Steve Buscemi has played wild, crazed, ranting characters so often –
and so well – that it is a little surprising when you meet him what
a soft-spoken, down to earth guy he really
Buscemi has made his name mostly for playing hardened,
slightly-crazed criminals. Perhaps best known for his role as the
bloody-thirsty Mr. Pink in Reservoir Dogs, the inept
kidnapper in Fargo, the manic escapee in
Con-Air or the screw-up mafia cousin in The
Sopranos – Buscemi has put together a career that has lasted 25
years and dozens of movies playing off-kilter outsiders.
In reality, it
seems that Buscemi may be more like the shy-but-sweet eternal
bachelor he played in the underrated comedy Ghost World or
the empathetic insurance fraud investigator who is trying to get
over a gambling addiction in his latest film, Saint John of Las
“He is so
amazing,” says comedienne Sarah Silverman, who plays his eccentric
new girlfriend in Saint John of Las Vegas. “I’m so happy to
know him now. He’s just the kindest, most sincere, but also
silliest man. He just takes my breath away. Sometimes we’d be
doing a scene and I would just be watching him, you know? You
forget your part of it, because you want to just sit and watch him.
He’s such a great guy. He’s so in love with his wife and his kids.
Whenever his phone would ring and he would see it was one of them,
he would just go like, ‘Oh!’ It was so cute.”
Saint John of Las
is not only a too-rare lead performance for Buscemi, but is also the
first film released by Buscemi’s new production company – a joint
venture with actors Stanley Tucci and former Robert Altman associate
Wren Arthur. It is the screenwriting and directing debut by former
businessman Hue Rhodes.
“[It was] divine
intervention,” says Rhodes, “in the sense that we had been hustling
other people and trying to exploit every connection we had. If you
have a script…, you try to work through your connections. We were
busy doing that and it wasn’t happening. But I had given the script
to somebody, who gave it to a friend, who gave it to a friend, who
gave it to Steve’s agent, who gave it to Steve. We found out that
he had it indirectly while we were busy begging and pleading
somewhere else. He read it and he liked it. We had a great talk.
We talked a lot about Buster Keaton – who is sort of a hero for both
of us…. I think Steve and I resonated.”
John Alighieri in the film (the movie is loosely based on classic
The Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri), a small-time Albuquerque
insurance adjuster who has fled a gambling problem in Las Vegas.
Suddenly, he has to face his demons when he gets a job where he has
to investigate a policy claim by taking a road trip to Vegas. He
meets an odd cross-section of characters, including an Alpha-male
boss (Peter Dinklage), a hardened insurance fraud investigator
(Romany Malco), a wheelchair-bound
stripper (Emmanuelle Chriqui), a naturist survivalist (Tim
Blake Nelson) and a human torch (John
“Steve and I
spent a lot of time together in the car,” says co-star Romany Malco.
“Naturally, Steve was the funniest man in the world to be around,
but it wasn’t intentional. It was just circumstantial. You
compromise a bit to make a smaller film sometimes. We’d spend a lot
of time… rather than going back and forth to our trailer, we’d just
sit in the car, talking about all different things.”
on-the-set atmosphere contributed to vibe of this eccentric little
road comedy. While the film is getting limited
release, Buscemi is out there
doing what he does best –
playing a flashy supporting role in the acclaimed drama The
Messenger, portraying a comically frustrated dad in
Youth in Revolt and taking a role in the highly-anticipated new
Martin Scorsese series for HBO, Boardwalk Empire.
A couple of weeks
before Saint John of Las Vegas was to be released in New York
and Los Angeles, Buscemi sat down with us at the Regency Hotel in
New York to discuss his new movie and his career.
Have you ever
taken any memorable road trips?
Yeah, I took one
with my son years ago – from New York to LA. He played punk rock
music five days straight.
Did you like it?
I did like it. I
learned a lot. He knows more about that era of music that I lived
through. He knows more bands. I actually learned a lot.
What kind of
bands did you get turned on to?
The Germs. And,
ummm… now I can’t remember. This was about five years ago. I’m
blanking out. I have to wake up.
Hue [Rhodes] is a first time writer-director. What was it about his
script that made you think you wanted to work with him?
It just had a lot
of the elements I look for in scripts. Which are… it was character
driven, the characters drive (chuckles). It was less about
plot. I liked that the characters were really driving the story. I
liked that there was a lot of attractive characters. I like
ensemble films. And I like that Hue wrote it and was directing it.
I like working with writer/directors. The character that I was
playing was going through a lot. He had a lot of problems, which is
always fun to do as an actor.
