Steve Buscemi: Black and White in Color

Good guy, bad guy. Theater thespian, movie star. Character
actor, leading man. Hollywood player, indie icon. Actor, director.
There is no one word or category that can easily define Steve Buscemi’s
career. Since breaking out in 1986’s Parting Glances, the
gifted actor has transformed his looks and persona so often, you
never know where (or as what) he’ll turn up next. From a burger-slinging
Buddy Holly lookalike in Pulp Fiction to the Spandau Ballet-singing
guest in The Wedding Singer, Buscemi’s natural acting ability
makes him a seemingly perfect fit for each role he inhabits. (Which
makes his voicing the chameleon-like Randall Boggs in Monsters,
Inc.
all the more befitting.)

With more than 80 roles to his credit and having logged
hours under the directorial tutelage of masters like Scorsese and
Altman, Steve Buscemi is one of American cinema’s most prolific
moviemakers. But even more enviable than his resume is the reputation
he has built in the business: a consummate professional who refuses
to ever take the easy way out when it comes to a performance.


Peter Mattei, who directed Buscemi in this fall’s Love in the Time of Money, recalls that “When we talked about
the part, I presented [Steve] with two different directions to go
in: one simpler and the other more difficult. He chose the latter,
as I knew he would, and then brought a level of emotional complexity
to the character that I never imagined. I’ve watched his scenes
probably 300 times, and each time I discover something incredibly
subtle that I hadn’t noticed before. He’s a genius.” Love in
the Time of Money
is one of two Buscemi films that will be released
this fall. The other is Tim Blake Nelson’s The Grey Zone.


Based on Dr. Miklos Nyiszli’s memoirs, The Grey
Zone
tells the harrowing story of Auschwitz’s twelfth Sonderkommando,
a “special squad” of Jewish prisoners used to usher other prisoners
to their deaths in exchange for larger living quarters, better food,
cigarettes, alcohol and the right to claim the belongings of the
newly exterminated. As Abramowics, part of this “privileged” group,
Buscemi blends in seamlessly with an ensemble cast that includes
Harvey Keitel, an almost unrecognizable Mira Sorvino and a surprisingly
subdued David Arquette. Though he considers the role one of his
most challenging, Buscemi took the part because of “the piece as
a whole. I thought it was a really powerful and moving piece; it
didn’t pull any punches. It was quite a difficult read, but it was
something that I couldn’t put down. I just thought Tim Blake Nelson
did such a great job writing it.” For Nelson, the admiration was
mutual: “When Avi Lerner, the financier, mentioned Steve as a person
meaningful to him as a cast member for The Grey Zone, I felt
extraordinarily lucky… His presence in independent films means
it is a serious film which one should take note. It is simply an
honor to have him on your set.”


Though his role as Martin Kunkle, a struggling artist
looking for truth in both his personal and professional lives, in
Mattei’s Love in the Time of Money seems far-removed from
the agonizing landscape of The Grey Zone, Buscemi connected
with both pieces for the same reason: “What I liked about both was
that they are ensemble films. I like getting in there with other
actors.” Buscemi’s character is one of nine New Yorkers whose lives
become linked by love, sex, or money—and sometimes all of the above.


Martin’s entanglement comes in the form of Robert
Walker (Malcolm Gets), a married art collector more interested in
being helpful for libidinous reasons than artistic ones. The story
unfolds when Martin succumbs to Robert’s sexual solicitation and
gets a gallery showing in return, where he pursues the receptionist
(Rosario Dawson).

Steve Buscemi directs Anthony LaPaglia in Trees Lounge.

