Saint Steve of Las Vegas
by Jay S. Jacobs
Steve Buscemi has played wild, crazed, ranting characters so often – and so well – that it is a little surprising when you meet him what a soft-spoken, down to earth guy he really is.
After all, Buscemi has made his name mostly for playing hardened, slightly crazed criminals. Perhaps best known for his role as the bloody-thirsty Mr. Pink in Reservoir Dogs, the inept kidnapper in Fargo, the manic escapee in Con-Air or the screw-up mafia cousin in The Sopranos – Buscemi has put together a career that has lasted 25 years and dozens of movies playing off-kilter outsiders.
In reality, it seems that Buscemi may be more like the shy-but-sweet eternal bachelor he played in the underrated comedy Ghost World or the empathetic insurance fraud investigator who is trying to get over a gambling addiction in his latest film, Saint John of Las Vegas.
“He is so amazing,” says comedienne Sarah Silverman, who plays his eccentric new girlfriend in Saint John of Las Vegas. “I’m so happy to know him now. He’s just the kindest, most sincere, but also silliest man. He just takes my breath away. Sometimes we’d be doing a scene and I would just be watching him, you know? You forget your part of it because you want to just sit and watch him. He’s such a great guy. He’s so in love with his wife and his kids. Whenever his phone would ring and he would see it was one of them, he would just go like, ‘Oh!’ It was so cute.”
Saint John of Las Vegas is not only a too-rare lead performance for Buscemi but is also the first film released by Buscemi’s new production company – a joint venture with actors Stanley Tucci and former Robert Altman associate Wren Arthur. It is the screenwriting and directing debut by former businessman Hue Rhodes.
“[It was] divine intervention,” says Rhodes, “in the sense that we had been hustling other people and trying to exploit every connection we had. If you have a script…, you try to work through your connections. We were busy doing that and it wasn’t happening. But I had given the script to somebody, who gave it to a friend, who gave it to a friend, who gave it to Steve’s agent, who gave it to Steve. We found out that he had it indirectly while we were busy begging and pleading somewhere else. He read it and he liked it. We had a great talk. We talked a lot about Buster Keaton – who is sort of a hero for both of us…. I think Steve and I resonated.”
Buscemi plays John Alighieri in the film (the movie is loosely based on classic The Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri), a small-time Albuquerque insurance adjuster who has fled a gambling problem in Las Vegas. Suddenly, he has to face his demons when he gets a job where he has to investigate a policy claim by taking a road trip to Vegas. He meets an odd cross-section of characters, including an Alpha-male boss (Peter Dinklage), a hardened insurance fraud investigator (Romany Malco), a wheelchair-bound stripper (Emmanuelle Chriqui), a naturist survivalist (Tim Blake Nelson) and a human torch (John Cho).
“Steve and I spent a lot of time together in the car,” says co-star Romany Malco. “Naturally, Steve was the funniest man in the world to be around, but it wasn’t intentional. It was just circumstantial. You compromise a bit to make a smaller film sometimes. We’d spend a lot of time… rather than going back and forth to our trailer, we’d just sit in the car, talking about all different things.”
That loose on-the-set atmosphere contributed to the vibe of this eccentric little road comedy. While the film is getting limited release, Buscemi is out there doing what he does best – playing a flashy supporting role in the acclaimed drama The Messenger, portrayinga comically frustrated dad in Youth in Revolt and taking a role in the highly-anticipated new Martin Scorsese series for HBO, Boardwalk Empire.
A couple of weeks before Saint John of Las Vegas was to be released in New York and Los Angeles, Buscemi sat down with us at the Regency Hotel in New York to discuss his new movie and his career.
Have you ever taken any memorable road trips?
Yeah, I took one with my son years ago – from New York to LA. He played punk rock music five days straight.
Did you like it?
I did like it. I learned a lot. He knows more about that era of music that I lived through. He knows more bands. I actually learned a lot.
What kind of bands did you get turned on to?
The Germs. And ummm… now I can’t remember. This was about five years ago. I’m blanking out. I have to wake up.
Hue [Rhodes] is a first-time writer-director. What was it about his script that made you think you wanted to work with him?
It just had a lot of the elements I look for in scripts. Which are… it was character driven, the characters drive (chuckles). It was less about plot. I liked that the characters were really driving the story. I liked that there were a lot of attractive characters. I like ensemble films. And I like that Hue wrote it and was directing it. I like working with writer/directors. The character that I was playing was going through a lot. He had a lot of problems, which is always fun to do as an actor.
