One of the most important character actors of the 1990s, Steve Buscemi is unmatched in his ability to combine lowlife posturing with weasely charisma. Although active in the cinema since the mid-'80s, it was not until Quentin Tarantino cast Buscemi as Mr. Pink in the 1992 Reservoir Dogs that the actor became known to most audience members. He would subsequently appear to great effect in other Tarantino films, as well as those of the Coen Brothers, where his attributes blended perfectly into the off-kilter landscape. Born in Brooklyn, New York, on December 13, 1957, Buscemi was raised on Long Island, NY. He gained an interest in acting while a senior in high school, but he had no idea of how to pursue a professional career in the field. Working as a fireman for four years, he began to perform stand-up comedy, but he eventually realized that he wanted to do more dramatic theatrical work. After moving to Manhattan's East Village, he studied drama at the Lee Strasberg Institute, and he also began writing and performing skits in various parts of the city. His talents were eventually noticed by filmmaker Bill Sherwood, who was casting his film Parting Glances. The 1986 drama was one of the first feature films to be made about AIDS (Sherwood himself died from AIDS in 1990), and it starred Buscemi as Nick, a sardonic rock singer suffering from the disease. The film, which was a critical success on the independent circuit, essentially began Buscemi's career as a respected independent actor.
Buscemi's resume was given a further boost that same year by his recurring role as a serial killer on the popular TV drama L.A. Law; he subsequently began finding steady work in such films as New York Stories and Mystery Train (both 1989). In 1990, he had another career breakthrough with his role in Miller's Crossing, which began his longtime collaboration with the Coen brothers. The Coens went on to cast Buscemi in nearly all of their films, featuring him to particularly memorable effect in Barton Fink (1991), in which he played a bell boy; Fargo (1996), which featured him as an ill-fated kidnapper; and The Big Lebowski (1998), which saw him portray a laid-back ex-surfer.
Although Buscemi has done his best work outside of the mainstream, turning in other sterling performances in Alexandre Rockwell's In the Soup (1992) and Tom Di Cillo's Living in Oblivion (1995), he has occasionally appeared in such Hollywood megaplex fare as Con Air (1997), Armageddon (1998), Big Daddy (1999), and 28 Days (2000), the last of which cast him against type as Sandra Bullock's rehab counselor. Back in indieville, Buscemi would next utilize his homely persona in a more sympathetic manner as a soulful loner with a penchant for collecting old records in director Terry Zwigoff's (Crumb) Ghost World. Despite all indicators pointing to mainstream prolifieration in the new millennium, Buscemi continued to display his dedication to independent film projects with roles in such efforts as Alaxandre Rockwell's 13 Moons and Peter Mattei's Love in the Time of Money (both 2002). Of course there are exceptions to every rule, and Buscemi's memorable appearances in such big budget efforts as Mr Deeds and both Spy Kids 2 and Spy Kids 3-D: Game Over served to remind audiences that Buscemi was still indeed at the top of his game, perhaps now more than ever.
In 1996, Buscemi made his screenwriting and directorial debut with Trees Lounge, a well-received comedy drama in which he played a down-on-his-luck auto mechanic shuffling through life on Long Island. He followed up his directorial debut in 2000 with Animal Factory, a subdued prison drama starring Edward Furlong as a young inmate who finds protection from his fellow prisoners in the form of an older convict (Willem Dafoe). Moving to the small screen, Buscemi would next helm an episode of the acclaimed HBO mob drama The Sopranos. Called Pine Barrens, the episode instantly became a fan-favorite.
In 2004, Buscemi moved out from behind the camera to join the cast of The Sopranos, costarring as Tony Blundetto, a recently paroled mafioso struggling to stay straight in the face of temptation to revert back to his old ways.
More fun facts about Steve Buscemi
Height 5' 9" (1.75 m)
Surname pronunced Buss-ehm-ee. Is of Italian and Irish-American ancestry.
Ranked #52 in Empire (UK) magazine's "The Top 100 Movie Stars of All Time" list. [October 1997]
Graduated 1975 Valley Stream Central high School, Valley Stream, NY.
Brother of Michael Buscemi.
Was a New York City Fireman from 1980 to 1984, with Engine Company #55 in the Little Italy section of NY.
One son, Lucian. 
Has been cast in five movies by Joel Coen and Ethan Coen. His character died in three of them.
Frequently appears in unbilled roles in Adam Sandler movies.
Stabbed in the throat, head and arm during a barroom brawl at the Firebelly Lounge in Wilmington, NC. The brawl also involved Vince Vaughn. He suffered a deep cut to the face and now has a noticeable scar on his cheek. Heavy make-up is used to hide it in movies. [12 April 2001]
Showed up at his old firehouse the day after the World Trade Center tragedy in New York to volunteer. Worked twelve hour shifts for a week after the terrorist act, digging through rubble with his old comrades looking for missing firefighters... anonymously. [September 2001]
Is of Italian descent.
Bears such a strong resemblance to writer-director John Waters that as a joke, Waters sent out cards with a photo of Buscemi made up to look like Waters.
Has appeared in 5 Coen Brothers films, his characters died in three of them.
Modelled for H&M (2000)
Graduated from Valley Stream Memorial High School, Valley Stream, New York.
He went through a variety of interesting jobs before hitting it big as a character actor. He worked as a bartender, drove an ice-cream truck, attempted stand-up comedy, and (that which he is most proud of) was a firefighter (he continues to be a volunteer fire-fighter).
Frequently he is typecast as sleazy or crazed characters, with his role as Seymour in _"Ghost World" (2000)_ being the closest he has come to being the romantic lead.
Is one of the most prolific of today's actors, often starring in about 5 films a year.
In addition to his acting work, he has gained praise as a director, most notably for Trees Lounge (1996), Animal Factory (2000) and several episodes of "The Sopranos" (1999).
The band "Blessid Union of Souls" makes a reference to him in their hit song, "Hey Leonardo". They refer to him as "That guy who played in 'Fargo'. I think his name is Steve."
Plays characters who are fast talkers.
Auditioned for the part of George Costanza on _"Seinfeld"(1990)_ .
His mother is Irish-American
In 2003, as part of a year-long tourist promotion at the Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, he narrated the facility's audio tour.
His character in Reservoir Dogs (1992) refuses to tip waitresses. He later made an uncredited cameo as a waiter in Pulp Fiction (1994).
His personal quotes:
"My favorite review described me as the cinematic equivalent of junk mail. I don't know what that means, but it sounds like a dig."
Steve Buscemi, filmmaker
He's the weasel. The thief. The loser. The smartass. Steve Buscemi has made a career out of playing lowlifes who just can't catch a break, from "Reservoir Dogs'" Mr. Pink in 1992 to the kidnapper who met his fate in a wood chipper in 1996's "Fargo." But as an actor, writer, producer and director, Buscemi has hit the Hollywood "quadfecta" without having to leave his own back yard (he grew up in Long Island) or the indie scene where he first got noticed: as an AIDS-stricken rock star in 1986's "Parting Glances." Recently, Buscemi wrapped Tim Burton's "Big Fish," directed the now-shelved pilot for HBO's "Baseball Wives" and has pulled slots as director and co-star of some of next season's episodes of HBO's "The Sopranos." That he is to receive an IFP Gotham Award on Monday begs only one question: Why didn't it happen sooner? Buscemi spoke recently with Randee Dawn for The Hollywood Reporter.
The Hollywood Reporter: So, you're local. You've put color into some great indie films. Why do you think the IFP didn't get to you sooner?
Steve Buscemi: (Chuckling) I'm still young! In the beginning, it wasn't even a question of deciding I'm going to do independent film and not commercial films -- I wasn't being offered any commercial films, and there wasn't an independent scene. I did a lot of "so-called" independent films that were really low-budget films trying to be commercial. But you certainly make choices when you have a script written by Jim Jarmusch or the Coen brothers or Alexandre Rockwell; I think any actor would feel lucky to be able to work on projects like that.
THR: Is getting this award different from receiving other awards or nominations?
