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February 17, 2011

He's the Boss: Steve Buscemi

Unassuming Steve Buscemi of Atlantic City mob drama Boardwalk Empire has had an impressive career as a character actor and director. But HBO execs were startled when Terence Winter and Martin Scorsese said he'd make the perfect leading man for their marquee series. Then, the more they thought about it, says HBO's Michael Lombardo, "the more we realized it was brilliant."

By Shawna Malcom

Steve Buscemi can slip into a room so quietly that it’s startling to suddenly find him there. Dressed in his own dark suit after wearing a bevy of borrowed clothes for a morning photo shoot, the reed-thin actor appears sans entourage or fanfare, clutching a modest backpack in one hand and a large coffee in the other.

With his expressive blue eyes and mouthful of famously uneven teeth, Buscemi may have one of the screen’s most recognizable faces, but his unassuming presence, punctuated by a slight slouch, suggests he’s the rare actor who actually prefers not to be the center of attention.

Settling in for an interview at the Hollywood bar where he was just photographed, Buscemi initially looks uncomfortable with the task at hand. When the tape recorder clicks on, he exhales softly and shifts slightly in his seat.

In town from his New York home to promote his new series, HBO's Boardwalk Empire, he seems more interested in asking questions — “have you been here before?” “Where are you from?” — than answering them. At one point, he rummages in his backpack and pulls out a pack of Wrigley’s gum. “Want one?” he asks softly, politely extending a stick.

The lack of pretense is refreshing, his apparent case of nerves endearing. They’re also unexpected, considering his extensive experience.

Since 1986 Buscemi has worked nonstop, appearing in critical darlings Fargo and Ghost World and rock ’em, sock ’em blockbusters Armageddon and Con Air; directed three movies that he wrote; and popped up on series as diverse as 30 Rock and The Sopranos, where his turn as doomed wise guy Tony Blundetto earned him a Primetime Emmy nomination (he was also Emmy-nommed for an appearance on 30 Rock).

One of the most prolific character actors in the business, he is also — thanks to his nuanced portrayals of often violent, almost always eccentric souls — one of its most respected. Now, at fifty-two, Hollywood’s most valuable supporting player has stepped up to leading man as Boardwalk’s Enoch “Nucky” Thompson, the sleek-suited, smooth-talking treasurer and don of vice in 1920s Atlantic City.

The lavishly produced period drama, which premiered in September, was inspired by former real-life powerbroker Nucky Johnson, a pivotal figure in the sprawling nonfiction tome Boardwalk Empire: The Birth, High Times and Corruption of Atlantic City.

The program is executive-produced by creator Terence Winter, one of the Emmy-winning writer-producers behind The Sopranos, and Oscar winner Martin Scorsese, who also directed the pilot. Mark Wahlberg and Stephen Levinson, who optioned the book by Nelson Johnson for their production company and brought it to HBO, are also executive producers.

Boardwalk begins with the dawn of Prohibition and depicts the resulting greed and violence that led to the rise of organized crime in America. Scorsese, no stranger to big-screen portrayals of twentieth-century gangster life, couldn’t resist the allure of exploring its infancy with his first foray into series television.

“I was attracted to the period and the place, to the idea of looking at both in a new way,” Scorsese says. “I was interested in the way that gangsters and community leaders intersected and were often one and the same. It was a rich, exciting moment in American history, and I liked the challenge of trying to capture the intricacy of it all.”

Buscemi’s Nucky is the drama’s dark, amoral heart. He is both a grieving widower who makes stirring speeches to the Women’s Temperance League and a playboy with a thirst for liquor and his lusty young moll, a philanthropist who gives cash to a poor pregnant woman and a thug who bashes in her husband’s skull, a mentor to his war-scarred protégé and a politico who’ll go to killer lengths to hold on to his position of power.

In short, it’s a role as rich as the lucrative booze-smuggling business Nucky traffics in. No wonder Buscemi wanted in on the action as soon as his agent slipped him the pilot script.