While it could be concluded that Martin’s homosexual
dalliance was strictly for professional reasons, Buscemi doesn’t
see his character’s motivations as crystal clear. “[Martin’s] at
a point in his life where he’s getting a little bit desperate. And
maybe the reason he hasn’t been successful is that he’s getting
further away from what his real artistic truth is It was interesting
that once Martin gets his showing, it’s like he has to prove to
himself that he’s hetero. The role had a lot of nice complexities
to it.” Buscemi’s introspection is part of what makes him an engaging
actor. Where others see black and white, Buscemi finds the color.
He’s not afraid to ask the deeper questions, and work tirelessly
to search out the answers. But complexity wasn’t the only selling
point of Love in the Time of Money. Buscemi also liked that
it was “a nice New York piece.” It’s a description that, for him,
is more than geographical.


Born in Brooklyn and raised in Valley Stream, New
York City has always been a part of who Steve Buscemi is. “You’re
influenced and inspired by so many things,” he says of the city.
“It’s just a feeling you get from living here—an energy that you
pick up that becomes a part of you, and you give it back out.” Though
he’d planned to move to LA after high school, Buscemi’s father persuaded
him to take the civil service exam, move to Manhattan and pursue
acting in his spare time. Heeding his dad’s advice, he began
taking classes at the Strasberg Institute, while working full-time
as a NYC firefighter (a role he resumed briefly after last September
11th). But it was through working with actor/comedian Rockets Redglare
that Buscemi really submerged himself into the artistic renaissance
that was happening all around him.


Without ever having seen him perform, Redglare took
a chance and invited Buscemi (then a stand-up comedian) to become
a part of his Rockets Redglare Taxi Cabaret. “Rockets was a huge
inspiration and influence on me,” recalls Buscemi. “Working with
him was how I really got started. I was living in the East Village,
but had no awareness of what was going on there. For me, it was
just a cheap place to live. But meeting Rockets and getting involved
in his shows and [with] the people he knew, like Mark Boone, Jr.,
Jim Jarmusch and Tom DiCillo—I really feel that without him, I would
have missed out on so much.”


Crediting the city itself with much of his success,
Buscemi has no regrets about staying in New York. “If I’d moved
[to LA] when I was reall young, I wouldn’t have done the theater
work that I got involved with in Manhattan. And that’s where I feel
I really became an actor.”

Buscemi with Malcolm Gets in Love in the Time of Money.

It was Buscemi’s theater work that landed him his
first big break, as a singer dying of AIDS in Parting Glances. A seminal achievement in gay cinema (and one of the first films
to confront the AIDS epidemic in a forthright manner), after more
than 15 years Buscemi still counts the role of Nick his most challenging—and
favorite: “I think I like that character the best I just saw it
recently at the Gay & Lesbian Film Festival in LA and I hadn’t
seen it in years. There are some moments where I watched it and
sort of cringed, but overall I felt like I did an okay job.” With
one acclaimed film on his resume, Buscemi decided it was time to
leave the firehouse and begin his career as a full-time actor.


Over the next several years, Buscemi would become
a familiar face in independent cinema with roles in Martin Scorsese’s Life Lessons segment of New York Stories, Jim Jarmusch’s Mystery Train, James Ivory’s Slaves of New York and
Abel Ferrara’s King of New York. It was during this time
that Buscemi learned two important life lessons of his own about
the film industry. First, while independent film can satisfy an
actor’s artistic desires, Hollywood movies can pay the bills. As
such, it’s still no surprise to see Buscemi pop up in anything from
an Adam Sandler comedy (Mr. Deeds) to a Jerry-Bruckheimerized
action flick (Armageddon). “That’s the way I’ve made my living,”
he states simply.


The second lesson was that if you want to keep getting
good scripts, align yourself with great writer-directors. While
Buscemi made his first of several movies with Jim Jarmusch and the
Coen brothers following Parting Glances, he has since gone
on to forge productive relationships with other talented writer-directors
including Alexandre Rockwell (13 Moons), Tom DiCillo (Double
Whammy
), Robert Rodriguez (Spy Kids 2) and Quentin
Tarantino (Reservoir Dogs). “I like to have fun,” Buscemi
says of his auteuristic tendency. “Certainly the Coen brothers are
always fun to work with, and you know their work is always of high
quality. They definitely put their stamp on each one. Quentin has
that, and Tom DiCillo and Alexandre Rockwell [as well].”