Buscemi: Well, for one, you know you're getting it, so you have time to think of something to say. Knowing it this far in advance just makes me that much more nervous for all these weeks. And it also means a lot because it's coming from New York and the IFP. It's very nice.
THR: You didn't have a lifelong acting ambition, it seems. You discovered it as a senior in high school, correct?
Buscemi: In high school, I didn't really hang out with the theater kids, so it was something that was foreign to myself and my friends. I didn't think I'd be taken seriously, and I thought the only way I could do this was to move to California. Plus, I thought that's where you had to be to be an actor. I really had no idea of the theater scene that was happening in Manhattan. I was living in Long Island, and it may as well have been the Midwest. I really had no clue.
THR: Yet, here you are, decades later. Does that come as a surprise?
Buscemi: Yeah because it could very easily have been different. Just making the move into Manhattan was a big step. I remember when I first moved into the city, thinking, I don't know if this is really me; I wasn't sure if I would continue. But then something just clicked, and once I got over the initial fear, there was something about the city because it wasn't like I was getting work -- I was working as a furniture mover and busboy.
THR: And eventually at Engine Company 55 as a fireman, right?
Buscemi: That came later, after I had been living in the city for a couple of years. I had already been living in the city and was taking acting classes on and off. I was also trying stand-up comedy and trying to audition for plays and films, but I didn't have an agent. It was all stuff where I'd look in Backstage and send my picture and resume out, but my resume barely had anything on it. When the fire department called, I thought, Why not? It wasn't like I had any career going acting-wise, and I needed a change. I didn't even realize how important it would become to me. The funny thing was when I was doing that job, it also gave me more free time to pursue theater. You could work a 24-hour shift and then be off three days in a row, so it gave me time to do other things. Everything happened pretty slowly and gradually. The same with getting into film. When I think back on it now, it is surprising, but as it was happening -- it was step by step by step.
THR: You've said before that being an actor helps you understand what other actors need; that, in turn, helps you as a director.
Buscemi: I think that's what helps me. You'd think I'd know what other actors need, but that's not always the case. I could see something and know in my mind how it should be played, but it's not always easy to articulate that to an actor. One of the things I do, maybe from being an actor, is to give actors time to themselves because that's important -- to see what the actor does and give them time to work through it and figure things out without having to say, "This is what I want."
THR: So, where are you going to put your big Gotham Award? Do you have a place for such prizes?
Buscemi: Um, it's not like I have a lot where I can say, "Well, I put one here and one there." I really don't know. I'm not even sure what it looks like!
Buscemi Arrested in Fire Station Protest
Quirky character actor Steve Buscemi has been arrested during a protest over the closure of a New York fire station. The star, best known for off-beat films like The Big Lebowski, Fargo and Reservoir Dogs, locked elbows with politicians in an attempt to keep the city from closing one of its oldest firehouses. The 45-year-old, who worked as a firefighter from 1980 to 1984, calls the closures "irresponsible" and "dangerous", adding, "This is compromising the safety of all the communities where the firehouses are closing." Opened in 1855, Engine 204's firehouse bears the letters 'BFD engine 4', dating from the late 18th century, when Brooklyn was a separate city to New York and horses that pulled the steam pumper were stabled across the street. City officials have justified the closings, expected to save $7 million a year, by saying population shifts have made the firehouses unnecessary, and that emergency response times, measured in seconds, will not be slowed.
Buscemi Protests Cutbacks on Fire Stations
Fargo star Steve Buscemi has spoken out against proposals to close many of New York City's fire stations. Before becoming a Hollywood actor, Buscemi was a New York City firefighter from 1980 to 1984 - and he continues to be a vocal and high-profile supporter. And he joined about 50 demonstrators on Saturday to protest a cost- cutting proposal to close eight firehouses. Referring to the 343 firefighters killed in the September 11 terrorist attacks, he says, "I think it's a slap in the face, after all that they've done and all that they continue to do. They're just starting to come back. This is just terrible - a terrible message to firefighters because they want to save $10 million or $11 million a year." New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, seeking to close a $3.4 billion budget deficit, has proposed eliminating eight firehouses and said last week at least 30 more may have to be closed if the city does not receive state or federal financial assistance.
Steve will be recognized by his high school
Actor/director Steve Buscemi returns to his alma mater, Valley Stream Central High School, on Friday, March 4, to receive its Distinguished Alumni Award. As part of its 75th anniversary celebration, Valley Stream Central High School will present its Distinguished Alumni Award to actor/director Steve Buscemi, a member of the class of 1975.
Presentations will be made to Buscemi by the school, the alumni association, the Village of Valley Stream and other elected officials, after which Buscemi will speak to students about his years at Central and his career. Afterward he will answer questions in a smaller group setting with students in the Performing Arts Program. Buscemi, who grew up in Valley Stream from the age of 8, attended Shaw Avenue Elementary School and Memorial Junior High. His parents, John and Dorothy Buscemi, still live in the community. Buscemi reportedly made his acting debut in fourth grade, as the cowardly lion in Shaw Avenue's production of "The Wizard of Oz."
He didn't pursue acting again until his senior year at Central, when he took Lynne Lappin's acting class and appeared in "Fiddler on the Roof." In the meantime, Buscemi was a varsity wrestler under legendary coach Harold Earl. He also played soccer and was a member of the Varsity Club.
After graduation, he attended Nassau Community College for a time, and then moved into Manhattan to study acting at the famed Lee Strasberg Institute. Buscemi did stand-up comedy, and wrote and performed his own theater pieces in performance spaces and theaters downtown. He supported himself as a firefighter assigned to Engine Company 55 on Broome Street in Manhattan from 1980 to 1985.
In 1986, he was cast in his first leading role, in the movie "Parting Glances," and other roles quickly followed. Now, 30 years after graduation, he has built a reputation as a unique character actor, portraying some of the most unforgettable roles in American cinema, many of them for the Coen Brothers. A few of his more than 70 film credits include "Mystery Train" (1989, for which he received an Independent Spirit Award nomination), "Miller's Crossing" (1990), "Billy Bathgate" (1991), "Barton Fink" (1991), "Reservoir Dogs" (1992, for which he won the Independent Spirit Award for best supporting actor), "The Hudsucker Proxy" (1993), "Twenty Bucks" (1993), "Pulp Fiction" (1994), "Billy Madison" (1994), "Things to Do in Denver When You're Dead" (1995), "Fargo" (1996), "Con Air" (1997), "The Big Lebowski" (1998), "Armageddon" (2000), "The Wedding Singer" (2000), "Ghost World" (2001, for which he won an Independent Spirit Award and a New York Film Critics Award and was nominated for a Golden Globe for best supporting actor), "Mr. Deeds" (2002) and "Coffee and Cigarettes" (2004).
Buscemi has become a respected writer and director as well. He made his feature film-writing and directorial debut with "Trees Lounge" in 1996, in which he also starred. Part of the film was shot in Valley Stream in the summer of 1995, with a number of Valley Streamers serving as extras. A special screening was held in two theaters at the Green Acres Cinema on Nov. 7, 1996, to benefit the Lynne C. Lappin Theatre Scholarship and the family of close friend and classmate John Urso. The film was dedicated to Lappin.
The prison drama "Animal Factory," in 2000, was Buscemi's second feature directing effort. His third and most recent, "Lonesome Jim" (2004), starring Liv Tyler and Casey Affleck, was screened at the Sundance Film Festival last month.
Buscemi's television credits include directing and acting in the hit HBO series "The Sopranos." During the third season, he was nominated for an Emmy and a Directors Guild of America award for his direction of the "Pine Barrens" episode. In the show's fifth season, Buscemi earned an Emmy nod for best supporting actor for his portrayal of Tony Soprano's cousin.
Buscemi, who lives in Brooklyn, is married to filmmaker Jo Andres. They have a teenage son, Lucian. Buscemi's brothers, Jon, Michael and Kenneth, are also Central High graduates, members of the classes of 1974, 1978 and 1982, respectively.
