Film Scouts Interviews

Steve Buscemi on "Trees Lounge"

by Henri Béhar

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Cannes, May 1996

His is a three-pronged attack. Twice in competition as an actor (he plays a gangster in Robert Altman's "Kansas City" and a kidnapper in Joel Coen's "Fargo"), Steve Buscemi is also in Cannes as a filmmaker. His first feature, "Trees Lounge," is shown at the Directors' Fortnight.

"He looks funny," the young Scandinavian says in a bar in Joel Coen's "Fargo" (in competition), referring to one of two men on the run.

Funny in what way?, the (seven-month pregnant) police officer asks.

"Funny... in a general sort of way. Yeah."

Best description one can come up with of actor Steve Buscemi, and probably one that will stick. At the "Fargo" press conference in Cannes, the actor addressed the matter head-on:

"When Joel approached me to play the role, I asked him whether he wanted me to, you know, have a funny hairdo, or a crooked nose, or something. It soon became obvious he wanted me just as I was. What can you do? I just did a photo session with Helmut Newton; he said he loved my vampire teeth. What can you do? You *embrace* it!"

Buscemi is an antidote to super-charged machismo as well as to overly deliberate cool. He's muscular, in a slender sort of way. His control is such, however, that he can turn downright anemic in front of your eyes; you'd never think the man was a high-school jock then a professional fireman in Little Italy, New York. (From boots to helmet, he still has his uniform. Just in case?). His slightly protruding eyes can make him out-nerd anyone in the business, they will always twinkle with mischief and/or menace. His nasal twang can charm you out of your seat, it will always be tinged with danger. For his timing is impeccable, implacable. Watch him -- and listen to him -- as in Quentin Tarantino's "Reservoir Dogs", he protests against the "Mr. Pink" nickname he's just been given, and you'll realize the man is stretched like a piano wire or a guitar string. Up to each director to make it give out a new sound.

Many, of all kinds, have tried, from Abel Ferrara ("King of New York") to Tom DiCillo ("Living in Oblivion") through Jim Jarmusch ("Mystery Train") and the Coen brothers ("Miller's Crossing," "Barton Fink"). Made immediately aware, one and all, of the delicate imbalance his presence brings. He might be on the edge of the frame (and/or the story), he immediately become the center of the viewer's attention. He's been given to play every super-cool dude and every greasy-haired hooligan in the book; yet each time, one is fully aware only a small part of the palette was put to use.

His screen acting debut should have warned us. In Bill Sherwood's "Parting Glances" (1986), he played and AIDS-stricken rocker. Tragic, of course, but he was also funny, moving, cynical and sweet with a devil-may-care attitude. (Not to mention that on the poster, clad in a black leather jacket, his eyes peering right above the rim of his Ray Bans, he was a dead-on parody of Tom Cruise in "Risky Business"...)

He's so good at portraying outsiders on screen one is not surprised to learn he was one in real life. Born 38 years ago in Valley Stream, Long Island -- "where the 'Honeymoon Killers' came from," as he is fond of saying -- he came to Manhattan determined to become a stand-up comic. He went to the Actors' Studio, tried his mettle at the Improv' and the Comedy Strip, stopped because he hates the customers' attitude and, particularly, the hours.

While still going to the Actors' Studio, he applied to the Fire Department and became a professional fireman, which he remained a full four years.

Meanwhile, the East Village was blossoming. Introduced to the performance artists scene by two friends, Mark Boone Jr. and Rockets Redglare, he began to make his mark. As the Village Voice once wrote, "Cynical, detached, and, yes, cool, Boone-and-Buscemi became the Laurel and Hardy of the 1980s." He also dabbled in experimental theatre, with Richard Foreman, with Elizabeth LeCompte's (and Willem Dafoe's) Wooster Group. Cinema and television took a while to catch up: he was so diverse they didn't quite know what to make of him.

In 1989, he began to write a script on "what could have happened to me had I stayed on Long Island." Five years later, gathering a bunch of actors and friends at the Lower East Side's Nuyorican Cafe, he gave the first reading of what was to become "Trees Lounge", named after an old bar in Valley Stream. Today, he defines his film as a "portrait of working-class men sort of left behind, or aside, a kind of dark comedy about people who haven't found their place in the world, but perfectly know their place at a bar."

"Trees Lounge" is a family affair. Buscemi's father, brother and son are in the film, as well as friends come "to check Steve out". Foremost among them is Seymour Cassel, of "Faces", "Love Streams", "Minnie and Moskowitz" and "Killing of a Chinese Bookie" fame. It should come as no surprise that Steve Buscemi is one of John Cassavetes' hugest fans.

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