THE EMPIRE INTERVIEW
Is it possible to interview Steve Buscemi without bellowing, “Shut the fuck up, Donny!”? Let’s find out.
MY INTRODUCTION TO STEVE BUSCEMI IS EVERYTHING
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...