Harvey Keitel, co-star of the "Be Cool" Movie!
Sporting a Brooklyn accent and bulldog features, Harvey Keitel first gained recognition with a series of gritty roles in the early films of Martin Scorsese, and he was for a long time cast as one lowlife thug after another. His career experienced a renaissance in the 1990s, when roles in such films as Thelma & Louise, Bad Lieutenant, and The Piano demonstrated his versatility and his willingness to let it all hang out (literally) in the service of an authentic characterization. A product of Brooklyn, where he was born on May 13, 1939, Keitel grew up as something of a delinquent. At the age of 16, his truancy was put to an end when he was sent to Lebanon with the Marine Corps. Upon his return, he sold shoes and nurtured an interest in acting. He studied the craft with Lee Strasberg and Stella Adler and began appearing in off-off-Broadway productions. When he was 26, fate struck in the form of a casting ad placed by Scorsese, at that time a fledgling student director at New York University; Keitel's response to the ad began a collaboration that would last for years and produce some of the more memorable moments in film history. Keitel and Scorsese made their onscreen feature debuts with Who's That Knocking at My Door? (1968), in which the former played the latter's alter ego. Five years later, they collaborated on Mean Streets; that and their subsequent collaborations of the '70s, Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore (1974) and Taxi Driver (1976), were some of the decade's most memorable films. Unfortunately, despite these achievements, Keitel's career suffered a great blow when he lost the lead in Francis Ford Coppola's Apocalypse Now to Martin Sheen. He spent much of the '80s appearing in obscure and/or forgettable films, save for Scorsese's controversial The Last Temptation of Christ (1988), and by the time he was cast in Thelma & Louise in 1991, he was in a career slump.
1991 and 1992 marked a turning point in Keitel's career: his role in Thelma and Louise as a sympathetic detective -- much like his role in that same year's Mortal Thoughts -- helped him break through the stereotypes surrounding him, and his Oscar nomination for his portrayal of gangster Mickey Cohen in Bugsy (1991) put him back in the forefront. Keitel's work in 1992's Bad Lieutenant, Reservoir Dogs, and Sister Act further established him as an actor of previously unappreciated versatility, and in 1993 he proved this versatility when he starred in Jane Campion's exotic art drama The Piano, in which he famously appeared in the nude as Holly Hunter's lover.
Keitel continued to demonstrate his ability to play both hard-boiled gangsters and rough-edged nice guys throughout the rest of the decade, turning in one solid performance after another in such films as Pulp Fiction (1994), Clockers (1995), and Copland (1997). One of his most memorable characterizations, cigar shop owner Auggie Wren, came from his collaboration with Paul Auster on Smoke and Blue in the Face (both 1995); he also worked with Auster on his 1998 romantic drama Lulu on the Bridge. In 1999, Keitel could be seen in variety of films, notably Tony Bui's Three Seasons, in which he played an American soldier searching for his lost daughter in Vietnam, and Jane Campion's Holy Smoke, in which he played a man sent to deprogram Kate Winslet of the teachings she received while part of a religious cult.
Harvey Keitel: "Be Cool"
Harvey Keitel has always been reluctant in talking to the press, yet here he is, in good humour, honest and happy to talk about his sleazy manager he plays to perfection in Be Cool.
Question: Did landing a role in this one have anything to do with the first one or is it just a coincidence?
Keitel: A coincidence. That came about because Danny DeVito asked me to do him a favour and do the part and I did. Then 10 some-odd years later, I end up in the sequel so that was just a coincidence.
Question: How important is it for you to get the physical look of your character?
Keitel: I was out to have a good time and have some fun. It's a fun script and fun people are in the movie. So I reached into my bag of tricks and looked for what was funny to me, what would enable me to have a good time and have a lot of fun with this guy. Whether you're playing comedy or drama, in my mind they're equally as important. They have equal weight and you do the same work you'd do if you were playing a dramatic role. The technique, the investigation remains the same. You do it to the best of your ability.
Question: Are you a fan of Elmore Leonard's work?
Keitel: Yeah. I read Get Shorty and Be Cool. He's a wonderful writer. He has his ear and his pen on the pulse of these kinds of characters he's writing about.
Question: Do you think in your career, you've had one too many roles in crime films and these characters?
Keitel: That's like asking a cobbler if he's made too many pairs of shoes (laugh). I mean, you work and you try and find the work that suits you the best and you enjoy the most. You do it in order to evolve in life. So there's no such thing as one too many this, one too many that. I remember, you're reminding me of early in my career, somebody said to me: why are you taking so many roles as a policeman. I was just stating my career at that time and just started getting some work in films and those were the only roles being offered to me. Then I heard this genius teacher Stella Adler - I recommend you read anything you might find about her and if you have anyone interested in theatre, you get them one of her books. It could be this one edited after she died called Chekhov, Ibsen and Miller. something like that. She had said one time, make a choice and do it like Hercules. So if that is all of what is being offered, the idea is to always do it like Hercules and I always followed her advise and now I'm here talking to you.
