Is it pos­si­ble to in­ter­view Steve Buscemi with­out bel­low­ing, “Shut the fuck up, Donny!”? Let’s find out.



you’d fear, which, per­versely, is ev­ery­thing you’d want. Due to some mis­com­mu­ni­ca­tion, I’m in the ad­join­ing room to the Brook­lyn photo stu­dio, gorm­lessly un­aware that the shoot wrapped ten min­utes ago. “He was about to leave!” the pho­tog­ra­pher says when he finds me, lead­ing me into the stu­dio, where Buscemi looks ag­i­tated. “You were hid­ing in plain sight!” says Buscemi, look­ing like Mr Pink, sound­ing like Mr Pink, in a space not un­like a ware­house. It’s not good for your nerves. Of course, he’s ab­so­lutely fine, and gen­tle­manly too. There’s just all that bag­gage.

From Reser­voir Dogs to Fargo to this month’s The Death Of Stalin, Buscemi is all too con­vinc­ing as cere­bral hot­heads, un­leash­ing ma­chine­gun di­a­tribes and not let­ting go, a dog with a bone. In the lat­ter film, di­rected and co-writ­ten by Ar­mando Ian­nucci (The Thick Of It, Veep), Buscemi plays Nikita Khrushchev, one of the Polit­buru’s high­est in com­mand, who bashes heads with an un­pleas­ant ar­ray of neme­ses in the power strug­gle af­ter Rus­sia’s tyrant-in-chief kicks the bucket. As you would ex­pect from Ian­nucci, it’s both dark and hi­lar­i­ous, with Buscemi on fright­en­ing form.

Buscemi was born in Brook­lyn, and still lives there to­day. Raised in a work­ing-class fam­ily — his fa­ther was a garbage col­lec­tor for the san­i­ta­tion depart­ment, his mother a ho­tel host­ess — he be­came a fire­man in Lit­tle Italy. Mean­while he’d been tak­ing act­ing lessons and get­ting into com­edy, hang­ing out and per­form­ing at the New York clubs, and af­ter four years he quit the fire­fight­ing, bag­ging his first film role (op­po­site Vin­cent Gallo in black-and-white art­house movie The Way It Is) in 1985. He later scored scene-steal­ing parts in movies by the Coen brothers and Jim Jar­musch, but it was Quentin Tarantino’s Reser­voir Dogs, in 1992, that in­tro­duced the world at large to his wide-eyed ma­nia.

Since then, many of his finest char­ac­ters, eclec­tic as they are, have brimmed with savvy skill, re­gard­less of their ques­tion­able life choices. From Con Air’s big-brained mass-mur­derer Gar­land Greene to Board­walk

Em­pire’s gang­ster-politi­cian Nucky Thomp­son, these are not men to be eas­ily out­smarted. Last year, in Louis CK’S con­fronta­tional, play-like web se­ries Ho­race And Pete, he turned in a star­tling, vul­ner­a­ble per­for­mance as the in­ci­sive but deeply trou­bled co-owner of a Brook­lyn bar. And now, as a re­lent­less Khrushchev, in­creas­ingly at wits’ end, he’s an Ian­nucci rage mon­ster, ruth­lessly claw­ing his way up the ranks. It’s a blast. So, with our own mis­un­der­stand­ing be­hind us, we be­gin…

You’ve said it’s im­por­tant for you to put as much as your­self into char­ac­ters as you can. But ob­vi­ously Khrushchev is worlds away from you…

Well, yeah. I mean, I could not see my­self play­ing the part, at all. I was so hung up on the phys­i­cal­ity of it that I couldn’t see past that.

Were you sur­prised when the role was of­fered to you?

Yeah. I thought, “Why me?” I didn’t get it. When I first talked to Ar­mando on the phone I was think­ing, “How am I gonna han­dle telling him that I can’t do this, that he’s made a mis­take, that I’m not the guy for this part?” But Ar­mando had such a light touch about it — he said, “I re­ally do see you play­ing this, if you’re will­ing to shave your head.” Be­cause he wanted me to be bald. He said, “You don’t have to look like the Khrushchev that peo­ple know from later on, this was Khrushchev from 1953.” And it just made me feel bet­ter that Ar­mando saw some­thing in me that could play this guy, to stop think­ing of him as this iconic char­ac­ter, and see who the hu­man be­ing was in there and how I re­lated to that.

