CINEMA: Being Steve Buscemi

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GQ: At 62, Buscemi has spent a lifetime playing lunatics and weirdos, outcasts and oddballs, his wiry frame a guitar string thrumming with rage or taut with the deep discomfort of simply existing in the world. The crown jewels of his visage are his heavy-lidded blue eyes, one of the most recognizable sets in the business, which can jut out maniacally or drown in subdued sorrow. When he pulls off his black baseball cap, I’m struck by how muted and relaxed his features are, as if they’ve all agreed to a nonaggression pact.

Buscemi also carries himself with an unobtrusiveness at odds with his various personas, down to his urban camouflage: a straightforward dark gray button-down, black jeans and glasses, a navy jacket and scarf. He has said before that he did not realize his teeth were so crooked until he saw himself on film. They’re much more harmonious in person, save for one prominent exception: a slightly feral snaggletooth, top left, that peeks out when he laughs—which he does reflexively, nervously. Often. It feels like an old friend.

At this point, Buscemi has surrounded us so consistently in such varied work that he might as well be air. He has been a Buscemi_memestingy, sarcastic criminal (Reservoir Dogs), a loudmouthed, louche criminal (Fargo), a heavy-metal rocker turned hapless criminal (Airheads), and a guy whose only crime is having too many opinions about jazz (Ghost World). A neurotic screenwriter (In the Soup) and a neurotic director (Living in Oblivion). A gloriously inept private detective (30 Rock). A downtrodden bowler (The Big Lebowski). A guy literally named Crazy Eyes (Mr. Deeds). “We used to joke that he was our generation’s Don Knotts, but he’s more Jimmy Stewart in a way,” says the independent filmmaker Jim Jarmusch, who has been friends with Buscemi for more than 35 years and cast him in several projects. “He portrays humanity.”

Though it’s difficult to imagine a world without Buscemi onscreen, about a decade ago he thought he was done acting. Thought he’d peaked, that he might as well devote himself to directing full-time. “I just couldn’t really see where it was going,” he says. “I felt like I was at an odd age where I was too old to play some characters, not old enough to play other characters.” Then, in a brilliant casting turn, the character actor’s character actor landed the lead as political boss and gangster Nucky Thompson on the HBO Prohibition drama Boardwalk Empire. Show creator Terence Winter says that even Buscemi did not see it coming. “When I called him to tell him he got the role, he was so ready to be rejected,” Winter recalls. “I said, ‘Steve, we’d like to offer you this role.’ And he said, ‘Well, it was really an honor to be considered.’ ”

Since Boardwalk Empire ended, in 2014, Buscemi has had the luxury of working only when he wants to. Older Buscemi has primarily been drawn to levity and, most recently, an element of camaraderie. In the ’80s he worked as a firefighter, a real-world experience he draws from for The King of Staten Island, in which Buscemi plays the wizened Papa, who could very well be the alternate-universe version of himself had he become a lifer. Director Judd Apatow gave him the option for the character to be either the fire chief or simply a senior member of the company. “At first I was sort of excited about playing a fire chief,” Buscemi tells me. “But then I thought, No, I want to be one of the guys. Just one of the guys.” In the first season of Miracle Workers he played God, but he much preferred his season-two character, a medieval peasant named Edward Shitshoveler. “God was fun, but he was sort of isolated from everybody,” he says. “And he was kind of a downer.” MORE

Scenes from In The Soup

RELATED: Aldolpho (Steve Buscemi) is an aspiring writer-director who can’t even claim to be scraping by. No one will touch his flagrantly anti-commercial epic-length script, his acting gigs offer little compensation and his crumbling New York City apartment is haunted by debt collectors. Worse, the literal girl-next-door, Angelica (Jennifer Beals), is oblivious to his affections. In a desperate attempt to get his screenplay funded, he meets Joe (Seymour Cassel), a crook willing to play dirty for cash. MORE

RELATED: According to his own account, Adolpho is anything but casual about wanting to make his film. Trapped in a Manhattan tenement where the rent is overdue and the landlord’s hoodlum friends bring a doo-wop sound to their demands for money, Adolpho dreams of becoming successful — so successful that this building will be a stop for tour buses some day. As a first step, he takes a newspaper ad offering to sell “one epic 500-page film script.”

And he finds a taker: a lovable gangster named Joe (Mr. Cassel), who declares, “I’ve decided I want art to be an important part of my life.” Regardless of whether that is true, Joe wants to take Adolpho under his wing. Their scenes together have an In_The_Soupirresistibly funny tenderness, since Joe has other conspicuous love interests and, when with Adolpho, is such an unlikely romantic. The little things — like waking up Adolpho by nibbling his ear, or coyly saying things like, “Don’t say you don’t remember” — wind up meaning a lot.

Still smart enough to remain suspicious of Joe’s sweet talk, Adolpho is hopelessly in love with Angelica (Jennifer Beals), the Hispanic waitress who lives next door. Angelica is unfriendly and also unfortunate, since she managed to marry a Frenchman for his green card. (“I’m stupid. Is that a crime?”) Also figuring in the film’s large, eccentric cast are Pat Moya as Joe’s hyperactive girlfriend, named Dang, and Will Patton as Skippy, Joe’s hemophiliac brother. Always seen bleeding slightly from one scratch or another, occasionally bursting into inappropriate song (“The Little Drummer Boy” during a non-Christmas drive to New Jersey), Skippy brings an undeniable air of menace to the proceedings.

Jim Jarmusch, whose dry wit is one of many obvious influences on Mr. Rockwell (John Cassavetes is another, making Mr. Cassel’s appearance a kind of homage), turns up as a seedy television producer. He sees Adolpho as “a young Don Knotts” and somehow persuades him to appear on “The Naked Truth,” an interview show conducted au naturel. (Carol Kane, as the co-producer, claims to see Adolpho more as the Gary Cooper type.) Sully Boyer has a memorably poignant scene as an old man who, once Joe and Adolpho have begun experimenting with criminal forms of fund-raising, finds the two of them in his house in the middle of the night and treats them like old friends. MORE