Charles Bock interviews the Hollywood action hero, TV mobster and art-house loser, in an extract from the latest issue of Port
On Sunday mornings, when Buscemi is at his house in upstate New York, sometimes – more often than he’d like – a problem arises. It involves yoga, and movies.
It is not surprising that a man who has dedicated a large chunk of his adult life to films is in fact in love with them. One of the actor’s favourite ways to relax is to catch old movies on TCM. The network has special segments, before and after each film, in which film scholars provide insights, historical facts, anecdotes and trivia about the films. (Buscemi is enough of a fan of these segments that he can name the different historians who front the shows.) Each week, Buscemi checks the schedule of films in the paper – “I know I could look up films online, but…” He calls friends, sees if they’re interested in watching. “I love catching films from directors I know, their early work. I love seeing actors that I know from certain films, whose names I’m still trying to learn. Oh, I know him! I’m watching the film, and I’m looking up the names on IMDB. Sometimes I just go down a rabbit hole…”
But this weekly pleasure has become complicated. Since March, TCM has been running a programme called Noir Alley, on Sunday mornings, starting at 10 am, and…
“I’ve really gotten into doing yoga. So my big dilemma on Sunday mornings is that these movies start at 10, and I watch for as long as I can and then, Oh God, I run out the door and try to make it to yoga by 11:30. I stay later and later each week: What’s the latest I can leave and still make the class? I get about an hour and then have to go and always miss the ending of the movie. And they don’t replay them at night!”
His face opens. He is perplexed, at wit’s end. It’s more than a little strange to sit across from him and see this expression, because I’ve seen it, in some iteration or another, on innumerable screens. Indeed, in an alternate, filmic reality it is not hard to imagine an innocent, if badly phrased, follow up question causing his frustration to build; suddenly he jerks forward and stabs all the way through my hand with a fork.
In reality, Buscemi, 59, is wondering why they don’t just replay the films at night. A small figure in neat dark blue clothes, his hair receding a bit and grey, he looks a little older than he did during five distinguished seasons as Atlantic City mob boss Nucky Johnson on HBO’s Boardwalk Empire. We are in a Brooklyn neighbourhood bar the actor’s never been to before, although it’s down the road from his home. College football reruns muted on the elevated televisions, classic rock playing on the sound system, the bar’s a study in empty dimness. Within a minute of his entrance Buscemi was recognised, although the bartender kept a respectful distance – until the actor surveyed the beers on tap, choosing something neither pretentious nor embarrassing.
“Every person you meet has contradictions, problems,” he says, his voice even, if thoughtful. “There’s a reason why they became the person they are. So if I’m playing Carl Showalter in Fargo, I try not to judge. If I find myself judging a character when I read it, I think maybe that’s not a good thing… My way in is just try to think about how they got the way they are, and to not be afraid to play someone that’s unlikeable or has problems. I like playing regular guys too, artists, but I always try to find what is it in me that I can relate to, how much of me is in there. And that’s important because that’s what I have; it’s me.”
In his latest film, The Death of Stalin, out at the end of the year, he plays Nikita Khrushchev navigating the political minefields of the Kremlin in the struggle for power following Stalin’s demise. Khrushchev, a physically imposing man, was quite the opposite of Buscemi. Speaking to the director Armando Iannucci (perhaps best known as the creator and head writer for Veep) before the film’s production, Buscemi had been prepared to explain why he couldn’t do the part. “At the end of the phone call, in a very sort of laid back way, he’d convinced me to do it,” Buscemi says. “Armando just said, I wouldn’t ask you to do this if I didn’t think you had it in you.”
Buscemi takes a sip of his beer.
“I just had to stop thinking that I’m playing Khrushchev, the one that most people know, banging the shoe and the Cold War. In 1953, he was a younger guy, not as portly, not really the guy that people came to know. He was not the one they expected to take over – you know, the older guys who Stalin worried would be in charge. Khrushchev was the minister of agriculture. He was in Stalin’s good graces because he was a down-to- earth guy; he could make Stalin laugh; he was in the war. Stalin liked and related to him. And Khrushchev himself didn’t know that he had it in him. The key was when Armando said, here’s a guy who’s a true survivor, and he was able to position himself, maybe half the time not even knowing that’s what he was doing. But he had good instincts and he was smart despite his appearances. So that became really interesting.
“Like with Fargo, I had played a number of seedy guys, and when I read the part, I wanted to do it, but I couldn’t see beyond a maroon leather jacket and polyester shirt. And Mary Zophres, the costume designer, had this whole look that she envisioned that I just couldn’t imagine with the turtleneck shirt and the corduroy pants. The fake fur jacket. Once I put that on: Oh, I know this guy! I just knew how he talked, what his attitude was. Physically – I started eating more and they gave me some padding, not much. And then a shaved head, like I really did the bald thing. Really shaving my head. Just so I could feel and look physically different. As an actor that helps. It took some doing to figure out the look but once we got it, I was like, ‘I get this guy. I get who he is, how he feels.’”
From all these different angles, via his professionalism, loyalty and generosity, through his vulnerability, through his self-knowledge, or perhaps selflessness, the notion of a larger good, again and again, comes into focus, the idea that if a person knows himself well enough, or has enough confidence in himself, he will be able to aside his ego, or his needs, and do what must be done. “Altman once said something to me,” Buscemi tells me, referring to the late director Robert Altman, whom he’d wanted to work with for years, before finally getting the chance on Kansas City. “We were just talking about my character, and he said that he wanted the film to be successful, but he said ‘I want it on my terms.’ He made it about us making the film. We have to make it good for us, and that will make it a successful film.” Buscemi waits for me to catch up, makes sure I understand. “It doesn’t matter what it does at the box office, it doesn’t matter what it does critically. That always stayed with me. Why do we do what we do? Is it just to make a film? No. The point isn’t to do something just to say I did it. I want it to mean something.”
Photography Matthew Brookes
Read the full interview in issue 21 of Port, out now. To buy or subscribe, click here