Last week I had the exceptional privilege of interviewing newly minted SAG and Golden Globe-winner for Best Actor In A Drama Series for his work on HBO'S BOARDWALK EMPIRE, Steve Buscemi, along with his wife, artist/choreographer Jo Andres, about their participation in the experimental music/theater space in Brooklyn, ISSUE Project Room. For those that are not aware, ISSUE Project Room is a community performance space for up-and-coming musicians, artists, performers and choreographers at 110 Livingston Street with the goal of creating a centralized space for all the arts - avant garde and otherwise. In addition to discussing their shared beginnings in the fringe theatre scene in the East Village in the eighties and the artists who inspired them, Buscemi and Andres also talk about the ultimate goals of the venue, both new and old, and the reason that now is the perfect time for a space such as this to flourish, as new artists get the opportunity to see their work produced. Further information about the venue - and how you can become a member - can be found here.
Also, be sure to purchase tickets to ISSUE Project Room's many exciting events coming up, including the gala performance ELLIOTT SHARP AT 60 on March 4 in a ceremony hosted by Buscemi and Andres. Tickets for that event are available here.
Additionally, in this extended conversation, Buscemi and I touch on his numerous film and stage appearances over the years and ponder what his screen legacy could ultimately be - and what roles he will be remembered for most. ISSUE Project Room to PARTING GLANCES and RESERVOIR DOGS; creating live theatre to helping create an actual theatre space; working with Quentin Tarantino, Scarlett Johansson, James Gandolfini, Stanley Tucci, John Turturro - all that and much, much more in the concluding portion of this exciting two-part interview! Also, peruse his comments on acting and directing on THE SOPRANOS, new to Blu-Ray, as well as the upcoming feature film adaptation of Jack Kerouac's ON THE ROAD and the highly-awaiting second season of HBO's BOARDWALK EMPIRE, which just resumed filming in New York.
Boardwalk To Brooklyn
PC: Could you tell me about working with InDepth InterView participant Scarlett Johansson on GHOST WORLD?
SB: She was very young when she did that; I think she still was in high school. I had enjoyed her work from even before then, though - she did a movie callEd MannY & LO when she was, I think, ten or eleven. She was just a really nice girl and a really amazing actress. It doesn't surprise me that she's gone far.
PC: ROMANCE & CIGARETTES is one of the most original movie-musicals that I've ever seen. Tony Goldywn has participated in this column as well and spoke so favorably of his experience on that film. Could you tell me about working on that with John Turturro?
SB: Well, we've both known John and his wife Kathy and their family for years. I've always respected and admired his work and I have also been inspired by his work as a director. It was just a lot of fun. I mean, to work with a choreographer and do those dance routines. Plus, I always love working with Jimmy Gandolfini.
PC: We're so unused to seeing you in a musical theatre role!
Would you ever consider taking on a role in a musical onstage?
SB: Well, actually, I used to back in the days when I used to perform and do performance work in the East Village. Jo is also a choreographer and a dancer, but she always melded that in with her film work and slides to do these really beautiful and unique performances. And, I actually danced in two of her performances.
PC: I was just reading about choreography that Jo contributed to a film Stanley Tucci directed.
SB: Right. That was for Stanley's movie THE IMPOSTERS. Jo choreographed the very end scene, during the end credits, when the whole cast...
JA: ... danced off the set.
SB: Out into the street.
PC: That's a great scene. How did you adapt the choreography to the performers and bring naturalism into it all?
JA: Well, I'm not sure I did all that! (Laughs.) But, it was really fun working with those actors. I really love doing dance for actors because, obviously, everyone is still in their characters. So, the movement is not like working with dancers where you try to get something exact - you know, one movement to the next body, to the next body; where everyone is exactly the same. With actors, each character has their way of doing the movement. So, it's exhilarating to see and watch that all come alive right before your eyes. I was so very, very fortunate to be able to play - so to say - with those great actors.
PC: Who were your influences - were you ballet? Jazz? Modern?
JA: That's a good question. (Pause.) I was definitely modern dance. I mean, I would take ballet as a sort of structure for the modern dance, but it was really modern dance that stuck with me. I did study Nikolia and the Graham technique and Eric Hawkins.
PC: Most dancing today seems to take freely from all forms.
JA: Yeah, it really does.
PC: I wasn't aware you two had worked together before.
SB: Yeah, we've also both worked with the Wooster Group a little bit.
PC: What did you do with them?
SB: I worked with them as an actor in their production of NORTH ATLANTIC.
JA: And I was a dance consultant to FISH STORY and some others.
SB: But, usually, in all of their work there is music and dance - and, if not dance, movement. But, often, dance. I guess I've been interested in the more non-traditional forms of musical dance.
PC: Such as?
SB: A lot of the theatre that I did back in my East Village days in the early eighties was experimental theatre - and, also, certainly a lot of the work Jo did at these clubs that were sort of blossoming back then in the East Village. It was all experimental in nature.
PC: And, now, you both are bringing experimental music and theatre back to New York in a big way with ISSUE Project Room.
SB: Yes, to New York - and to Brooklyn! Of course, when Jo and I first moved to Brooklyn there wasn't much of a performance scene. But, in the past - I'd say - ten years, Brooklyn has really become a cultural center for music, art and theatre. Any way that we can help foster that and support that here in Brooklyn, the better. The new space, actually, will be more widely accessible to people coming in from Manhattan because it is located at 110 Livingston Street. That will make it a lot easier for people to come in from all the boroughs, too.
