Harvey Keitel on Brilliant Auteurs and the Importance of Independents

Harvey Keitel took a laid-back approach to his interview at the Karlovy Vary Film Festival

Harvey Keitel on Brilliant Auteurs and
Film Servis Festival Karlovy Vary

KARLOVY VARY, Czech Republic — Career tough guy character actor and indie producer Harvey Keitel had Czech audiences mesmerized at the Karlovy Vary Film Festival on Friday with no-nonsense tales of slapping around actors and coming up through the mean streets of Brooklyn during the ’70s.

Chatting with fans at the festival’s Vodafone talks series, the gravelly-throated thesp was surprisingly uninterested in discussing “Youth,” the Paolo Sorrentino-helmed comedy he brought to the west Bohemian spa-town festival. Instead, Keitel made clear he wanted to hear what European audiences were most interested in.

Famously intellectual, the festival attendees mostly obliged him with questions about his approach to the Stanislavski method, his working relationship with the director Theo Angelopoulos, and the crisis in creativity in Hollywood — with side forays into Keitel’s command of cursing in Hebrew.

“He was like Homer,” Keitel recalled of Angelopoulos, who was responsible for the actor’s second stint in Europe, for “Ulysses’ Gaze” in 1995, following a 1980 shoot with Bertrand Tavernier on “Death in Full View.” “Just a brilliant, brilliant man” who was regularly feted in Cannes, Keitel recalled of the Greek auteur.

To one listener who wondered whether acting gets easier as a performer ages, Keitel rejected the suggestion but added, “Our awareness grows — that is something that makes it easier.”

The son of Jewish Eastern European immigrants and a former Marine reflected on a career that spanned a first break in Martin Scorsese’s first feature in 1967, “Who’s That Knocking at My Door,” to character roles to co-producing Quentin Tarantino’s “Reservoir Dogs.”

Keitel recalled how he got involved in Tarantino’s movie: “A colleague from the Actors Studio sent me the script, saying I might like it. And I did, I thought it was brilliant. When I called Tarantino, he didn’t believe it was really me.”

Hollywood needs indie filmmakers, Keitel told listeners when the subject of “Bad Lieutenant” came up, because it’s only from outsider filmmakers that genuine “story” originates. “It’s not gonna come from a Hollywood executive — don’t say I said that.”

On his range of difficult, dodgy characters, the veteran of more than 100 pics said, “I’ve never played a bad guy; every bad guy thinks he’s good.”

On regrets in life, Keitel could only cite not having acquired a better education after being tossed out of school at a young age. Explaining that in his neighborhood people only knew one word for expressing anger, an Israeli critic inquired whether Keitel’s children can curse in Hebrew. “Not yet,” said the actor.

On finding a script worth doing for an actor of substance, Keitel said the rules are simple: “Anything that touches you.”