“This is Harvey, the actor. Or as my father would say, ‘actor-shmactor’.”
Oh yes, if you’re wondering, I liked Harvey Keitel immediately.
Harvey and I were scheduled for just a 15-minute chat, focused primarily on his new film Lansky where he plays the famous gangster Meyer Lansky in his twilight years recounting the story of his life to a journalist played by Sam Worthington. While we certainly gave his new film plenty of discussion, Mr. Keitel stuck around for another 30 minutes where we touched on other films in his esteemed career, as well as politics, and life itself.
Awards Daily: So, I take it your dad didn’t take acting seriously as a profession?
Harvey Keitel: (Laughs) My father was an immigrant to America, and he didn’t fully realize the opportunities that were available and the possibilities of realizing them.
AD: What drew you to the part of Meyer Lansky and this film?
Harvey Keitel: This wonderful young writer/director Eytan Rockaway. When I got a call that Eytan Rockefeller wanted me for a movie I saw the cash register light up. I thought they had said Rockefeller, instead I got Rockaway. (Laughs) It was the entire life of this immigrant, Meyer Lansky, the life he had led in Poland, and then as an immigrant coming to America – to downtown America – through Ellis Island and that entire experience of Lower East Side of Manhattan which is where he grew into meeting Lucky Luciano and becoming Murder Incorporated.
AD: Considering your own background, being the child of immigrants of Polish and Jewish descent, I imagine his story resonated with you.
Harvey Keitel: Romanian and Polish, my mother was Romanian. Well you know, I grew up in Brooklyn, and we weren’t wealthy people. We were members of what I guess you would call the “lower class,” the “underclass.” And I met all kinds of people and knew all kinds of people, most of them immigrants, and I knew what a rough life it was for the immigrant without an education coming to America. And Lansky was a perfect example of that. A young kid who experienced horrors in Poland bestowed upon them by the Russian army, the Cossacks and whomever, attacking their Jewish villages, or pillaging them I might say, and then winding up on America’s shores without an education, without anything. So what the hell were you gonna do? And a lot of them did what Meyer Lansky did, but did not have his peculiar talents.
AD: He wasn’t called “the mob’s accountant” for nothing.
Harvey Keitel: Yeah, he was brilliant at mathematics and organization.
AD: Back in 1991, you played Mickey Cohen, a different gangster with close ties to Bugsy Siegel in the film, Bugsy. Did that prior part inform your preparation for this role?
Harvey Keitel: You know, actually now that you’re mentioning that, I never thought of Mickey Cohen when I was doing Meyer Lansky. They were sort of two very different people in many ways and on many levels of the hierarchy of things. But, I never really thought about Mickey Cohen at that time, except there was another guy that rose to great heights in the world of gangsterism and so did Meyer as you know.
I played these two men who are people who grew up in poverty and were trying to make a life for themselves in America, so gangster shmangster. They were trying to make a life. To buy food and have a nice apartment to live in that didn’t have mice and things like that, which we had in Brooklyn by the way. They came from the same economic class and were experiencing the same trials and tribulations of being a human being. There’s a great line in Lansky that I always admired that Eytan Rockaway wrote: Meyer was asked a question in the movie about being the underworld and Meyer replied “We’re not the underworld, we were the overworld,”
Because let’s face it, with all the injustices and greed that we experience now in our country, right now, some people would declare big business the overworld, I mean the real overworld. So when you’re speaking to a young boy who came from Europe being persecuted in America, being persecuted as a Jew, and not having an education, you can understand the passions that they had to make a living and have a family, and be considered to be human instead of a dirty Jew. And then compare that, as Meyer does, he says we were bigger than GE or some large company, because they consider those people to be crooks in many ways. And many of them are…greedy criminals.
AD: That makes me think of a line from Lansky that I loved. Meyer was talking about gambling and Vegas in particular, and he says that the feds found gambling to be “too valuable a product to leave to criminals.”
Harvey Keitel: (Laughs) That’s a great line isn’t it? That’s right exactly, look what they created: Vegas, the jobs they gave, all around the country and tried to accomplish that as well in Cuba, to give jobs and income to people so they could have a life. Where were they gonna get it, a life I mean? Sometimes what’s available to people is gangsterism, I hate to say that, I’m not a fan of it. But we have to question sometimes, who are the gangsters?
AD: And for some people, what are the alternatives?
Harvey Keitel: I always detested that motto, I think it came from our government, “Just say no.” I despise that slogan. I think it was from Reagan’s time. Just say no. Just say no to kids in the streets wearing rags, and don’t know if they are going to eat at night, and have no self respect, no recognition of being human. How the fuck do you just say no?
AD: You know, the rapper Chuck D from Public Enemy was once quoted as saying, “If you want someone to just say no, you have to give them something to say yes to.”
Harvey Keitel: Exactly.