Steve Buscemi: Actor, Director, Stand-Up Comic, Fireman
One of the most recognisable faces - and voices - in contemporary cinema, Steve Buscemi has worked with the biggest names in independent US cinema, most noticably the Coen brothers, but is equally at home in Hollywood blockbusters such as Armageddon. Following a screening of Animal Factory, his second film as a director, Buscemi talked to Adrian Wootton about his film career, as well as his previous experience as a stand-up comic and a fireman.
Adrian Wootton: Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome Steve Buscemi. It's been five years since you were here with Trees Lounge, and it's nice to welcome you back with a new film. I want to start by asking you about the beginning of your career - the stand-up comedy. What did stand-up give you in terms of training as an actor?
Steve Buscemi: I don't know. The reason I did stand-up, beside the fact that I liked stand-up - I loved George Carlin and Steve Martin, two different types of comedy but I love them both? This was when Freddie Prinz was very big and he had done the Johnny Carson show when he was seventeen, and that inspired all of these young kids to try their hand at comedy, I was no different. When I was doing stand-up I was about twenty, and I really think that that's a little too young, I didn't have a whole lot of life experience to draw on?
The reason I did it was because I didn't know of any other way to break into acting. My greatest hope was to get discovered as a comedian and get on a sit-com. I knew that the clubs were out there - you could write your own material and if you passed the auditions then you had a built-in audience. But there were only a handful of comics who had their own voice, who were doing something original, and everybody else, including myself, was just doing a variation on those top four or five.
Plus it was lonely. I didn't really like the aloneness of doing stand-up. The comedians by nature weren't very - I mean they were sociable, but they hung out in cliques and it's very hard to get accepted, lot's of competition. I missed what I had in acting classes, the camaraderie and working with other actors. That's why I stopped doing it.
AW: Did stand-up help you at all? You then broke into independent film, Parting Glances was a real break-through.
SB: Yeah, but I think my real training as an actor was when I started doing theatre. The guy in Animal Factory who plays Paul, Mark Boone Junior, and Rockets Redglare, another actor, he was the big, rotund guard, who just recently died, by the way. Rockets was doing a stand-up show in the East Village, where I lived, and invited me to do stand-up there. It was OK, I only did it once. I was too terrified to do it again.
But I met Mark Boone and we started doing our own performances. It was really through the work that I did with him, and at the time I was doing a lot of experimental theatre, and I was on stage all the time. When I say "stage" I don't mean a legitimate stage, it was really performance spaces - schools that were turned into theatres, basements, churches, clubs? At that time people like Jim Jarmusch, Bill Sherwood, Tom DiCillo and Alex Rockwell would come and see these shows. That directly led to me being cast in their films.
AW: In a relatively short space of time you did an impressive amount of character parts. You were also in New York Stories, directed by Scorsese, and you began your relationship with the Coen brothers. As an actor, was there a particular film-maker at that time, in the late eighties, who had a major influence on you?
SB: I'd say that the director I had most involvement with was Alex Rockwell in In the Soup. It was one of my earliest leading roles, and he gave me a lot of responsibility as an actor. In it I was playing a film-maker, and at that time I had already written the script for Trees Lounge, but I wasn't able to get it off the ground, so it's ironic that I was able to play a budding director in In the Soup and in Living in Oblivion as well. In the film I had to show a short film to Seymour Cassel's character, and he let me shoot that and edit it. I guess your question was about acting?
AW: I was going to go on to ask about directing?
SB: Well, acting with Seymour Cassel, who is somebody whose work I really admire from the Cassavetes films. I learnt a lot working with him as an actor. With Alex I was privy to the whole editing process, which I hadn't done before, so that was interesting to see how a director makes a film in post-production.
AW: Then, of course, Reservoir Dogs had a major impact on your career. Could you talk about what that film means ten years on?
SB: I remember reading the script and thinking that it was written by somebody like Eddy Bunker, who is a real convict. When I first talked to Quentin on the phone, his voice sounded like, "Hiya man, how ya doin'? I'm glad you like the script - that's really cool!" And I thought this is not the guy who wrote this script. "Thanks a bunch, man!" you know?
I don't think he did that much research, in terms of researching criminals, he did it by watching other films? [Laughter]
I asked him, and he said, "Oh, I just watched other movies, man." But he reinvented it for himself, and I thought that that was incredible - the whole pancake house scene at the beginning of the film. It was an exciting film to work on, because Quentin was so passionate and enthusiastic about what he was doing that it touched us all. We really wanted to do a good job for him, and we all felt that we were working on something that was unique, but I don't think that any of us had an idea about who he would become.[soundclip1]
AW: Did the film have a negative effect on your casting?
SB: No, it was only beneficial. I'd say that the film opened a lot of doors for me, especially leading to some more commercial work. It was the first time that the West Coast knew who I was, and I started to get parts in bigger films. It also allowed some other independent film-makers to cast me in larger roles, because of the success of the film.
AW: You carried on combining independent films with major budget films like Con Air or Armageddon. What was it like being on those sorts of sets?
SB: On those big films there is a lot of pressure on the director, because they have so much money. They may have more time to do stuff, but the pressure is the same. The way I approach it as an actor is pretty much the same. It doesn't matter what part I play, I try and commit myself 100%. But there is a lot more waiting around, and maybe the parts for me aren't as challenging, or the story isn't as interesting and it feels more like a job.
The independent films I've done - it feels more like a family effort and people are doing it because, well we certainly aren't doing it for the money, but we do it because we love it.
AW: You've had a very long relationship with the Coen brothers, how has that developed.
SB: I auditioned for Miller's Crossing, read the pages for this character, which was five pages of dialogue straight. I just thought, "This guy has gotta talk fast or it's gonna be deathly." So I practised it a lot, went in there and did it and they laughed, they laughed a lot. I know they saw a lot of other actors for it, and they brought me in again, about a month later. And they laughed again and said, "Well, you still say it the fastest." [Laughter]
After that they kept giving me other roles. But they're really low key guys, they really enjoy what they do. Often they're on the side of the camera, laughing. You can hear them laughing during a take. They really work as one, there's never conflicting directions coming from them, they're always together and pretty much in agreement.
AW: Then in the mid-90s you did Trees Lounge, which, as you said, was long in gestation. I remember when you were here before and talking about the personal nature of the film, you said that you weren't sure that you would make another film that you wrote a script for that was so personal. What's happened in the interim?
SB: I haven't been able to do it again! I don't really consider myself a writer as such. When I was doing it in the theatre, I was doing most of it with Boone. Trees Lounge was really hard for me to write, so I was grateful to have other material come to me through Eddy Bunker that was already there. We worked the script a lot, and I did some writing on it, but? Hopefully, one day, I'll write another original screenplay, but right know it's more important to keep directing, so it doesn't matter so much where the material comes from. As long as it's good.
AW: Between your two films you did some television directing. You did an episode of Homicide and an episode of Oz, the prison drama?
SB: Actually, I did two. I did one before Animal Factory and one after?
AW: Did that in any way influence your decision to do Animal Factory?
SB: No. When we first decided to get Animal Factory off the ground, Oz was just starting up. For a while I avoided watching it, because I didn't want to be influenced by it. But I got sucked in, and started watching it. Stylistically it's really different from Animal Factory, and it was challenging to work on that as well. I really liked the actors involved, too. So it wasn't like I was looking for another prison thing to warm up with.
Directing television is really hard, and I was glad that I had directed a feature film to prepare me for doing television - it's so fast. You shoot an hour show in seven days. It's very fast.
AW: How long had the Bunker script been around?
SB: He wrote a version of it in the seventies, after Straight Time, which Dustin Hoffman had optioned. When he gave the script to me, it was a little different from the book. When I first read Eddy's original screenplay, I didn't really have a feel for it, and it wasn't until I read the book and I got more into the characters and said to Eddy that there should be more from the book, that I decided that I could take it on.
AW: I presume the first time you met Bunker was on Reservoir Dogs, so was it after Trees Lounge that he gave you the script?
SB: We had actually lost touch after Reservoir Dogs, and when I was doing the film Desperado with Danny Trejo, who's in Animal Factory, he knows Eddy, and he told me Eddy was working on this script. I worked with Danny twice, once on Desperado and once on Con Air, and it was during Con Air that he gave me the script and put me back in touch with Eddy.
