Actor Steve Buscemi believes in luck, up to a point. As he notes, it usually has nothing to do with what you do to get it but what you do with it.
“I think luck sometimes has its place,” the 52-year-old actor says in a telephone interview. “You should never depend on it, though. I’ve always believed in doing things yourself and making your own breaks.”
The luckiest thing that ever happened to him? “Being born in New York. I liked growing up there. I give a lot of credit to people who are from the Midwest who make the decision to come to New York. It can be intimidating. It’s intimidating enough to move to the Lower East Side from Long Island, which is what I did. I feel lucky I knew New York a little before I moved here.”
The vagaries of luck come up because Buscemi is on the line to pump “St. John of Las Vegas,” a film that opens in limited release today (1/29/10). In it, he plays an insurance adjuster with a gambling problem, who has to steel himself when he’s given an assignment to investigate a possible insurance fraud in Las Vegas. The film is one of those rare instances where he gets to play a lead, instead of a sidekick or foil.
“I always like playing characters who are going through something, who are complex and funny,” Buscemi says. “I like a character-driven film, but I like ensemble films too. This one fit the bill. It was more character-driven than plot-driven. He has a past, he’s trying to rebuild his life – but he still has this weakness and yearning for his former life as a gambler. That’s an everyday struggle for him.”
Buscemi is not only the star but an executive producer on “St. John,” a co-production with Olive Productions, a company Buscemi started with his friend, Stanley Tucci: “We came on as co-producers. It seemed to make sense. At the same time we were putting the company together, the film was being put together. We helped in casting, crew and such.
“We’ve been developing a couple of TV ideas. We’ve been getting close on a couple of films that Stanley and I would like to direct. This climate is really tough. It’s always tough with independent film.”
If there’s an actor who has come to embody independent film, it’s Buscemi, whose first starring role, in 1986’s “Parting Glances,” happened to be as one of the first movie characters ever depicted as suffering from AIDS. In the subsequent 25 years, Buscemi has amassed scores of film credits and nearly as many TV roles. He’s worked with everyone from Jim Jarmusch to the Coen brothers to Quentin Tarantino to Robert Altman to Martin Scorsese to Michael Bay.
He’s a go-to guy for the Coens, having appeared in more Coen films (six) than any other actor – but he’s also a regular in the films of Adam Sandler. He’s as visible in the indy scene as he is in big-budget fare (“Con Air,” “Armageddon”). On TV, he’s appeared in everything from Nickelodeon’s “Pete and Pete” and “The Simpsons” to “Miami Vice,” “30 Rock” and, of course, “The Sopranos.”
It’s a long way from Valley Stream, L.I., where Buscemi grew up, or even from the Lower East Side, where he did everything from tend bar to become a firefighter, while also trying to gain a foothold as an actor.
“When I started, I couldn’t imagine I’d be doing what I’m doing,” he says. “I never thought that far ahead. I knew I wanted to be an actor and I did everything I could to make that happen for myself. I didn’t rely on other people. I used to do a lot of work with Mark Boone, Jr. (now a regular on FX’s “Sons of Anarchy”). We used to write and perform. It was about us doing it ourselves, but that led to other work.
“I didn’t think in terms of having a career. I just wanted to be a working actor, to work on projects with people I respect and people I liked. I felt like I was already successful in finding Mark Boone and working with him. I’m doing exactly what I wanted to be doing.”
There are several film projects Buscemi would like to direct, though he gets his share of directing work on television. He directed several episodes of “The Sopranos,” “Oz” and “Nurse Jackie,” as well as a handful of his own films, including “Trees Lounge,” “Animal Factory” and “Interview,” the latter a remake of a film by the late Theo van Gogh.
But Buscemi is also aware of just how drastically the independent film world has changed since he directed “Trees Lounge” in 1996: “Ten years ago, you could put together a small budget and sort of bang it out,” he says. “The money doesn’t seem to stretch as far. Funding has sort of dried up. It goes up and down. It’s tough.
“Distribution is also a challenge. It seems like it’s harder to get it out there. It used to be that, if you made a film and got it into a theater, it would stick around for more than a week.
“Really, I feel lucky I’m able to make money as an actor. I’m fortunate that I don’t have to live by being a director. I don’t know how some directors do it.”
Buscemi wasn’t able to direct any episodes of friend Edie Falco’s “Nurse Jackie” for its second season because he was busy with a series of his own: as part of the ensemble for “Boardwalk Empire,” the Scorsese-generated show about Atlantic City during Prohibition that will debut on HBO later this year. Scorsese directed the pilot himself and served as producer for the additional 11 episodes.
“My interest in working in TV is that you have a lot of great new writers, wonderful actors – and you get to see it,” he says. “You don’t have to worry about distribution. On cable, there’ve been a lot of wonderful writers and directors and a lot came from the independent film world. TV is an exciting place to be working. To me, it’s a lot like how independent film was or should be.”
So if he doesn’t believe in luck, is he at all superstitious? Yes, actually: Buscemi gets a little hinky when asked if there are any directors out there he still hasn’t worked with that he’d like to.
“I’m superstitious: It wasn’t until I stopped saying that I wanted to work with Robert Altman that it happened (in “Kansas City”),” he says. “But, really, I’m just as excited to work with someone unknown who has great ideas and has that hunger.”