Steve Buscemi: “I feel that I have fulfilled my true potential’

Like Tommy, the wandering without a goal, barfly plays in the Sala Trees, the melancholy 1996 indie film he wrote and directed, Steve Buscemi has been in a spiral of despair after they have left the school, jumping from a part-time job to another: the cinema usher, ice-cream seller, at a gas station. There were many long nights in the bar. “I really had difficulties c’ [Long Island] in my last couple of years, because I felt like I didn’t know what I was doing,” he says. “I felt that my life was going nowhere.” His father had pushed all four of her children to take a civil service exam, Buscemi, as an avenue to a career with the fire department, where he worked for four years.

Even though he knew that he wanted to be an actor, he had a half-idea of how to achieve his dream. It was also his father, who suggested he apply to the school of acting, apparently as an interlude until the fire department came to call. In his interview for the Lee Strasberg Theatre and Film Institute in New York, Buscemi was asked why he wanted to be an actor. He casually parrot of his father, who well-meaning advice that acting classes would be with him a good starting point for whatever path he chose in life. “I remember you said to me: ‘Well, we really want the people who want to be actors,” he recalls. “In that moment I felt really blown up in the air.” Not, as it happens, but it has taught him not to be so cavalier about the thing he was most passionate about.

Buscemi told the story of his Lee Strasberg interview as we sat down in a quiet neighborhood bar in Park Slope, Brooklyn, not far from the brownstone that he shares with the artist and filmmaker Jo Andres, his wife of 30 years. The couple has a 27-year-old son, Lucian, who played for the indie band Fiasco. Buscemi was sitting in the wood cabin when I arrived, baseball cap pulled down over the head, a pint of beer in hand. Like the bar itself, his behavior has been low-key, and unpretentious. He spoke quietly, the way someone might speak if they were nursing a hangover, but grew more animated as he talked about his early days as one half of the comedy duo Steve & Mark, Mark Boone Junior (best known for his role in the outlaw cycle gang drama Sons of Anarchy.) Their repertoire was a sort of stream-of-consciousness situation comedy that introduced them to New York, and then the vibrant performance art scene. Often, they can be found at the rinky-dink East Side clubs such as Darinka, they Might Be Giants the de facto house band, and there is not much care about the fire codes.

Calling the shots: with Julia Davis, Philip K Dick’s Electric Dreams, the new C4 series. Photo: Christopher Raphael/Sony Pictures Television

The center legend, Rockets Redglare, known to be the first person to enter Sid Vicious’s room at the Chelsea Hotel after the murder of Nancy Spungen, took the young Buscemi under his wing, helping secure concerts and introducing him to the scene. That version of New York, who died in 1990, won by the increase of rents, Rudy Giuliani, and the devastation of Aids.

I was careful not to romanticise the life of someone who hangs in a bar

His breakout role in 1986, it was as a musician dying of Aids in Parting Glances – a brave choice for an actor to launch his career. “When I played a character I have only known one person that maybe he had Aids,” she recalls. “This was right in the middle of all that fear and anxiety: ‘you Could get it from someone, being in the same room?’ Of course, later, many of my friends died of Aids. We have lost so many good people in their prime.” Speaks acutely to Ethyl Eichelberger, a drag performance artist who has dominated the 1980 scene before being diagnosed with HIV and taking his life in 1990. Most of these people have faded from the public conscience, but hang in Buscemi’s memory as a mentor and guides his career.

You feel their animating spirit in projects of their own, populated by extravagant, and strangers. He quote of a quote of Frank Capra to the effect that each character in his Christmas classic, It’s a Wonderful Life, is worthy of his film. “I tried to keep in mind as I wrote Trees Lounge,” he said. “I thought I was being careful not to romanticise the life of someone who hangs out in a bar all the time, yet I find these romantic figures, and I have yet to find a bar really tempting.” He was touched when the owner of the bar were created for the film, he changed his mind at the last minute. “He said, “I don’t think I can close my bar for a week and let you guys film here,’ and we said: ‘Why?’ and he said,” Where are my regular customers going to go? What are they going to do?’”

