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Here’s someone you don’t see very often. In the five years I’ve been a journalist, I’ve never even heard of Harvey Keitel doing press. I’m sure he has, for a select few major outlets for his personal indie films, but certainly not a massive press conferences for all the national media.
The day of the Be Cool proceedings gave Keitel a chance to prove just how cool he really is. When the fire alarm went off in the middle of his interview, everyone wondered whether they should stay, assuming it was a false alarm, or go. He stayed and continued talking over the alarm, making only one side comment about wanting to break it.
Keitel plays a corrupt record exec in Be Cool. It’s kind of hard to say what he specifically does in the ensemble comedy, since everybody is so full of plot function. But he’s there to be the real intimidation, since The Rock and Vince Vaughn are certainly no threat to Chili Palmer.
docweasel.com (dw) Did landing a role in this one have anything to do with the first one or is it just a coincidence?
Harvey Keitel (HK) A coincidence. That came about because Danny DeVito asked me to do him a favor 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.
dw How important is it for you to get the physical look of your character?
HK 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.
dw Are you a fan of Elmore Leonard’s work?
HK 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.
dw Do you think in your career you’ve had one too many roles in crime films and these characters?
HK That’s like asking a cobbler if he’s made too many pairs of shoes. 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. 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. ewfThen I heard this genius teacher Stella Adler. I recommend you read anything you might find about her and if you have anyone interested in theater, you get them one of her books. 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.
dw Do you think you’ll be doing any romantic roles? [I promise, this was not our question!]
HK I hope so. You must have seen Piano and some films like that. What did you think that was? [Laughs]. I tried to shoot her but I couldn’t get a gun [Laughs]. Instead I got married and then I better not go near a gun.
dw What was it about this film that made you come out and talk to us about it?
HK 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.
dw Do you think you find it easier to do now?
HK 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 theater 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 theater 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.
dw Are there wrong reasons to do press?
HK I think like making love, not if you’re doing it right.
dw How did you like rapping?
HK I did the rap only because I’m trying to be younger. Rap is a great innovation in music. I think everyone enjoys it, I certainly do. My young assistant who’s in the room right now – stand up Andrew – he’s a guy who’s very good with music. When it came to this part in the movie, it was written as straight language and I had the idea to rap it and I practiced it with Andrew. He’d show me some things when I was going off. But I had a pretty good sense of it. Everybody likes to imitate rappers…it’s pretty cool. That’s how it happened. Just to rap the lines instead of speaking it straight.
dw What do you think of Scorsese’s chances for finally winning an Oscar this year? [Sorry, this was weeks ago when we talked about it.]
HK I don’t think it matters if he takes it home or not. Marty works has stirred and informed cultures around the world so I can’t feel sorry for him if he doesn’t take home the Oscar. I can only honor him for all the great work he’s done.
dw 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?
HK 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 Ferrer 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.
dw Who is the Brazilian director?
HK His name is Max Makowski. He wrote and directed it. He was raised in Asia, Brazil and America. So the real gift of these independent films is to have these experiences that you look for in the theater again to enrich your life. To meet these Asian actors was really incredible.
dw Vince Vaughn apparently stayed in character on and off the set. How do you feel about that type of acting?
HK All actors do that, should do that and do do that. For the most part. I say all actors. I’m efexaggerating, 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.
dw How do you approach comedy?
HK Of course, it’s different in many ways in the experience. But I meant the technique earlier when I said they have the same weight. As far as the actor creating the part, there is the same way you approach it. Comedy is something we all like to do. You don’t have to be an actor to do comedy. Which of us here doesn’t like to be funny at times and have a hoot. This Be Cool was just a treat for me to get the opportunity to play this larger than life, goofy, zany, greed-ball, low-life pseudo Zen Buddhist type of guy. Just to poke fun of these characters whom we read about in newspapers and see on the news and TV, so it was a moment to poke fun at the record industry.
dw Was it a reunion of sorts for you and Travolta?
HK 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 nighttime 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.
dw What was Carson’s reaction to you?
HK 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 Scorcese 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.
dw You mentioned you liked rap so what’s your favorite hip hop artist and what was it like working with Andre 3000?
HK 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.