How the world fell for Steve Buscemi

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Like Tommy, the aim­less barfly he plays in Trees Lounge, the melan­cholic 1996 in­die film 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 seller, 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, where he would work for four years.

Although he knew he wanted to be an ac­tor, he had only a dim no­tion of how to re­alise his dream. It was also his fa­ther who sug­gested he ap­ply for drama school, os­ten­si­bly as an in­ter­lude un­til the fire de­part­ment came call­ing. At his in­ter­view for the Lee Stras­berg Theatre and Film In­sti­tute in New York, Buscemi was asked why he wanted to be an ac­tor. He ca­su­ally par­roted his dad’s wellmean­ing 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 who want to be ac­tors,’” he re­calls. “In that mo­ment, I felt I re­ally blew it.” He didn’t, as it hap­pens, but it taught him not to be so cav­a­lier about the thing he was most pas­sion­ate about.

Buscemi told the story of his Lee Stras­berg in­ter­view as we sat in a quiet neigh­bour­hood bar in Park Slope, Brook­lyn, not far from the brown­stone he shares with the artist and film­maker Jo Andres, his wife of 30 years. The cou­ple have a 27-year-old son, Lu­cian, who played for the in­die band, Fi­asco. Buscemi was seated in a wooden booth when I ar­rived, base­ball cap pulled down over his head, a pint of beer at his hand. Like the bar it­self, his de­meanour was low-key, and unas- sum­ing. He talked qui­etly, the way some­one might talk if they were nurs­ing a hang­over, but grew more an­i­mated as he spoke about his early days as one half of 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 such as 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’s 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 1990s, van­quished by ris­ing rents, Rudy Gi­u­liani and the dev­as­ta­tion of Aids.

His break­out 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 who maybe had Aids,” he re­calls. “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. We lost so many good peo­ple in their prime.” He talks poignantly of Ethyl Eichel­berger, a drag per­for­mance artist who dom­i­nated the 1980s scene be­fore be­ing di­ag­nosed with HIV and tak­ing his life in 1990. Most of those peo­ple have faded from public con­scious­ness, but they hang on in Buscemi’s mem­ory as the men­tors and guides of his ca­reer.

You feel their an­i­mat­ing spirit in his own projects, pop­u­lated as they are by odd­balls and out­siders. He sum­mons 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 ro­man­ti­cise the life of some­one who hangs

I was care­ful not to ro­man­ti­cise the life of some­one who hangs out in a bar, yet I find bars re­ally al­lur­ing

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 set 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 12 Septem­ber 2001 he re­united with his old fire unit, En­gine Com­pany 55, work­ing 10 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 that the mag­ni­tude and des­o­la­tion hit him.

In 2005, Buscemi went back to his old high school in Val­ley Stream, a pre­dom­i­nantly Ir­ish-Ital­ian neigh­bour­hood, 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 , Buscemi’s charm­ing, lit­tle­watched 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 ran into a bunch of girls from my school and they reached into my bag and pulled out Tie a Yel­low Rib­bon Round the Ole 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 hon­our 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 1990s 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 bub­blegum fare like

Con Air as in cult films like Cof­fee and Cig­a­rettes .

BUSCEMI IS ONE of the in­dus­try’s busi­est ac­tors, with more than 125 films to his name, and an equally im­pres­sive re­sumé 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 new Chan­nel 4 se­ries, Philip K Dick’s Elec

tric Dreams – in which he falls in love with a self­ad­ver­tis­ing 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-1990s 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 on to 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

I was a lit­tle crushed when the school nun gave the part to another kid. I thought, ‘Oh, this is what life is’

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 re­alised: ‘Oh, you’re go­ing to get a name – you’re go­ing to get an ac­tor whose name peo­ple know.’” Buscemi laughs at his naivety 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’s 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 more than 20 years at this point, yet through a com­bi­na­tion of hum­ble ori­gins and in­se­cu­rity he ex­hibits al­most no ego. When 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 . “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.”

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.”

Steve is the most hum­ble, funny, easy­go­ing ge­nius. The sweet­est man I’ve ever worked with

Rise­bor­ough, who has just wrapped a sec­ond movie with Buscemi, Nancy, con­curs. “He’s the most hum­ble, down-to- earth, funny, easy­go­ing ge­nius. The 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 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 world­view, or some­thing, but it was about not ex­pect­ing much,” he says. “I’ve never re­ally an­a­lysed 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 neigh­bour­hood bar, Buscemi – who tries to prac­tise 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.” Elec­tric Dreams starts on Chan­nel 4 on 17 Septem­ber. The Death of Stalin is in cin­e­mas from 20 Oc­to­ber

Call­ing the shots: (from left) with Ja­son Isaacs in The Death of Stalin; and with Ju­lia Davis in C4’s Elec­tric Dreams

Fam­ily guy: (above) with his par­ents. His fa­ther died three years ago. Be­low: guest­ing on the Simp­sons in the ‘Brake my Wife, Please’ episode

Let’s go to work: (from left) with James Gan­dolfini in the So­pra­nos; as ‘Nucky’ Thomp­son in Board­walk Em­pire; and in Reser­voir Dogs

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