That bond with people who depend on each other resonates with Buscemi. On September 12, 2001, he reunited with his old fire, drive, Engine Company 55, working 10 hours a day for five days under the rubble of the World Trade Center. It was a way to be useful in a time when being an actor felt like a grotesque fantasy. And it was only after the grandeur and the desolation hit him.

Back in the USSR: as Nikita Khrushchev, with Jason Isaacs in the satirical new film, The Death of Stalin

In 2005, Buscemi returned to his old high school in Valley Stream, predominantly Irish-Italian neighbourhood, in order to receive a prize. Talk with the students, he recalled his anxiety for the youth. “I still have fear,” he said. “I try to live with it, and move forward.”

I was a bit crushed, when the school, a nun gave the part to another guy. I thought, ‘Oh, this is what life is’

On the Bench, Buscemi, charming, little-watched web-only talk show, a telling moment in the course of a conversation with the Wu-Tang Clan, GZA. The rapper recalls his childhood inspirations, including Don McLean and Neil Sedaka, the request of a euphoric Buscemi to offer a formative experience of his own. “I went to the mall and bought a few 45 rpm. I ran into a group of girls at my school and have reached into my bag and pulled out the Tie a Yellow ribbon round the Ole Oak tree,” he says. “I could tell they were embarrassed for me, and I thought: “I don’t care, I like this song.’”

Something about his response to being shamed for his questionable music tastes – “I don’t care” – captures the spirit that the soul of an actor. Buscemi is among the least pretentious actors, comfortable working with Adam Sandler as with the Coen Brothers. When he describes Sandler as an “author” not to be funny or not; that means. “We really hit when we did the Hot,” he says, referring to their first movie together, with great frankness reviewed by Time Out in 1994 as a movie “on the hot, and also for them.” The bad reviews, the few that there are, slip out of Buscemi like water off a duck.

As a general rule, is not a Sandler movie that fans think of when they picture Buscemi. That honor is more likely that the Atlantic City kingpin, “Nucky” Thompson, in HBO’s mafia origins epic Boardwalk Empire, or his memorable date with a wood chipper in the Coen Brothers’ snowbound masterpiece, Fargo. His tip-kvetching Mr. Pink in Quentin Tarantino’s reservoir dogs transformed both the director and his cast in the stones of comparison for a new era of independent filmmaking. That film, made for only $1 million, defined the 1990 film “cool” that would have impressed the girls in the mall – if Buscemi care of these things. It is, in part, because he does not care, it is suspected, that manages the tightrope walk along the line, the flickering of popular and stylish, equally at ease in a bubblegum fare as With the Air as in the cult film Coffee and Cigarettes.

Atlantic City’s kingpin of crime: the reproduction of the hotshot gangster Nucky Thompson in the HBO epic Boardwalk Empire. Photograph: Sportsphoto/Allstar

Buscemi is one of the busiest actors, with more than 125 films to his name, and an equally impressive curriculum vitae in tv, from The Sopranos and Boardwalk Empire to cameos in The Simpsons (as himself), 30 Rock (as a private detective-turned-lesbian drama teacher), and the new Channel 4 series, Philip K Dick Electric Dreams – in which he falls in love with an auto-advertising robot in a dystopian vision of marketing gone rogue. There can be many days, when not working. The director Jim Jarmusch, who has cast Buscemi in many of his films, once joked to the New Yorker that Hollywood has had a “Steve Buscemi tax” to explain the actor ubiquity since the mid-1990s onwards: “it was like, ‘You want to make a film? You must have Steve.’”

No one could be more surprised by his catapulting the reputation of Buscemi. Although her passion for acting was cemented the beginning – remember-clinging adorably to the tables of family, weddings, jokes – has spent most of his adolescence and early adulthood feeling challenged by the circumstances. He got a taste of rejection when he failed to get cast as the dwarf had put his heart in his Catholic school production of Snow White. He was seven years old. “I was a little crushed,” he recalls. “I asked our nun if I could have that part, and she said, ‘Oh, no, I’m giving the part of the other guy”. It was sweet, but I just remember being very disappointed: ‘Oh, this is what life is.’”

