Steve Buscemi is the darling of indie-film lovers around the world, renowned for his roles in Reservoir Dogs, In the Soup, Living in Oblivion and Ghost World. But he's equally well known to mainstream audiences, from blockbuster films like Armageddon, Con Air, and The Island. Buscemi has also endeared himself to filmmakers: the Coen Brothers (Miller's Crossing, Barton Fink, The Hudsucker Proxy, The Big Lebowski, Fargo), Quentin Tarantino (Pulp Fiction), Robert Rodriguez (Spy Kids, Desperado, in which he plays "Buscemi"), and so on. He's also, I learned, a laidback guy: Steve from the block. I spoke with Buscemi at San Francisco's Ritz-Carlton Hotel; this interview also aired on Celluloid Dreams (90.5FM in San Jose, CA) on July 9, 2007.
Groucho: Steve Buscemi, welcome to Celluloid Dreams.
Steve Buscemi: Thank you. It's nice to be here, in your dreams.
G: Right. Telling people you're going to do interviews about Interview, a film called Interview, must be like an Abbott and Costello routine always waiting to happen.
SB: Well, the title is a pain in the ass, especially when you try to Google it, because you just—you get everything but the film. And you'll get every interview I did in the past five years, but it's actually hard to find the actual film.
G: In the film, the two characters mirror each other. Pierre, the journalist, is as good an actor as Katya, the actress he's interviewing, isn't he?
SB: Umm, well, why do you say that?
G: Well, I don't want to give anything away, but there's a lot of surprises and kind of twists in the film and the characters aren't always honest with each other. And of course, Shakespeare said, "All the world's a stage," and we're all players.
SB: Yeah, I mean, I suppose it could be that he is not being totally honest when he says that—well, he's certainly not being honest with himself, I think, when he says he's not interested in her. Because, in fact, I think he's very interested in her. And I think he's very insecure and nervous about having to interview her. And so, when he is telling her, you know, "I'm not seeing any of your films," he has. "I haven't read the brief"—he was sitting there for an hour. I'm sure he looked at it. And, he was probably more prepared than he's letting on. But to be that—to admit that he is that prepared, then he has to admit that he's taking this assignment seriously, which he has a hard time doing.
G: It's about status and not giving away his power.
SB: Yeah. But it can also be that that also is his method of pushing buttons and getting her a little bit pissed off. Which, she does get pissed off. But I think there is something in him that she finds, on some level, amusing, you know, and interesting enough to say, "Okay, I think I will play with this guy."
G: Interview deals with sort of the actor's nightmare of condescension and hostility and apathy on the part of the interviewer. What has been your worst experience as an interviewee?
SB: See, now, this is a question that I get asked a lot—because of the nature of the film. And I really don't have a story that's, you know....
G: Well, that's good. (Laughs.)
SB: (Laughs.) I guess I've been pretty lucky.
G: You can consider yourself lucky. What about the late-night shows? They seem like kind of a hazing ritual for someone who doesn't necessarily thrive on the spotlight—as if you're jumping into this "buddy act" that you haven't rehearsed. What are those like for you?
SB: Well, that's interesting. I mean, I was—I have been asked to do Letterman. And the first time, I could not get past the pre-interview, you know, when the producers ask you for four stories that you have to—four topics that you have to come up with. And I could only come up with three. So I did not get on. The second time, I had these four stories and was doing the pre-interview and they were just not funny enough. And they complained to my publicist that I was even being difficult. And I really wasn't. I was trying my best. And it got so bad that they wanted to give me a story: this incident that happened to Chris Penn in a restaurant. They wanted me to tell the story as if I was there. So sure enough, I get to the show, and I think it was too late for them to find somebody else, so they just let Richard Lewis go on longer and of course, I was bumped. So—but I have done Conan—he's...that's been fun. But they also had a pre-interview thing there. And then I did Jon Stewart, and there was no pre-interview. And that was terrifying too in its own right, because I was like "You mean we're not going to discuss this at all? We're just really going to wing it?" And that was fun. Of course, I love him and that's how I get my news too.
G: (Laughs.) Right. Theo Van Gogh's original film isn't widely known or available in the states. When you sought it out, what were your first impressions and how did the story grow on you as you adapted it?
SB: I didn't seek it out. The producers came to me and asked me if I wanted to be involved, and in the beginning, I was just curious to see the films because I didn't know his work at all. And, I loved the original. I was really interested in keeping to the spirit of the original but not necessarily remaking it word for word. But we couldn't have done that anyway. There is—you know, whatever cultural differences there are, it just—the words would not have been the same in our mouths. And I think, in the original, it's probably—although I think it's very funny—it's probably a little bit more intense. The actor who played Pierre in the original, you know—he's very intense. And I've since met him and he's—the weird thing is that he's such a funny guy too. He's so funny. So, yeah, we wanted to make a film that was our own and incorporate as much as my, whatever, personality or whatever that I put into it, as well as Sienna. And set it in New York. So we changed, you know, just some of those details. And it's already going to be a wildly different film just by being recast.
G: Mm-hm. You've also absorbed, as part of the nature of the project, Van Gogh's technique in using three cameras and shooting long takes. I know you did rehearsals—in fact, you rehearsed longer than you shot. In addition to what grew out of your rehearsals with Sienna Miller, did the cameramen or camera-people participate in those rehearsals—not to bump into each other?
SB: Well, towards the very end. But the bulk of the rehearsals was just Sienna and I and Doesjka van Hoogdalem who was Theo's script supervisor, and she worked with us as well. But, yeah, you know, we—the last couple of rehearsals we did in the loft with just the DP Thomas Kist, and then he was really, in this case, really the director of photography, actually directing the other two camera people. And he was one of the operators himself. And they've done this before. So they're pretty used to it. It was really a question of Sienna and I getting used to them.
SB: And Theo had a habit of liking to shoot the close-ups first. And so, that was something that Sienna and I felt a little awkward about, but that we wanted to try. And I think the reason he did that was because he wanted that sense of spontaneity in the close-ups that—typically, here, when we shoot a film, you shoot the master and, you know, there is a lot more of mistakes that happen or spontaneity, and then by the time you get to the close-ups, you're really well rehearsed. I think Theo was more interested in the un-rehearsed reactions. So that's something that we also tried.
G: You nearly passed on Tom DiCillo's Delirious, in which you play a paparazzo, but I'm glad you didn't. Not many actors, I think, would be able to capture Les' hurt, or would even be interested in looking for it. What was the key to that role for you?
SB: These questions are always hard for me because I don't really think that way.
G: You work more intuitively?
SB: Yeah. And when I—the reason that I turned down the role initially was because he wasn't believable to me. And he had so much anger in him, and he did this thing early on to the Michael Pitt character that I just—that really turned me off. And I said to Tom, I said, "I don't really want to play this guy. I don't like him. I don't want to be this guy." And that first incident that happened, as it turns out, was not that important to Tom. And he saw his way around it. And, you know, he just really wanted me to play the part and worked with me on it. So, umm, I don't think the character lost any of his edge. But there was just that one thing that was changed. So then I could see my way into it.
G: And you, in your research, played photographer for a day—for at least a day, right?
G: What did you learn in that process?
SB: Umm, that they wait around a long time and it's hard. They only get a few seconds when the celebrity walks by, and I can understand why they get upset if somebody doesn't stop for them. I'm not saying it's justified, but I understand it.
G: All right. Thank you very much for joining us.
SB: Thanks. I appreciate it.
[For Groucho's review of Interview, click here.]