Harvey Keitel has arrived at the 2010 Toronto Film Festival with Jonathan Sobol's dark comedy A Beginner's Guide To Endings, and he's clearly delighted to be back at TIFF.
The festival helped cement his indie-god status in the early 90s with the trifecta of Reservoir Dogs, Bad Lieutenant and The Piano, and he attends whenever he can.
People love him here, and why wouldn't they? The guy's a legend, with a body of work that's not only amazing for what he's done (Scorsese's Mean Streets and Taxi Driver, Ridley Scott's The Duellists, Nicolas Roeg's Bad Timing: A Sensual Obsession), but for what he didn't get to do - Keitel worked on Apocalypse Now and Eyes Wide Shut before being replaced by Martin Sheen and Sydney Pollack respectively. And now, as he eases into his 70s, he's trying to make people laugh.
Note: this interview was conducted in September 2010, when Moonrise Kingdom was just a glimmer in Wes Anderson's eye. But Keitel's in that, too.
I associate you with such definitive dramatic performances that it's still a little weird to see you turn up in comedies.
You know, I've done comedy in the past. Granted, they've been some old films - Robert Altman's Buffalo Bill And The Indians, and a couple of others. I can't even think of them now, but I've just done one called The Last Godfather, it'll be out, I believe the beginning of January, around there. And also I did a cameo in Little Fockers. So, two comedy roles coming out.
And your name came up as a possible replacement when Steve Carell announced he was leaving The Office.
It was interesting the way that happened, because I didn't know about it. Some people called me; I said "What? How the heck did this ever happen?" Then I read that one of the producers of the show had seen some of the comedy I'd done: Monkey Trouble. It was not a successful movie, but the script was really great, and one of my favourite comedy roles. And this one producer was speaking about me as having comic potential. He had seen Monkey Trouble and some other things I did, so he was sort of putting me out there. And that's how I think that all got started.
There's also the fact that A Beginner's Guide To Endings is a pretty small movie, made by a first-time writer/director. You bounce between established filmmakers and newbies fairly often - is that a conscious strategy?
It's a formula I've come up with to experiment. What better way to be a mad scientist than to experiment? Some of the most successful films I've done were with first-time writer/directors, Scorsese and Tarantino and a whole bunch of others.
What specifically drew you to this one?
I had read the script, that's what got me into this. [My part is] mostly narration, as you know, but the script was so well written, and I thought Jonathan had a [kind of] poetry. And once I saw the movie, [I thought], "This guy, there's no stopping his imagination, that's for sure." I hope he's going to have a lot of success with the movie and go on to do wonderful things.
In the first five minutes your character learns he's inadvertently condemned his three adult sons to an early death and then throws himself into the Niagara River. It seems challenging to build a comedy out of that premise.
You know, this was a film - a script - that [Stanley] Kubrick would have liked to have directed. All these elements that you are mentioning are contained in that story. And there's something surreal about the film, about the style of the film. I'm not sure what adjective to give it exactly, "surreal" or "black comedy."
I would have gone with "absurdist."
Absurd, theatre of the absurd, it has that for me. While he wrote about this passionate journey over Niagara Falls emotionally, metaphorically speaking, that's what it is for me. The power of the Falls, the power of this family falling. That's my connection to it.
Had you been to Niagara Falls before?
No. I didn't even know there was an American side and a Canadian side. [laughing] I hate to admit my ignorance. It was really exciting [for me] because of the Frank Sinatra song, and just thinking about being a boy growing up and hearing about Niagara Falls, imagining Indians running around the place, you know. And then getting there and seeing it - it has so much history; it's just a powerful place to be. I'm not surprised that Jonathan chose that as a metaphor for his point.
Switching topics somewhat, you've never seemed to be interested in having the career - or the lifestyle - of a movie star.
I don't think there was ever a chance I could live in an ivory tower. I mean, I was born and brought up in a little flat on top of a Chinese laundry in Brooklyn. My roots are somewhere other than that ivory tower; I wouldn't be so comfortable there. Not that I dislike comfort, by the way. I love great food, so that was never a fear of mine. You use the words "movie star." I'd [define that as] having a life nobody could approach versus a life that anybody can approach, including myself. So the choice becomes almost nil.
You make really interesting choices, though. In 1988, you played Judas Iscariot in Scorsese's The Last Temptation Of Christ and then played Pontius Pilate in Damiano Damiani's The Inquiry. Most actors would just do one Bible picture, but you took both roles and delivered distinctly different performances. Is it just about being open to any opportunity?
Now you're forcing me into sounding corny; I'll start saying corny things, which I don't like to read other actors say. It's living a life. Your friends, your women, it's about making choices: how are you gonna live your life? I set out to try to have a life, and not only that, [but] to discover what that even means. And in that environment, these first-time situations are going to arise. It's my good fortune, it's my good luck, that I wound up in these environments that we're talking about.
And how's it going?
It's a great life. I'm having a great life. I think this is the time of my life, as a matter of fact.
Is there anything you feel you haven't yet accomplished?
Sure, yeah. I'd like to have control over everything I do, and choose every part I want. That hasn't happened. [laughing] How's that for a start?
Are there any specific roles you want to play?
I'd have to attach that to certain kind of stories I'd like to tell. But I've really been very lucky - you know, I can't cry about my career. I've had a chance to experience a lot of these elements of being that we all share - to find out about them, to discover them. That's the gift of theatre, of being in the arts. Any art.
Are there any filmmakers with whom you're hoping to work?
There are some really wonderful talents around that I'd like to work with. I mean, I couldn't name one for you just now, but certainly there have been great films made over these past few years. By American directors, Italian directors - I'm thinking about, particularly, Gomorrah and Il Divo, an incredible film. Sean Penn's film [Into The Wild], Julian Schnabel's film [The Diving Bell And The Butterfly], Julie Taymor's film [The Tempest] - there have been some incredible pieces of work lately.
Yeah, but if you work with Schnabel, you have to see him in a dress.
Oh, he's an artist. And it's not a dress, it's a sarong.