If there was a theme to this year’s movie and television offerings, it was a mass yearning for a “simpler” time — a time when your boss might punch you in the nose, but at least that boss had a human face. That yearned-for time was usually the same general period of late 20th century America — the “old, dangerous New York” of Joker and The Deuce, the halcyon days of 60s and 70s Southern California from Once Upon A Time In Hollywood and Dolemite Is My Name, the heyday of rust belt organized labor in The Irishman.
Sure, things might’ve been a little cruder and more violent back then, but look at all those viable blue-collar jobs! You might have had to pick up a lead pipe and fight off some scabs every now and then, but at least people seemed so much less lonely. Even in the midst of the extended riff on nightmarish disaffection that is Joker I found myself thinking, “Holy shit, the clowns have a union?”
The trick the Safdie Brothers pull in Uncut Gems is figuring out how to give us that “old, dangerous New York” in a (relatively) contemporary setting (technically the movie is set in 2012). The general message of Uncut Gems, or at least its recurring theme, is “that dangerous New York still exists, and it might murder you.”
One could further argue that that old, dangerous New York was basically represented in the form of Phil, one of the terrifying mob guys to whom Adam Sandler’s Howard Ratner owes money. Played by Keith Williams Richards with creased skin, piercing blue eyes, and a voice like a rock polisher, Phil instantly became one of cinema’s all-time great heavies. Richards is the kind of guy with a face that just screams “I’ve got some stories,” and Phil was an emissary sent from the old, dangerous New York to kill you for lying about when you got your pool resurfaced. When it came time to request interviews for Uncut Gems, I knew just the person I wanted to talk to, and it was Richards.
Turns out, despite being asked to act many times, Uncut Gems was Richards’ first acting role. I had the honor of conducting his first interview ever. Talking to Richards feels like taking a trip to a lost late 20th-century world the same way lots of these movies are. And just as his face promised, he has some great stories — from being a first responder on 9/11, to his favorite Adam Sandler movie, to the time on the set when the whole crew very much thought he might murder Eric Bogosian. I enjoyed speaking with him very much.
How are you doing?
Not bad. You’ll have to excuse me if my voice breaks a little. I just had surgery. But we’ll give it a shot.
Oh, really? Are you doing better now, I hope?
Yeah, much better. Looks like it’s going to be a 100% recovery, so…
What was the surgery, if you don’t mind me asking?
I had carcinoma. It’s throat cancer. It was really wearing me down, but it was a number of surgeries, and we got it all done, so everything’s good now. I’m doing a lot better, better than they thought.
Can you tell me how you getting this part came about?
I was in the city, and I was walking towards the L train, at 1st Avenue and 14th Street, and this young lady approached me. I saw somebody looking at me, watching me, and I was a little uneasy, actually. And then she came up to me, and that was Michele Mansoor. She works for (casting director) Jennifer Venditti. And she asked me if I ever did any acting before. And naturally, I said no. I’ve been asked a few times, and I always pushed it away. But she talked me into going down there, and we made an appointment. They kept calling me, and I finally went in to prove them wrong. And they wound up proving me wrong. And that’s how it all began.
So when you say to prove them wrong, you mean you wanted to prove that you don’t act ?
Well, I’ve been asked to a few times. I think once it was a Sean Penn movie, and they wanted me to do something in that. At the time, I just didn’t feel ready for any of this stuff. But this time, I went in and I says, “You know what? It’s a do or die situation. Let’s find out, because everyone keeps telling me I should do something.” So I went in. I really didn’t think it was going to work out, but I did exactly what they asked me to do, and they liked what they saw, and that’s how it all began.
Why do you think you get asked to act so often? I don’t know anyone this has happened to.
No idea. I really can’t say why. It’s something about, they say, my mannerisms or my look, I don’t know. Now they’re telling me it’s also my voice, which, I’ve always had a scratchy, raspy voice. These people claim it’s the voice that attracted them, even more so.
So do you live in Manhattan?