Khrushchev is a wily guy. What did you par­tic­u­larly like about him?

Well, what was ap­peal­ing was all these guys were… if you got to be in Stalin’s in­ner cir­cle, it meant that you were very good at sur­viv­ing! I think one of the ways Khrushchev did it was, he en­ter­tained Stalin. He was good at his job, but he hung in there and was able to get Stalin to like him, and play the fool a lit­tle bit. I don’t think he con­sciously thought he’d be the one to take over, but he saw what needed to be done and went, “Well, if no­body else is gonna do this, I’ll do it.” As an ac­tor it’s a fas­ci­nat­ing char­ac­ter to play, be­cause on some lev­els he was very in­se­cure and para­noid, but he had this in­nate tough­ness to him. He was able to stay the course and rise to it.

Were you a fan of Ar­mando’s ear­lier work?

I don’t know his early UK work. I’m more fa­mil­iar with Veep and I re­ally liked In The Loop — I liked how it was un­pre­dictable and sur­pris­ing, where peo­ple you thought were al­lies ended up not be­ing. Peo­ple us­ing each other.

Have you seen Alan Par­tridge?

I’ve seen some of it, but I don’t know the full Alan Par­tridge ex­pe­ri­ence.

What was it like for you work­ing with all those Bri­tish co­me­di­ans, in­clud­ing Michael Palin from Monty Python and Paul White­house from The Fast Show?

Michael Palin, of course, I knew his work, and I was very, very ner­vous about get­ting to work with him, but he was the nicest guy, and so gen­uinely funny. I did not know Paul White­house, be­cause his work didn’t travel over to the States. In the first few re­hearsals I didn’t know what I was deal­ing with — I was a lit­tle afraid of him! [Laughs] Be­cause he’s very in-your-face. He was very nice with me, but I didn’t know what to make of him. Then I started to watch his stuff on Youtube.

Did you like it?

Oh, yeah. He’s a re­ally funny guy, and we hit it off. We be­came good bud­dies on set. I loved ev­ery­body — Jef­frey [Tam­bor], Si­mon [Rus­sell Beale]. But it was a ter­ri­fy­ing set to walk into. All that ta­lent, and play­ing a part that I didn’t feel — I didn’t know if I was gonna be able to get it. We had two weeks of re­hearsal, which was great, so I could stum­ble through it.

It’s a very sweary film, but you’ve played a lot of foul-mouthed char­ac­ters. Is that fun to do?

Yeah. When it’s ap­pro­pri­ate. I know I seem to get cast as a lot of… [Laughs] char­ac­ters who have that lan­guage, but I don’t like to do it when it doesn’t feel or­ganic. But with these char­ac­ters, it kind of did. Be­cause these guys were very gang­ster­ish. It was a gang.

Speak­ing of gangs and swear­ing, 2017 is the 25th an­niver­sary of

Reser­voir Dogs. It was Tarantino’s first film — what was it like read­ing that script for the first time?

I thought it was writ­ten by a guy who had done 20 years in prison! Or

who was in that life. Some­body like Ed­die Bunker, who played Mr Blue and wrote the book that [Ulu Gros­bard’s] Straight Time was based on. So I was sur­prised at how young Quentin was. When I was hang­ing out with him at

the Sun­dance Lab — be­fore we made the film some of the scenes were work­shopped in Sun­dance — I asked him what re­search he did and how he knew about this stuff, and he said, “Just from watch­ing other films.” But he’s that good. He knew ev­ery film, and that fil­tered through his imag­i­na­tion and he came up with his own ver­sion of the best ca­per film.

As well as be­ing the only Dog to make it to the end of the film with­out get­ting shot, Mr Pink is funny as hell, with a proper mouth on him. Is it right, though, that you orig­i­nally read for Mr Brown?