“I don’t usually get to play the smartest guy in the room,” he says with a laugh. “Nucky is. And he’s a really complicated guy. He’s in a position where he’s tempted all the time. But in his mind, as long as he’s sharing the wealth and as long as he’s making Atlantic City what he thinks is a better place, then he has no problem with the way he has to get things done.”

As much as he loved the character, though, the actor feared he wouldn’t get the opportunity to step into his spiffily polished shoes. “I thought, ‘Wow, this would be too good to be true,’” he says. “So I kind of had to put it out of my head. I didn’t want to get my hopes up.”

While Winter and Scorsese did consider several actors for the part, Buscemi had the advantage of having worked with both before. He appeared in Scorsese’s 1989 film New York Stories and met Winter on The Sopranos. (Before appearing on HBO’s mob hit, Buscemi earned an Emmy nomination for directing the series’ classic “Pine Barrens” episode, which Winter wrote.) And both men shared the belief that Buscemi’s ubiquitous supporting work had tapped into only a fraction of his talent.

“He’s one of those actors that, whenever I see his name in the cast list of a movie, I know he’s going to be good, even if the movie is bad,” Winter says. “I thought, ‘Well, if he’s great all the time, why not make him the lead guy and put him in every scene?’ The logic felt right to me.”

Not so much to HBO. “We were initially startled — Steve was a surprising choice,” admits programming group president Michael Lombardo.

The premium cable network, which has struggled in recent years to find worthy replacements for The Sopranos and Sex and the City, had lofty expectations for Boardwalk, and hefty sums were being spent to see them realized. (The price tag for the twelve-episode first season has been reported to be as high as $65 million. That figure includes the construction from scratch of a 300-foot-long boardwalk in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, which took three months to complete.)

Placing the pricey project on the slender shoulders of a character actor would be a risk. “But when Marty and Terry call and go, ‘We’re both in love with the idea of Steve Buscemi,’ it gives you confidence,” Lombardo says. “The more we thought about it, the more we realized it was brilliant. The real Nucky wasn’t the most handsome guy in the room. He wielded power by being smart and shrewd. He would’ve been somebody you would’ve underestimated, and he would have used that to his advantage.”

If there were any doubts that Buscemi could be a charismatic TV star, they dissipated by the time the credits rolled on the seventy-minute pilot. “Steve works brilliantly,” Scorsese says. “I wonder, who else could bring what he brings to the role of Nucky? The crazy energy, the exasperation, the craftiness, the bluster in public, the weariness — [he’s] a tremendous actor, period.”

A career in front of the cameras hardly seemed preordained for Buscemi back in Valley Stream, Long Island. Raised by blue-collar parents — his father was a sanitation worker, his mother a Howard Johnson’s hostess — he was, despite his slim build, something of a jock in high school and made the varsity teams in both soccer and wrestling. Athletic success aside, he often found suburban life oppressive.

“My world was pretty small,” he says. “I didn’t know from anything growing up in Long Island. I was a total TV kid, and I went to movies but I didn’t see my first Broadway play until high school. I didn’t take my first plane ride until I was eighteen. I was just so ignorant of so many things.”

He was also a bit lost. After graduating high school, he drifted along aimlessly, not unlike the character he played in 1996’s Trees Lounge, the first film he wrote and directed (and which was partly filmed in Valley Stream).

He briefly enrolled in Nassau Community College but mostly majored in hanging out in local bars, until he finally applied to the Lee Strasberg Theatre Institute in Manhattan. An avid fan of The Honeymooners and The Odd Couple as a kid, Buscemi harbored the hope of somehow, someday landing a sitcom role.

Commuting into the city for acting classes provided the then-nineteen-year-old a much needed focus. Still, when a fellow student offered a summer sublet of his walk-up apartment in the East Village, “I almost blew the opportunity,” Buscemi says.

As desperate as he was to escape suburbia, he was even more terrified of making the commitment to acting. “Then one night I thought, ‘Why am I hesitating?’” he says. “If I hated it, I could always move back. So I called him almost in a panic because I was afraid he would’ve given it to somebody else.”

The eclectic East Village art scene of the late ’70s and early ’80s proved to be precisely where Buscemi needed to be. He dabbled in standup comedy and got involved in the downtown experimental theater scene, doing “little shows in church basements or someone’s apartment,” he remembers. “It was just about getting as much work and experience as I could.”

