Serving His Material

Back Stage West recently caught up with the New York-based Steve Buscemi while he was visiting Los Angeles to promote his second feature directorial effort, Animal Factory, based on the novel by reformed felon and ex-convict Edward Bunker, who co-produced the film and adapted the screenplay with Buscemi. Animal Factory, which hits theatres Nov. 10, depicts the gritty story of a promising young man (Edward Furlong) sent to a state penitentiary on drug charges. While incarcerated, he learns to survive the chaotic, violent world of prison life with the aid of a fellow inmate (Willem Dafoe), a hardened convict acknowledged by inmates and jailers alike as a leader in the prison community. Though we would expect Buscemi to cast himself as one of the inmates in his film, the Peter Lorre-esque actor instead plays a small role as one of the prison's administrators.

Buscemi's many film acting credits read like an encyclopedia of ultra-hip cinematic gems: Jim Jarmusch's Mystery Train, Quentin Tarantino's Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction, the Coen Brothers' Miller's Crossing, Barton Fink, The Hudsucker Proxy, Fargo, and The Big Lebowski, Alexandre Rockwell's In the Soup, Tom DiCillo's Living in Oblivion, and Robert Altman's Kansas City. In more recent years, Buscemi has also crossed over into such mainstream fare as Desperado, Escape From L.A., Con Air, Armageddon, Big Daddy, and 28 Days. He can be seen in the upcoming Ghost World, directed by Terry Zwigoff (Crumb), The Grey Zone with Harvey Keitel, and DiCillo's Double Whammy.

Born in Brooklyn and raised on Long Island, Buscemi studied acting at the Lee Strasberg Institute. Believe it or not, he actually worked as a New York City firefighter (among other jobs) while spending his nights writing and performing theatre and performance art in downtown Manhattan. After landing the part of a dying and embittered rock star in Bill Sherwood's 1986 film Parting Glances, one of the first movies to tackle the subject of AIDS, Buscemi soon quit his job with Engine Company 55 to pursue acting full time.

Buscemi debuted as a director in 1992 with the short film What Happened to Pete, which he penned and starred in. The 1996 film Trees Lounge marked his first outing as a feature director and proved Buscemi's talent behind the camera. The film, which he also wrote, produced, and starred in, was based on his experience driving an ice cream truck around Long Island. His next directing assignment brought him to television, where he helped direct an episode of Homicide: Life on the Streets, for which Buscemi received a nomination for a DGA Award. He also directed an episode of the HBO series Oz.

Back Stage West: What impressed me most about Animal Factory was the casting, all the way from the lead actors to the background performers. Sometimes with low-budget films, filmmakers try to cheat scenes that normally would require a lot of extras. You, on the other hand, really made an effort to populate your film, not only with a number of background performers but with people who look like they could very well be serving time in prison.

Steve Buscemi: Well, they were. They were real convicts from a neighboring prison. We had the full support of the commissioner of prisons in Pennsylvania [where the film was shot].

BSW: Really? Has anyone done this before in a fictional film?

Buscemi: Convicts have been used in other prison films, but for me, I didn't really see them as background. I saw each of them as characters. My DP [director of photography], Phil Parment, and I would sometimes just shoot in the yard in between scenes. These guys would be hanging out there all day, and natural friendships between the actors and some of the convicts would develop, and so we stole a lot of shots—just roving around with the camera and picking up stuff and then going through it in the editing room, because we had such great faces. And then some [of the smaller roles] were played by real convicts.

Casting, I think, is really important. And it's something that I like to bring a lot of attention to. I worked closely with my casting director, Sheila Jaffe, on seeing actors that I didn't know—people like Mark Engelhardt, Chris Bauer, and Victor Pagan—and then getting actors like John Heard, Mickey Rourke, and Tom Arnold. And then having people like Seymour Cassel, Mark Boone Junior, Michael Buscemi [his brother], and Rockets Redglare—these are people I've worked with before, and I know their work is solid.

BSW: As for the some of the bigger parts in Animal Factory, I'd like to get your thoughts on some of your cast members. Let's start off with Willem Dafoe, who seems born to play the role of Earl Copen.

Buscemi: I've known Willem for years. Sending him the script and having him sign on early was a relief to know that I had a really good actor for the [lead] role. I can't imagine anyone else playing that part. First, just by looking at him, you believe that he could be a guy that has done things in his life that could land him in prison. But he also has an intelligence and sensitivity to match that.