AW: When you decide to make Animal Factory, did you intentionally steer clear of other noir prison dramas? What did you do?
SB: I looked at other prison films, but that was early on in the process, before I went into pre-production. I didn't really see it as a prison film as such, what moved me in the book was this love story, certainly from Earl's point of view, that he was looking to have a relationship, a non-sexual relationship with someone who was intelligent. And I also love that he said he wouldn't help him at all if he was ugly? He was admitting that he did find him attractive, but he was going to try not to go down that route because he was looking for something deeper. That's something I've never seen expressed in a prison film. That's what really drew me.
AW: How did you approach the casting?
SB: Well, I've known Willem for years, I've worked a little with the Rooster Group, which is the performance group that he works with, and he was one of the people that I thought of, so I gave him the book fairly early on. I told him we were working on the screenplay and he signed on pretty early, he was pretty much my original choice - I mean we had talked about other actors, some being older, but Willem really seemed to be the guy.
AW: What about the other characters?
SB: Well, I had not thought about Mickey Rourke? [Laughter]
That was interesting. His agent actually submitted him for that role, they had his name next to that character. At first I couldn't see him doing it, and then I thought, "Wait a minute, that's a pretty interesting idea." I talked it over with the other people involved and we decided to offer it to him. When he got the script, he thought the agent had told him the wrong part. "I should play Earl! Why do you want me to play this guy?" [Laughter]
Once he got his mind wrapped around it, he totally committed to it. He practically showed up that way on set. [Laughter]
I'm serious. When he showed up on set I thought, "Who's this guy?" He had no teeth, he had done his nails, he had his eyes done. And flew that way on an airplane from LA. He said, "Hey, Steve, you never wanna dress in drag and fly on an airplane." "Yah. I'll remember that one, Mickey."
But he was totally committed. We did a table reading in LA, and I offered him to read another part, because we didn't have enough actors and I wanted him to have more to do, but he said, " No, I don't want to read any other part. I just wanna do this." His character only lasts about a quarter of the way, and he sat for the rest of the reading writing. At the end of the reading, he came up with that monologue that he says in the film about being a butterfly and flying through the bars, and he said that if I could use it then I should use it, if not, not.
I was wracking my brain trying to think of a place to use it in the film, and I couldn't think of a place to put it. When we were shooting his first scene, I just kept the cameras rolling, because I only had him for a day and a half, and I wouldn't say cut in order to see what he would come up with. And he did the monologue. It wasn't until post-production that I realised that I could place that monologue into the scene where Edward Furlong is woken up and taken to Earl in the kitchen. That's why he's in the same outfit for the whole film - I just broke up his scenes, but it was really one continuous scene. I wish I'd had him more in the film, but I think I got the best day and a half?
AW: Edward Furlong?
SB: Edward Furlong I didn't know. I really liked his work in American History X. That was the film that did it for me. Eddy Bunker had thought of him first, he said that this kid was the right sort of kid - the right look, the right attitude. What I liked about Edward was that he is a sort of non-actor. We had a lot of guys come in and read and really perform it, and he was just the opposite. You really have to draw it out of him. So I thought it was an interesting dynamic between him and someone as seasoned as Willem, who is also subtle but in a different way because he is so disciplined as an actor. You don't see the work that goes into it, and I just felt that they would make a good pair.
AW: The soundtrack is fantastic. Do you know John Lurie from before?
SB: I've known John Lurie and his brother Evan Lurie when I was around in the East Village. Actually John used to make Super-8 films, and he was interested in doing the score for Trees Lounge but ended up being unavailable, so Evan stepped in and he did the score. So John really wanted to do Animal Factory. I don't know what I'll do for the next one, because it's a hard choice, because I love them both.
It's really hard for me to articulate to a composer what it is that I want. I just don't know how to talk about it. I could sort of say what I didn't want, but it was hard for me to say what it was that I wanted. That required a lot of work and a lot of playing around, sitting in a room and watching the film on video and having Evan play the piano for Trees Lounge and John play the guitar for Animal Factory. It worked out.
Question one: As an actor, what are the most important traits in a director, and vice versa. And do you think you have those traits?
Steve Buscemi: Of course? [Laughter]
I think that most of the directors that I've really enjoyed working with, like Jarmusch and Tom DiCillo and Alex Rockwell, they all have a love for actors. So I like that in a director, and not only a love for working with actors but a love for working with the whole crew and making everybody feel like they're collaborating, and not just being told what to do. Though all these directors, and I would include the Coen brothers and Quentin, have a very unique vision of what they want, at the same time they're able to listen to ideas and make people feel like everyone is making the film. That's something that I tried to do.
I think it's a hard thing to do. When I was in pre-production for Trees Lounge, I was hearing the cinematographer talking with the production designer about colours and this and that and feeling like I was losing control. But in fact they were just doing their job because they always came to me and said, "We're thinking of this, this and this. What do you think?" Once I realised that they would ask for my opinion it was great, because they were doing what they were supposed to be doing, and often they came up with great ideas that either was what I was thinking, but couldn't communicate, or they came up with something that I didn't think of.
It's the same with actors. Communication is the key, and it's one thing I had to learn on Trees Lounge, to talk to the actors. I was so involved with the visual and technical aspects, because that's what I was struggling with, that often I would forget about the actors. I would shoot a scene, and once it was where I liked it I wanted to move on, and I was already thinking about the next scene - literally leaving the actors there saying, "Well, how was it?" I should know better, because, as an actor, we like to hear how it's gone. We like to have the pat on the back and I think that that's important.
AW: What's it like doing voice-overs? You've just done Final Fantasy and Monsters Inc.
SB: It's very surreal, because you don't act with any other actors. Often you don't really know what the story is, so you're really dependent on the director. There's not as much room for interpretation, you just have to say, "How do you want this? Is that what you want? OK." You have to trust that.
On Monsters Inc, Frank Oz was doing a voice, and they actually had us together, so I got to act with him. That was even more surreal, here's the voice of Miss Piggy? [Laughter]
Question two: What do you think about John Cassavetes?
SB: He was probably my biggest influence as a film-maker. When I was writing the script for Trees Lounge, I was really having trouble. I had taken this intensive weekend seminar who was teaching screenwriting, giving you the basic twenty steps that you should follow. It really confused me even more. I was totally blocked, I could not? His big thing was to have an outline before you start writing - have a beginning, a middle and an end. I'm terrible at story and structure, but I'm not so bad at writing dialogue. But I was trying to follow this guy and not start until I knew what the ending was, and I didn't know.
Cassavetes had died about a year before, and they were showing a retrospective of his work at the Museum of Modern Art. I saw all his films in a period of about ten days. In his work, it certainly didn't look like he'd followed any kind of? it looked like they were made-up on the spot. Which they weren't - there are screenplays for each of those films. But I loved the raw energy that I was seeing on film. I loved the actors?
Question three: Any favourites?
SB: I love Opening Night. Faces is one that I watched and halfway through it I thought, "OK, this one I don't get. I don't like it." By the end of it, it was my favourite one. That inspired me just to start writing. This seminar teacher said that you can't start writing and not know where you're going because you'll get into trouble. What I learned from Cassavetes' films was that it's OK to get into trouble. Anything that you write, even if you have to start over, is valuable. So I started to write and didn't worry so much about the story, and let the story write itself through the characters. That was a big help, because it freed my way of thinking.
Question four: Did you have any experiences which resembled what happened to you in Living in Oblivion?
SB: People asked me if I based that character on any director that I'd worked with, or on Tom DiCillo? He certainly used his own experiences that he put into the character and the whole film. But I had just directed my short film before I worked on his, so I had my own hellish experiences working on the short to draw from. So I was remembering what a nut I was when I doing my short.
The funny thing is that when Living in Oblivion was released, I was in pre-production for Trees Lounge, and my whole crew went to see the film, and I thought, "Oh my God! They're gonna think? I cannot act this way when I'm directing Trees Lounge." And I would come close! I had to suppress all of this pent-up frustration?
Question five: Do you just do the big budget movies in order to make the films you want to make?