Buscemi, Daniel Benzali, Kamelia Grigorova and David Chandler
in The Grey Zone.

For their part, directors find their frequent collaborations
with Buscemi equally beneficial. Alexandre Rockwell jokes he almost
wouldn’t know how to make a movie without Buscemi around.
“There’s a real ease in that you don’t have to spend a lot of time
directing him. It’s like being with family at Thanksgiving—you don’t
have to be polite in asking for the potatoes. You can just say ‘give
me the potatoes.’ And Steve hands over the potatoes every time!”


In an industry where the complaint that “there are
no good scripts” is an omnipresent one, Steve Buscemi is an anomaly.
Not only is he constantly working (it isn’t uncommon for as many
as six of his films to be released in one year), he’s continually
finding fascinating characters, turning out one seamless performance
after another. Part of Buscemi’s talent lies in his ability to truly
put a part of himself into each role he plays so that, whether a
hero or villain, he’s creating a character that is based in genuine
human behavior—his own. In working with Buscemi on Love in the
Time of Money,
Peter Mattei noted, “My guess is that what [Steve]
uniquely brings to the role is himself—and he’s just a more interesting,
intelligent, experienced, complex and moral person that most of
us in this business happen to be He’s very humble as a person and
you can see this in his acting. He doesn’t proclaim anything, he
doesn’t work to sell his character the way a movie star does. He
just seeks out what’s human in the person and trusts that it’s enough.”


While Buscemi has every rightto act (and be treated)
like a movie star, it’s not something he’ll ever ask for. Says Rockwell,
“He’s the most un-Hollywood actor I know, in terms of the clichés,
at least. He is such an honorable and low-key person. After September
11th, he put on his old uniform and went down to help out. And he
did it anonymously. He didn’t do it for publicity. He’s like that
in everything he does.”


Though he’s always interested in playing something
“different,” he admits that it’s hard to avoid repeating characters.
“I just look for characters and films that are somewhat complex;
that you don’t always know what’s going on and you can’t predict
the outcome. I really try and look at what the whole film is about
and decide if the character that I’m being offered really affects
the story, or affects other characters?” But even if he’s best known
as a character actor from ensemble films like Reservoir Dogs and Fargo, Buscemi’s highest acclaim to date came in 2001,
when stepped into the role of leading man for Ghost World


When writer-director Terry Zwigoff was casting Ghost
World
, Steve Buscemi was not the first name on the studio’s
list for the role of Seymour, the lonely record collector who is
trying to find his place in the world. But he was the ideal choice
for Zwigoff. “Steve wasn’t exactly an ‘easy sell’ for the part of
Seymour in Ghost World, but I couldn’t then think of anyone
who’d be better in the part—nor can I now, for that matter. Steve’s
a character actor and every studio we approached wanted a movie
star instead,” says Zwigoff. For Zwigoff, the idea of putting a
$20 million face in the part of Seymour would have been problematic
to the intention of the piece as a whole: “I suppose movie stars
sell more tickets generally speaking, but that part wouldn’t have
worked too well with some meaty, mature leading man cast as a ‘fellow
outsider’ with this 18-year old girl. It would have just been sort
of creepy at best, and false at worst… [Steve] seemed to intuitively
understand the part, and played against the way most people assumed
it should have been played.” Ignoring the literal character sketch,
Zwigoff says Buscemi “didn’t try to be eccentric or weird or nerdy.
He just played it truthfully and brought much of his own intelligence,
sensitivity and humor to the role. And he did it without much help
from me.”

Buscemi teamed up with Robert Rodriguez for
the family film, Spy Kids 2: Island of Lost Dreams (2002).