And Eddie Furlong, too. To have somebody who could look the total innocent going in and then turn into something else—Eddie's got that quality in him that you could see him moving toward the dark side. To match them up—Eddie and Willem—that was very important to think of them as a pair.

BSW: I found a couple of your casting choices both surprising and refreshing. First is Tom Arnold, who most of us think of as a harmless comedian, but who in your film pulls off playing a thuggish inmate who attempts to rape Edward Furlong's character. What made you think Tom could pull this off?

Buscemi: Tom is very funny, but he does have this edge to him. To me, he always has this sort of scary edge, and to put him in a role that has no comedy at all, I had real confidence that he would pull that off and that he had the commitment to do that. I thought that was very brave, on his part, because he probably plays the most despicable character in the film. And also, just his physical size. I never realized how big he was until I met him and thought, Oh my God. I would not want to run into a guy like him with the attitude that his character plays.

BSW: The second surprise was seeing Mickey Rourke not only doing really fine work—something we haven't seen in a while—but also playing a transvestite drag queen. It's a great performance, but this is not the Mickey Rourke we're used to seeing. How did you convince him to take this part?

Buscemi: We wanted to get a really good actor for that part, and I worked with Mickey before. So I knew him a little bit. We just took a shot to see if he'd be interested. And, at first, I think he was a little bit thrown by it, but then once he embraced it, he really embraced it.

When we did the table reading [for Animal Factory], I asked some of the actors to double up on parts because we didn't have all the actors there, and I asked him if he would read other parts, as well, because his part wasn't that big. I wanted to give him something to do at the table reading. And he said, "I don't want to read any other part. I just want to concentrate on this," and during the reading he wrote that whole monologue that he does in the film of wanting to become a butterfly and flying to Paris—this really poignant monologue that, at first, I didn't know where to use in the film, but then I found a place for it, and it just added so much. He was great.

BSW: I also want to touch upon actor Danny Trejo, who I know you've worked with before as an actor on the films Desperado and Con Air. He's got one of the greatest faces of all time.

Buscemi: He is also one of the co-producers on the film. He and [writer] Eddie Bunker brought this to me. He does have one of the greatest faces, but a lot of times in movies he just plays that mean heavy guy. And in this, he was funny and sweet—besides being scary. Being scary is a given with Danny Trejo, but you don't often get to see that other side.

He's been out of prison for years and years, but he was in San Quentin in the '60s. In fact, that's how Eddie Bunker knows him. Eddie got him started in the movie business on Runaway Train, and they've been partners in the movie business ever since.

BSW: Do you think that you're a better director now, compared to when you first began directing?

Buscemi: Yeah. I think I have a little bit more confidence than when I first started. Directing used to really intimidate me, and now it's less so. I feel like there isn't any great mystery to it. I used to think that you had to have something that I didn't have, and I didn't know what that was. But now I see that directing is just hard work, and I feel like I do have the personality and the love for it. I think to do anything well, you really have to love it. I was afraid of it, but now I know it's something that I want to keep doing.

BSW: I'd like to talk a little about your past, which I find fascinating. From what I understand, you worked a lot of odd and interesting jobs before reaching any kind of success in acting—from driving an ice cream truck to serving as a New York City firefighter. Tell me about some of those jobs.

Buscemi: I was also a furniture mover, a busboy, a cocktail waiter, a gas station attendant. I sold newspapers on the tollbooths of the Triborough Bridge. I had a lot of interesting jobs. This was from the time I was 17 to my mid-20s. When I was on the fire department, that's when I was doing a lot of theatre. They were great jobs to have as far as character studies.

BSW: Is it a shame, in your opinion, that many young actors don't get these kinds of life experiences before entering the acting profession?

Buscemi: I do think it's unfortunate. Young actors, who are successful, right away, miss out on a lot of life experience that can be valuable to acting. I suppose it's the same with writing. If you're 20 years old and wanting to write a novel, what do you write about? As you get bit older, you have more experiences to draw on.

BSW: Besides your diverse experiences in the real world, what was your best training ground as an actor?

Buscemi: Studying with John Strasberg [at the Lee Strasberg Institute] and another good teacher, Sabra Jones. Just really being exposed to all the great classic plays. Doing those in acting class. Then my work that I did with Mark Boone Junior in the '80s. We used to write and perform our own plays. That, to me, was the best experience that I could have had, and that's where I really grew as an actor. Plus, work that I did with other playwrights, like John Jesurun, who I worked with a lot in the Wooster Group.

