Michael O’Keefe

 

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(USA)

 

 

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RD: – My dear Michael O’Keefe, you’re a well-known American actor, a film actor, a television producer, a complex artist. You have been nominated for many major awards, you have earned prizes and noteworthy awards, you are interested in Buddhism, you breathe, one might say, the magical air of cinematographic peaks… Tell us, please, how did you become an actor?

 

MO: – As a child, I was very active, I wanted to learn and do a lot of things. I went to school, I studied, I had wonderful experiences as a young man. I even helped to launch a theatre in New York City, the Colonnades Theatre Lab.
I’ve been working on TV series and films since I was nineteen years old. Now almost fifty years later, I feel very comfortable on film sets.

 

RD: – What is your greatest satisfaction in that world of speaking, of the oratory arts? A very competitive world, where you have to fight to keep the attention of producers and directors…

 

MO: – Frankly, I’m not entirely satisfied as an artist, and maybe that’s what pushes me to keep going. I always think that there’s something else I’d like to have and that I haven’t achieved in my life as an actor. So why stop?! I continue looking for what I haven’t had.

 

RD: – They say more and more often that the world of an actor is like the world of an athlete. Does an actor always have to be young and in good shape, like an athlete, in order to stand up to the waves of new talents that keep coming from all directions?

 

MO: – Oh, I don’t think it’s necessary or useful to train like an athlete to keep on the top as an actor. I feel like I’m in good shape, it’s true, but that’s just because I want to live in a healthy body. There are marvellous actors who aren’t in very good shape and yet they’re successful.

 

RD: How do you feel among your movie characters? How do you live with and in the feelings of your characters? There are a lot of words to learn, to memorize, to feel, there are dialogues to bring to life, and then, off the set, terra firma is waiting for you, the real world, fast, concrete and different from the world of a movie role.

 

MO: – I find that there are important things in the lives of all the characters I’ve played. Sometimes, I identify with my characters and then I immerse myself in their feelings, I swim in them and I change and get stronger. But when I get home, in my private life, I try to put that on « the work shelves, » I don’t mix theatre and personal life. In the real world, off the stage, beyond the cameras, I want to be myself, in the real world and alone with that world.

 

RD: – How do you choose your film roles? Is it the words of your characters, the dialogues that captivate you? The action? The characters you dress up in? Or is it something else that determines your choices?

 

MO: – My roles? Yes, I’ve chosen certain roles, but on the other hand, you might say that there are roles that have chosen me. Like any actor, I take other roles for financial reasons, because I get paid for them…

 

RD: – Does the life of an actor have elements in common with the life of someone with a fishing rod on a riverbank, waiting and watching patiently and hopefully for the « play » of the line. Do you have another metaphor to describe the moods of an actor waiting for roles?

 

MO: – I don’t know… is the life of an actor like the life of a fisherman on a riverbank!? I know an old Zen saying on the teaching profession. How does it go? It says that Zen masters sell water by the river. In a way that’s what actors do. They’re given the task of imagining themselves in a life, in another life, and when they play it, they are paid for this playing a life / at life.

 

RD: – Among all your honours, do you have a favourite role?

 

MO: – When people ask me what my favourite role in my acting career is, I tell them I don’t have one. The role I love is being a good actor, a role I’ve always wanted to play.

 

RD: – What relationship do you have with your film characters years later? Do they become good memories? Are they still with you?

 

 

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MO: -It all depends on the role. Some roles are very significant, for example, « Ben Meecham » in « The Great Santini. » I was young, and working with Robert Duvall. We did something memorable together, I think. That good memory has stayed with me for years and years. Other roles are not as significant, but still, I’m still grateful for having had them.

 

RD: – This issue of our journal is dedicated to the CHILD. Our guests, writers and artists, talked to us about their childhoods. Could you also tell us something about what the child Raymond Michael was like? Happy? A dreamer? Funny? Stubborn? Shy? Philosophical? Ambitious? How did he feel in the world of grown-ups and adults?

