Now in his 70s, Harvey Keitel is sidestepping the hard men roles of his past for an altogether gentler soul, in Youth, writes Keeley Bolger
The hair may be whiter and the thick-rimmed glasses might be worn more regularly, but age has proved no dampener when it comes to Harvey Keitel’s enthusiasm for accepting new film roles.
“I get nervous when I’m not putting my name to work,” says the veteran actor, with a throaty laugh.
“I’m careful about what I’m putting my name to, because I don’t want to be known for something I don’t respect, or might harm people.”
Next up is Youth, a film unlikely to harm anyone or attract mocking (though certainly seems more creatively fulfilling than his current starring role, in the Direct Line adverts).
Directed by Academy Award-winner Paolo Sorrentino, the film follows old friends Fred, a composer played by Michael Caine, and film-maker Mick (Harvey), who are approaching their 80s and head to the Alps for their annual restorative holiday.
At 76, it’s the type of unexpected gem of a role Keitel has made his trademark during his 50-year career.
Born in Brooklyn to a Romanian mother and Polish father who ran a delicatessen, he turned to acting in his 20s, after a stint in the Marine Corps, and trained at New York’s Actors Studio.
A long time champion of first-time directors, he worked with Martin Scorsese on his debut Who’s That Knocking At My Door and also on Quentin Tarantino’s first feature length film Reservoir Dogs - and is keen to continue collaborating with rising talent.
“It is very important,” he explains, “because it was very important for me to emerge as a human being.
“I started out being very closed off, cut off. I didn’t read books. When I moved to Manhattan and decided to commit to becoming an actor, I met these wonderful people who were from all different places around the States, had gone to college and had good educations.
“I’d been thrown out of high school, and when I met these people in these classrooms, they were just so exciting. They knew so much and they introduced me to literature and art and dance and music and whatnot, and the world began to open for me.”
As the world opened for Keitel, so too did a healthy vat of roles. He breathed life into small time criminal Charlie in Mean Streets, pimp ‘Sport’ in Taxi Driver, sailor George in The Piano, and for those who like their dramas a little lighter, no-good mobster boyfriend Vince to Whoopi Goldberg’s worldly singer-turned-nun in Sister Act.
Though arguably his star shone brightest in the early Nineties, with Reservoir Dogs, Thelma & Louise and Pulp Fiction, there have been unexpected choices alongside the blockbusters too, the odd run-of-the-mill comedy and indie flick.
And it was apparent from the offset that Youth ticked a lot of his boxes.
“What do I like about the script? Besides the vague and unsatisfactory ‘everything’, let me try and get more specific,” says the diminutive actor, who is smartly suited and booted when we meet.
“Cinema follows theatre. Theatre was for people to present what concerns them in their lives and the community and offer it to an audience, so they may discuss these conflicts and overcome them.
“One of my first parties I ever went to in Hollywood, I was sitting next to a young woman,” begins Keitel, who worked as a court reporter early in his career.
“I didn’t know hardly anybody at the party. Anyway, I asked this young lady, ‘What do you do?’ and she said, ‘It’s boring. You wouldn’t want to know. She was at this Hollywood party so she thought she wasn’t special because she was a court stenographer. But she was special.”
Clearly, the same praise is often levelled at Keitel too, but he remains pragmatic about it, suggesting fame and being famous is like being in a “revolving door”.
“It’s enjoyable to be recognised for your work, and I suppose for my beautiful body and face,” he says with a laugh.
“It can become admirable whatever the work is, if the person doing it admires it themselves.”
And he’s not too proud to take inspiration from unexpected sources.
“When my daughter was about three years old, we were playing together and she wanted to play mummy and baby,” Keitel recalls, explaining that the game involved mimicking breastfeeding.
“I think I said, ‘First of all, I’m not Mummy, I can’t do that’. She said, ‘I know Daddy, I just go like this’, and she made these sucking sounds without touching my chest. Then she finished drinking her imaginary milk and she said, ‘It’s your turn Daddy’.
“And I said, ‘I can’t do that. I’m not a baby and you’re not Mummy’, and she said something that changed my life. She said, ‘It’s just imagination’.
“That taught me so much about being uptight, you know, strict, rigid... It made me understand the imagination more so than I had ever understood. That it’s OK to imagine, it’s OK to play.”
He is keen to learn from his youngest child, 11-year-old son Roman, as well.
“I’m interested in him becoming a person of experience, and then he’ll teach me,” adds Keitel, who is married to actress Daphna Kastner.
But not before Roman has sized him up.
“My 11-year-old son said to me the other day, ‘I’m lucky Dad because you have your hair. It means I’ll have mine!’” the actor reveals.
With a full head of hair and a hefty work schedule - drama Lies We Tell, short Outlaws (which also stars David Beckham) and action series Rio Heat also beckon - he is clearly no slouch.
“Work only gets more exciting because there’s only more things,” reasons Keitel.
“As I learn more and become more proficient and confident about what I’m doing, it opens up and pours into the skin.”