Harvey Keitel Can Trace His Acting Approach Back To A Piece Of Marine Wisdom

Harvey Keitel is known as one of Hollywood's best "tough guy" actors. A favorite accomplice of directors like Martin Scorsese and Quentin Tarantino, movies like "Mean Streets," "Reservoir Dogs," and "The Irishman" have cemented Keitel as an acting legend. His rough and streetwise demeanor suits his often criminal characters perfectly. He has a tendency to work with new, up-and-coming directors, helping legends like Scorsese, Tarantino, and Ridley Scott launch what would become fantastic directing careers.

But Keitel wasn't always going to be an actor. He wasn't in his first movie until the age of 28. Before then, he spent time as a United States Marine and a court stenographer, performing in a few off-Broadway productions before getting his first big role in Scorsese's debut film, "Who's That Knocking At My Door?" in 1967. According to Keitel, who spoke about his relationship with Scorsese at the Marrakech Film Festival in 2019, "Scorsese was the only one who wanted me." It was professional love at first sight, and the two would work together many times throughout their long and illustrious careers.

Interestingly, after working with so many film greats, Keitel credits his time in the Marines with teaching him one of his greatest lessons as an actor.

Learning the darkness

In an interview with Charlie Rose in 1994, Keitel spoke about his time in the Marines and what he learned from it. "Back in my mind, I will tell you, is an event that occurred back when I was 17 years old — I've spoke about this before — when I was a marine private on Paris Island," said the actor, waxing a sort of dark nostalgic. He spoke of sitting in the dark, ready to learn about night combat with hundreds of other marines. He was scared. He figured everybody was scared, but wouldn't admit it.

What he remembered most clearly was a marine instructor, not much older than him, speaking to the group. "We sit down, this marine instructor gets up there in the darkness — we couldn't even see him — and he said to us, 'You're all afraid of the darkness because we're all afraid of what we don't know. I'm going to teach you about the darkness, so that you learn how to live in it.'" These chilling words have stuck with Keitel over all these years. "For me, that was the first time I had heard words like that. Wisdom coming from this young marine. I was 17, then he was probably a man of, God knows, maybe 24 or 5. And so that was my introduction into the mythology."

Spark in the dark

The words he heard, and the way they were spoken, clearly deeply impacted Keitel. He would start studying acting under Stella Adler and Lee Strasburg, and combined the knowledge he gained from his teachers with his natural predilection for cool intensity. He would bring that sort of quiet, confident intensity and darkness to many of his roles. Whether playing a young criminal in "Mean Streets" or an experienced and grizzled one in "Reservoir Dogs," Keitel always has an intensity to his performances, one that manages to be intimidating while still implying the existence of another level of darkness, just waiting to get a chance to emerge.

Keitel carried this lesson, along with a certain discipline and seriousness, throughout his career as an actor. Even in his sillier roles, like getting carried around by Edward Norton dressed as a boy scout, he maintained his harsh visage, his signature trait.

Keitel's story shows that artists can find inspiration for almost anywhere. That someone who's working as a soldier — hardly a job where one is encouraged to think creatively — can come away loving acting makes it clear that an amazing artist can emerge from anywhere. As long as that spark of passion is present.