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MOVIES : Leaps of Faith : Harvey Keitel’s search for God often involves confronting his darker self; case in point: ‘Reservoir Dogs’

<i> Kristine McKenna is a frequent contributor to Calendar</i>

In 1968, 29-year-old actor Harvey Keitel introduced himself to the movies by starring in “Who’s That Knocking at My Door?,” the first film by his pal, director Martin Scorsese. Set against the backdrop of the strict Catholicism of New York’s Little Italy, the film examined a young man’s struggle to reconcile the sacred and the profane and was an intensely personal experience for both men. Keitel received decent notices for his performance while Scorsese got decidedly mixed reviews, but it was Scorsese who skyrocketed to critical acclaim in 1973 with his next film, “Mean Streets,” which also featured a scintillating performance by Keitel. For some inexplicable reason, however, it has taken Keitel a bit longer to move into the spotlight: 19 years, to be exact.

A respected character actor who has turned in solid performances in 37 films, Keitel has finessed an astonishingly wide range of parts, stretching from Thomas Paine (in “La Nuit de Varennes”) to the smooth-talking pimp Sport in “Taxi Driver,” to the feminist police officer of “Thelma & Louise,” but roles that would establish him as a leading man have thus far eluded him.

That’s about to change. Voted 1991’s best supporting actor by the National Society of Film Critics for his work in “Mortal Thoughts,” “Thelma & Louise” and “Bugsy” (which also garnered him Oscar and Golden Globe nominations for his portrayal of mobster Mickey Cohen), Keitel has four films scheduled for release, two of which--"Reservoir Dogs,” which opens Friday, and “The Bad Lieutenant” (Dec. 30th)--are being touted by industry insiders as showcasing the finest work he’s ever done. Though both films have drawn some criticism for their relentless violence, the praise for Keitel’s work in them has been unanimous.

“My career has really picked up steam all of a sudden and I wish I knew what made that happen, because if I did I would’ve made it happen 10 years ago,” says the 53-year-old actor.

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He plans to direct his first film next year and has a supporting role in “The Specialist,” John Badham’s remake of “La Femme Nikita” starring Bridget Fonda and Gabriel Byrne. “I really can’t tell you why things are going so well now.”

His friend Scorsese has an idea why. “Harvey’s career has finally kicked into high gear because he’s a damn good actor,” he flatly declares. “There are a lot of hard knocks in this business but he hasn’t let that get him and has just kept working. That’s the only thing you can do, and if you’re any good, people eventually start to notice.”

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Keitel is living in Malibu while he concludes shooting “Rising Sun,” the Philip Kaufman cop-thriller co-starring Sean Connery and Wesley Snipes. Based on the novel by Michael Crichton that generated a good deal of controversy for its alleged Japan-bashing, “Rising Sun” features Keitel in “the role of a bigot. I’d rather wait until I’ve seen the film to comment on it,” he says, closing the subject.

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While in Los Angeles, Keitel will also loop the sound for New Zealand director Jane Campion’s third film, “The Piano,” a love story co-starring Sam Neill and Holly Hunter set for release next year. Cast as a Britisher in a New Zealand settlement in the 1840s, Keitel describes the making of the film, which was shot from January to May of this year in New Zealand, as “a fantastic experience. Jane Campion is a goddess, really an incredible lady.”

Off camera, Keitel is the very antithesis of his image. Though a quick perusal of Keitel’s filmography suggests he’s taken pains to resist being typecast, he is nonetheless known for his expertise at playing macho thugs, white-trash misogynists and sneaky street punks. In person, however, Keitel comes across as an emotionally open, deeply spiritual man with an impressive knowledge of philosophy, theology and history. Sauntering into his beachfront back yard on a Saturday morning, barefoot, dressed in workout clothes, clutching a cup of coffee and a Power Bar, he doffs his sunglasses for a moment and says, “We have to meet with our eyes before we start talking.”

Having thus met, the reporter asks Keitel if he would discuss his childhood and upbringing, subjects not always discussed in articles about him. Keitel slowly puts his Power Bar on the picnic table and after a long moment of silence replies, “I’m not gonna tell you my earliest memories because they’re very personal, but I do remember very far back--to my infancy, in fact. As to whether those memories are pleasant or painful, I’ve learned over the course of my life that memories I once considered painful have been the greatest source of revelation in my life, so it’s too simple to say they’re positive or negative.”

