Steve Buscemi in The Death of Stalin
Like Tommy, the aimless barfly he plays in Trees Lounge, the 1996 indie favorite that he also wrote and directed, Steve Buscemi found himself in a spiral of hopelessness after leaving school, jumping from one part-time job to another: cinema usher, ice cream man, petrol station attendant. There were many long nights in bars. “I really had difficulty there [on Long Island] in my last couple of years because I felt like I didn’t know what I was doing,” he says. “I felt my life was going nowhere.” His father had pushed all four of his sons to take a civil-service exam, in Buscemi’s case as an avenue to a career with the fire service.
Although he knew he wanted to be an actor, he had only a dim notion of how to realize his dream. It was his father who suggested he apply for acting school in New York, ostensibly as an interlude until he the fire department came calling. At his interview for the Lee Strasberg Theater and Film Institute, Buscemi was asked why he wanted to be an actor, and casually parroted his dad’s well-meaning advice that acting classes would stand him in good stead for whatever path he chose in life. “I remember her telling me, ‘Well, we really want people here who want to be actors,’” he recalls. “In that moment, I felt that I really blew it.” He didn’t, as it happens, but it taught him never again to be so cavalier about the thing he was most passionate about in life.
Steve Buscemi told the story of his Lee Strasberg interview as we sat in a quiet neighborhood bar in Park Slope, Brooklyn. He was already there when I’d arrived, seated in a wooden booth, baseball cap pulled over his head, a pint of beer at his hand. Like the bar itself, his demeanor was low-key, and unassuming. He talked quietly, the way someone might talk if they were nursing a hangover, but grew more animated as he went into his early days as one half of a comedy duo, Steve & Mark, with Mark Boone Junior, best known for his role in the outlaw cycle gang drama, Sons of Anarchy.
Their shtick was a kind of stream of consciousness situation comedy that introduced them to New York’s then-vibrant performance art scene. Often, they could be found at rinky-dink East Side clubs like Darinka, where They Might Be Giants was the de facto house band, and no-one much cared about fire codes. Downtown legend Rockets Redglare, famously the first person to enter Sid Vicious’ room at the Chelsea Hotel after the murder of Nancy Spungen, took the young Buscemi under his wing, helping secure gigs and introducing him to the scene. That version of New York disappeared in the ’90s, vanquished by rising rents and Rudy Guiliani and the devastation of AIDS. “We lost so many good people in their prime, who were just getting started, in the theater world, the dance world, the performance art world,” says Buscemi.
His break out role in 1986 was as a musician dying of AIDS in Parting Glances – a bold choice for an actor launching his career. “When I played that character I only knew one person that maybe had AIDS,” he recalled. “This was right smack in the middle of all that fear and anxiety: ‘could you get it from somebody by just being in the same room?’ Of course, later, so many of my friends died of AIDS.” He talks poignantly of Ethyl Eichelberger, a drag performance artist who dominated the ’80s scene before being diagnosed with HIV and taking his life in 1990. Most of those people have faded from public memory now, but they hang on in Buscemi’s memory as the mentors and guides of his career.
At one point, Buscemi summoned a quote by Frank Capra to the effect that every character in his Christmas classic, It’s a Wonderful Life, is worthy of his or her own film. “I tried to keep that in mind as I wrote Trees Lounge,” he said. “I thought I was being careful not to romanticize the life of someone who hangs out in a bar all the time, and yet I do find these characters romantic, and I still find bars really alluring.” He was touched when the owner of the bar they were scheduled to film in changed his mind at the last minute. “He said, ‘I don’t think I can close my bar for a week and let you guys film here,’ and we said, ‘Why?’, and he said, ‘Where are my regulars going to go – what are they going to do?’”
That bond with people who depend on each other resonates with Buscemi. On September 12, 2001, he reunited with his old fire unit, Engine Company 55, working ten hours a day for five days in the rubble of the World Trade Center. It was a way to be useful at a time when being an actor felt like a grotesque whimsy. It was only afterwards, when he no longer felt useful at Ground Zero, that the magnitude and desolation hit him. (In 2005, Buscemi went back to his old high school in Valley Stream, a predominantly Irish-Italian neighborhood within spitting distance of JFK, to receive an award. Talking to students he recalled his anxious youth. “I still get scared,” he told them. “I try to live with it, and you keep going.”)
In Park Bench, Steve Buscemi’s charming, little-watched web-only talk show, a telling moment comes during a conversation with the Wu-Tang Clan’s GZA. The rapper recalls his childhood inspirations, including Don McLean and Neil Sedaka, prompting an elated Buscemi to offer a formative experience of his own. “I went to the mall and bought some 45s. I run into a bunch of girls from my school and they reached into my bag and pulled out ‘Tie a Yellow Ribbon Around the Old Oak Tree’,” he says. “I could tell they were embarrassed for me, and I thought, ‘I don’t care, I like this song.’”
Something about his response to being shamed for his dubious musical tastes – “I don’t care” – captures the animating spirit of an actor. Buscemi is among the least pretentious actors you will find, as comfortable working with Adam Sandler as with the Coen Brothers. When he describes Sandler as an “auteur,” he is not doing it to be funny or contrary; he means it. “We just really hit it off when we did Airheads,” he says, referring to their first film together, pithily reviewed by Time Out in 1994 as a movie “about airheads, and for them, too.” Bad reviews, the few there are, glide off Buscemi like water off a duck’s back.
As a rule, it’s not Sandler’s movies that fans think of when they picture Buscemi. That honor is more likely to go to his Atlantic City kingpin, “Nucky” Thompson, in HBO’s mafia origins epic, Boardwalk Empire, or to his memorable date with a wood chipper in the Coen Brothers’ snowbound masterpiece, Fargo. His tip-kvetching Mr. Pink in Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs transformed both the director and his ensemble cast into touchstones of a new era in independent filmmaking. That film, made for just $1m, defined a ’90s cinematic “cool” that would have impressed those girls in the mall – if Buscemi cared about such things.
