It has taken more than 20 years for Steve Buscemi to get his hands on a momentous lead role — but Scorsese’s Prohibition masterpiece Boardwalk Empire was worth waiting for, says Jonathan Crocker
Steve Buscemi is sick. And not in the extreme sports sense. Three hours have passed since he was supposed to call. But the 53-year-old actor is asleep, laid up in bed with a vicious cold. Finally, the phone rings. “Hi… it’s Steve,” says the voice. He sounds weary. But those tired tones just couldn’t belong to anyone else.
It’s Mr Pink from Reservoir Dogs. It’s Donny from The Big Lebowski. It’s Tony B from The Sopranos. It’s all those guys from all those classic films. He popped up in five productions last year alone. The funny thing is, you often forget the titles but you always remember the guy. He’s cinema’s super-sub — just a few minutes is all he needs for a game-changing performance — and every director wants him on their team.
Of course, back in 1992, it was his unforgettable colour-coded gangster in Quentin Tarantino’s debut that really plugged Buscemi into cinema-goers’ cultural conscious. From there, he was suddenly everywhere. Stealing scenes, stealing whole films, from the weeping drunk Dave Veltri in The Wedding Singer to the eloquent psychopath Garland Greene in Con Air.
He’s a star — but a curious one. He’s instantly recognisable (The Simpsons even gave him a cameo as himself) yet he’s a million miles from your usual high-rolling, bronzed celebrity. He’s worked with everyone in the business but rarely as a lead actor. He’s been nominated for Emmys (twice for The Sopranos, once for 30 Rock) but never an Oscar.
Ever since breaking out in 1986 indie drama Parting Glances, Buscemi has forged a unique career playing strange, neurotic, oddball characters. Misfits. Losers. Outsiders. But all that’s about to change. One of Hollywood’s greatest unsung heroes is finally taking centre stage as corrupt politician Enoch ‘Nucky’ Thompson in Martin Scorsese’s tremendous HBO TV saga Boardwalk Empire. That said, he’s not feeling
so great today...
Sorry to do this when you’re ill. Are you still feeling rough?
Yeah... but I’m up and around now. It’s OK. I’m sorry I was late calling you.
Don’t worry about it. You’re not going to let this cold finish you off. Do you have a secret Buscemi remedy?
Um, no, I actually don’t [laughs]. I’m just going to drink a lot of tea and liquids and get some rest.
Your character, Nucky, is based on a real-life corrupt politician. Did you model yourself on him?
Physically I’m very different from the real guy. He was, I think, over 6ft tall and 250lb. So really I wasn’t channelling anybody. The script gets my creative juices flowing. But this is a role — because there are so many levels to this guy — that every actor dreams of. This is up there with any of the best roles I’ve played.
You famously get called “kinda funny lookin’” in Fargo. Have you ever tried to change your looks to get a role?
I don’t think I’ve done anything extreme. I just work with what I have. Certainly on The Sopranos, when I was doing that, I remember working out a little bit, but not a lot. I mean, it was just something where I wanted to feel more physical strength.
Do you ever stay in character when the camera stops rolling?
No, I’m not one of those. I’m definitely not the character. Not even while I’m on set [laughs]. I do the scene, and when the scene’s over I’m back to being me. When I take off the wardrobe, I’m done. Yeah.
As well as the Coen brothers, you’ve worked with everyone from Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez to Jim Jarmusch and Michael Bay. What have you learned from them?
When I worked with Robert Altman on Kansas City [in 1996], he said he didn’t care if the film made a nickel. If
he wanted it to be successful, he wanted it to be successful on his terms. And then he immediately corrected himself and said, “On our terms.” To me, it meant that he cares about the films he makes and he cares about the people he makes them with. It was a philosophy he had that I think is really good.
Which of your films do fans quote to you most often?
Probably The Big Lebowski. Or, um... Reservoir Dogs. I don’t get it a lot... it doesn’t happen too often. Or maybe Con Air. People like the song, He’s Got The Whole World In His Hands. People sometimes sing that to me.
They sing it to you? Do you mind?
It’s OK. I’m glad people are watching and remembering. Usually it’s not very intrusive. People are for the most part polite about it.
Do waitresses ever give you a hard time? Because Mr Pink didn’t tip...
You know, more so after that film came out! Not so much any more. I tip, yeah. I do. I hope I’m a good tipper.