AD: When you take away the flashbacks and the subplot involving Sam Worthington’s subplot, a lot of Lansky could be described as “My Dinner With Meyer.” I loved the bits of you just telling your character’s story.
Harvey Keitel: Yeah, I liked that script a lot. Eytan Rockaway did a very good job with that. He is Israeli, his father is a well known professor in Israel, and he knew Meyer Lansky. He interviewed Meyer Lansky himself, Eytan’s father. It meant something to them to have a Jew recognized the way he was. Of course they didn’t let Meyer into Israel, but that was another political matter and all that.
AD: That’s one of the fascinating aspects about Meyer. He rose through the world of gangsters as a Jew to the highest of heights, even though we think of gangsters of his era being largely Italian.
Harvey Keitel: Oh boy, to one of the highest positions. He was one of the highest. He was untouchable. I think it was to a large extent a part of his intelligence about forming organizations. Instead of killing people, make them work for you. It comes down to simply that almost.
AD: Right! His philosophy that a person who owed you money was worth more to you alive than dead, was definitely outside of the gangster code.
Harvey Keitel: Exactly, and Eytan wrote that beautifully to make that point, that very point that you put so well. That point caught my attention. It appears to be a very simple thought, right? Why kill that guy? He owes you money. Have him get a job and pay you back.
AD: Or, have him do tasks for you and essentially, make a trade?
Harvey Keitel: Yes, use it. It almost sounds like I’m a communist or something. That was an awkward phrase, but don’t destroy what could be profitable. Meyer had a good mind. This is what aggravates me, and is a very important reason for me to have made that movie. We have brilliant talents here and now in America who can’t get an education because they come from the poverty class, and the government…look what they took out of Biden’s bill now. No free (community) college. The very thing that would help the underclass so much, so there you have it.
AD: I am a product of community college. I used it as a springboard to get a 4-year degree. The thing is, this would be a thing that would help all of America to have a more educated society, but people can’t see it.
Harvey Keitel: Yes, they’re not able to see it. Also, put back the voting boxes on the corner where they were, don’t take them off. So, who are the criminals here? Who are the gangsters here?
AD: I’ve always thought that the people who want to make it harder for the public to vote, do so because they don’t really believe that their own message will resonate, so instead, they try to repress the rights of others.
Harvey Keitel: How can they not be considered criminals? That’s why Lansky interested Eytan Rockaway – I always want to say Rockefeller cause I wanted to make more money off the movie-but I will keep my Rockaway. I will take him again and again. (Laughs).
AD: Your performance as Meyer Lansky is very reserved, in the best way. Does that minimalist approach come from years of experience and simply being confident in your skill?
Harvey Keitel: No, not at all. I just related to him. I saw him, in addition to everything else he was, as a father. I’m a father. He had children. He had a son who he loved and adored, and as you know from the story, the son was confined to bed for most of his life. So, that father/son relationship meant a lot to me as it does to any father. That’s what he was also. And when he arrived in America, on our shores, what opportunities did he have? He got together with Lucky Luciano and they made money any way they could. That was their way of voting.
AD: I think that’s fascinating what you are saying there. Because your version of Meyer has no scenes with his disabled son. Those scenes are played by an actor portraying a younger version of the character, but you wanted that connection as a father ingrained in your performance even though all those father/son scenes are played by another actor.
Harvey Keitel: Absolutely. That last scene that Eytan wrote when Meyer brings the author of his book to the hospital, for me said it all. I was hooked on the movie then. Here’s who I am, an angel with a dirty face
AD: I loved that reference to the Cagney movie.
Harvey Keitel: Because Meyer would have seen that movie. Some people were afraid of that and I said “No, no he would have seen that movie.”
AD: How did you research your role? There’s a lot out there about Meyer Lansky, how did you select what to use?
Harvey Keitel: I used anything I could get my hands on. I mean, books, interviews. There wasn’t very much of him talking. I could only find one interview – which is in the movie, by the way, word for word. As a matter of fact, that scene opens the movie, I believe. That was the actual interview. Part of the research is you go to “what kind of person was he?” and you come up with the father of a child who is confined to a hospital bed for the rest of his life, whom he loves. You come up with things like that. They form you, cause he’s not just one thing.
AD: I love that you pointed out that people are not just one thing. In the age we live in, you can easily be turned into the worst thing you ever said or did by either cable news or social media.
Harvey Keitel: Yes. Of course those are the perils of Silicon Valley.
AD: And now, the idea of 24 hours news, has actually (along with the internet) become a tool for misinformation.
Harvey Keitel: You are summing it up very nicely here. It’s happening right before our eyes now, what these people from the various networks…the cable news are doing. Frankly, I was glad to be informed that they were instigating argumentation as part of gathering more subscribers. I don’t think of the news in that way. They were appealing to get clients in a very harmful way to the public. It bothers me and inspires me. It bothers me because what you say is absolutely correct, but it inspires me because there’s an opportunity in the arts to inform people in ways that this “productive” part of the news world doesn’t.
