Harvey Keitel: No time to look back

Harvey Keitel may be 65, and life-achievement awards may beckon, but, as he tells Sheila Johnston, he has still got his eye on the doughnut
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Always a deliberate man, Harvey Keitel had been brooding on what he would say when picking up his lifetime- achievement award at the Istanbul Film Festival. "I've decided," he told me, when we met on the morning of the ceremony, "to say that I'm not going to accept the award. But..." He pauses for dramatic effect. "I will take it with me." Lifetime- achievement awards are for doddery oldsters and has-beens, and Keitel, who turns 66 in May, wouldn't wish to be regarded as one of those.

He has appeared in more than 100 films, and shows no sign of stopping. Some will go down in cinema history, such as his work with Martin Scorsese, in Mean Streets and Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore. Or with Jane Campion - also in Istanbul, presiding over the jury - in The Piano and Holy Smoke. Or with Quentin Tarantino, in Reservoir Dogs, which Keitel co-produced, and Pulp Fiction. Others will not, such as Be Cool, the recent sequel to Get Shorty, in which Keitel has a comic cameo.

Keitel's arrival at his press conference the previous day was heralded by the sound of wheels - the actor was pushing a buggy bearing Roman, his eight-month-old son with the Israeli actress Daphna Kastner, his wife since 2001. Keitel Jr provided an excellent photo-opportunity, but became a major distraction in the course of the next hour, gurgling in the background, grabbing camera cables and crawling across the floor as his father beamed. "C'mon, here, good boy. Up and at 'em, son."

The journalists' patience was tested, but they rallied with some serious and respectful questions about Stanislavsky and the Actors Studio (Keitel is a president of this New York institution, home of the Method), and the future of theatre. Keitel loved this line of questioning and replied at length, if sometimes obscurely. "I want to be actorly here," he declared. "I want your young actors and directors to be clear about what I'm saying, especially about the Work, with a capital 'W'."

Despite his commanding presence on screen, Keitel is, like so many film actors, shorter than expected (5ft 7in), with a dusting of grey stubble, and thick, long, wavy hair. He still speaks with the accent of his native Brooklyn, embellished by the flowery, slightly formal phrasing of a self-taught man. He works the room like a pro, telling the journalist from Athens how much he enjoyed working with the Greek director Theo Angelopoulos (for Ulysses' Gaze); and the journalist from Lisbon how much he loves fado and how Portuguese is one of his favourite languages.

I meet him again over breakfast (sans Roman) in the Ottoman splendour of the Ciragan Palace on the banks of the Bosporus. Keitel is in a sunny mood and enthuses about his first visit to a hammam. He orders a double decaff espresso with milk on the side, which he slurps appreciatively throughout the interview, and a couple of simit, Istanbul's version of the bagel.

Keitel is a true New Yorker. His father ran a diner on Brighton Beach. Both parents were immigrants (Romanian mother, Italian father), although he now admits that, despite his love of Portuguese and his penchant for appearing in foreign-language films, he is strictly monolingual. "We spoke English at home. My parents were trying to integrate."

He joined the Marines at 17, serving in Lebanon and learning, he says, the values of "sacrifice and friendship". After that he was a shoe salesman and worked for eight years as a court stenographer. Then, in 1968, he replied to an ad for a role in a New York University student film. It was Who's That Knocking at My Door? by Scorsese.

Their partnership continued with Mean Streets (1973), Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore (1974) and Taxi Driver (1976). By the mid-Seventies, Keitel should have been the poster boy for the new generation of movie brats, but for two bad breaks. Cast as Willard, the burnt-out captain in Apocalypse Now, Keitel fell out with Francis Ford Coppola and was fired after only two weeks. The same year, the star-making lead in Taxi Driver, originally reserved for him, went to De Niro instead at the producers' insistence.

Some critics feel that Keitel has laboured in De Niro's shadow ever since (though it is less true now, given the latter's lamentable choice of recent roles). Certainly, Keitel's own career has been a rollercoaster ride of peaks and valleys. "Sometimes there's an abundance of good material; sometimes there's a lack of that abundance," he says. "The films I've been doing lately, I don't give them much weight. A lot of them have been commercial and done to support the very personal work I've been doing. I'm not sure it's worth it. But you always approach them in the same way, if at different levels. Have a good time. Sometimes," he adds, quoting Freud, "a cigar is just a cigar.

