[14 September 2007]
McClatchy Newspapers (MCT)
In “Reservoir Dogs,” he didn’t believe in leaving tips for waitresses.
In “Fargo,” he was referred to as “the little guy (who) was kinda funny-lookin’.”
In “Ghost World,” he obsessively collected old blues and jazz records.
In “The Big Lebowski,” he confused John Lennon with V.I. Lenin.
And in “The Sopranos,” he pretty much set off a war between the New Jersey and New York mob families before being whacked by his own cousin, Tony Soprano.
You might not know Steve Buscemi’s name, but his face and his acting talent have been prominently featured in some of our most cutting-edge movies and TV series.
After establishing himself as a key player in films by such indie stalwarts as the Coen Brothers, Jim Jarmusch, Quentin Tarantino and Terry Zwigoff, Buscemi became the go-to actor for wisecracking parts in major Hollywood films. He has co-starred in action fare including “Con Air” and “Armageddon,” and this past summer he appeared in the comedies “I Think I Love My Wife” and “I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry.”
But Buscemi also has become a director of note, having made the low-budget films “Trees Lounge” and “Lonesome Jim,” and having directed four episodes of HBO’s “The Sopranos,” including the memorable “Pine Barrens” episode from 2001, for which he received Emmy and Director’s Guild award nominations.
Now Buscemi has combined his acting and directing talents to make “Interview,” a small film opening around the counry. In it he plays a journalist locked in verbal combat with a movie and TV star played by Sienna Miller.
“Interview” is the first of three films in a project titled “Triple Theo,” which honors the late filmmaker Theo van Gogh. The Dutch director, the great-grandson of painter Vincent van Gogh’s brother Theo, was murdered in 2004 by an Islamic extremist. The project involves three American actor-directors—Stanley Tucci and John Turturro are the others—remaking three of Van Gogh’s films in New York City settings.
“Interview” is essentially a two-character piece in which a former war correspondent named Pierre Peders (Buscemi) gets a magazine assignment he views as beneath him—to interview a popular TV and movie star (Miller) who has achieved such megafame that she’s known solely by her first name, Katya. Their meeting—first in a restaurant, then in her nearby loft—produces verbal fireworks, game playing and a few surprises.
Earlier this summer, Buscemi sat down in San Francisco hotel for an interview in which we talked about his new film.
How did you get involved in the Triple Theo project?
Bruce Weiss, the producer, asked me if I’d like to see the films (by Van Gogh) that they were looking for directors for. I knew Theo’s story, but I had not seen any of his films. In the beginning, I was just curious to see the films. I liked them all, but “Interview” was the one that really resonated with me. I loved the characters and the story.
Was it from the beginning a package deal that you would direct it, write it and star in it?
They approached me as a director, but they also knew I had written and that I would be right for the part. And all three were interesting. David Schechter was hired (to write a first draft). I rewrote some scenes and added some others, (plus) some dialogue.
What was it that attracted you to Pierre as a character?
I liked his intensity. I liked his insecurity. I liked his anger. And I liked his compassion. He had all these qualities in him. It’s just rare that I get to play characters who are that complex, are that full-blown. And that he had these dark secrets, too.
When Pierre says to Katya, “Why do you choose only the most commercial (garbage) that’s out there?” and “I watched all of it (one of her movies on an airplane) with the sound off and still I was wishing that the plane would go down,” does that reflect your attitude toward the mainstream film industry?
Only sometimes. There is a lot of (garbage) out there, that’s for sure. But there’s a lot of (garbage) in independent films, too (laughs). So I think what he was just driving at there with her was, what kind of enjoyment does she get out of what she does?
At this point in your career, how do you divide your time between acting and directing and writing?
It’s really not that well planned. When I need to work I look for a commercial film. And I’m always looking for other interesting films to either act in or direct. But I’m not so in a rush to direct just anything because I’m lucky that I can make a living so far as an actor and not have to worry about that as a director. And so I can be a little more choosy in things I direct.
That reminds me a little of John Cassavetes, who would take acting roles so he could finance his independent movies.
Absolutely. Certainly, he showed us actor-directors the way.
Have you ever been interviewed by a journalist who was as lacking in knowledge about you and your career as Pierre is about Katya?
It doesn’t happen now, but it certainly happened when I did “Trees Lounge.” People were less familiar, but certainly nothing to the extent of what happens in “Interview.” I also think that it’s part of Pierre’s defense to say that he knows nothing about her. At some level, I think he’s pushing buttons. He was there for an hour (in the restaurant) waiting for her, so I’m sure he read the brief that was given him. But he doesn’t own up to it. He doesn’t want to admit that he put in so much time.
But having said that, he did not go out and rent all her movies. I also think that on some level he was nervous about being in the same room with her, because it’s not something that he really knows how to do, or that he’s around people like that a lot. I think he was nervous, insecure and defensive about it.
I gather that the real Katya was extremely well known in Holland—more like a Madonna or a Jennifer Lopez than Sienna Miller. Why did you cast Miller?
I just wanted the best actress I could find for the role. And someone who would be game for this. She really fit. We offered her the role and she accepted the day we made her the offer.
I said, “Wait till we have the script,” and she said, “No, I want to do it.” So that told me right there that she has a great attitude.
Just checking out her work and seeing the interview she did, ironically, for the DVD of “Layer Cake,” she just felt right. And that was really confirmed in the rehearsals. She had great ideas, and she was willing to try a lot of things. She certainly looks the part, too.
Not that Miller is that notorious, but did you ever consider, if it was OK with her, incorporating some of her real-life troubles into the script, as the real Katya had done in the original film?
Q: I guess she’s best known for her break-up with Jude Law.
No. I didn’t feel like it was necessary. She has a line in there that she actually improvised. When I say, “I have to write something,” she says, “Well, make it up. Everybody else does.”
What directors have been particularly inspiring to you or taught you the most?
I always go back to Alexandre Rockwell, who did the movie “In the Soup.” I loved how much responsibility he gave to actors, and how much he worked with actors on the script before we got to the set. Robert Altman—I got to work with him on “Kansas City” right before I did “Trees Lounge.” I loved his whole attitude about making films—that he wanted his films to be successful, but on his terms. Again, a guy who gave a lot of responsibility to his crew and to his actors, but also was able to articulate to everybody what his vision was.
That’s what’s so interesting to me about directors like Bob, Alex, Tom DiCillo, the Coen brothers, Jarmusch, Tarantino—they all have very specific styles, and yet they all treat who they work with as collaborators, and really depend on everybody to help. I’ve had the best film school.