 

 

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MO:- Frankly, I wasn’t spoiled by life as a child, I was more of a problem child. One reason I got the role in « The Great Santini » was because I knew what it was like to be raised in a big family. I’m the oldest of seven children. In our family, everybody reacted differently. Me, personally, whew, I didn’t get along very well with my brothers and sisters. And one day, when I was eighteen, I made the decision to leave, to just take off and I moved.

 

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RD: – What still remains of that kid in the body and the thoughts of the adult you are now?

 

MO:- What remains? I often use my childhood memories as a source of inspiration in my work as an artist. My book of poetry has many poems about my relationship with my father, my mother and my family as I was growing up. You know, youth is fertile ground for the artistic life of the adult.

 

RD: – They say that, in general, our childhood have a lot of influence on our « becoming, » what we become later. Is that true in your case?

 

 

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MO: – « Becoming an adult » is, in a way, the duty of a child and vice versa, if you will. We are constantly becoming something. I am in the process of becoming myself.

 

RD: – What were the everyday models, the ideals, the idols of the child you were?

 

MO: – Unfortunately I wasn’t a very good student until I became an adult. No role models in teachers or mentors in my life as a young boy. But, well, like any teenager, I watched TV: I saw quite a few classic movies, it’s true I liked to watch movies. Then, I spent a lot of time in the theatres in New York, trying to understand how the actors did what they did. That was my most beautiful lesson, my most beautiful theatre lesson, I simply learned by observing good work attentively and with passionate.

I also like to listen to music. My favourite songwriters are, in no particular order, Patty Griffin, Stephen Sondheim, Jackson Browne, Jonatha Brooke, and Paul Brady and I could name others. What do they all have in common? Memorable tunes and wonderful lyrics.

 

RD: – Besides your work as a TV and cinema actor, you do writing, you write books. You like to write…

 

MO: – Yes.… I write for pleasure. At Bennington College, I got a Master’s in 2006. My thesis was published as a book: « Swimming From Under My Father. »

 

 

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Since then, besides poetry, I’ve starting writing novels. Poetry and novels. At the same time, I’ve been busy with writing something new: I’m taking notes to do a memoir.

 

RD: – What is the relationship between your work as an actor and the world of your poetry?

 

MO: – Except for the fact that I ‘m the same person who is writing as the one who is speaking and acting in my name as an actor, I don’t think that my work as a writer has much to do with my work as an actor, that work for the cameras does not influence my lyrical feelings. I like to lose myself in the « there » of poetry when I leave the movie set.

 

RD: – What are your sources of lyrical inspiration?

 

MO: – Everyday life, my life. I write the way I live…

 

RD: – What gave you the itch for writing? Who gave you this love for the written word?

 

MO: – Myself. I started to get interested in poetry when I was a teenager. Reading the Beats: Ginsberg, Kerouac. Even more important for me was Gary Snyder, who is less well-known but who is just as important as the others and who is still writing today. Snyder even went to Japan to study Zen. He spent twelve years there and he was very important for the spread of Buddhism in America in the sixties. Other American poets who have inspired me are: Whitman, Emily Dickinson, William Carlos Williams, Theodore Roetke, and Robert Lowell.

 

RD: – Do you like French poetry?

 

MO: – Yes, I particularly admire Paul Éluard, Apollinaire and René Char.

 

RD: – What is the most important message in your writing? A message of commitment perhaps…

 

 

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MO: – I don’t have any very important messages to deliver. I write about ordinary things and I hope to be able to pass on, through my writings, the exceptional things in daily life. Anyway I write a lot. I love writing.

 

RD: – And what about Buddhism? What does it symbolize for you? Another form of poetry, the need for inner peace?

 

 

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MO: – In my view, Buddhism symbolizes nothing. At least, it doesn’t represent something in particular for me. I study it though. Zen has many aspects and it helps me in my artistic endeavours. No matter how long I study it, I never lose interest.

 

RD: – Can an actor, really, remain « Zen » when he plays, for example, a role of a lover, a rebel or a subversive? Or, let’s say… an agitator… Is there a real contrast between the calm, serene, pacifist mind of Buddhist philosophy and the restless, insane and above all glamorous world of cinema?