As someone who is a well-respected director yourself, did you find yourself giving him tips on the set?
No, I try and stay out of the way. As an actor, I try and give the director… (there is laughter in the next room, where co-star Romany Malco is holding court) Romany is funny. I’m not funny. Having directed, I have more sympathy and empathy for what the director goes through. So, one thing the director doesn’t need is another director saying, “Well, why don’t you do this?” or “How about if we do that?” It’s Hue’s film. I was more interested in helping him make the film that he wanted to make.
Was there any talk before you started filming about the characters?
Oh, yeah. We had a lot of talks and we had rehearsals. That’s where a lot of the work gets done – hopefully before you get to set.
A gambler is an addict, but it doesn’t have a lot of the obvious signs – like an alcoholic or a drug addict. Does that make it harder to put across?
Well, it was in there. The fact that he buys lottery tickets every day is a big tip off. (laughs) Almost depending on that. Anybody who would spend their last five bucks on lottery tickets has a problem. There’s nothing wrong with buying lottery tickets, but if you don’t have the money for it and that’s what you’re sort of banking on, then I’d say you are in trouble.
You had a lot of other funny people in this film – like Peter, Sarah and Romany… I wondered if you could share anything that happened on the set that was funny.
That’s the worst question – do you have any funny stories? (laughs) I guarantee you if I relate any stories it will just fall flat. All I can say is Sarah is very funny and she was a real joy to have around. She does have that sense of humor on a set – very dry. But the other thing about her is that she is really, really sweet. She is a really, really sweet person and I thought she brought a lot of that to her character. I was really excited by what she was doing. At first, I almost couldn’t imagine her playing the character, but I just thought she was amazing. Peter, I’ve worked with before. He’s always fun to have around. And, again, I have no funny stories. (laughs again)
Out of the three, who was the most likely to make everyone laugh?
Oh, I don’t know. Probably Sarah.
What kind of projects do you have coming up? I heard a while back that you would be doing the animated film Megalomaniac with Michel Gondry [Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind]. Is that still happening?
I think it is. I haven’t heard from Michel in a while, but I think that is still moving forward. Right now I am doing Boardwalk Empire, this HBO show that’s about Atlantic City in the 1920s. A couple of things that are out now. Youth in Revolt. I play Michael Cera’s dad. That was fun. And The Messenger with [director] Oren Moverman. That’s a film that I really hope more people see, that I loved being in.
You’ve been doing a lot of TV directing as well, lately. Do you have any more features in the works?
We’re hoping. Stanley Tucci and I now have a production company with Wren Arthur, who used to produce for Robert Altman. So, we’re both actively trying to find financing for films that we want to direct.
Going back to The Messenger…
I’ve got funny stories from The Messenger. (laughs)
I guess you’d have to with Woody Harrelson around, but your scene was extremely powerful, and I heard that it was pretty much improvised – you were given an outline or a sketch of what you were supposed to do…
We actually had a script. Those were lines that I was given.
We only did like four takes. I guess it was on the third or fourth take that Oren said, “try something…” “Try saying this” or “Try adding that.” Just add stuff. So we did. But we were working from a very good script.
Woody Harrelson said that when he and Ben Foster had scenes where they had to notify people, they didn’t know who was going to be behind the door.
That may have been true on the other ones. But our scene… and that was the very first scene that they filmed… that was everybody’s first day the notification of my character. It was a hell of a way to start a film. They knew they were coming to see me, and we all knew our lines, but we didn’t rehearse them. I don’t think any of the notification scenes were rehearsed.
You have had an interesting career in Hollywood – both as a leading man and as a supporting character. Which do you prefer doing?
You’ve seen me in Hollywood movies where I’ve played the leading man? (laughs) I guess you threw me with the [term] Hollywood.
Well, there was Ghost World.
There you go. You’re right, that was a studio film. But all the roles I play, I don’t typically see any of them – even in films that I am in it from the beginning to the end – that they are typically leading men. I like playing interesting, complex, complicated characters. I like films that have, also, an element of humor. So, to me it doesn’t really matter how big the part is as long as the part is important to the story.
You have also tended to go back and forth between comedy and drama. Like this film and The Messenger. Do you have a preference?
No, I don’t have a preference. I like doing it all.
Do you find one easier?
Certainly doing something like The Messenger, I was more intimidated by that. I’d say there is more emotional fallout. It is taxing. But I don’t think it is any harder to do than comedy. You’re just using different acting muscles.