Having established the boundaries of how much he’s willing to reveal, Keitel offers a loosely sketched autobiography. “I was born in Brooklyn in 1939, I grew up in Brighton Beach, and I have a brother and a sister--I’m the baby of the family so be gentle with me,” he laughs. “My mother was Polish and my father was Romanian and they were hard-working, struggling immigrants--my mother worked at a luncheonette and my father worked at a factory as a sewing machine operator and they could barely read or write. Life demanded of them that they work hard for their family and they did so, and I admire them deeply for that.”

Keitel’s parents were devoutly religious and he was bar mitzvahed, but “religion meant nothing to me when I was growing up because it was never made clear to me how the stories and myths in the Bible were relevant to my life,” recalls Keitel, who preferred to hang out at the local pool hall with a gang keen on stealing cars and robbing pigeon coops. “We weren’t taught to question the teachings handed down from God--we were simply taught to be fearful, and it’s a sin religion isn’t taught with more feeling for the beauty of the stories. Fortunately, I discovered the poetry of those stories for myself later in life, and my feelings about all this have changed a great deal. All I have to do now is look up at the sky and ask ‘What is that?’ and ‘How did it get there?’ to remind myself I’m a great believer in God.”

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At the age of 17, Keitel dropped out of high school and joined the Marines. He was stationed in Lebanon and he describes his three years in the Marines as “a spiritual journey that had a profound effect on me.” He became a court stenographer on his release in 1959, a job he was to hold for eight years. His acting career began one day in 1964 when a friend at work suggested they go for acting lessons. Though Keitel had struggled with a stuttering problem since childhood, he agreed to give it a shot.

“I wasn’t one of those kids who was obsessed with movies and I initially began acting because I thought it would bring me fame and money,” he recalls. “Along the way I found out that’s not what it’s about. When I began acting, I had this very dedicated actor friend named Rufus Collins--hello, Rufus, if you read this, wherever you are--and we were studying together at this little theater in Greenwich Village. I was living in Brooklyn then and Rufus kept urging me to move to Manhattan because he said I could never become an actor living in Brooklyn. I told Rufus I wasn’t interested in being an artist and that I just wanted to be rich and he scorned me for that. I can see now that I hid behind the desire to be rich because I was afraid to feel my inner workings and acknowledge my need to make a contribution and create something.”

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Keitel began to discover that need at the legendary Actor’s Studio, where he studied with Lee Strasberg and Stella Adler, who gave him a firm grounding in Method acting, an approach to performing generally regarded as decidedly New Yorkesque. “I wouldn’t describe my acting style as New Yorkesque because the system I studied under, the Stanislavsky method, began in Russia and draws a lot from the Greeks,” says Keitel, who continues to study at the Actor’s Studio. “So contrary to what many people think, it’s a classical approach rather than a New York street style.”

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Keitel’s first chance to apply what he was learning came in 1965 when he answered an ad placed by film student Martin Scorsese, who was looking for actors to appear in “Who’s That Knocking at My Door?,” a film he planned to make.

“When Marty and I met it was like two comrades meeting on the way somewhere,” Keitel recalls with a smile. “I asked him where he was going and we discovered we were trying to get to the same place, so we held hands and got scared and walked along together.”

Says Scorsese of their meeting 27 years ago: “What struck me about Harvey was his tremendous passion and that’s the quality that’s carried me through with him on each of the five films we’ve done together. He pays scrupulous attention to the smallest detail of a role and is always intensely supportive of the project as a whole, and watching his work evolve over the years I’ve seen him get deeper and deeper into himself. Harvey travels into very forbidding regions of his soul for his work, and he’s able to have that experience and put it on the screen in an absolutely genuine way I find very touching.”

Keitel had featured roles in Scorsese’s next three films, and their collaboration resumed in 1988 with Keitel’s unconventional portrayal of Judas Iscariot in “The Last Temptation of Christ.”

“Harvey and I have always shared an interest in the questions of God, faith, redemption, and what makes a man good in relation to other people and to God,” says Scorsese of themes central to both of their bodies of work. “How should a person act in certain situations and what constitutes ethical behavior? We’ve had many long conversations about this. We haven’t come up with any answers, of course--you just live and the answers change second by second.”

These moral dilemmas are very much at the heart of “Reservoir Dogs,” the story of eight men ensnared in a botched robbery. The debut by writer-director Quentin Tarantino, shot in five weeks during the summer of 1991 on location in Highland Park for $1.5 million, the independent film was largely a vision in Tarantino’s head until Keitel committed himself to the leading role and agreed to co-produce it.

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“I always had Harvey in mind as the perfect guy to play this character but I never dreamed he’d do it,” says Tarantino, a former actor who also appears in the film. “Not only did he take the part, but his attaching himself to the film gave it legitimacy and made it possible for us to get financing.

