Steve Buscemi (R) with John Strasberg
"I have some jokes I want to tell!"
From the age of four or five, Steve Buscemi knew he wanted to be part of the world of movies and TV, where guys like Cagney and Bogart and John Garfield reigned during the Golden Age and, later, an actor like Al Pacino could transform himself from the Quiet Corleone in The Godfather to the volatile Sonny in Dog Day Afternoon.
Yet, though the Brooklyn-born Buscemi has become known for intense, edgy roles - think Reservoir Dogs and The Sopranos - his roots lie in comedy, from boyhood joke-telling to doing stand-up in downtown New York City clubs. In fact his goal early on was "to make it as a stand-up and then get cast in a sitcom - to get to L.A."
"Still haven't made it," he joked the other day to a crowd of theater-boosters at a benefit for the Accidental Repertory Theater
in downtown New York. "I was a terrible auditioner. I would get so nervous. So I just decided I'm not going to worry about that."
With a good day job as a New York City firefighter, he devoted his free time to experimental theater and comedy shows on the Lower East Side. In the thriving theater scene there, he found he could join the creative process rather than waiting to be cast in a role.
When he got around to studying acting -- with John Strasberg at the legendary Lee Strasberg Institute -- he initially felt terrified. But after doing his first scene in class, he recalls being told by Strasberg, "You really seem to enjoy this" - and getting the sense that, training and methods aside, having a good time counted for a lot. At the same time, exposure to great classic drama and comedy (Chekhov, Neil Simon) expanded his horizons, as did an affiliation with renowned experimental theater troupe The Wooster Group.
Quitting the fire department to pursue acting full-time was not exactly a leap of faith; rather, "it almost wasn't a choice," Buscemi says. But scary nonetheless. Asked about his greatest fear, he cites "just going into the business. I had a good job and I liked being a firefighter. But it wasn't enough. I didn't want to turn into that guy from Trees Lounge."
Trees Lounge (1996) was Buscemi's full-length writing-and-directing debut, and "that guy" was Tommy, the alcoholic barfly he played - a guy who had dreams, but never got out of the suburban Long Island rut in which he'd grown up. As the actor reflected on how he might have ended up a Tommy, and as I recalled the movie, I found myself nodding in recognition. A Long Island-raised boy myself, I knew plenty of guys who turned into Tommys. What they couldn't do - and what many actors, even successful ones, don't get a chance to do either - is get to the point where "it's all about creating your own work."
For a man who's made his name as a first-rate actor, and even become king of his own Boardwalk Empire (he took home a Best Actor Golden Globe last year for his work in that HBO series), it may be a little surprising to learn that his dream is to have a directorial career like that of John Cassavetes or Robert Altman.
Writing, producing, and directing are all part of the creative process for Buscemi, feeding his desire to do more than take orders. He wasn't satisfied just being a firefighter, but he wasn't satisfied just being an actor either (all that "waiting around on the set," for one thing). Since Trees Lounge he's directed several more films (most recently the Theo Van Gogh remake Interview) and numerous TV shows, including episodes of The Sopranos, Oz, and Homicide: Life in the Street. He's even gotten behind the camera of a quintessential 21st-century New York City comedy, 30 Rock - perhaps some consolation for not having "made it" to a starring sitcom role in L.A.
Despite all his success Buscemi remains personable, down-to-earth, anything but pretentious. Acting remains fun because it's all about make-believe: "Sometimes it's just about knowing your lines...[although] on one hand you're pretending to be a character; on the other hand you're investing a lot of yourself," whether it's a semi-autobiographical character like Tommy or a scary one like Reservoir Dogs' Mr. Pink.
For one particular scene in the latter film, he describes how he had to amp himself to "get into a dark place" - yet even in a situation like that, Buscemi, the man, deflates any threat of pompousness, recalling one scene where the intensity and darkness were such that he felt embarrassed in front of his wife, who happened to be visiting the set that day.
We don't usually think of actors getting embarrassed. They're out there revealing their innermost selves to complete strangers with every performance, aren't they? Well, yes, you could say that. On the other hand, after an evening with Steve Buscemi, one really doesn't feel like a stranger anymore.