AD: You are known as an actor who plays a lot of gangsters, but I would argue that the greatest gangster you ever played was the cop in Bad Lieutenant.
Harvey Keitel: I think that screenplay, which was written by a woman along with Abel Ferrara. Her name was Zoe Lund – she OD’d a long time ago, and she was a beautiful, brilliant writer. A brilliant writer, but I almost didn’t do the movie, because there wasn’t much of a script there (for my character). But, when I read the part of the nun, it was completely written by Zoe. That was the only completely written part. The rest of it was indicated and we improvised a great deal. But when I read what she wrote concerning the nun, I said yes to the movie and me and Abel got to work. He was very committed to it and so was Zoe (she was still alive at that time.) As a matter of fact, she was the woman in the movie that shoots my character up. You’ll get a good look at her. We had a nurse on the set for that because you’ll see we wanted it done realistically and not to be a cutaway.
AD: I think your performance in Bad Lieutenant is one of the bravest things I’ve ever seen. You had to go into a very dark place to play that character, I imagine.
Harvey Keitel: That’s right. You can’t go halfway. That was exactly my attitude and why it’s the kind of movie it is, but you could call it a combination of a Brooklyn boy becoming a Marine and then having the good luck to study with the most brilliant acting teachers in New York.
AD: I imagine you get asked about your relationship with Martin Scorsese and Robert DeNiro a lot, but I have to ask, did you see Who’s That Knocking At My Door? as proof that you could do this for a living at the time you were making that film?
Harvey Keitel: Yes. At NYU, when we did Marty’s student film Who’s That Knocking At My Door and then I went on to meet Robert later on, about four years later when Marty wanted to do Mean Streets. There we were, the three musketeers. That’s when I understood Marty. We became very good friends, as Robert and I are very good friends. But when Marty invited me to see what he had put together, I was working as a shoe salesman at that time, I think. I don’t know if you remember that scene (in Mean Streets) where Charlie is in the church and he puts his hand in the flame and then he’s walking around looking at the different religious icons that are there. Marty invited me to come and see that scene. There’s no dialogue in that scene (voiceover was added later). So I come to NYU, go to the screening room, shuts out the lights, puts up the screen, and there I am going through the church, this beautiful church downtown in Little Italy and all of a sudden, Bang! comes the song “You gotta tell me you’re coming back to me” (by the Rolling Stones). Marty had put that song onto the movie. I had never seen that done before. The hair on my arms stood up. I said “My God, this guy is something special”.
AD: It was great to see the three of you work together again on The Irishman.
Harvey Keitel: Yeah well, I can never say no to Marty or Robert.
AD: Why would you want to?
Harvey Keitel: (Laughs) Good point!
AD: I would be remiss, if I didn’t ask you about some of the great films in your career that maybe people don’t know as much about.
Harvey Keitel: I might recommend to you that you see the movie I made based on Jerzy Kosinski’s book The Painted Bird. It’s one of my favorite films. I just want to recommend it to you to see it. (Director) Vaclav Marhoul did a wonderful job writing it and filming that movie. I can’t understand why that movie was never done before.
AD: I will take that recommendation. It sounds like The Painted Bird sort of falls into a category of lesser known great Harvey Keitel movies like Ulysses’ Gaze.
Harvey Keitel: Ulysses’ Gaze, the director (Theodoros Angelopoulos) he’s one of the greats. He was one of the greats. And I think what Vaclav Marhoul did with The Painted Bird and Kosinski’s book is great, never mind whether he really lived it or not. Since when do you have to really live something to write a book? But OK if he claimed he lived it, that was an error, but that doesn’t destroy the quality of the book.
AD: You have been a remarkably prolific actor over more than 50 years now. What keeps you working at this pace?
Harvey Keitel: There’s an easy answer to this. First of all, they weren’t all leading parts. A lot of them were small parts. And the other reason is, I’m living a life. I’m not living a movie life, I’m living Harvey Keitel’s life, and this is the work he does.
AD: So in that regard, if you had been a cobbler…
Harvey Keitel: I would have made a lot of pairs of shoes! (Laughs)
Sasha, Ryan, and Clarence have been stuck with me since April 27, 2018. Co-creator (with Ryan Adams) of the Reframe feature, staff writer, interviewer du jour, and a proud member of GALECA and the Indiana Film Journalists Association. I also scribe on boxing at NY Fights. My essay "My Black Grandpa" was shortlisted as "Best of Folklore" by The Bitter Southerner in 2018. My first work of fiction, "Eat 'Em Up, Tigers!" was published in Detroit Stories Quarterly in the 2020 summer edition.