SB: I wanted to buy a house in upstate New York? [Laughter]
Well, you know? Um? Uh? Yeah. [Laughter]
What was frustrating about working on Armageddon was the amount of time I spent on set not doing anything. When I was actually doing the work, it was fun. But it was a big special effects film, and I wasn't crazy about sitting in a chair and going like this [Shakes in his chair] and pretending I was in outer space? It feels ridiculous. But sometimes that's part of the job of being an actor. Thankfully I'm able to work in movies like that because it does mean that I can afford to do other work where I'm not paid as much or to do my own work, and it also gets my name out there more, which means more when a director is trying to get finance for an independent film and I'm involved. It actually helps.
Question six: Which is your personal favourite movie?
SB: I still have a lot of affection for Parting Glances, where I played a rock musician who had AIDS. I don't know whether it's because it's one of the earliest, but it's one of the most interesting parts I've played because he was such a complex, funny, acerbic character who had this disease and didn't know much about it, as I didn't know much about it then. He was sort of in denial, but he wouldn't let it get him down because he had so much life. It was a great character to play.
I thought that playing that role would lead to other roles like that, and I was very surprised that for a while I could only get cast as - well straight after I played a drug dealer on Miami Vice. It was that way for a few years until Mystery Train and Living in Oblivion and In the Soup, where I played crazy artists instead of, you know, crazy criminals?
AW: What would you say in the last few years has been the acting role you've enjoyed most?
SB: I have to say, and I'm not just saying it because he's here tonight, but I had so much fun playing the character in Living in Oblivion, I have a lot of affection for that character as well as my role in In the Soup. Those two characters I just love. And the part I wrote for myself in Trees Lounge.
That I was pleased with.
Question seven: Was there any difficulty working with the locations in Animal Factory, any restrictions? And is Danny Trejo as tough as he looks?
SB: Danny Trejo is tougher than he looks, but he's also a sweetheart. But you wouldn't want to get on his wrong side. He actually fended off a financier that I wasn't getting along with. He told him to back off. And the guy did.
The financiers who gave me the money for the film wanted me to shoot in Canada. The trend now is to shoot in Canada because it's cheaper, and they don't care what the location is. With Animal Factory I guess that you'd think that because it's mostly interiors that you could shoot it anywhere. We did go to Montreal and we found a great looking prison - some of them are quite beautiful, very imposing. However, I was really concerned about the background. All of the convicts. There are a lot of blacks and Hispanics, and I didn't know if I could find that in Montreal.
So we shot this in Philadelphia, and we had the co-operation of the prison system. In fact the commissioner of the prisons brought me into a working prison, and he had shown Con Air just before I'd got there. Now, they're not supposed to show prison films in prison. Especially ones that are about escaping.
But he's a big fan of prison films. He read the script and he knew that it wasn't a flattering portrayal of the prison system, and to his credit he was really behind us and brought me and my wife into the prison and walked us down the cell block. So we walked past these guys, and most of them are in the film, and they all recognised me because they'd just seen Con Air, and he says, "Steve wants to make a movie here, and he wants to use you guys as extras. You want to help him out?" And they all said, "YEAH!"
So we would bus them in each morning. We had anywhere from 50 to 150 real convicts. They were supposedly non-violent criminals, but you couldn't tell to look at them.
But they were great. Their biggest gripe was how early we got them up in the morning, we got them up earlier than the prison did. At first they were confused or bored, but once they got the hang of it they were just incredible. I think that they are such a big part of the film, because it gives it that instant air of authenticity. Plus the place that we shot in. It was a real place, but was not functional - which I'm glad because it's really hard to shoot in a real prison. The first few days, when Edward Furlong's character was in County, we shot in a real place and it was really hard. So the location was really important.
Question eight: How was directing the Sopranos?
SB: David Chase, who is the creator of the Sopranos, is a fan of Trees Lounge and he asked me to direct in the first season, but I wasn't available for the first or second season. Luckily I could do it in the third season.
Question nine: What do you think happens at the end of Reservoir Dogs and how did you research your role?
SB: We had Eddy Bunker on Reservoir Dogs as an unofficial advisor, and we would ask him, you know, "Eddy, is this how we would do it? What do you think of us dressing in the same suits?"
"I wouldn't do that. It's ridiculous."
And Quentin ignored it. "No, it's great man!" Individually we would go up to him and ask questions, "How do you hold the gun?" "How do you load the gun?" "How do you shoot a gun?"
So it was great having him around. And I talked with Quentin a little bit about where the character came from, and he told me that the character came from Kansas City, which I sort of ignore, because I don't know how somebody talks from Kansas City, so I made him from New York?
Quentin never said anything, so I sort of got away with that. As far as research goes, it was something that? Well, the other thing we did on that film was a lot of improvisation, and Jarmusch did the same thing on Mystery Train, which I found helpful. We would improvise scenes that were not in the script, and that always helps you discover things about your character.
As for the end of the film, I don't know. I survive and I assume that I went to prison. If there's a sequel, it's Mr Pink's Animal Factory.
Question ten: What's Abel Ferrara like to work with?
SB: He's got a lot of enthusiasm too. I had a very minor role in King of New York, And I don't think he knew what to do with me, because I was cast last. Originally it was supposed to be that Chris Walken was the head of this black gang, and they decided that they needed another white guy in there. So they threw me in at the last second, and he didn't like what I was wearing, and I tried all these different hats and he would just say, "Buscemi, er, you, er, just hang out at the back! The camera sees everything."
But I just loved his energy on set, directing this movie by sheer willpower and force - you think he's going to die any second. But he does it, and he keeps making movie after movie, I just love that energy. Bad Lieutenant is one of my favourite films.[soundclip3]
Question eleven: What's it like shooting a TV show where the cast have been together a while? How easy is it to put your vision on that?
SB: It's very hard. The first TV thing I did was Homicide, and I was scared to death of doing it. The producer said that it would be OK, and that they'd walk me through it. There's very little pre-production, you don't get a chance on that show to work with the director of photography, because he's shooting the previous show, you don't get to rehearse, it's really just going over the script and choosing the locations. So my first day on set I was petrified.
So we're doing this scene in the station house with all the actors and they call a rehearsal and there was that moment when everybody just stops and looks at you, and they want you to say what to do. In my mind I was like, "You've been doing this show for seven years. Don't you know what to do? Just do it like you usually do it!"
So the first day was awful, because I didn't know what to say. The second day got better, and the third day was better, but what I realised was that even the actors who had been on the show six years still wanted direction. They liked having new directors come in and work with them. So it was a great experience, and it was really challenging and fun?
Question twelve: Which character that you've played do you think you've learnt the most from personally?
SB: I'd have to say that it was the character in Parting Glances because I just loved his passion for living. I think that he'd be the one. I'm terrible at these sort of questions?
AW: You've worked a lot in the crime genre, what appeals to you about it?
SB: It's not really the genre per se, to me it's always been about the characters and the story, it doesn't matter to me what the genre is. I've been very lucky to work with writer-directors who just happen to work in that genre. So with Animal Factory it was nice to get to work with a writer I admired, it wasn't like I was looking for that type of material. For me it's always about complex characters who are somewhat unpredictable and going through some sort of a struggle. That's the appeal more than what they're doing.
Question thirteen: Do you plan to do any more stand-up comedy?
SB: No. I just had to speak at a friend's wedding and I was petrified. I had to write something and I knew it had to be sort of entertaining and it brought me right back to the days when I was doing stand-up and it gave me such anxiety that I will never go back?
Question fourteen: If you went to prison, what would your survival strategy be?
SB: I'd start singing He's Got The Whole World In His Hands and hope that people would think I was psychotic enough not to mess with.
I don't think I'd last.
Question fifteen: Do you have any good stories from your fire-fighting days?
SB: We'd have to? go to a bar.
It was a great job, I loved the guys I worked with - they were all character studies. I worked in an engine company, we're the guys who go in with the hose and put water on the fire as opposed to the guys in the hook and ladder company who break down the doors and make rescues. So I never made a daring rescue, which is the story people want to hear. I was not in a very busy company, but over four years I did go to my share of fires, and there's no such thing as a routine fire - we had three fire-fighters killed in New York in an explosion. You never really knew what you were going into.[soundclip4]
Question sixteen: You seem really grounded, how do you react to people recognising you? Do you have any weird stories?
