen and paper. He is The Word.

Do you do writing of your own?

No, I have not. I have, you know, sort of, in a number of films managed to contribute moments in films, some scenes in films, you know, in an improvisatory way.

Coming out of the moment, as opposed to something originated or planned out in advance?

No, no, planned in rehearsals, like the scene that comes to mind is with Jodie Foster in TAXI DRIVER where we're dancing, my entire scene was planned beforehand. There was a scene in THE BORDER that didn't exist, where I had creatively objected to children being kidnapped by this guy I was in cahoots with as far as ripping off Mexican immigrants. That was a scene that didn't exist; it came out of my creating the character. The idea came that this man must have something where he draws the line and will not cross over: his border. He will not go over that line.

His own struggle between Good and Evil.

Right, exactly, exactly. There have been other things in other films, that I can't recall right now. In BAD LIEUTENANT, many scenes I improvised; they were planned beforehand. In RESERVOIR DOGS, none. No scenes were added; that script was very well constructed.

So what was the initial driving force that took you into acting? Was there an epiphany at some point: 'I could become an ACTOR!'?

No, no.

Or was it simply something you thought you were good at and could take further?

No, I didn't think I was particularly good at it but I wanted to be, I had a strong will to be good at it. And it was my need to know, my need to draw my pictures on the cave walls about what my fears were, what my needs were. Somewhere in there. I was in a cave and I needed to draw some pictures on the wall about what my journey was, and that drive, that need, led me to acting. I wasn't good at it, but I had a deep, intense desire to be good at it, and all my failings didn't stop me. I had that will to learn that kept me going through all my effort, through all of my struggle.

And how did working with Scorsese early in your career hone your skills or give you an idea that you were perfecting your craft?

Well, MEAN STREETS, uh,...

How much of that would you objectively say was your contribution and how much Scorsese's?

In terms of my total performance?

Because Scorsese is so much an editing director?

No, no, in MEAN STREETS you have Marty's performance, Robert's performance and mine. Nothing is pieced together. You have these three energies that came together and resulted in MEAN STREETS, so there's no need to try to discover what was edited to make the performances; nothing was. It was these three energies, these three spirits, these three guys that collided. [Laughs]

I'm not saying the energy wasn't there. It's obviously there.

But you said how much of it was Marty's performance in terms of the editing.

And what he brought to the project.

He brought his performance. He didn't make Robert's performance or mine. It was a collaboration in the purest sense of these three forces coming together.

I get a sense that that kind of collaboration is very rare. Now Scorsese is a rare director, but to be that close with a director, is that partly because you came from a similar background, a familiar background?

I would think so. Our themes seem to be very similar — our "theme" meaning, our suffering! [Laughs] We seem to be very similar. And we sort of suffer together.

I sort of taught him in a way everything he knows, because one day on the set of MEAN STREETS I taught him a very important lesson which I'm sure made his whole career. He was talking to me about a scene, he was saying, `Well, Harvey, this thing and that thing,' it was getting very sort of deeply psychological and trying to find the right words to help me understand the scene and to go in a certain direction. He's trying to be gentle and motivative and he was going on and on and on, and I said, `Marty, you mean be better?' He said, `Yeah!'

So now, no long-winded explanations from Marty?

Right, now he just does the scene again hoping it'll be better.

Are there particular genres you prefer, or avoid? You recently did a film with Dario Argento.

Well, I just love the idea of doing a horror film, [or] doing a comedy, which I just did with Whoopi Goldberg. It's called SISTER ACT, it'll be out in June, directed by Emile Ardolino. No, I love those different genres, I just do. I wouldn't want to make a career of that, [but] it's nice to fool around once in a while.

Well, getting back to BUGSY, where they recreate the period of the '40s, did you infuse yourself with films of the period to capture the style, the atmosphere of that time?

Well, you do it using many elements available to you: costumes, makeup, the music of the time, the social structure of the times, the mores of the time. To me, elements to instill the actor's belief in where he is, in the history. Like LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST: going down there and dressing the way they dressed, wearing the underwear that they wore, washing in the stream as they might have washed, living in the village where they might have lived, using the bathroom they way they used the bathroom, eating the kind of food they ate. This helps to create the belief the actor needs in where he is.

It leads to other things, which is in the area of the mystery, those things lead you to this belief which stirs you in some way, to release your deeper self. It releases that magic in you, that lightning in you, that thunder.

To have anything worthwhile, I would think one wants to go into places they have not been and don't know, in order to find out what's there. I mean this in a spiritual way, I don't mean it in a material way. We have to ask questions, and dare to find an answer!

This journey to New Zealand you are about to undertake, what is it you hope to learn, as a 'music student'?

I don't even know if I should answer that, or want to answer it, it's sort of my thing. And I hope that my thing will mean something to you, to my children, that they will know something about themselves by reading my book, by watching my paintings that people may draw from, to help them when they stumble along the path, to give them the strength to get up — to give them the strength to suffer.

What continues to give you that strength from outside sources?