I read for Pink, and some­body else. I can’t re­mem­ber if it was Brown or Orange — they had ev­ery­body read­ing dif­fer­ent parts. Mr Pink was the part that I re­ally wanted.


That was the part I felt the most suited for. He had this in­tense, fast-talk­ing en­ergy, and he was funny. It was a part I re­ally took a lik­ing to.

We all know what Quentin’s like now, but you had a vir­gin ex­pe­ri­ence with him, no bag­gage. What was it like work­ing with him?

Yeah, at Sun­dance it was ba­si­cally Quentin and I and one other lo­cal ac­tor. Just us. Quentin’s en­ergy was re­ally in­spir­ing. He was en­cour­aged by cer­tain film­mak­ers there who were the men­tors, and oth­ers were try­ing to tell him that he had to be, es­sen­tially, more con­ven­tional. I was just ex­cited that we were try­ing things out. He would do these long takes, and have the cam­era way across the room, and not cover it close. It was writ­ten like that in the script: “The cam­era stays on Mr White, Mr Pink is off-cam­era, you hear his voice, but the cam­era pushes in on Mr White.” They tried to get him to cover the scene, like, “Okay, you’ve got this, how about now let’s shoot Mr Pink’s side of the di­a­logue?” And Quentin would say, “No, I’m not gonna use it. It says this is how it is.” He had that con­fi­dence. I don’t know where he got that from, but it was pretty amaz­ing. It just felt like the film would be some­thing I would re­ally like. In tune with my sen­si­bil­i­ties.

There was a 25th an­niver­sary event at the Tribeca Film Fes­ti­val last April. What was it like get­ting back to­gether with ev­ery­body?

It was nice! It was the first time in a long time that the main cast was to­gether in one place. We had two screen­ings, and both nights af­ter the screen­ings ev­ery­body hung out. We wanted to be with each other. It’s a weird busi­ness — you can go through some­thing that in­tense and get to know peo­ple, and then if you don’t live in the same state and you’re not work­ing with each other again, it just dis­si­pates. So it was nice that when we were all to­gether it just picked up again.

Peo­ple of­ten talk about that fam­ily el­e­ment of film­mak­ing. Be­fore you be­came an ac­tor, you were a fire­man; did you get that from that job too?

Yeah, it re­ally is a broth­er­hood. Now also a sis­ter­hood. You can’t help but get close to the guys you work with. You spend a lot of time with them and you go through some­thing very in­tense, when you do have a fire. Even if you don’t like some­body, when you go through some­thing like that to­gether it just bonds you.

You be­came a fire­man be­cause your par­ents drummed cer­tain val­ues into you. You play a lot of work­ing-class guys, and char­ac­ters that ex­ist on the fringes. How much do you think that came from your up­bring­ing?

Oh, def­i­nitely it comes from my up­bring­ing. I don’t think of them as on the fringe, though. These are peo­ple. Peo­ple that I know.

I guess I meant in terms of reg­u­lar, main­stream movies.

Yeah, sure, in movie terms. But it’s not like I’m look­ing to be a champion for the lit­tle guy, or the work­ing class. It’s just what I know. That’s where I feel most com­fort­able. 

Ho­race And Pete was very much in that vein. I won­der if Louis CK knew you would tap into that when he asked you to do it.

He was cer­tainly fa­mil­iar with my work. I think he in­trin­si­cally knew that I would be game, and un­der­stand that world, yeah.

Pete’s a re­ally smart, sen­si­tive guy, and your per­for­mance is so raw and hon­est. There’s an in­cred­i­ble still­ness to the show.

One of the things that Louis showed me right away was [Mike Leigh’s]

Abi­gail’s Party, which is a very hu­man piece. All that awk­ward­ness and ug­li­ness. And also it was not with­out com­pas­sion. You felt like this was a very com­pas­sion­ate but real-life por­trait.

You say you don’t set out to champion cer­tain types of peo­ple. But in your episode of Who Do You Think You Are?, the BBC ge­neal­ogy se­ries, you said you’re in­ter­ested in the strug­gles of peo­ple’s lives.