No, I was actually looking into going back to school to do something else, because I was a first responder down in Ground Zero, and I got sick, really sick. I was sick for quite a while. And now that I’ve bounced back, I can’t do what I used to do. So I was going to look into doing something else but then this came about. Weird, right?
What were you doing when you were a first responder?
I was a carpenter. We went down there the first day. We were on a bucket brigade. We were just digging everybody out, or whatever we could dig out, and basically cleared the hole. So that’s what we did, yeah.
Did you grow up nearby?
I did. I was at my grandmother’s when I was born, in Jersey. But as soon as I was born, I was down in the Lower East Side, in Stuyvesant Town, on 14th Street. I grew up there till I was about 10, and then I moved to South Brooklyn. And I guess that’s where a lot of the attraction is, because of the way I carry myself. That was a very known area for the mob and all that kind of nonsense that was going on. So I kind of picked up the mannerisms and the attitude and everything that comes with that, and maybe that’s what attracted people. I don’t know.
Were you around a lot of mob guys growing up?
I mean… Listen, I’m a kid from Brooklyn. What do you think? You know? That’s all I’m going to say about that (laughs).
Yeah, I think we’re better off leaving that one alone.
Fair enough. So you grew up in South Brooklyn, you became a carpenter…
Well, first I was a longshoreman. I worked on the piers, the Red Hook Piers. I worked for American Stevedore. And then after that, I went into the Carpenters Union, which was a family trade as well.
Were you always trying to go that direction, or why did you stop being a stevedore?
Well, things got crazy down there, and it was time to change. I never really intended on staying down there. I worked down there for about maybe six, seven years. It kind of grew old quick. There was a lot of changes in the union. They shut down 39th Street. The waterfront was, especially in the Giuliani era, everybody was shutting down. It was a big deal, so I moved on and went back into the Carpenters Union, which I was always working with wood my whole life, since I was a kid. I had family in the union, so it was easy for me to make the transfer.
Have you seen the movie since it’s come out?
I did. Let’s see, we went to Canada, I was there for that. And then we did the premiere here in the city at Lincoln Center.
Well, what’d you think of it?
It was a very big surprise. These guys are a trip. Because when we were doing the movie… in the beginning I didn’t know what to make of it. I mean, listen, I don’t know too much about movies, but I was just trying to figure out how they were going to put it together, you know? And it was weird the way they did it. I was like, “I can’t figure this out.” I was anxious to see it, but I did not think I was going to be from front-to-back in the movie. It blew my mind. These guys are good, man. I got to tell you, what I see on that screen, I did not see on set, okay? It was an interesting set too.
What was the shooting process like? Did you enjoy it?
I mean, they had some stuff on paper, but you know how that goes. They were kind of working the character into the film itself. So we played with it, and that’s where we got. A lot of people talk about me and Eric (Bogosian), where there was a scene that we were doing, and it got rough. They’re telling me to do something, and they’re telling him to do stuff, but they’re not telling him that I’m going to do what I did. So they were just trying to get us going, and they did. And I think the scene was… it had something to do with inside the jewelry shop. I can’t give it away, but, I think I pushed him a little too hard and his reaction was to… He was supposed to hit my hand, which was holding a gun, one way, and he hit it the other way, and it brushed against my face. Now, the whole time, I was bleeding, and I didn’t know it.
So Eric was like, “Oh, my God, this guy’s going to kill me.” But I don’t know I’m bleeding, and it didn’t matter to me. It’s an accident, right? But that’s not the way he saw it. He was running for the door, and I say, “Wow, he’s really putting a lot into this. You know?” because I’ve got to pull him back the other way. He’s not working with me, so I just pull him, and, well, he wound up going through the counter, the glass countertop, and everybody — I didn’t know it, but there was a big crowd around me after the whole thing. Now, at some point, he saw I was still in character, so he went along with it. But when I stopped and turned around, there was a big crowd of people around the set. So I’m like, “What’s going on?”