Reading the Van Gogh letters, watching the Cassavetes films, the films of other great directors, reading the books of Joseph Campbell, etc, etc. Most people doing for me what I would hope to return to other people. Knowing Marines that served and watching them struggle.

When did you serve?

A long time ago! I've been learning from them, and from Marines before me. Learning about fear, learning how to deal with it. Learning about camaraderie. Learning about the nobler elements of your being.

A few days later, we met again for a follow-up interview, this time in Keitel's Tribeca loft.

When we were talking about your part for the Jane Campion film, I remembered that sparkle in your eyes when you were describing the gestation of this character. When did you first see that sparkle, that mystery that you described, coming from within yourself?

Probably when I met this girl once upon a time and I looked into her eyes, and what was in her eyes somehow moved me in such a way, that I couldn't understand it, and I put together these boxes that were strewn about, and she was walking down the street and I jumped over these boxes to try and impress her. But there was snow on the ground and I slipped and I fell on my ass. I was probably about five years old then!

You felt the spark of being Superman?

Uhm, somehow I felt like telling that story, I guess.

How about the first time you felt that spark on stage?

Well, that's an evolution of things. That doesn't happen in an instant. It happens in billions of instances. When you ask me that question my entire life flashes before me. I have to push the button to stop it and remember; it happened during that story I told you about a little while ago.

Yes, it did.

And in billions of other instances in my evolution, through seeing the world, now in a room with this bum tape recorder of yours. [True, the sorry device had acted up a bit.] They say in mythology that if you have the impulse to go on the journey, that along that journey people will come when you're in trouble to help you through the trouble, to reach the next place on the journey. And the question you asked me answers that, there have been all these instances which are part of my life, and some one or something or some picture of some color or some thought was there.

You said that in JAKES, you admired his devotion to family and his willingness to give and self-sacrifice.

It's a quality that I much admire, the ability to love so deeply that you can sacrifice. All of that love, cause that love will be more important to you, that that person will be more important to you than your own well-being. I happen to be lucky to be a father. And when you become a father certainly you are aware that you'll make the ultimate sacrifice of your own life for your child's life. And that's sort of like a blessing, to have that awareness — not that I'm not scared to die, but I would willingly, without a doubt once my child came into my life, and became aware of my own fear and bravery.

Have you felt that close to death before, where you felt that fear?

Offhand I don't, uh, well, now thinking a little more deeply, I almost answered you offhand, `I don't think so.' But when I took my time to think a little bit more carefully, I'm aware of moments in my life where I put my well-being in front of someone else's, in front of a friend's, and times in my life when I sacrificed my well-being for a friend's. And it was during the latter event in which I knew myself better; I seemed to be more of what it is I admire.

And even now I suppose I aspire to, if I am disappointed in the life, that I have the courage to suffer that disappointment, to suffer that anger, that grief, and to suffer the ultimate horror that is part of our existence. Did I trail off somewhere or was I answering the question?

You did see yourself at the best, the strongest that you could be?

Yes, I saw that. I also saw those times when I put my own well-being first, and didn't feel as good as when I was able to give. In the giving I certainly felt stronger, and I suppose I'm trying to find that place between the taking and the giving that will make me feel good about myself, and that balance.

Like the balance between Good and Evil within yourself.

Yes, because we know one's thing's for sure: we are going to do the wrong thing. I guess it becomes a matter of conscience, if you want to do what's right or not. Cause if you do you will struggle and what you did that was bad you will try to do what is good. If you do not want to struggle, you will just repeat yourself, and be bad. Or peripherally, try to do what's good or find some friends that will slap you on the back and say 'You're terrific,' and you'll respond, `You're terrific, too!' But there are other people who will demand more of you if you demand it of yourself.

It's like the work of the actor itself. I was lucky enough to meet up with a group of actors, a group of people, who were devout students of acting. I say devout because it is a religion, because in the work itself somewhere in there lies a discovery, a struggle to discover the essence of being good, and of being bad. And there were other groups of actors I met, socially, hanging out at bars with friends of mine, at parties, who were from a different school: they were actors because they said they were actors. But none was on this search for the essence of the work.

They weren't living the life of actors, they were just playing the part?

Yes, that's why I'm trying to say. Because if you really want to be an actor you have to live the life of it, as you say, which means doing things. It doesn't just mean giving yourself a title, a star, success. All success is in the struggle, and in the work itself, not in the result. The result's wonderful, I don't want young actors getting it wrong reading this, but the real success is in the struggle.

Have there been instances where you were satisfied with the struggle and not with the final result?

[Laughs] Yes! In other words I'm thinking about creating a role, or creating a play, and struggling very hard in the work, maybe coming up short of answers that I felt were right. But consider the interweaving of feeling success in the struggle and realizing you didn't get the result that you perhaps hoped to get, and yet you feel very good about the struggle, very successful about the struggle.

Somehow it strikes me, and I'm still exploring, that if I could commit myself to the doing, free of results, and accept what occurs in the doing, then that's the place I think I want to be in. When I become more proficient at this, come back and ask me the question again.

What do you mean by more proficient?

Being able to stand there on the stage in my own place. In me. Be able to paint bamboo.