Question: Can you talk about this being a physical role and do you think you'll be doing any romantic roles?
Keitel: I hope so. You must have seen Piano and some films like that. What did you think that was? (laugh). I tried to shoot her but I couldn't get a gun (laugh). Instead I got married (laugh) and then I better not go near a gun.
Question: You are not a big fan of doing press. What was it about this film that enticed you to talk to the media?
Keitel: Well, let's say that you've changed and mellowed in life. Actually there are a couple good reasons to do press. One primary one is that those actors, actresses, directors coming after us that we don't get to meet, it's a way of reaching out to them and letting them know something about the field they've chosen to work in. Then the other good reason, there's a responsibility to the investors who invested in the film, try and help them get a return on their money to make their money back. So you have this business and social concern.
Question: Do you think you find it easier to do now?
Keitel: I've always found it not only easy, but enjoyable. It's necessary for us to reach out and I'm speaking for myself here. I certainly have a sense of responsibility to reach out to these people in the theatre who might look to someone like me for some guidance. I think most actors feel the way I do so we don't really object to press. Hardly any actor objects to press. It's a question of it being done in the way they like to see it done, meaning to get down to the serious interview what the profession is so we can reach out to the people to help them get along. That's what theatre was created for to begin with.as a way of reaching out to people to share problems and information with so we can go further and evolve.
Question: Are there wrong reasons to do press?
Keitel: (pause) I think like making love, not if you're doing it right (laugh).
Question: Can you talk about the Go-Go Girls..Go-Go Tales I mean. (loud laughter).
Keitel: Hey, I'm a married man. Are you trying to get me killed. Well, we are not doing that film actually. At least I am not at the moment, but we are making an effort to get it done; I don't know whether we'll get the financing for it. The old story we had it, it fell out of place and this and that. But Abel Ferrera is one of the directors I admire most - his talent and integrity. I hope we do something together again, if not Go-Go Tales, then something else.
Question: In the 80s and 90s, you were supporting first-time directors by appearing in their films and going out to champion their work. Are you still looking for first-time directors to work with and how do you look back on that period and your involvement?
Keitel: That period was a very flowery one for me. It was the beginning of something, of a movement you might say. I was lucky enough to be there. I was attracted to getting experience wherever it seems valuable for us to get that experience so we can feel better about ourselves and make good use of our time here in the life. So meeting Quentin Tarantino and Abel Ferrera and others.I just did a film in Singapore that's all in Cantonese. And I had done one all in Vietnamese about 3 years ago, "Three Seasons". Taiwanese and Hong Kong actors in Singapore and it was a wonderful, directed by a Brazilian fellow called One Last Dance. Of course I speak English in the few days work I did on the film and it's produced by an American, the only American producer imbedded in China, Peter Loher. I can only hope it makes it here. So the real gift of these independent films is to have these experiences that you look for in the theatre again to enrich your life. To meet this Asian actors was really incredible.
Question: Vince Vaughn apparently stayed in character on and off the set. How do you feel about that type of acting?
Keitel: All actors do that. Should do that and do that. For the most part. I say all actors. I'm exaggerating, but you know who does and who doesn't. Vince is a wonderful young actor who knows his work and did a beautiful job on this film.
Question: Was it a reunion of sorts for you and Travolta?
Keitel: It was because of Pulp Fiction. It's always a pleasure to see John. I'm fond of telling people that when I was a young actor in NY and had no work ,no money, you know the story because you're heard it before.I'd go home looking for some kind of relief at night-time with nothing to do and there were geniuses like Johnny Carson who helped me make it through many nights. I once approached him in L.A. and it's probably the only celebrity I've ever approached, to thank him for all those nights he helped me get through, well John was another one. I used to be uplifted when I saw his work on Welcome Back Kotter. There seemed to be an incredible sense of joy about this guy and fun about him. It gave me hope that there was a fun tree for me somewhere in Central Park. So I always felt a certain sort of indebtedness towards talent like John.
Question: What was Carson's reaction to you?
Keitel: He was very gracious, smiling and thankful. It was in a restaurant in Santa Monica many years ago. I remember coming to L.A., me and Scorsese spending many nights alone in Hollywood on Whitley and Sunset, at night going down to the House of Pies, bring the pie back up and watching Johnny Carson with a bit of booze. It was quite a time (laugh).
Question: You mentioned you liked rap so what's your favourite hip hop artist and what was it like working with Andre 3000?
Keitel: Well unfortunately I didn't work with Andre much. But rap is a strong presence in the culture and anyone is going to grateful for its appearance, grateful for any kind of music that has the kind of effect that rap has had on us all. Andre is an incredible talent. We know that from his music, from his videos, the kind of performance that he gives. And he did an incredible job in his first film.
Question: What's next?
Keitel: I don't know. Just looking for something.