To support himself, he held a succession of day jobs: busboy, furniture mover, New York Times deliveryman and, most notably, firefighter. “I always tried to do my best,” he says of his work with Engine Company 55 in Little Italy, “but I always felt a little out of place.”

Eventually, he took a leave of absence to make time for his increasing stage commitments. Three months away turned into six, and then a year, until he finally worked up the confidence to quit altogether.

“The guys in the firehouse thought, ‘Why are you leaving this job? You’re crazy!’” he says. “And it was true. I could’ve put in twenty years and retired at half-pay.” (But the bonds forged with those coworkers remain tight. The day after 9/11, Buscemi grabbed his old gear and walked across the bridge from his Brooklyn home into Manhattan to work alongside them at Ground Zero for several days.)

His first positive film notices came with his role as a musician dying of AIDS in 1986’s Parting Glances. The budget was so low that Buscemi wore his own clothes, but the job led to a richer opportunity when Quentin Tarantino, who’d seen the performance, offered him the part of Mr. Pink, a diamond thief who believes tipping is downright criminal, in Reservoir Dogs.

It turned out to be his breakthrough role — and only the first of a plethora of portrayals of foul-mouthed, wild-eyed and frequently inept lowlifes. Which suits Buscemi just fine, thank you very much. “I’ve never really cared about being typecast,” he says with a shrug. “I’d rather be a working typecast actor than an actor who’s not working.”

Even so, no one was more surprised by the nature of his niche than Buscemi himself. “The last thing I ever saw myself as was the guy who’d be in that criminal element,” he says. “I wouldn’t have imagined I would ever be shooting a gun or beating somebody up. It just wasn’t me.” After all, he was the good Catholic who, as a kid, had hastily made the sign of the cross whenever Mom or Dad uttered a swear word.

Thankfully, Buscemi’s real life still bears little resemblance to his reel one. On screen he is compellingly unpredictable; away from it, he is happily married to filmmaker Jo Andres and proud father of their musician son Lucian, nineteen. And he’s earned a wealth of admiration and respect from those who know him well.

“He’s very thoughtful,” says actor Stanley Tucci, Buscemi’s good friend of more than twenty years. “He’s very diligent about returning phone calls and e-mails, much better than I am sometimes. He loves to work. That’s one of the things we have in common. We sort of can’t help ourselves. And he’s quite shy. I think it’s hard for him sometimes being recognized as much as he is, and I think it’s only going to get worse with Boardwalk Empire.”

Adds Winter: “It’s funny, people always ask me, ‘What’s Steve Buscemi like?’ They almost seem disappointed when I say he’s really gentle and calm. They expect him to be like a lot of the characters that he’s played, but he’s one of the least neurotic people I know. He’s very low-key, humble, funny and smart.”

He’s also the kind of guy who, even after more than two decades of professional success, doesn’t dare take it for granted. “Actors fall out of favor,” he says quietly, evoking a whisper of the fear that nearly kept him from moving to the East Village all those years ago. “The older I get, the less I feel secure in this business. You never know how long it’s gonna last.” His acclaimed move into directing, he explains, actually grew out of “feeling like I should have another vocation to kind of fall back on.”

He hardly expected to find it so creatively fulfilling. Inspired, he’s increased his behind-the-scenes presence through Olive Productions, the production company he co-founded two years ago with Tucci. Currently, they have several projects in various stages of development, including the tentatively titled 87th Precinct, a character-based cop drama for NBC, and Mommy & Me, a film starring Meryl Streep and Tina Fey, which Tucci plans to direct next summer.

“He’s a great collaborator,” Tucci reports. “He tells a story very simply but truthfully, sometimes painfully so, and that’s his signature. The same with his acting — you really don’t see the work. It just seems to happen, and he’s always spot-on.”

With any luck, Buscemi will be bringing those spot-on instincts to Boardwalk for many seasons to come. It’s safe to say no one would appreciate the opportunity more than he. “If I just did this for the next seven years,” he says, a smile lighting up his face, “I’d be very happy.”

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