STEVE BUSCEMI isn't merely a prolific character actor who has worked with such directors as the Coen brothers, Jim Jarmusch, Quentin Tarantino, Robert Rodriguez and Michael Bay. The 48-year-old Brooklynite has become a cult icon, thanks to his indelible performances as Mr. Pink in "Reservoir Dogs," the bumbling ex-con Carl Showalter in "Fargo" and the hapless Tony Blundetto on HBO's "The Sopranos"
The New York Post once described the former fireman as "pale and thin, with a face that resembles a strange mix of Don Knotts, Peter Lorre and David Carradine."
Though his characters usually come to a bad end, Buscemi did get the opportunity to play a sympathetic role as a middle-aged geek in "Ghost World," for which he won numerous critics' awards.
Buscemi made his feature debut as a director with 1996's "Trees Lounge" and has helmed numerous episodes of series TV, most notably the "Pine Barrens" installment of "The Sopranos," for which he received a nomination for a Directors Guild of America award.
The offbeat indie comedy "Lonesome Jim" is his latest directorial effort. The film, which opened Friday in Los Angeles, stars Casey Affleck as a despondent 27-year-old man who returns to his family in Indiana after living in New York.
I was surprised to learn you were a stand-up comic when you were in your early 20s. Were you successful on the New York comedy club circuit?
I would go to some of the comedy clubs -- this is like 1978-79. I would mostly hang out at these clubs, [such as] the Improv, which is still out in L.A. I passed the auditions, but I would mainly hang out at the back of the club and watch people like Jerry Seinfeld, Paul Reiser, and every once in a while they would throw me on at 2 or 3 in the morning.
How receptive was the audience in those early hours? Was there even an audience?
There were a couple of people. What is funny is that Chris Albrecht, the head of programming at HBO who I have gotten to know through "The Sopranos," was the manager at that time, and he was the one in charge -- the one that decided who would go on next. He would always look at me and then point to somebody else!
It was terrifying in the beginning. It took a while to come up with material I felt comfortable with and get some laughs. I was young, that is the thing. My material reflected it, but I did have fun watching other comics, and what I learned was there are only a few that really had their own voice, and that is what separated them from the rest. I found it hard to find my own voice doing stand-up. I felt that I did find it when I teamed up with Mark Boone Jr. and we started to write and perform our own pieces -- one-act plays and sketches.
Did your stand-up and sketch background help you in discovering the comedic side of your characters?
I always had a comic side to me that I was always interested in. I used to watch TV a lot and loved people like George Carlin, Steve Martin, Richard Pryor. So that was definitely evident in my work when I started working with Boone. But I think I learned even better comic timing working with Boone, and I learned a lot from him and sort of rooting the comedy more in reality. Other people were working that way at the time like [directors] Jim Jarmusch and Tom DiCillo.
The comedy in "Lonesome Jim" is also rooted in reality.
In reading "Lonesome Jim" I felt sympathy for the characters and what they were going through, but I also laughed. So for me it never got so depressing that I didn't want to turn the page. The humor was very evident, but yet the characters are very real to me.
You live in Brooklyn and grew up on Long Island. Was it difficult for you to adjust to the small town Indiana setting of "Lonesome Jim"?
The small town-ness of it reminded me of suburban Long Island. But what I loved about shooting there was that they still have the open cornfields and the wide-open spaces outside the towns. I loved that the train ran through the town. That is something you don't see much of anymore. My wife is from Ohio, and she says most of the farmland is now gone and they have rerouted the train to go around town. A lot of that charm is starting to evaporate from the Midwest.
Did you see a lot of actors for the role of Jim?
Casey was involved in the project from the beginning, and we built the cast around him.
Had you worked with him before?
No. I never worked with him but liked his work, especially in the Gus Van Sant film "Gerry." He really made Jim his own. He really became that guy, and I think brought a lot of weight to the character.
Often parents will try to persuade their children not to go into acting, but your father encouraged you to enroll in acting classes.
My dad growing up had two best friends -- one was a firefighter and one was an actor. Peter Miller is the one who became an actor and moved to California. He was in movies like "The Blackboard Jungle." But my dad also knew the civil service part of things, and he himself was a sanitation worker. So before he suggested I go to acting school, he made sure I took the civil service test and got on the list for the fire department. Knowing that I had that under my belt, that I was on the list, then I think he felt a little more comfortable in suggesting "While you are waiting for your name to come up, why don't you take some acting classes?"
-- Susan King