As someone who is
a well-respected director yourself, did you find yourself giving him
tips on the set?
No, I try and
stay out of the way. As an actor, I try and give the director…
(there is laughter in the next room, where
co-star Romany Malco is holding court) Romany is funny.
I’m not funny. Having directed, I have more sympathy and empathy
for what the director goes through. So, one thing the director
doesn’t need is another director saying, “Well, why don’t you do
this?” or “How about if we do that?” It’s Hue’s film. I was more
interested in helping him make the film that he wanted to make.
Was there any
talk before you started filming about the characters?
Oh, yeah. We had
a lot of talks and we had rehearsals. That’s where a lot of the
work gets done – hopefully before you get to set.
A gambler is an
addict, but it doesn’t have a lot of the obvious signs – like an
alcoholic or a drug addict. Does that make it harder to put across?
Well, it was in
there. The fact that he buys lottery tickets every day is a big tip
off. (laughs) Almost depending on that. Anybody who would
spend their last five bucks on lottery tickets has a problem.
There’s nothing wrong with buying lottery tickets, but if you don’t
have the money for it and that’s what you’re sort of banking on,
then I’d say you are in trouble.
You had a lot of
other funny people in this film – like Peter, Sarah and Romany… I
wondered if you could share anything that happened on the set that
That’s the worst
question – do you have any funny stories? (laughs) I
guarantee you if I relate any stories it will just fall flat. All I
can say is Sarah is very funny and she was a real joy to have
around. She does have that sense of humor on a set – very dry. But
the other thing about her is that she is really, really sweet. She
is a really, really sweet person and I thought she brought a lot of
that to her character. I was really excited by what she was doing.
At first I almost couldn’t imagine her playing the character, but I
just thought she was amazing. Peter I’ve worked with before. He’s
always fun to have around. And, again, I have no funny stories.
Out of the three,
who was the most likely to make everyone laugh?
Oh, I don’t
know. Probably Sarah.
What kind of
projects do you have coming up? I heard a while back that you would
be doing the animated film
Megalomaniac with Michel Gondry [Eternal Sunshine of
the Spotless Mind]. Is that still happening?
I think it is. I
haven’t heard from Michel in a while, but I think that is still
moving forward. Right now I am doing Boardwalk Empire, this
HBO show that’s about Atlantic City in the 1920s. A couple of
things that are out now. Youth in Revolt. I play Michael
Cera’s dad. That was fun. And The Messenger with [director]
Oren Moverman. That’s a film that I really hope more people
see, that I loved being in.
You’ve been doing
a lot of TV directing as well, lately. Do you have any more
features in the works?
Stanley Tucci and I now have a production company with Wren Arthur,
who used to produce for Robert Altman. So, we’re both actively
trying to find financing for films that we want to direct.
Going back to
I’ve got funny
stories from The Messenger. (laughs)
I guess you’d
have to with Woody Harrelson around, but your scene was extremely
powerful and I heard that it was pretty much improvised – you were
given an outline or a sketch of what you were supposed to do…
We actually had a
script. Those were lines that I was given.
We only did like
four takes. I guess it was on the third or fourth take that Oren
said “try something…” “Try saying this” or “Try adding that.” Just
add stuff. So we did. But, we were working from a very good
said that when he and Ben Foster had scenes where they had to notify
people, they didn’t know who was going to be behind the door.
That may have
been true on the other ones. But our scene… and that was the very
first scene that they filmed… that was everybody’s first day the
notification of my character. It was a hell of a way to start a
film. They knew they were coming to see me and we all knew our
lines, but we didn’t rehearse them. I don’t think any of the
notification scenes were rehearsed.
You have had an
interesting career in Hollywood – both as a leading man and as a
supporting character. Which do you prefer doing?
You’ve seen me in
Hollywood movies where I’ve played the leading man? (laughs)
I guess you threw me with the [term] Hollywood.
Well, there was
There you go.
You’re right, that was a studio film. But all the roles I play, I
don’t typically see any of them – even in films that I am in it from
the beginning to the end – that they are typically leading men. I
like playing interesting, complex, complicated characters. I like
films that have, also, an element of humor. So, to me it doesn’t
really matter how big the part is as long as the part is important
to the story.
You have also
tended to go back and forth between comedy and drama. Like this
Do you have a preference?
No, I don’t have
a preference. I like doing it all.
Do you find one
something like The Messenger, I was more intimidated by
that. I’d say there is more emotional fallout. It is taxing. But,
I don’t think it is any harder to do than comedy. You’re just using
different acting muscles.