Could you talk a little more about Boardwalk Empire? HBO tends to come up with quality series that don’t get cancelled after one season. What is it like to work with Martin Scorsese in that?
Well, I love working with Scorsese. He’s not only a brilliant director and he does great work with actors – he loves actors – but he’s also a walking human film encyclopedia. It’s just fun to talk about movies with him. He’ll suggest films to watch. If you can’t get it, he’ll get it for you. (laughs) He’s got an amazing library of films. So that was really a dream come true. Even though I’ve worked with him before it was always just in little [roles] – I worked with him a few days on his section of New York Stories. One of the best times I’ve ever spent on a set was Robert Altman’s little mini-series Tanner on Tanner. He cast Marty and I as basically background guys in this scene at the lanes that centered around Cynthia Nixon and her character. Marty and I were sort of in the background and we got to interact. I got to spend all morning sitting with Marty at the table and having Robert Altman come by and give us directions. It was heaven.
What’s the story arc for your character?
I play… his official title was the account due Treasurer of Atlantic City, but he really ran the town – and the Republican Party at that time. He was sort of a larger-than-life guy and was really about taking care of his constituents and his people and doing whatever it takes to make them happy. And part of what made them happy was drinking. (chuckles) So, when Prohibition hit, it was important to him to get the people what they wanted. So, he was not above being above the law. He’s just a really colorful character who knew people like Al Capone and Arnold Rothstein but was kind of below the radar. It was based on a real guy. Not many people knew about this guy who really ran things.
Did you do a lot of research for it?
Well, there is a wonderful book that it is based on. So that was the first thing, to read the book. But, yeah, I also read other things and again, the best research you can do is to talk with the writer – in this case it was Terrence Winter, who is one of my favorite writers from The Sopranos. We did have some rehearsals before the pilot. That is always helpful. It’s harder to do once you are in the series because you just don’t have the time. Yeah, that period is really rich and it’s fun to read about.
Back to Saint John… in the minimart he sort of hits rock bottom. Do you think that eventually he is going to be happy in Albuquerque and he’s seen his way through, or do you think he will start getting those feelings about gambling again?
Well, of course he will. Like any addiction, it’s never completely cured. You have to live with that every day. Every day is a new day. Another day is a challenge. Some days will be harder than others. But I have hope for him. He’s got a good woman. (laughs) A funny woman. He’s got a good job. I have hope that those things will sustain him.
How did Peter Dinklage get involved? It didn’t sound like it was written for a little person. Other roles he did seemed more specifically for someone of his stature.
No, it wasn’t. Actually, Stanley Tucci was going to play that role, but then couldn’t do it. Stanley and I were producers on the film with our company. I’m proud to say that I suggested Peter. I’ve worked with him before, and I just thought he’d be terrific. I was glad that he was hired. I think he’s a wonderful actor. He’s got really great comic timing. Because I had worked with him before, I just knew that we were going to have a connection and chemistry.
What do you feel about Las Vegas? Some people love it, some people hate it.
I like it in short doses. I find that if I’m there too long it feels a little bit creepy after a while. But I think it’s a lot of fun to spend a few hours at a blackjack table. As long as, I think you have to have a budget. If you lose that money, just let it go. But it’s fun. There’s no doubt about it that it’s fun. I just don’t have that personality where I would like to spend that much time in a casino, but I do understand the attraction.
John was a very empathetic character – he was able to get along with most of the people there, except for Virgil. Why do you think he was so resistant?
Well, not for lack of trying. He did try. Just, I think, because he was totally messing up Virgil’s game. (laughs) Virgil had a whole long-term plan – a goal that he was working towards. Now here comes somebody who had the potential to foil those plans. But I think Virgil was smart enough to actually use that to his advantage. He just wasn’t sure about that at first. So, he was probably doing John a favor by the fact that they don’t become friends. It was probably a good thing because of what happens at the end.
There are some uncomfortable moments in the film – for example getting the lap dance from the stripper in the wheelchair. Were there any moments you were uncomfortable filming?
No, it didn’t feel uncomfortable. (laughs) It was fun. That was part of the fun of doing the film – all those awkward moments and characters who were doing outrageous things.
Is that the kind of humor you like when you are watching something?
I like humor that comes out of the situation of what the characters are going through. So, yeah, the humor was right up my alley.
Copyright ©2010 PopEntertainment.com. All rights reserved. Posted: January 25, 2010.
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