Harvey Keitel has been a major presence at the 18th Marrakech Film Festival, presenting two gala sessions: for the career tribute to French helmer Bertrand Tavernier – with whom he worked on “Death Watch” (1980), and to present Martin Scorsese’s “The Irishman.” He also took part in an onstage discussion, to a packed audience, which included Tavernier and Australian producer Jan Chapman, with whom he worked on Jane Campion’s “The Piano” (1993).
Keitel recounted key moments in his career and after screening several clips from his films, including a scene from “Death Watch,” he was clearly deeply moved and left speechless for a few seconds.
His long-term collaboration with Scorsese and his friendship with Robert De Niro was one of the starting points for the conversation, in which Keitel emphasized his dedication to his profession as an actor.
After serving in the U.S. Marine Corps he spent several years working as a court stenographer, but said he became very depressed.
“A friend told me to see this guy about acting lessons, a very handsome Greek guy called Anthony Menino. He gave me an acting lesson I never forgot. He told me to count a bunch of clothes hangers on a rack. I did so and told him there were ‘50 or so.’ ‘Are you sure?,’ he replied. “Go back and count them all. Because acting is doing things truthfully with a purpose.’ I never forgot that.”
He was later invited to join the Actors Studio which he says played a decisive role in his career.
“I had the privilege to study with the greats, Frank Corsaro, Lee Strasberg, Stella Adler. They were brilliant teachers and actors themselves. The Actors Studio was just a place. A house that houses a standard of the work.”
He recalled his first break, in Scorsese’s 1967 student feature, budgeted at $75,000, “Who’s That Knocking at My Door?” that was shot over weekends through the winter of 1966/67.
He recounted getting into a scuffle during the audition, in the pitch dark of the theater, because he didn’t realize that it was actually the start of an improvisation session, with Scorsese watching. But he got the part.
He began an extensive collaboration with Scorsese. “No one else wanted me except Scorsese,” he joked.
He met De Niro at the Actors Studio, and they became friends. Keitel said that “his work at the Actors Studio was amazing.” De Niro began working on other projects including with Brian De Palma. A year later both starred in “Mean Streets.”
For “Taxi Driver” Scorsese wanted Keitel to play the role of a campaign worker, that was actually played by Albert Brooks, but Keitel wanted to play the pimp, who originally only had five lines.
“I got my inspiration from a pimp I knew in New York, in the Hell’s Kitchen quarter. I had been walking past pimps and girls of the night, and so I asked this guy to help me. He said he was an ex-pimp, but I always thought he was lying. We spent two weeks working in the basement of Actors Studio. He taught me how to dance with the girl. First I played the girl and he was the guy, and then we switched roles. He taught me how to be a pimp. At one point he says, ‘Oh, and you love the girl.’ I said: ‘Yeah but you don’t really love her.’ He said: “No, you love her.” He repeated it several times. I still get the chills today remembering it. And he had a point. I showed the improvisation scenes to Marty and Paul Schrader and they incorporated them into the script.”
Keitel said that it was also his idea to have long hair, a hat and platform shoes and that when his Dad went to the set he didn’t recognize him.
He also talked about several films with religious themes, including Scorsese’s “Last Temptation of Christ,” which was shot in Morocco.
“It changed my mind about a lot of things. It changed my life. The script was so wonderful. I had so much to learn about my own journey with God. I discovered the mortality of the disciples. They were real people, with real blood, real pain, real suffering. It made a big difference to all of us.”
He talked about the fact that he has starred in many first films, but admitted that he had often been reluctant. For example with Ridley Scott he said he didn’t work with commercials directors but after seeing his reel agreed to star in “The Duellists.”
With Tarantino he says he was blown away by the script of “Reservoir Dogs,” which he’d received from a colleague from the Actors Studio and which he went on to co-produce.
For Abel Ferrara’s “Bad Lieutenant” he says they improvised many of the scenes and that although it may sometimes seem excessive it “was necessary” for the film.
He recalled meeting Campion and Chapman in a restaurant in L.A. and seeing one of them kick the other under the table to leave. He said he spent the next week cursing because he presumed he hadn’t got the part, and then swore on the phone with a mixture of joy and rage when they called him to offer the role.
Asked what it was like to be an object of desire in the film he quipped: “Jane Campion could film this chaise longue and it would be an object of desire.”
As he began to talk about “The Piano” he started saying, “it was magic, like a fairy tale,” and then stopped, because he was so moved by the memories.
In relation to what he expects from a director, he replied with a smile: “To shut the f–k up and turn on the camera.”
Finally, he concluded, “I’m so lucky over my career to have met the people I have met. Any word of ingratitude from me would be disgusting.”