“Harvey’s a throwback to a kind of actor that was big in the ‘40s and ‘50s, but doesn’t really exist anymore,” continues Tarantino in explaining what made Keitel ideal for his film. “Ralph Meeker, Sterling Hayden, Lee Marvin, Robert Mitchum, Aldo Ray--those guys had an inherent hardness that’s a result of age, experience and environment, and most actors today don’t have that quality because they haven’t lived the life those guys lived. But Harvey has--he was a Marine and did lots of different things before he began acting. If another actor were to play the part he has in my film they’d have to spend the duration of the film trying to convince you they were as tough as Harvey is when he walks through the door. Since Harvey has that toughness in his back pocket, it frees him to do other things and nuance the role in surprising ways.”

Says Keitel: “I’m usually attracted to a role because it mirrors something I’m grappling with in my own life, and I was impressed by the original way ‘Reservoir Dogs’ addresses the themes of betrayal and the need to have a friend.”

Keitel, whose eight-year marriage to actress Lorraine Bracco began to unravel in 1990 amid rumors of a relationship between Bracco and actor-director Edward James Olmos, continues: “I play a man who’s a skilled thief and has committed murder, yet he still has a profound need to care for somebody. It’s very difficult to accept that need and say I’m not so tough after all. The real toughness is in admitting to the need for love.”

If Keitel’s character in “Reservoir Dogs” wanders from the path of righteousness, the man he plays in “Bad Lieutenant” douses that path with gasoline and torches it. The story of a strung-out New York cop so hardened by his job that he’s embarked on a depraved bender of sex and drugs, Abel Ferrara’s film offers Keitel a meaty role reminiscent of “Raging Bull’s” Jake LaMotta in the brutal look it takes at a man descending into the darkest part of himself. Keitel is on screen in virtually every frame of this intensely disturbing film, and the performance he turns in can only be described as frightening.

“I wanted to play this part because I have a deep desire to know God and knowing God isn’t just a matter of going to confession and praying,” Keitel says. “We also find God by confronting evil, and this character gave me the opportunity to descend into the most painful part of myself and learn about that dark place. Call it what you will--the abyss, the holy void, the place where heaven and hell merge into the same experience--this is the place where man learns. Organized religion does everything but push people away from engaging in the quest to know God and we need a new approach to this very basic human need. I’m proud of ‘Bad Lieutenant’ because I think it serves that need by exploring the hell we encounter in our daily lives.”

Ferrara had never written a script with a specific actor in mind, but was thinking about Keitel from the very first draft of “Bad Lieutenant,” which he co-wrote with Zoe Lund.

“Harvey was right for this part because in addition to having incredible technique, he immerses himself in his work with a great deal of courage,” says Ferrara, who plans to shoot another film with Keitel early next year. Titled “Snake Eyes” and based on a script written by Ferrara and Nick St. John, the film casts Keitel as a director. “For me, acting is about putting your emotions out there where other people can see them, and Harvey’s not afraid to do that. When we were writing the script we thought it was a real long shot he’d do the film because we knew he was booked for a long time, but he read the script and really responded to it. I think this story was something he needed to do at this point in his life.”

“I began to ask the questions central to this film many years ago,” Keitel confirms. “In a sense ‘Bad Lieutenant’ was destiny for me because it spoke directly to my own impulses to do bad--and this has been a hell of a struggle for me,” he laughs. “Fortunately, there are resources to help us in this struggle. One has to go to friends and to the literature and I’m fortunate in that I’ve found great literature that’s given me strength for the struggle to find God. Elaine Pagels, Joseph Campbell, Robert Bly, Rollo May, Jung--I’ve had great teachers in the search to find what’s right.”

Asked about the moral rightness of the graphic sex and violence in “Bad Lieutenant,” he counters that “films that engage in gratuitous sex, nudity and violence are immoral, and there’s not a gratuitous scene in this film.

“And are the things we see in this film really that extreme? Do we all have the potential to sink to the level this man sinks to? I’m reluctant to speak for all of humanity, but all I can say is dear me, the sky is falling,” he concludes. “Look around at the state this world is in for the answer to those questions. And, in the face of the evil in the world and in the heart of man, one has to allow themselves to be stirred and scared to death because that’s the only way we can gain the knowledge we need to redeem ourselves. All knowledge is merely a beginning, of course, but I feel I’m finally beginning to accumulate some knowledge. I began to sense this happening in me in the past year and a half, and it’s a great feeling.”


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