Did I tell you the story about the bamboo? I was reading in some book of Zen philosophy about a painter, and in this Zen artist's way of work, he was describing that before feeling he could paint bamboo, he had to look at the bamboo and touch the bamboo and eat the bamboo and sleep with the bamboo and then he felt that he could paint the bamboo.

Because the subject is now part of him and his experience.

He is now in a relationship with the bamboo. So, standing there on the stage..

You're at one with the text.

With the Being of the text, yes. With our own being. We become intertwined, like the bamboo. I was going to say neither of us afraid, perhaps there is fear, but we're not afraid to stand on that stage, or to paint the bamboo. We accept the fear.

I mean when someone says, 'What's out there?' Who doesn't want to know about how the universe began and where it came from? Who doesn't want to know that? If someone says to you, `Now David, I'm gonna put you on a rocket and send you up there and you're gonna find out,' I mean you're gonna want to go but you're gonna be scared also. But how much you know will be dependent upon whether you can face that fear. You climb on that rocket and say, 'Whooah, sorry, send somebody else'?

I'd like to think I would go on that rocket.

Me, too . . . If you do go on the rocket, when you come back we want to know what you experienced, so please, please, don't take this tape recorder!

In Akira Kurosawa's DREAMS, it was a brilliant piece of casting to have Martin Scorsese play Van Gogh because the character is of a piece of him — Van Gogh says that the light compels him to paint, and Marty could probably say that about his shooting film. Which of your own characters do you feel are similarly inseparable from you?

That's unanswerable, because all of them are like me . . . so, it is answerable: all of them are like me!

I don't know what to say, really. I've been very fortunate to work with some extraordinary people, writers, directors, actors, and I've had this experience a number of times where, what readily comes to my mind are David Rabe's HURLYBURLY, Sam Shepard's LIE OF THE MIND, I'm thinking of TAXI DRIVER, of things I've recently done, THE TWO JAKES, I guess particularly in David Rabe's and Sam Shepard's plays, because they're in the theatre, there's a continuous motion that's not interrupted by takes, in which I've felt a sense of music.

Even if some of those notes are raw, I think the music is strong enough to overcome a wrong note. I think the positive nature of things will always overcome the less positive nature of things. If the music is on, the music is beautiful; it will heard I think no matter what the interference is. It's like if I'm looking at a Van Gogh, and there's some jackhammer going off outside the place, I think I'm still going to get the music of the Van Gogh — and hear the jackhammer at the same time.

Anyway, what are you getting out of this discussion?

I think that the interview is a very important medium, and I'm doing it because I feel I have an obligation, a responsibility to help others who are interested in this work, interested in the life, to give something back to them; I know I mentioned this before. That's why I'm doing this. Why are you doing it?

As I mentioned the other night, I feel a correlation, a similarity between what you see as the mystery of acting and the mystery of writing. For me acting is the hardest discipline of film to pin down; directing, editing, photography, music are easier to write about because they can somehow be more easily defined or categorized. Acting cannot be defined, and so I have to call upon the mystery of writing to pin down the mystery of acting.

Even amongst the actors, there is the mystery of acting. After all the teaching is done, Stanislavsky said, 'Find your own method,' you know? Because we are the piano, we are the instrument. We touch the key, it's a key inside his own soul; it's not a piece of ivory.

He is the finger, he is the ivory, he is the hammer, he is the string, and he is the casing which gives resonance to the note.

Very unusual activity, isn't it?

And as I said, I find a similarity with my writing, whether it's journalism or fiction.

Me, too.

Are you still involved with the Actors' Studio? Do you ever teach classes there?

No, I have moderated sessions when the artistic director is unavailable. I'm a member of the Board of Directors. I think it's an important institution that supports a quality of work, a standard of work, which should not be forgotten for the actor. Actors should support it, it's important.

The institutions we support are like a beacon for the children; what we worship the children will watch us worshipping, and we have our choices in what to worship, and what to show the children is right. I think the Studio is an important place, a place being as important as its members and influences and thought and teachers.

What do your children think of your work? Can they separate you from your roles?

My children understand that I'm a working man, first of all; the work I do is that of an actor. They come and they see me work, and I can only say that in that work, I try to be the truest I can be, and the most honest I can be about life as I see it and understand it. And I believe that in their watching of that work, they will be nourished in their own awareness of themselves.

My youngest daughter Stella came to a screening of THE TWO JAKES and afterwards she said to me, `Daddy, I was so sad, that when you cried, I cried.' I believed that that experience is somehow good for her.

To pass down truth to one's children is the best you can do.

If I can do that I will have lived a good life. I'm not saying I don't make my mistakes, but I try to do what's right. And if you don't, your children will let you know you didn't!

And they'll write a book about it!

[Laughs] I can see it now: "Harvey Dearest"!


With a string of acclaimed performances, Keitel has become recognized as one of the most celebrated (and busiest) actors in recent years, in both Hollywood and independent film, including THE PIANO, BAD LIEUTENANT, RESERVOIR DOGS, PULP FICTION, SMOKE and BLUE IN THE FACE.

copyright 1992, 1997, 2009 by David Morgan
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