And they’re all just looking at me. Like, “Should we jump on him? I mean, is he losing his mind?” I’m not kidding you. Eric has told this story, and he really feared for his life. He said, “Dude, are you all right?” He said, “You know you’re bleeding.” So I touched my hands. It’s nothing. No big deal. I turned around, and then that’s when the Safdies ran over. “Keith, that was great.” And I look at Eric. I said, “You all right?” He goes, “No, are we all right?” I was like, “Yeah, we’re all right.” But he was very shook. He was shook.
That’s a great story.
We became good friends, very close after that. I speak to him all the time.
That’s great. Did you have expectations of Adam Sandler before you worked with him?
I did. I like Adam. I watch a lot of his movies, and he’s everything I expected him to be. He’s really a good guy. I even met his mother. I met his daughter. I met his brother. Tight families, good family man. He’s a good friend. He really is, you could tell. He’s just good all around. And that’s the amazing part about it. It felt like I knew him my whole life because, everything he is in the movies, he is in real life. He’s just that kind of guy, you know? And for him to turn into this guy, Howard Ratner, he really did a good job. He blew me away on that. When I saw it on screen, I couldn’t believe it.
Do you have a favorite Adam Sandler movie?
Oh, I like Waterboy.
So what was your neighborhood like in South Brooklyn? Was it mostly Italian?
Yeah, it was mostly Italian. There was only a couple of Irish families. I think there was like two, me, the Finnegans, and I think the Baffies. That was it. The rest was all Italian, and then, yeah, and you had Red Hook, which was all black and Puerto Rican. And there was an Irish section down in Red Hook, but Red Hook was a pretty far distance from my neighborhood. That was what they called the dumping ground. The mob used to dump their bodies there down in Red Hook. That’s on the waterfront, you know? But that’s what my neighborhood was like.
Do you have plans to continue acting after this, or are you just taking it as it comes?
I do. I’m just going to get through the voice therapy, which I’ve been doing now for the past two weeks. And everything’s coming back nicely. As you can tell, I’m speaking to you, and I shouldn’t even be talking.
I appreciate that!
No, I don’t mean it that way. I mean, they are amazed that my voice came back that quick. They want me to talk, you know? I definitely do want to do something. It’s piqued my interest. I did get a couple of calls, a few managers.
What’s been your favorite part of acting?
The whole thing, the whole set, how everybody’s working behind the scene, how it all comes together. And I’m the kind of guy that sits back, and I watch people. I’ve always wondered why I was like that. Everybody will be up and screaming and having a good time. I sit back, and I just watch people, how they move, and I think that’s going to be a benefit to me. I got to learn a little more, but I know I can use it, and I figure, why not? I think I did a fair job, at least I was told. When I look at the screen, I don’t see what everybody sees. You understand? Everyone did great. But when I see me, I’m like, “Geez, whoa, that’s bad.” But they’re telling me it’s not, so…
Yeah, no, you did great.
I had to get angry and be a lunatic.
It worked out.
Well, I tell you one thing, I would like to, if it’s possible, to thank Jennifer Venditti and Michele Mansoor, because if it wasn’t for them, none of this would be happening. And they’re very good. Those are my casting agents. And you can always say if I make it, you did my first interview.
Oh, really? This is your first? I’m honored.
Yes, it is. Well, I’m honored. I won’t forget your name either. Have a good holiday now.
*From my separate interview with Eric Bogosian:
“Making Keith bleed isn’t easy. Yeah, they had told me to fight back in the scene and they had told him I guess to kick my butt. So I fought back, and the next thing I knew, I saw that there was some blood on his face. And also the look in his eyes was like, ‘I’m going to kill this guy.’ I thought, well I haven’t seen that look in anybody’s eyes since I was in the playgrounds in fights when I was 12 years old. What do I do? I’m making all these decisions in like microseconds. I thought, ‘Well, I don’t think he can actually kill me on set. I don’t think that’s legal.’ So let’s just go with it. It made for a really exciting shoot and a lot of reality. I mean there’s a moment when he throws me up against the wall and some glass is breaking and it’s real glass. It’s not breakaway glass. I mean nobody was supposed to be throwing anybody against the walls there, and things were breaking.”