I just think there are so many sto­ries worth telling of ev­ery­day peo­ple. Ev­ery­body’s life is in­cred­i­bly com­pli­cated — it’s not smooth sail­ing for many peo­ple. To me that’s in­ter­est­ing. How peo­ple just get through each day.

You ex­plore that as a di­rec­tor, too. I love your se­cond film, An­i­mal

Fac­tory — Earl Copen (Willem Dafoe) is a wise old con, and his re­la­tion­ship with Ron Decker (Ed­ward Fur­long) is fas­ci­nat­ing. Al­though as di­rec­to­rial ma­te­rial, it ob­vi­ously wasn’t close to home for you, like Trees Lounge was.

No. I could eas­ily re­late to Ron in the book, as some­body who maybe didn’t have a lot of di­rec­tion at a young age, and did a stupid thing and then was sent to prison, be­cause of the tough drug laws at the time. So that was my way in. And that world fas­ci­nated me, that prison cul­ture where you have to be part of some­thing. It’s hard to be a loner in prison un­less you’re the tough­est guy there, oth­er­wise you have to be in some group or gang, if you’re there for a while. I found it to be so much more than a prison story — it’s re­ally a love story be­tween this older con­vict who had seen it all and had made a very strong rep­u­ta­tion for him­self, and then de­cided to help this young kid and had no bones about be­ing at­tracted to him. Even though he wasn’t af­ter sex. He kind of saw him­self in this young guy, but it was also like, “He’s a good-look­ing young guy and I want him to be my friend, and I’m gonna take care of him.”

Fargo’s Carl Showal­ter was a big role for you, an amaz­ing wise-ass who tries his hand at kid­nap­ping, dis­as­trously. When you read the script, did you in­stantly know how to play him?

No. I was a bit ner­vous about it be­cause I guess I saw this char­ac­ter as in the same vein as some oth­ers that I had played, al­though a lot bet­ter writ­ten. I’d done a lot of these low-bud­get films where I had played seedy guys, and I was try­ing to get away from that. And then come the Coen brothers. But I didn’t know what I could do dif­fer­ently. I saw him as a guy wear­ing a fake leather ma­roon jacket, but then Mary Zophres, the cos­tume de­signer, came up with this whole out­fit I couldn’t have imag­ined. And once I tried those clothes on and looked at my­self in the mir­ror I knew who the guy was.

He’s rep­re­hen­si­ble, but funny too. Even your dark­est char­ac­ters can be re­ally com­i­cal — it’s telling that you started in stand-up.

Stand-up al­ways in­trigued me. I tried to do it for a while. But I felt like I couldn’t find my own voice for it. I was much hap­pier when I was act­ing with other peo­ple. The com­edy was a way to break in, be­cause a lot of peo­ple who later got sit­coms came out of do­ing stand-up.

One of your fun­ni­est char­ac­ters is another Coen cre­ation — poor, be­fud­dled, in­no­cent Donny from The Big Le­bowski, ba­si­cally the anti-khrushchev. Is it true that be­fore shoot­ing you hit the lanes with John Tur­turro, aka Je­sus Quin­tana?

Yeah. We knew we were do­ing the movie, and we live in the same neigh­bour­hood, so we did go bowling.

Did you bowl in char­ac­ter?


From top: Buscemi shaved his head to play Nikita Khrushchev in Ar­mando Ian­nucci’s The Death Of Stalin; See­ing red as Mr Pink in Reser­voir Dogs (“I’ll show ya who you’re fuckin’ with!”); With Louis CK and Edie Falco on the ac­claimed web se­ries Ho­race...

Steve Buscemi, pho­tographed ex­clu­sively for Em­pire in Brook­lyn, New York, on 18 July 2017.

From top: Buscemi dis­cov­ers his great-great­grand­fa­ther was a den­tist and Civil War sol­dier in the BBC’S Who Do You Think You Are?; As Fargo’s quick-fire kid­nap­per, Carl Showal­ter; Hit­ting the lanes as Theodore Don­ald ‘Donny’ Ker­abat­sos in The Big...

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