The Wise guy
Empire Australasia|April 2018

The death of Stalin's Khrushchev is just the latest in a long line of wily schemers for Steve Buscemi. The master character actor. Talks Alex Godfrey through a career spent one step ahead.

MY INTRODUCTION TO STEVE BUSCEMI IS EVERYTHING you’d fear, which, perversely, is everything you’d want. Due to some miscommunication, I’m in the adjoining room to the Brooklyn photo studio, gormlessly unaware that the shoot wrapped 10 minutes ago. “He was about to leave!” the photographer says when he finds me, leading me into the studio, where Buscemi looks agitated. “You were hiding in plain sight!” says Buscemi, looking like Mr Pink, sounding like Mr Pink, in a space not unlike a warehouse. It’s not good for your nerves. Of course, he’s absolutely fine, and gentlemanly too. There’s just all that baggage.

From Reservoir Dogs to Fargo to this month’s The Death Of Stalin, Buscemi is all too convincing as cerebral hotheads, unleashing machine-gun diatribes and not letting go, a dog with a bone. In the latter film, directed and co-written by Armando Iannucci (The Thick Of It, Veep), Buscemi plays Nikita Khrushchev, one of the Politburu’s highest in command, who bashes heads with an unpleasant array of nemeses in the power struggle after Russia’s tyrant-in-chief kicks the bucket. As you would expect from Iannucci, it’s both dark and hilarious, with Buscemi on frightening form.

Buscemi was born in Brooklyn, and still lives there today. Raised in a working-class family — his father was a garbage collector for the sanitation department, his mother a hotel hostess — he became a fireman in Little Italy. Meanwhile he’d been taking acting lessons and getting into comedy, hanging out and performing at the New York clubs, and after four years he quit the firefighting, bagging his first film role (opposite Vincent Gallo in black-and-white arthouse movie The Way It Is) in 1985. He later scored scene-stealing parts in movies by the Coen brothers and Jim Jarmusch, but it was Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs, in 1992, that introduced the world at large to his wide-eyed mania.

Since then, many of his finest characters, eclectic as they are, have brimmed with savvy skill, regardless of their questionable life choices. From Con Air’s big-brained mass-murderer Garland Greene to Boardwalk Empire’s gangster-politician Nucky Thompson, these are not men to be easily outsmarted. Last year, in Louis CK’s confrontational, play-like web series Horace And Pete, he turned in a startling, vulnerable performance as the incisive but deeply troubled co-owner of a Brooklyn bar. And now, as a relentless Khrushchev, increasingly at wits’ end, he’s an Iannucci rage monster, ruthlessly clawing his way up the ranks. It’s a blast. So, with our own misunderstanding behind us, we begin…

You've said it’s important for you to put as much as yourself into characters as you can. But obviously Khrushchev is worlds away from you…

Well, yeah. I mean, I could not see myself playing the part, at all. I was so hung up on the physicality of it that I couldn’t see past that.

Were you surprised when the role was offered to you?

Yeah. I thought, “Why me?” I didn’t get it. When I first talked to Armando on the phone I was thinking, “How am I gonna handle telling him that I can’t do this, that he’s made a mistake, that I’m not the guy for this part?” But Armando had such a light touch about it — he said, “I really do see you playing this, if you’re willing to shave your head.” Because he wanted me to be bald. He said, “You don’t have to look like the Khrushchev that people know from later on, this was Khrushchev from 1953.” And it just made me feel better that Armando saw something in me that could play this guy, to stop thinking of him as this iconic character, and see who the human being was in there and how I related to that.

Khrushchev is a wily guy. What did you particularly like about him?

Well, what was appealing was all these guys were… if you got to be in Stalin’s inner circle, it meant that you were very good at surviving! I think one of the ways Khrushchev did it was, he entertained Stalin. He was good at his job, but he hung in there and was able to get Stalin to like him, and play the fool a little bit. I don’t think he consciously thought he’d be the one to take over, but he saw what needed to be done and went, “Well, if nobody else is gonna do this, I’ll do it.” As an actor it’s a fascinating character to play, because on some levels he was very insecure and paranoid, but he had this innate toughness to him. He was able to stay the course and rise to it.

Were you a fan of Armando’s earlier work?

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