Could you talk a
little more about
HBO tends to come up with quality series that don’t get cancelled
after one season. What is it like to work with Martin Scorsese in
Well, I love
working with Scorsese. He’s not only a brilliant director and he
does great work with actors – he loves actors – but he’s also a
walking human film encyclopedia. It’s just fun to talk about movies
with him. He’ll suggest films to watch. If you can’t get it, he’ll
get it for you. (laughs) He’s got an amazing library of
films. So that was really a dream come true. Even though I’ve
worked with him before it was always just in little [roles] – I
worked with him a few days on his section of New York Stories.
One of the best times I’ve ever spent on a set was Robert Altman’s
little mini-series Tanner on Tanner. He cast Marty and I as
basically background guys in this scene at the lanes that centered
around Cynthia Nixon and her character. Marty and I were sort of in
the background and we got to interact. I got to spend all morning
sitting with Marty at the table and having Robert Altman come by and
give us direction. It was heaven.
What’s the story
arc for your character?
I play… his
official title was the account due Treasurer of Atlantic City, but
he really ran the town – and the Republican Party at that time. He
was sort of a larger than life guy and was really about taking care
of his constituents and his people and doing whatever it takes to
make them happy. And, part of what made them happy was drinking.
(chuckles) So, when Prohibition hit, it was important to him
to get the people what they wanted. So, he was not above being
above the law. He’s just a really colorful character who knew
people like Al Capone and Arnold
Rothstein, but was kind of below the radar. It was based on a real
guy. Not many people knew about this guy who really ran things.
Did you do a lot
of research for it?
Well, there is a
wonderful book that it is based on. So that was the first thing, to
read the book. But, yeah, I also read other things and again, the
best research you can do is to talk with the writer – in this case
it was Terrence Winter, who is one of my favorite writers from
The Sopranos. We did have some rehearsals before the pilot.
That is always helpful. It’s harder to do once you are in the
series, because you just don’t have the time. Yeah, that period is
really rich and it’s fun to read about.
Saint John… in the minimart he sort of hits rock bottom. Do you think that
eventually he is going to be happy in Albuquerque and he’s seen his
way through, or do you think he will start getting those feelings
about gambling again?
Well, of course
he will. Like any addiction, it’s never completely cured. You have
to live with that every day. Every day is a new day. Another day
is a challenge. Some days will be harder than others. But, I have
hope for him. He’s got a good woman. (laughs) A funny
woman. He’s got a good job. I have hope that those things will
How did Peter
Dinklage get involved? It didn’t sound like it was written for a
little person. Other roles he did seemed more specifically for
someone of his stature.
No, it wasn’t.
Actually, Stanley Tucci was going to play that role, but then
couldn’t do it. Stanley and I were producers on the film with our
company. I’m proud to say that I suggested Peter. I’ve worked with
him before and I just thought he’d be terrific. I was glad that he
was hired. I think he’s a wonderful actor. He’s got really great
comic timing. Because I had worked with him before, I just knew
that we were going to have a connection and chemistry.
What do you feel
about Las Vegas? Some people love it, some people hate it.
I like it in
short doses. I find that if I’m there too long it feels a little
bit creepy after a while. But I think it’s a lot of fun to spend a
few hours at a blackjack table. As long as, I think you have to
have a budget. If you lose that money, just let it go. But it’s
fun. There’s no doubt about it that it’s fun. I just don’t have
that personality where I would like to spend that much time in a
casino, but I do understand the attraction.
John was a very
empathetic character – he was able to get along with most of the
people there, except for Virgil. Why do you think he was so
Well, not for
lack of trying. He did try. Just, I think, because he was totally
messing up Virgil’s game. (laughs) Virgil had a whole
long-term plan – a goal that he was working towards. Now here comes
somebody who had the potential to foil those plans. But I think
Virgil was smart enough to actually use that to his advantage. He
just wasn’t sure about that at first. So, he was probably doing
John a favor by the fact that they don’t become friends. It was
probably a good thing because of what happens at the end.
There are some
uncomfortable moments in the film – for example getting the lap
dance from the stripper in the wheelchair. Were there any moments
you were uncomfortable filming?
No, it didn’t
feel uncomfortable. (laughs) It was fun. That was part of
the fun of doing the film – all those awkward moments and characters
who were doing outrageous things.
Is that the kind
of humor you like when you are watching something?
I like humor that
comes out of the situation of what the characters are going
through. So, yeah, the humor was right up my alley.
us Let us know what you