You get killed off in a lot of films. What’s your favourite death scene?
I think in The Big Lebowski. It was so unexpected. When my character has a heart attack at the end, it’s a really sweet scene between Walter and Donny. You know, because the whole film Walter keeps yelling at Donny, but it’s in those last moments you see the real affection that he has for him.
--- It was the Coen brothers — always with an eye for an unusual face — who first really noticed The Buscemi Effect, casting him as Mink in gangster masterpiece Miller’s Crossing in 1990. He’s appeared in six Coen films — more than anyone else — and it’s become a running joke that they always kill off their favourite actor.
Of course, Buscemi had already died long before he starred in any film. During the Eighties he worked as a stand-up comedian in New York. He wasn’t bad.
He wasn’t great either. Then, in a weird prediction of the fate of many of his characters, there were real brushes
As a youngster, he fractured his skull when he was hit by a bus. On another occasion, he was hit by a car while chasing a ball. And in 2001 he was stabbed three times when he was caught in the middle of a bar brawl involving his friend Vince Vaughn. It makes sense to discover the master of the misfits was born on Friday 13.
“I’ve always kind of enjoyed being born on Friday 13,” he laughs. You don’t think you’re unlucky? “I’ve always considered 13 my lucky number, and considered all those bad luck things to not be bad luck at all. Black cat crossing your path or breaking a mirror. It’s all how you look at it.”
Certainly, as befits one of the quirkiest men in cinema, Buscemi has taken a zigzag path to big-screen success. He served as a fire-fighter for four years — he returned to his old unit to work 12 hours sifting through the World Trade Center rubble — and stand-up comedy was the least weird of his jobs...
What’s the strangest job you’ve done?
I used to sell newspapers in the toll lane on the Triborough Bridge. It’s a weird job. But I’ve worked in gas stations. I drove an ice-cream truck. I was a furniture remover. I was a dishwasher. I was a bus boy.
So if you weren’t an actor, what would you have been?
I’d probably still be on the fire department. I would have had 30 years on, so I no doubt would have continued doing that.
You used to be a stand-up comedian, too. Why didn’t you carry on?
I just felt like, for me, it just... I couldn’t find my own comedic voice and I was taking acting classes at the same time, and I realised I liked acting better. But I always liked comedians when I was growing up. Like George Carlin and Steve Martin and Woody Allen and Buster Keaton.
Is doing stand-up harder than acting?
Well, for me it was. I like having other people around, I like playing off them and having that camaraderie. And doing stand-up, it’s just you. And um... I guess I didn’t like the aloneness.
What’s it like to die on stage?
It’s terrible when you’re not connecting with the audience. There are times when, being the new guy, you would get up on stage at 3am when there’s hardly anybody there. But sometimes those can be some of the best shows. A good audience is a good audience, even if it’s six people.
Everyone seems to pronounce your surname differently. What’s the right way to say it?
Well, I say, “Boo-sem-ee”. But I suppose the correct Italian pronunciation is “Bush-emmi”, so I never correct people.
Your next film is On The Road [based on the book by Jack Kerouac]. With such a major novel, is there pressure to get the film right?
Well, there’s no pressure on me! I just play a travelling salesman who picks up the young lads. I don’t want to give away too much because I’m really only in a couple of scenes. I just love the book and I’m glad that it’s finally being made into a film.
You’ve written and directed four films. Is there a book you’d love to adapt?
Yeah, there’s a book by William Burroughs called Queer that I’ve been in the process of trying to make into a film. And there’s a book of short stories by Davy Rothbart called The Lone Surfer Of Montana, Kansas. I’ve adapted three of those into a feature, and we’re actively trying to get that made as well.
You make a lot of films. About five a year, we’ve counted…
I do feel like I work a lot. Even when I’m not filming, I’m trying to get something made.
So what do you do to chill out?
Um... I don’t know [laughs]. I just sort of hang out. It’s not like I have a hobby or anything. Well, we do have a place in upstate New York, and I like going up there. If it’s the winter, there’s a fireplace up there and I just love to make fires and sit in front of the fireplace. I’m not a surprising person. Maybe people would be surprised to learn that I’m actually kind of boring.
Boardwalk Empire premieres on Sky Atlantic HD on 1 February at 9pm
Main image: Rex