Ghost World earned Buscemi his first Golden
Globe nomination. He also won his second Independent Spirit
Award (the first came for Reservoir Dogs), and took home
honors from the National Society of Film Critics as well as the
Chicago, Kansas City, Las Vegas and New York chapters. But Buscemi’s
been around long enough to know that scripts like Ghost World are rare. And the best way to ensure a steady supply of challenging
characters is to create them yourself.


In 1996, Buscemi became the latest in a long line
of actors to try their hand at directing. Following in the footsteps
of Robert Redford, Clint Eastwood, Sean Penn and many more, Buscemi
took his own maiden voyage behind the camera, writing, directing
and starring in Trees Lounge. Ripped from the pages of the
hypothetical, Buscemi tried to imagine what his life would be like
had he never left Long Island. The result was the story of Tommy
Basilio, an out-of-work mechanic who spends part of a summer driving
an ice cream truck and the rest trying to sort out the pieces of
his shattered life at a local bar. Starring a cast of friends and
previous collaborators, including Mark Boone, Jr., Samuel L. Jackson,
Seymour Cassel and Rockets Redglare, Buscemi is the first to admit
that his move behind the camera was not an entirely graceful one.
“With Trees Lounge, the writing part of it didn’t come easy
to me… The directing part didn’t come easy either,” he laughs.


As for the technical aspects, Buscemi acknowledges
their importance, but confesses that he’s still learning: “I don’t
know a lot about that. I certainly don’t know anything about film
stock. When people talk about it I feel really dumb and I’m at their
mercy.” Trees Lounge taught him that, though the visual aspects
are important, making sure the actors feel comfortable and ready
to perform is just as crucial.


“I think I maybe paid so much attention to
[the technical side], that I forgot to talk to the actors—or just
assumed the actors didn’t need my help. But actors always
need the help of their directors,” he admits of Trees Lounge.
Luckily, there was one actor he didn’t have to worry about: himself.
“I knew the character and knew I could do it, so it was just one
less actor that I had to be concerned with,” he says with a laugh.

“He seemed to intuitively understand the part and played
against the way most people assumed it should have been played.”
—Terry Zwigoff
director, Ghost World

Buscemi stayed mostly behind the camera for his sophomore
directorial outing, but proved once again to be a distinct voice. Based on the book by Edward Bunker, whom Buscemi met on the
set of Reservoir Dogs, Animal Factory tells the story
of a privileged teen, Ron Decker (Edward Furlong), sent to prison
for drug trafficking. Unable to negotiate the rules on his own,
Decker turns to gang leader Earl Copen (Willem Dafoe) for protection
and counsel. With amazing performances from all involved, Buscemi
achieved his goal of making his sets collaborative. “The way that
I like to work is always to see what the actors are going to do
first before I say anything, and then take it from there. If I feel
like something is not being addressed, I’ll say something. Or if
I feel like it is being addressed, sometimes I like to suggest
something else just to see what that brings. I never want to feel
like the way that I see it is the only way. Sometimes mistakes happen
and that’s better than what you thought the scene could be. You
allow room for the possibilities.”


Though he likes the involvement that directing gives
him, even with two successful efforts to his credit, Buscemi knows
how difficult the financing game can be. For the past several years
he has been trying to raise money for what he hopes will be his
next project: a film adaptation of William Burroughs’ Queer, which Buscemi will direct and star in. “Try getting a film financed
with that title!,” he jokes. In the meantime, don’t be surprised
to see his name pop up on the small screen. He has directed episodes
of Homicide and Oz, and received an Emmy nomination
for his “Pine Barrens” episode of The Sopranos.


In an increasingly rare break from film, Buscemi
is currently appearing on stage in The Resistible Rise of Arturo
Ui
alongside Al Pacino and Billy Crudup. Getting back to his
theater roots is a treat for Buscemi, as working on stage allows
him “more time to explore who the character is and to discover things
in rehearsal. You don’t always have that freedom in film. You really
have to just make a choice and go with it.” With no current film
commitments on his plate, Buscemi is looking for his next project.
History tells us he won’t remain idle for long. MM

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