 

MO: – Being Zen in everyday life doesn’t mean that you have to also be Zen for and on the screen. Being Zen means being relaxed. Being speedy or calm as an actor, playing dramatic characters, excited, or dangerous, while maintaining your own mental health, thanks to your Zen spirit, yes, it helps, it protects. So there’s no contradiction between being a Zen practitioner and being an actor who plays characters each more different from the next and who are sometimes unsympathetic.

 

RD: – And your poetry? What does it contribute?

 

 

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MO: – My poetry could be considered to be personal poetry, coming from my confidences (my confessional?!), like that of Robert Lowell or of Sylvia Plath, authors who have had a great influence on me. And writing, in general, gives me a chance to find myself in what I feel and think, it gives me the right to the depths of the intimate. So I write to better know myself, to know how I feel, how I live… Sometimes it’s poetry, sometimes, not. But it’s vital for me to write myself and describe myself.

 

RD: – In your moments of solitude, do you meditate on the future? Or what else?

 

MO: – I have no idea. When I meditate, I don’t meditate on the future… I like to act… By writing, I meditate on that changing « now. »

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Michael Raymond O’Keefe (born April 24, 1955) is an American film and television actor.

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O’Keefe was born Raymond Peter O’Keefe, Jr. in Mount Vernon, New York, the oldest of seven children in a devoutly Roman Catholic Irish American family. His father was a law professor at Fordham University, as well as also teaching at St. Thomas of Villanova College. O’Keefe attended the American Academy of Dramatic Arts and New York University, and made his acting debut in a 1970 Colgate television commercial. He is a cousin of Will Eno.

Career
O’Keefe’s best known film role is Danny Noonan in the comedy film Caddyshack. He received a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination for his role as the oldest son of a Marine aviator in The Great Santini, starring Robert Duvall, also nominated for an Academy Award for the film. He played a Marine in 1980 in the miniseries A Rumor of War as the friend of Brad Davis’ character, Philip Caputo, and played the lead role in the 1982 film, Split Image, as an all-American college athlete who gets lured into a religious cult by a beautiful girl (Karen Allen). He has also appeared in the independent film The Glass House, as well as starring al song side Tommy Lee Jones in the 1983 pirate adventure Nate and Hayes (also known as Savage Islands). More recently O’Keefe appeared opposite George Clooney in Michael Clayton. He has appeared twice opposite Jack Nicholson, as his son in Ironweed and as the father of a murdered girl in The Pledge. His film Frozen River was in the competition at the Sundance Film Festival in 2008. He also plays the powerful District Attorney Calvin Beckett in the film American Violet.

O’Keefe’s Broadway theatre credits include Side Man, Mass Appeal, Fifth of July, and Reckless with Mary Louise Parker.

O’Keefe’s highest profile television role to date has been his portrayal of Fred, the husband of Jackie Harris (Laurie Metcalf) on the ABC series Roseanne. O’Keefe appeared on the show from 1993 to 1995. After leaving the series, O’Keefe played the husband in the series Life’s Work, which aired after Roseanne in its final season. Additional television credits include the lead role of Simon MacHeath in the short lived Boston-based series Against the Law, which aired on Fox during the 1990-91 season, and the role of Ron Steffey in the short-lived 1992 CBS drama Middle Ages. He has guest starred on Saving Grace, The West Wing, Criminal Minds, Law & Order, Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, Law & Order: Criminal Intent, House M.D., M*A*S*H, Ghost Whisperer, « Brothers and Sisters », Leverage, and The Waltons.

O’Keefe appears briefly in part 1 of the film adaptation of Atlas Shrugged as Hugh Akston.

O’Keefe was married to rock/blues singer Bonnie Raitt from April 27, 1991 to November 9, 1999 when they were divorced. He has since become a practicing Zen Buddhist.He holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Bennington College.

 

 

 

 

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Translator : Howard Scott (MONTREAL, CANADA)
Reporter : Rodica Draghincescu

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