"I'm doin' my best, Sheila, I'm tryin' hard. I've had my ups and downs." He sighs. "Good old ups and downs. Where would we be without them? Certainly not in the real world. That's been my experience, not only in my career but in my life so far, and our task is to make our downs part of our ups. There's a phrase I've often brought to mind to help me through tough times: 'Keep your eye on the doughnut, Harvey, and not on the hole.' I guess that's my existential struggle right now."

Keitel's best performances have plunged into those existential frays and black nights of the divided soul: his violent concert pianist in James Toback's Fingers (1978), remade this year by Jacques Audiard, or his tormented, drug-addicted cop in Abel Ferrara's Bad Lieutenant (1992). He specifically requested two of his darkest roles, as Judas in Martin Scorsese's The Last Temptation of Christ (1988), and as an SS officer in Tim Blake Nelson's The Grey Zone (2001), about the corruption of both the Germans and the Jews who ran the gas chambers in Auschwitz. "When I was a boy in Brooklyn, when we played soldiers, we liked being Nazis," explains Keitel, who is Jewish. "We didn't have a real grasp of the Holocaust, but we liked the uniforms. Maybe we were attracted by the skull and crossbones, also a pirate symbol... But how could we have done that?"

He also executive-produced The Grey Zone, through his company, The Goatsingers (named after he read in a biography of Aeschylus that the Greek word for tragedy is made up of the word for goat and for song), and the film, possibly the most nihilistic ever made, was certainly less profitable for him than Reservoir Dogs; it never opened in Britain.

Keitel has served his time in therapy and says that it was beneficial, but now his self-exploration has moved on to another plane. "I'm beginning to have a better time because I'm learning the discipline of Sitting, with a capital 'S'. It has brought me into a relationship with the self that I've been seeking. It's fierce, this place, by the way. A friend asked me once, 'Harvey, are you a Buddhist?'. I said, 'I Sit'. He said, 'You Sit?' in a sarcastic tone. 'If you meditate, aren't you supposed to be at peace with yourself? If you Sit, why are you so intense all the time?' I replied once again, 'I Sit... on fire.' You know, I'm very excited about Sitting," he adds.

He is currently reading two books, the titles of which could sum up the complex Keitel universe: An End to Suffering, by Pankaj Mishrah, an autobiography about his journey to Buddha, and Living with the Devil, by Stephen Batchelor, a former Tibetan Zen monk. If he were not an actor, he would like to be a Reader, he says.

There is a shadowy side to Keitel's private life, too. His first marriage, in 1984, to Lorraine Bracco, who played Gandolfini's shrink in The Sopranos, ended in 1991 after she left him for the actor Edward James Olmos (Keitel's cocaine abuse and declining career were contributing factors). They have a daughter, Stella, now 19, and the couple's acrimony escalated through the Nineties, when sexual allegations were made against Olmos by a 14-year-old babysitter (withdrawn after Olmos made a substantial payment to the girl's family).

With Olmos also under threat from the Mexican mafia following a film he made about them, Keitel sued for custody of his daughter. The case rumbled on, ultimately without success for Keitel, who gave a rare interview about it in 1998 to New York magazine. That profile, while broadly sympathetic to his plight, also portrayed him as a relentless, unhappy, driven man.

Still, by the end of the decade, things were looking up for the actor, with a string of well-received hits, including Thelma and Louise, The Piano and Pulp Fiction. In 1992, he had also been finally nominated for an Oscar for his relentless killer in Warren Beatty's Bugsy. He was dating again, too: younger actresses such as Embeth Davidtz and Heather Bracken.

In 2000, Keitel took up with Lisa Karmazin, a potter from San Diego, who became pregnant. Their son Hudson was born two weeks before his father married Kastner in a secret ceremony in Jerusalem.

Hudson does not share his younger stepbrother's place in the limelight of Keitel's life. His father was not present at his birth and saw him only three times in the following year, or so it was claimed in the long court battles over Keitel's child-support payments (payments that might not be unrelated to some of the actor's more recent career choices).

Keitel, so eloquent when talking about the Work or Sitting, is less keen to talk about the Family. "I'm not going to discuss that situation," he says with an air of finality, and though he has been thoroughly gracious up to that point, I get a brief glimpse of a man whom it would be best not to cross.