SB: I'm not very comfortable with it, I usually get freaked out if I'm in a situation where a lot of people recognise me at once. It's something that I still struggle with, but I know it's part of what I do. I wouldn't want to think of the weird stories that have happened?
Question seventeen: Is the dialogue in Coen brothers films tightly scripted, or can you improvise?
SB: It's all scripted. Maybe there might be room for a little something, but really not much. There's no need to, because it's all there in the script.
Question eighteen: Do you have any plans for new movies?
SB: Yes, we've been trying for a screenplay on William Burroughs' book, Queer. We've been trying to get it off the ground, and it hasn't been easy. It's what they call "difficult subject matter." But we're still hoping to get the money.
AW: Which films that you've done recently are you excited about?
SB: Well, I haven't seen Double Whammy yet, I'll see that tomorrow. Ghost World I'm excited about - it's directed by Terry Zwigoff who did the documentary on R Crumb, and this was his collaboration with the comic book writer Dan Clowes. I play this nebbish record collector who gets involved with Thora Birch. I did a movie called the Grey Zone, which I don't think has a distributor yet, and I'm proud of the work that I did. It's about the Jewish prisoners in world war two who were forced to run the crematoriums and it was a very intense film to work on. I'm looking forward to seeing that.
I worked with Alex Rockwell again, he shot his latest film on digital video, it's called 13 Moons, and in it I play a clown who has lost his sense of humour.
AW: Well, as you can gather there are a lot more films that we can see Steve in, so we're going to end with a clip of Double Whammy. Thanks very much, Steve Buscemi.
SB: Thank you.
Steve Buscemi: Why does it always rain on Steve?
He was born on Friday 13th but, as he tells Charlotte O'Sullivan, Steve Buscemi never let a little bad luck get in his way.
Steve Buscemi once danced with a friend of mine. "He did this hip-swinging, Latin thing," she tells me, "very tight, no arms flailing. No, really, he was very cool. Honestly."
It's a funny thing about Buscemi. He's one of the most enviable actors around, a man who's worked with the best in the indie business (Tarantino, the Coen Brothers, Altman, Scorsese), who can also brighten the dimmest blockbuster (Con Air, Armageddon, Big Daddy). And on top of that, he can direct (as those who've seen his debut, the beautifully grubby bar-fly drama Trees Lounge, will know).
And yet, there's still something a little too real about this morgue-pale, floppy-thin Irish-Italian for him to count as a bona fide star. Like those other mainstream outsiders, Steven Soderbergh and Philip Seymour Hoffman, Buscemi's charisma comes at a slant. Seen head on, he cuts a rather vulnerable figure. So you wind up feeling that, for all the adulation and big bucks, he may just need all the help he can get.
Maybe that's why the news that Buscemi was attacked in a bar-room brawl in April (he was stabbed in the throat, face and arm) didn't come as that much of a surprise. People like Brad Pitt don't get stabbed in bars; Buscemi does.
Then there's the fact that the 43-year-old's second film, the intense prison drama, Animal Factory, hasn't even had a proper release because its financiers are currently rowing with its distributors. Again, bad luck that no Hollywood sprinkle-dust can make disappear.
He's in town for an interview at London's National Film Theatre – this month, they're running a Steve Buscemi season, as well as using Animal Factory to open Crime Scene, the annual festival of crime fiction and film. My interview will take place on the phone (after his long flight, he's not up to a face-to-face). So that memorable mug, with its bubble eyes, tarantula teeth and clown lips – a face so twitchy that you get agitated just looking at it – can only float before me as I ask to be put through to his hotel room. The voice, though, ("Hi," cough, "this is Steve"), is purely him, a Long Island drawl that cartoonishly splutters and tuts its way into sense.
He says, straight off the bat, that he didn't feel he had a lot of support while making Animal Factory. "The company that financed it, Franchise, was relatively hands-off creatively, but it was very involved [wry laugh] in us getting it done on time, no matter what. The fact is, they didn't really care about the material – they just wanted it to be under-budget and for us to get name actors so they could sell it later."
It was a tough shoot. In the first week, they were filming in a real prison, so there was "lots of noise from the inmates" and "a couple of disturbances" that made Buscemi's own drama, which features a lot of grim, out-of-the-blue violence, feel particularly authentic. "I had very little control over the environment," he muses, "which I guess was apt."
I mention a story he once told about life on the Trees Lounge set. Having told a little boy that he was no longer needed for a particular scene, Buscemi saw the boy's "deep disappointment", and felt like he'd scarred him for life. The rookie director scurried off to the toilet, locked the door and "practically broke down in tears".
So, did he scar anyone for life on Animal Factory? Buscemi chortles. "I scarred my own life."
Animal Factory is about a tough, bright con, Earl (Willem Dafoe), who takes a pretty rich kid, Ron (Edward Furlong), under his wing and spends the rest of the film wondering if he should save the kid or just screw him. That tension is what makes the film more than just an ain't-prisons-awful exposé. A scene in which Earl and Ron play ball together at night is gorgeously lit – they look like archangels – later, the two play-fight, Ron's face bobbing up from under Defoe's sinewy body, purple with fury, but also fear. He doesn't know how much he can trust Earl. Neither does Earl.
Interestingly, one of Buscemi's earliest films, Alexandre Rockwell's In the Soup, has him as a naive, struggling young director swept off his feet by a mobster who, so he says, just wants to help (though, in this case, the ulterior motive isn't sexual). I ask Buscemi if he's ever been in one of these relationships, and he ums and ahs, saying how much he always admired the older actor, John Cazale, even though he never met him.
So, no one closer to home? "Um, I've had... I guess when you're younger, you do look for those relationships where someone older will show you the ropes and protect you from dangers."
So was there anyone specific? Buscemi takes a long breath.
"Well, there was this guy I used to move furniture with. It was just after I'd moved to Manhattan, he was my neighbour and he was 15 years older than me, and I guess he took a liking to me and he showed me the ropes. And, because he moved out of Manhattan and then back again, he ended up living with me for a while and robbing me."
Jeez, that was not where I thought the sentence was going. "Yeah, well," sighs Buscemi, "he was a very charming guy and I opened myself up too much. He knew too much about me, where I kept my money. I made it so easy for him. And he was a struggling addict – drugs and also drink." I hear a metaphorical shrug coming all the way down the phone. "I looked up to him and he ended up taking advantage of that, which was a big shock.
"But, you know, it was also kind of a relief, because otherwise he was never going to leave, and after that I never saw him again."
The mixture of loyalty and passivity in Buscemi's voice – not to mention the automaton-like honesty – is astonishing. It's like something from a Dostoevsky novel. But it's how he talks about all his old friends.
Cabaret veteran Rockets Redglare, for example, (who, like so many of Buscemi's buddies, pops up in Animal Factory) was the man who gave Buscemi his first break. So he's a proper mentor figure? Another cough. "Actually, Rockets died recently. He had a blood clot, but it was a whole load of things – he'd been struggling with substance abuse for a long time, later on with drinking." Well, everyone has their flaws... Buscemi snorts. "Anyone who knew Rockets will at some point have lent him money. He was a total con artist and hustler, and that was sad. He needed to get help... But he was so charming, he was a real friend."
I'm beginning to get a rather peculiar sense of Buscemi's social circle. Even the recent bar-room incident in North Carolina is taking on a new aspect. On that occasion, as Buscemi admits, he was trying to "separate people", one of them the actor Vince Vaughn, (Buscemi's co-star in the upcoming Domestic Disturbance), the other a local, who were "having words".
"There was no fight that night," says Buscemi, categorically, "there were just words and we were just trying to go home. It was a weird and scary thing, but I'm not usually in that situation." But he goes on to say, "Maybe I shouldn't have been in that situation in the first place."