It’s partly because he doesn’t care, you suspect, that he manages the tightrope walk along the tremulous line of popular and hip, equally at ease in popcorn fare like Con Air as in cult films like Coffee & Cigarettes.
Buscemi is one of the industry’s busiest actors, with over 125 films to his name, and an equally impressive resume in television, from The Sopranos and Boardwalk Empire, to cameos in The Simpsons (as himself), 30 Rock (as a private detective turned lesbian drama teacher), and the recent Amazon series, Philip K. Dick’s Electric Dreams – in which he falls in love with a self-advertising robot in a dystopian vision of marketing gone rogue. There can’t be many days when he is not working. The director Jim Jarmusch, who has cast Buscemi in several of his films, once joked in The New Yorker that Hollywood had a “Steve Buscemi tax” to explain the actor’s ubiquity from the mid-90s onwards: “It was like, ‘You want to make a film? You must have Steve.’”
No one could have been more surprised by his catapulting fame than Buscemi himself. Although his passion for acting was cemented early – he recalls clambering adorably onto tables at family weddings to crack jokes – he spent much of his teens and early adulthood feeling thwarted by circumstances. He got an early taste of rejection when he failed to get cast as the dwarf he had set his heart on in his Catholic school’s production of Snow White. He was seven at the time. “I was a little crushed,” he recalls. “I asked our nun if I could have that part, and she said, ‘Oh no, I’m giving the part to another kid.’ She was sweet about it, but I just remember being really disappointed: ‘Oh, this is what life is.’”
Years later he had a similar epiphany when he started auditioning for movies. “I remember going in to read for one part and asking the casting director if I could read for the lead, and she looked at me, and said, ‘Oh no, they’re going to get a name for that part’,” he recalls. “I thought, ‘What is she talking about?’ And then I realized: ‘Oh, you’re going to get a name – you’re going to get an actor whose name people know.’” Buscemi laughs at his naiveté now, but at the time it was another flash of illumination. “I was like, ‘Ok, I have to get a name now, it’s not enough to be a working actor.’” Years of being left on the cutting room floor – in Woody Allen’s Alice, Stephen Frears’ The Grifters, and Gus Van Sant’s Even Cowgirls Get the Blues – taught him a similar lesson: audition for roles that are too big to be cut.
Buscemi has been a name for over 20 years at this point, yet through whatever combination of humble origins and insecurity he exhibits almost no ego. When, like other fans before me, I marvel at his direction of the “Pine Barrens” episode of The Sopranos – in which the show’s acute combination of menace and burlesque is on full display – he shrugs off the compliment, insisting that any director would have done the same. He tips his hat instead to the writers. This is typical of the way Buscemi views his craft, in which his emphasis is almost always on collaboration, rather than individual genius.
“He’s the opposite of an asshole,” says Armando Iannucci, who cast Buscemi in his satirical new movie, The Death of Stalin, which opens March 9. “On set he’s very generous, and he’s not taking up anyone’s time, he’s almost apologetic when he comes up with a thought.”
The Death of Stalin
In that movie, which also stars Simon Russell Beale, Jason Isaacs, Andrea Riseborough, and Michael Palin, Buscemi plays Nikita Khrushchev, stealthily coming from behind to take over the sudden vacancy created by Stalin. Iannucci recalls how, during rehearsals, Buscemi would observe and watch but rarely chip in. “He’ll only ask little questions but you can see him going away and just thinking through each moment, and knowing when to turn it up a tiny notch, and then another tiny notch, and then another tiny notch, so you don’t notice the shift at any one point,” he says. “It’s just when you stand back to look at the whole thing you can see how delicately and cleverly he’d gradated that transformation.” Riseborough, who has just wrapped a second movie with Buscemi, Nancy, concurs. “He’s the most humble, down-to-earth, funny, easy going genius, sweetest man that I’ve ever worked with,” she says. “He has an enormous amount of gratitude for his work.”
The gratitude is genuine. For all his professed angst, Buscemi never doubted his talent. What he fretted over was finding the right opportunity. A few years after the Snow White fiasco, he auditioned for the part of the Cowardly Lion in The Wizard of Oz. “I knew it was between me and this other kid, and I was really wanting to do this part so badly, and thinking, ‘It probably won’t happen, but what will I do when I don’t get it?’” Buscemi got the role, and a standing ovation for his efforts, but it did little to quell his fear of being rejected by an indifferent world. “I don’t know if it was my dad’s world view, or something, but it was about not expecting much,” he says. “I’ve never really analyzed it that deeply, but it’s something that I know is still in me. It hasn’t stopped me altogether.”
He pauses. “It did stop the character I play in Trees Lounge, but what I find saddest about that character was that he didn’t seem to have an awareness that there could be a way out.” Shortly before he died three years ago, Buscemi’s father, the man who set him on the path to acting, had a cameo in the first episode of Park Bench. Seeing him among the cadre of friends and family that lend the series its distinctive Brooklyn tenor was moving in the way that glimpsing the departed affects all of us. As we drank in the neighborhood bar, Buscemi – who tries to practice meditation every day – talked fondly about his father’s belief in reincarnation and the afterlife. As a child, he would come home to find visiting psychics communing with the dead. One year Buscemi sought out a psychic for a private session, and confided his hopes of being an actor. “He said, ‘I don’t really see acting so much as writing – writing is what I see for you’,” Buscemi recalls, his brow furrowing. “So, in some ways I feel that I haven’t fulfilled my true potential.”
The Death of Stalin opens tomorrow, March 9.