BSW: Is that how you know Willem Dafoe—from your mutual involvement with the Wooster Group (of which Dafoe is a company member)?

Buscemi: Yeah. That's the other thing. I think theatre is really important for actors. Actors ask me all the time, "How do I get to where you are? How do I get in movies?" I say, "Don't even think about movies. Are you doing theatre?" Because if you want to be a good actor, I think you really have to do the work.

BSW: Are you surprised at where your course has taken you—that you've reached this level of fame in your career? That you've been in two Jerry Bruckheimer movies—not that there's anything wrong with that?

Buscemi: Look, I had no expectations when I first started acting. I never thought that I would have a film career—at all. It's very hard to make a living doing the films that I really love, and I'm really grateful to have the opportunity to sometimes work in commercial films as an actor.

BSW: But was fame something that you ever wished for?

Buscemi: Fame is the least interesting part of being in this business. It definitely has its advantages. But it also comes with a lot of baggage that to me is just not very interesting.

BSW: So what do you enjoy about acting?

Buscemi: Being able to express myself. Being able to play characters where I'm able to explore sides of myself that maybe I wouldn't want to know about in real life. And it's just fun working with other good actors and good directors. At its best, it's really, really fun.

BSW: Do you still have to audition for parts?

Buscemi: I haven't auditioned for roles in a long time, but I feel like with directing it's sort of like auditioning again. Every meeting that you take to try and get your film made is in effect an audition.

BSW: Any tips to our readers about auditioning, especially now that you're on the other side of table as a director?

Buscemi: The thing to remember is that, a lot of times, the people that you're hoping will hire you don't know what they're looking for. I think a lot of times actors psych themselves out or try to give the [casting people] something that they think they're looking for. As actors, we put a lot of pressure on ourselves before we get in there, and I can tell you, now being on the other side directing, that I'm just as nervous as the actor is. It's uncomfortable for me, too.

I was never good at auditioning. I never knew if I was going to be good or not. It's very hard to go into a room where there's not only the director, but four or five of the producers. I always hated that situation. And it's weird, because you have to make choices that you may not make if you got the part. But auditions are just one of those necessary things. How else is a director going to know your work?

BSW: Does your time spent directing make you a better actor in any way that you're aware of?

Buscemi: I think it makes me a more accommodating actor to a director, without sacrificing what I need to do. It helps to know that if a director is looking for something that he can't quite articulate, sometimes I'll just ask now, "What is it about this that I'm not getting?" "How do you want me to say this?" "Where should I put the accent? On what word?" Sometimes it comes down to something that simple.

BSW: Where does the challenge lie for you in acting? In the preparation before you get onto the set?

Buscemi: Even in the theatre acting that I've done, I've never been in a really huge theatre. So a lot of my stage acting felt intimate, the same way it feels on a movie set. What I miss [in film] is having the audience, but a lot of times the crew sort of becomes your audience—not that you're playing to them, but if you feel like they're really watching you, instead of reading the newspaper and waiting for the scene to be over, then you feel like you're doing something right.

Also, film acting is very fragmented, and there's a lot of waiting around sometimes before you get to do what you do, or there's a technical problem, and you have to stop right in the middle of when you're really on a roll. So it becomes more about trying to pace yourself, and not blowing your energy and your focus. I think it takes a lot more focus.

BSW: Who are your all-time favorite actors, besides some of the people you've cast in your own films?

Buscemi: Jimmy Stewart. Robert Mitchum. Cagney is always fun to watch. Meryl Streep. Lili Taylor I love. Gena Rowlands. John Cazale [The Godfather, The Deer Hunter]. I think he was one of the most gifted character actors working in the '70s, and his premature death was a great loss to film and theatre.

BSW: Are there certain qualities that some of these actors have in common?

Buscemi: I always find that hard to talk about. I think when you're attracted to an actor or an actress, they have qualities that you can't really put your finger on. There's some mysterious quality that they have, where there are deeper levels that are intriguing or that you can't figure out. It's like falling in love. You're attracted to a person, and there's just something about them, but you don't know what. You just know that you're attracted. It's those qualities that are not so easily identifiable.

BSW: Can you imagine yourself not acting?

Buscemi: I can't imagine what I would do if I wasn't acting. I really don't know what else I would do as an occupation. It's too late for firefighting. BSW