Trees Lounge, which Buscemi has always said was semi-autobiographical, is full of such fights. In fact, his character, Tommy, does actually break up a potential bust-up at one point, and later tells his young friend, Debbie (the wonderful Chloë Sevigny), "I'm no good at fighting, they just kick me around for fun". Whatever he says, he does seem to have a nose for trouble, a gift for getting in the way of fairly desperate people. Both Trees Lounge and Animal Factory have a teenager attempting to escape their violent, male-dominated, drug-dominated environment – Buscemi himself seems to be in two minds whether to stay.
Of course, that's not the whole story. He's been happily married to choreographer and film-maker Jo Andre for many years now, and is clearly besotted with their 10-year- old son, Lucien. And maybe that semi-fighting spirit is also what makes his work so exhilarating. He certainly is fearless when it comes to choosing projects. He's now trying to raise money for Queer, based on the William Burroughs' novel.
"Yeah, it's proving difficult," he says wryly, "but in the end we'll do it, we'll get the money and then [big laugh] I'll complain again because there's not enough money or time".
Buscemi has plenty of good acting stuff coming up (he plays sad-sack loner, Seymour, in Terry Zwigoff's Ghost World, and a Jew forced to work in the crematoria of Auschwitz in The Grey Zone), but it's directing, with all its dangers, that he wants to focus on. "Then I wouldn't have to play Mr Peach in Reservoir Dogs 2 or something," he once said ("Did I?" he asks, nervously). "The point is, Trees Lounge turned out so much better than I dared hope. I wanted that feeling again. With each film I do," he says through a string of embarrassed coughs, "I feel a little more like a real director."
So this latest disaster with Animal Factory and Franchise (the NFT had trouble even getting hold of a print) isn't causing him to lose sleep. "I think Sean Penn's The Pledge was financed by them, too, and I read that there was a real brouhaha over that," he says cheerfully. "I don't know who's accusing who in this present case, I just know that it's all about money. In general, I don't have a lot of control with regards to this film. But I have got my own print. So if people are interested, I can show it to them."
It's all beginning to make sense. Steve Buscemi may have it tougher than your average celeb, but he doesn't mind. "Don't forget, I was born on Friday 13th," he says earnestly. And I always liked that. I thought it was great."
So he's not entirely in control. So sometimes he's too trusting and gets taken advantage of. Big deal. It's rather enjoyable to worry about Steve Buscemi, but quite unnecessary – he thrives on his bad luck.
Steve Buscemi: Animal Factory
He has a wildly successful career as a character actor. So why does he go and direct a prison movie, 'Animal Factory' with Tom Arnold and Mickey Rourke?
Dough-faced, with eyes stolen from the great Peter Lorre, Steve Buscemi almost always plays the kind of fellow you wouldn't dare turn your back on for fear of a rusty ice pick to the kidneys. In more than 60 screen appearances and numerous TV roles, the Brooklyn-born character actor with a mug made to order for "America's Most Wanted" has played a cavalcade of sniveling ne'er-do-wells. Whether he's a narcissistic performance artist in Martin Scorsese's segment of "New York Stories," a murderous political enforcer in Robert Altman's "Kansas City" or a pseudo-intellectual white supremacist in NBC's "Homicide: Life on the Street," Buscemi's guaranteed to give you the heebie-jeebies, albeit in a strangely endearing manner.
Lately, he has been receiving high marks as a director. His 1996 film, "Trees Lounge," in which he stars as an affable, dipsomaniacal loser who drives an ice cream truck by day and blows his wages in Long Island bars by night, attracted critical praise while calling to mind Barbet Schroeder's 1987 paean to gutter life, "Barfly." And his direction of the "Finnegan's Wake" episode of "Homicide" earned him a 1999 nomination for a Director's Guild of America Award. Buscemi, 43, has since gone on to direct two episodes of acclaimed HBO drama "Oz."
His current film, "Animal Factory," based on the lean prison novel by Edward Bunker, stars Willem Dafoe, Edward Furlong, Mickey Rourke, Seymour Cassel and Tom Arnold. After a brief run on Cinemax, it had its theatrical premiere in New York on Oct. 20 and opened in Los Angeles on Friday, with a wider release still up in the air.
This odd, staggered distribution belies the film's bravura performances, with Dafoe as a bald, savvy con in the pen for the long haul and, apparently, in love with Furlong's character Ron Decker, a new "fish" behind bars for the first time after being busted for dealing large quantities of pot. In addition, Buscemi gets startling performances from Arnold as a greasy Southern pervert and from Rourke as a muscular transvestite with long green fingernails, missing teeth and a penchant for daydreaming out loud about strolling down the Champs Elysées.
The film has drawn admiring notices from movie critics at the New York Times, the Christian Science Monitor and others. I spoke to him recently about "Animal Factory" and his dual existence these days as an actor and director.
What motivated you to turn Edward Bunker's book "Animal Factory" into a film?
I've known Eddie for a while. We met on "Reservoir Dogs," and I've worked with his producing partner Danny Trejo, who's also an actor, in "Desperado" and "Con Air." Danny was the one who told me Eddie had a screenplay written from one of his books. I'm a fan of Eddie's writing, so I read the screenplay first and then the book. After reading the book, I thought I had a feel for the material -- not because of the genre but because I liked the complex relationships and characters. That's what really drew me to the story.
What was it about those characters in the prison scenario that intrigued you?
The character of Earl, which is played by Willem Dafoe, is a lot like Eddie Bunker in the way he acquired his status in prison. Not so much by being a tough guy, which he is, but by being really smart. I was interested in his survival, not just his physical survival but his emotional survival, and what he does to achieve that. Earl's smart enough to know that with this new kid Ron (Furlong), by sacrificing his physical needs, he's aiming for something much deeper. He sees something in this kid that reminds him of himself, that makes Ron different from other convicts. He wants to protect him from the rest of the population as well as from becoming like him. And he wants him to get out of there as soon as possible.
Earl does acknowledge that there's this physical attraction that he has, and if there wasn't that physical attraction, he wouldn't be helping the kid. I was interested in that struggle inside Earl. I think the longer Ron stayed in prison, the harder it would be for Earl not to act on that physical attraction.
I was struck by the sexual chemistry between Furlong and Dafoe on-screen. When you cast them, how did you know that chemistry, so important for the film's development, would occur?
I didn't really, but I just had a sense. I've known Willem for years, and I knew that he would be perfect for the role. Eddie Furlong I knew from seeing "American History X" and other films he's done, and I just felt like he would be a good matchup for Willem.
Actor-director Steve Buscemi seeks out the complexity in his characters
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, 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).
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."
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]."
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."
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.
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.
Steve Buscemi Does Time; Directing "Animal Factory"
If anything, Steve Buscemi is a study in contrasts. Throughout his career, Buscemi has balanced roles in archetypal independent films like "Reservoir Dogs," "Fargo" and "Living in Oblivion" with acting gigs in big-budget productions like "Con Air" and "28 Days." Buscemi pulls off comedy and drama, brutal violence and subtle emotion with equal aplomb. He's soft-spoken and sometimes even hesitant, but Buscemi isn't afraid to take on difficult subject matter in his films. Even while he is busy carving out a niche as one of the hardest working actors in independent film, Buscemi is still looking for new challenges. In 1996, he added writer/director to his feature film resume with the critically acclaimed "Trees Lounge." For his second directorial feature, Buscemi has chosen an adaptation of Edward Bunker's gritty "The Animal Factory," the story of a young man's (Eddie Furlong) initiation into the fractured world of prison life.
With a script by Bunker and John Steppling, Buscemi inspires convincing and touching performances by an eclectic cast -- Furlong, Willem Dafoe, Mickey Rourke, Tom Arnold and Danny Trejo. Buscemi shot the film in 29 days at Holmsburg State Prison, just outside Philadelphia. At the heart of the story is the tender and touching relationship that develops between a hardened convict, Earl Copen (Dafoe), and Ron Decker (Furlong), an educated 25-year-old pretty-boy who has squandered his relatively cushy station in life after getting caught up in drugs.
indieWIRE talked to Buscemi about adaptation, prison research, directing real-life convicts, his eclectic cast, and his next challenge, a film adaptation of William Burroughs' "Queer." "Animal Factory" is now playing in New York and opens in Los Angeles next week.
indieWIRE: It's been four years since "Trees Lounge." What took you?
