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Moment Of Truth In 'Youth' Hits Home For Actor Harvey Keitel


An aging film director, a retired composer, a lost Hollywood star and Miss Universe all walk into a health spa in the Swiss Alps. That's the set-up for "Youth," a new film by Paolo Sorrentino. Michael Caine plays a conductor who seems to have lost his zest for music and life since his wife became sick. His best friend in the film is played by Harvey Keitel, a movie director who's trying to get the backing for one last great production. So they soak in hot tubs. They get slathered with mud and seek relief in massages as they reminisce and ruminate. Harvey Keitel joins us from New York. Thanks so much for being with us.

HARVEY KEITEL: Thank you for having me, Scott.

SIMON: Why'd you want to do a film like this, to get a lot of mud baths?

KEITEL: (Laughter) Scott, I've been stuck in the mud for a long time.

SIMON: (Laughter).

KEITEL: I did not need another mud bath.


SIMON: What about the character called out to you?

KEITEL: This director I play is not only making a great film - because he doesn't know that yet - but it's to be his summing up, if you will, of his life's work. And he's trying to find an ending for that film.

SIMON: Yeah.

KEITEL: That one moment of truth that's going to sum up his epic. And to be in that place, examining life in that critical way, any actor would have been happy to play - have that moment to reflect on their own lives, see what they can cull from the screenplay that's going to help them to live their own lives more fluidly.

SIMON: You and Michael Caine play long-standing friends who have a very close relationship...

KEITEL: (Laughter) Yeah.

SIMON: In the movie, which prompts the question, did you just meet on the set of this film or do you guys go back a ways?

KEITEL: Well (laughter), everyone does make the assumption that we've been friends for years, and I understand why, but we just met on the set, really. But the assumption has a background to it, which is kind of simply that Michael Caine is a cockney lad. I'm a Brooklyn guy. Michael served in the British Army. I served in the U.S. Marines. So we had that language to share.

SIMON: Yeah. I love the scene between you and Jane Fonda's character. She plays a Hollywood actress named Brenda Morel who you rely on to kind of bring your production in.

KEITEL: That's sort of like what real life is like in Hollywood. You need stars to gain financing. And in this particular instance in our story, Brenda, the character that Jane Fonda plays, is that person that is the green light for this epic and culminating story of this director's life.

SIMON: I have to share something with you. You will not remember, but we met years ago in Sarajevo. Manoli Wetherell, who's our New York - one of our New York bureau engineers, she was actually with me at the time there.

KEITEL: Oh, my gosh.

SIMON: And we were on a street in Sarajevo. And we saw a man. And Manoli said to me, doesn't that guy look like Harvey Keitel? And I said, you know, life is amazing. He just - some guy you see on the street here in Sarajevo - and, like, you know, back in New York people would get all excited because it's Harvey Keitel. And then, you know, later on that day it - what was then euphemistically called the Holiday Inn - we met you. And it was Harvey Keitel (laughter).

KEITEL: My goodness. My goodness. I remember that - I mean, I remember the Holiday Inn so well because when we went for dinner, we had to keep our back to a certain wall because they said there were snipers...

SIMON: Snipers, yeah.

KEITEL: On one side of the line that the Holiday Inn was on.

SIMON: Yeah.

KEITEL: And the other guys on the other side. So we made sure we were not facing the side where the windows exposed us to snipers.

SIMON: Let me go back to the character that you play - this director. What does he want from his last great film?

KEITEL: Well, I think he wants, most of all, to find that moment of truth he speaks about for his ending that seems to be eluding him. And it is significant to me. I believe every day when I wake up and go to bed and during my dreaming time there's some moment of truth that's in front of me that will always be in front of me until the end of days.

SIMON: Your character has a line toward the end of the film. I won't give away the circumstances. But the line's been running around in my head for the past 24 hours. Your character tells Michael Caine's character, I believe, we're all extras.

KEITEL: I'm going to go to Stanislavski to help me with this answer, the great discoverer of the method, who said there were no small parts, only small actors. So an extra could be a misleading term. And my advice to any actor who's playing, quote, unquote, "extra" to think of it more like Stanislavski did. It's not a small part. You are the lead in the movie, in your own movie.

SIMON: Your own movie meaning your life?

KEITEL: That's what I mean.

SIMON: Harvey Keitel. He stars in "Youth" with Michael Caine and Jane Fonda. Thanks so much for being with us.

KEITEL: Thank you, Scott. And thanks for being in Sarajevo with me.

SIMON: My pleasure.

KEITEL: Mine. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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