Years later he had a similar epiphany, when he started to do the audition for the movie. “I remember going to read for a part and asks the casting director if I could read for the head, and she looked at me, and said: ‘Oh, no, you’re going to have a name for that part”, he recalls. “I thought, ‘What is he talking about?” And then I realized: ‘Oh, you’re going to have a name, you’re going to get an actor whose name people know.’” Buscemi laughs at his naivety now, but at the time was another flash of lighting. “I said: ‘OK, I have to have a name, it is not enough to be an actor.’” For years it has been left on the cutting-room floor in the film, Woody Allen’s Alice, Stephen Frears, The grifters, and Gus Van Sant’s even Cowgirls Get the Blues – taught a similar lesson: audition for roles that are too large to be cut.

“I don’t know if it was my dad’s vision of the world, but it was about I wasn’t expecting much of’: Steve Buscemi. Photography: Rick Guest

Buscemi has been a name for more than 20 years, at this point, but through a combination of humble origins and of the insecurity he exhibits almost no ego. When it amazes me its the direction of the “Pine Barrens” episode of The Sopranos – in which the show an acute combination of threat and burlesque is on full display – he shrugs off the compliment, insisting on the fact that any director would have done the same. He tips his hat, instead, for writers. This is typical of the way Buscemi view of his profession, in which his accent is almost always in collaboration, rather than individual genius.

“He is the opposite of an asshole,” says Armando Iannucci, who cast Buscemi in his satirical new film, The Death of Stalin. “On the set is very generous and does not take anyone. It’s almost sad when they come in with a thought.”

In that film, which also sees Simon Russell Beale, Jason Isaacs, Andrea Riseborough, and Michael Palin, Buscemi plays Nikita Khrushchev, sneaking in behind to take the sudden vacancy created by Stalin. Iannucci recalls how, during the tests, Buscemi would observe and watch, but rarely chip. “He will ask only a few questions, but you can see it go and just think through every moment, and know when it is time to raise a small notch, and then another small notch, and then another small notch, so that you don’t notice the movement at any point,” he says. “It is only when you stand back to look at the whole thing you can see how gently and carefully he had graduated that transformation.”

Riseborough, who has just finished shooting a second film with Buscemi, Nancy, that helps. “He’s the most humble, down-to-earth, funny, easy-going, a genius. The man the more sweet that I’ve ever worked with,” he says. “He has a huge amount of gratitude for his work.”

The gratitude is genuine. For all his professed angst, Buscemi never doubted his talent. The one that has corroded most, was to find the right opportunity. A few years after the Snow White fiasco, she auditioned for the part of the Cowardly Lion in the wizard of Oz. “I knew it was between me and the other guy, and really wanting to make this part so bad, and think ‘That probably won’t happen, but what I do when I don’t understand?’”

Buscemi got the role, and a standing ovation for his efforts, but has done little to appease the fear of being rejected by an uncaring world. “I don’t know if it was my dad’s vision of the world, or something like that, but it was about I wasn’t expecting much,” he says. “I’ve never really analyzed deeply, but it is something that I know is still in me. That hasn’t stopped me at all.” Is taking a break. “You stopped the character which he plays in the Sala Trees, but what I find most sad about this character was that he seemed to have the awareness that there might be a way out.”

Shortly before his death three years ago, Buscemi, the father, the man who set him on the path to acting, he had a cameo appearance in the first episode of Park Bench. Seeing him among the group of friends and family who lend the series its characteristic of being a Brooklyn tenor was moving in a way that recalls the dead affects all of us. As we drank in the barra neighborhood, Buscemi – who tries to practice meditation every day – he spoke with affection of his father the belief in reincarnation and the afterlife. As a child, he would come home to find visiting psychics in communion with the dead. A year, Buscemi tried a psychic for a private session, and confides his hopes to be an actor. “He said: ‘I don’t really act so much as the writing – the writing is what I see for you”,” Buscemi recalls, his brow furrows. “So, in some way, I feel that I have fulfilled my true potential.”

Electric Dreams starts on Channel 4 on the 17th of September. The Death of Stalin is in cinemas from the 20th of October