Buscemi: It took a little time to find something that interested me. And then it took a couple of years to secure the financing. But it also took a little while, once I found the material, to hone it. "Animal Factory" is taken from Eddie Bunker's book, but we still worked on the screenplay a lot. I tried to get more of the book into the final draft. For me, the screenplay was really important; that it be layered and to make sure that it wasn't a typical genre prison film.
iW: Was it difficult to direct an adaptation of a book by a fairly high-profile ex-con? And where did you discover him?
Buscemi: Well, I worked with Eddie Bunker on "Reservoir Dogs." He played Mr. Blue. And then later on, I worked with Danny Trejo, who is an actor in the film and he's also co-producer. I worked with Danny on "Desperado" and "Con Air." Danny and Eddie have a partnership and they try to get films done, and they came to me with this script. And I liked them so much that I was interested to see what the material was. When I first read the screenplay, I wasn't quite sure if I was the right guy to direct it, but when I read the book, I thought I had a better understanding of what the story was about. I just suggested that we take the screenplay back to more of what the book is about. So Eddie and I worked on that and we also brought in another writer, John Steppling. Eddie didn't have that much time, because he was writing his new book that is out now, "Education of a Felon." Together, we reworked the script and got it to a place where I thought it should be.
iW: As far as the prison genre, did directing an episode of the HBO series, "Oz" whet your appetite?
Buscemi: That all just happened by coincidence. When Danny and Eddie first brought me the material is when I first started to hear that there was a prison show that was going to premiere on HBO. It all sort of happened at the same time. And I had worked for Tom Fontana on "Homicide" once as an actor and once as a director. So when the opportunity came to direct an episode of "Oz," it wasn't like I was looking to direct something in the prison genre to prepare me for my film. It's just that I really like "Homicide." I like Tom and I like his writing. I like the actors he has on that show.
iW: Did you spent time in prisons for research for your film?
Buscemi: Yeah, Eddie and Danny and I went to San Quentin, where the book takes place and where Eddie did a lot of his time. In the film, we changed it to an East Coast prison. We shot the film in Philadelphia, in a real prison that is no longer active -- Holmsburg State Prison. But we also visited surrounding prisons and we got a lot of help and support from the commissioner of the prisons. And then, of course, I had Eddie Bunker as my main source. He was around for pre-production and also during the shooting. I felt like I was in good hands to make the film authentic.
iW: The prison definitely takes on a life of its own. It feels like a living breathing character.
Buscemi: The prison itself is really architecturally amazing. It was important for me to find a place that was visually interesting to shoot because I knew that the whole film was going to take place there. The film doesn't take place in just one part of the prison and we tried to use as much of the prison as possible, with different locations within the prison. We were lucky enough to have the prisoners from the surrounding prisons who volunteered to be extras and so everyday we had anywhere from 5 to 150 extras who were real convicts. Of course, it instantly lends an air of authenticity to the look of the film.
iW: What was it like to direct real convicts?
Buscemi: It took them awhile to sort of understand why they had to wait around so much (laughs), and why they had to repeat so much of what they were asked to do. But we tried to explain everything and they were really great about it. The biggest problem we had was that sometimes they thought they were having too much fun, like during the riot scene. That's when we used probably our biggest numbers of real convicts, when they are being chased by the riot police. A lot of them would laugh, so I had to remind them that this is not supposed to be fun. It was just little stuff like that. But they were really great; they really got into it, and I tried to impress upon them how important they were to the film and that I really couldn't do it without them. They responded to that and felt good about what they were doing.
iW: The acting is super. Do you feel, as an actor, that you have an advantage in helping your cast deliver?
Buscemi: I don't know if I have an advantage or not. I've certainly worked with really great directors who haven't acted. I don't think it's necessary to be an actor to get great performances out of an actor. But I do think it helps me, as a director, because I know what I like as an actor and I try to get that to the actors who I'm working with. I like to give them room and try not to get in the way. But if there is something I feel like maybe they are not getting, then I try to help them get there. But I also like being surprised by actors. I think it's important to create an atmosphere where actors feel like they can try things out. It doesn't mean that I'll take every suggestion, but I want there to be some room for actors to grow.
iW: The casting was also wonderful. Did you always imagine Mickey Rourke in the role of Jan the Actress?
Buscemi: He was the first one that we went to, but we didn't always imagine Mickey in that role. It was something that Sheila Jaffe thought about, who was my casting director. We knew that we wanted a really strong actor to play that role. We thought it would be a good opportunity for an actor. Once he signed on, I think he may have been a little sensitive at first, but once he committed, he really committed. He showed up on set practically in character. He did his own nails, he did his hair, he brought his own wardrobe. He even wrote that monologue when his character talks about becoming a butterfly and flying beyond the bars and flying to Paris. That was all his. I only had him for like a day and a half and I just remember not wanting to stop filming because he was just so fascinating to watch.
iW: What about Tom Arnold? Another surprising choice.
Buscemi: I thought it was a really brave performance because Tom played, easily, the most despicable character in the film. It certainly is not a comedic role. But I've seen other films of his, where he's played dramatic roles, they're just not good films. I knew that he could do it. And I was glad that he was able to play a part that is so extreme. Also, working with Willem, I've known him for years and we've been looking for something to do together on film because we've never worked together on film before. It was a great opportunity for the both of us.
iW: Your director of photography, Phil Parmet, really captured the grittiness. He's an accomplished still photographer; how did you come to work together?
Buscemi: I first worked with Phil on Alexander Rockwell's film, "In the Soup." When I did my first film, called "What Happened to Pete?" Phil shot that, and we did that in one weekend. So I know that he knows how to work quickly without compromising what he needs. I love his still photography. He's also done a lot of documentary work. We get along really well, so it was a nice opportunity to have him work on the film. I was also very inspired by a film that he made in the 70s, a documentary, about the Tombs here in New York. It was shown in its entirety on "60 Minutes," and resulted in the closing down of the Tombs at that time. So I knew that he would give everything he had for the film, and he did. It's nice to work with people that you've worked with before that you can trust and to give somebody that opportunity to really shine.
iW: And John Lurie who scored "Animal Factory"?
Buscemi: Again, I've known him for years. Again, it's almost like a family thing. He and Willem go back. And I just love John's music. I think with his score, it adds so much to the movie. To me, score is really important. I would rather not have any score if it's something that's going to detract from the film. So often when I watch films, the score is what really bothers me. In this, John really wanted my input and it's not easy for me, because I'm not musically articulate. For me it's a slow process of trying to figure out what the music should be. But I'm really pleased with how the music came out.
iW: Are you enjoying directing so much that we may start to see you less as an actor?
Buscemi: I don't think so. (laughs) I have a few things that are coming out. I just worked with Tim Blake Nelson, an actor/director who is in the latest Coen brothers movie. He wrote and directed a film called "The Grey Zone," which takes place in Auschwitz and deals with the Sonderkomando, the Jewish detail who were forced to run the crematorium. It's an intense film, but I really enjoyed working with Tim. I've also worked with Terry Zwigoff, who did "Crumb," on a comedy-dramatic piece called "Ghost World," based on a Dan Clowes comic. And I did another film with Tom DiCillo called "Double Whammy"?
iW: So what do you prefer, directing or acting?
Buscemi: Now directing is like a new beginning for me. It's definitely more challenging. And I want to do more of it. When I was doing theater, I worked a lot with Mark Boone Junior, who was in "Trees Lounge" and "Animal Factory." We used to write and perform our own work. We didn't wait around for things to come to us. We just did it ourselves. I think that's part of the reason why I did this film, because I miss having the creative input. You know, I don't want to sit and just wait by the phone for the next job.
iW: Can you choose whatever project you want and get it made?
Buscemi: (Laughs) No. This film took awhile to get off the ground and right now, I'm in the process of trying to get another film off the ground -- a book by William Burroughs called "Queer." We will get it made, but I want to make sure the right people are involved. It's not always easy to find the right company that really supports what you're doing. I'm more concerned with how the film turns out than who's in it. So many of these companies only want to know who is in the movie.