JA: Every subway stop is right near there. Every line ends up near there.
PC: Do you consider yourself to still be a stage actor first given these downtown roots?
SB: When you go onto IMDB and these things, they only list the film credits. But, I did a lot of theatre before I ever got any film work.
PC: What did the theatre teach you?
SB: The theatre is where I really learned how to be an actor. I am so grateful to so many people - like John Jesurun, who is an amazing theatre writer/director. I also had a partner, Mark Boone Junior, and we used to write and perform our own short plays.
JA: And Boone's now on SONS OF ANARCHY.
SB: Yeah, Boone's on that show SONS OF ANARCHY, so he's doing all right.
PC: Who else?
SB: Oh, Rockets Redglare was a comedian who used to do a lot of shows. Our friend Tom Murrin, the Alien Comic who used to do the Full Moon shows at PS122 with Jo and the performance duo DANCENOISE.
JA: And Mimi Goese.
PC: Wow, so you were both a part of that whole amazing experimental scene back when New York was the cutting edge. Now, of course, you're bringing it back - but it did once actually exist after all!
SB: It was really vibrant and we were right in the middle of it. And, although we didn't know her at the time, Suzanne Fiol, the founder of ISSUE Project Room, was also in the middle of it - and she knew a lot of the same people we did, one of whom was Elliott Sharp. Jo and Elliott Sharp used to work a lot. Jo would often choreograph to his music, or he would play live during one of Jo's shows.
PC: Like a big family.
JA: Yeah. Definitely.
SB: So, years later, when we met Suzanne and she told us that she was starting a performance space and asked us would we help her out and support her - at her first benefit, believe it or not, Elliott Sharp played.
PC: No way! What a wild coincidence - or was it fate?
SB: All I know is that we were so thrilled to see that this was the kind of music that she wanted to support and foster, and new talent coming up would also have a venue - you know, for people like Elliott and Mark Rebo and Butch Morris; that they could all have a place to call home.
PC: Building a family for the home you are building.
SB: We both think that it is really important to our culture that we support all kinds of music, all kinds of theatre and all kinds of art because you never know what moves people. We've always believed that there should be a strong voice outside the commercial world. Certainly, the commercial world has a huge place in our culture and we also support that - but, we also want to support the stuff that lives outside of that.
JA: And informs it.
SB: Definitely informs it, also. Absolutely.
PC: A give-and-take.
JA: Everyone borrows. The avant garde is always being borrowed from - everyone borrows from them, but they don't quite always get the credit.
PC: You can say that again.
SB: Oftentimes you'll see stuff that makes it into the mainstream that has been influenced by things that are clearly not from the mainstream.
PC: Sort of like what Julie Taymor did by bringing Indonesian puppetry to Broadway with THE LION KING and, now, SPIDER-MAN.
JA: Yeah! Exactly.
SB: We love what she's doing.
JA: But, you see, it's all like a cauldron - we need to provide the cauldron to see what comes bubbling up.
PC: What a great simile.
JA: If we don't have those cauldrons, then we as a culture are less - we are diminished as a people.
PC: Artists represent society, but if there is no place for artists in society then there is no society.
SB: Absolutely. And, it's a little frightening now with all the budget cuts to see how things are going to get really slashed. It always seems like the arts are the first thing that people want to cut because they don't think it is important to support, but it is.
PC: What's the plan for ISSUE over the next year?
SB: To continue the great programing they've been doing all along in the current space and preparing to make the move into the new space which is still in need of funds for renovation. One of the ways to support ISSUE is to become a member, and in doing so you'll be supporting all the arts.
JA: All the arts.
PC: All together in one place.
SB: We just can't stress how important the arts are to our culture - and to our children.
PC: How did you first become involved?
SB: Actually, that was how it all started: we came to know Suzanne because our kids are in school together and they were in a band together. Suzanne was just amazing at inspiring these kids to take their music to another level. I think if a child can learn to express themselves through any of the arts, they can use that for the rest of their lives.
PC: Do you believe a live performance is the most visceral and the most instantly inspiring for young people?
SB: Oh, absolutely. I mean, I love movies, but it's one thing to see a movie and it's another to see something live. It's really just being that close to it that moves you.
JA: It's a visceral experience that you can't get off of a screen in the theatre.
SB: There's just no other experience like it.
PC: Are you aware that William Finn wrote a song referencing you - "Mark's All-Male Thanksgiving" - from ELEGIES?
PC: It's about your first film role, PARTING GLANCES, and Director Bill Sherwood.
SB: Bill Sherwood. What an honor! Thanks Mr. Finn.
PC: Is there a stage role that you really want to do? RICHARD III?
SB: I get asked that a lot, and I don't really have an answer. I guess I'm mostly interested in new work.
PC: But you have done some of the classic roles.
SB: Yes, a few years ago I did THE RESISTABLE RISE OF ARTURO UI for Tony Randall's National Theatre and we brought it to Pace University. It didn't have much music in it, but I actually had a song in it.
PC: No way! So, you sang onstage already! Did you like that experience?
SB: Oh, yeah! I loved it.
PC: So you'll play Mr. Pink in RESERVOIR DOGS: The Opera?
SB: (Laughs.) No. Really?
PC: Apparently it really exists! I think it was in Austria.
SB: Wow. (Deadpan.) So when is PULP FICTION: The Musical, then? (Laughs.)
PC: I have to compliment you on your work on THE SOPRANOS - both as an actor and director. I just watched the Blu-Ray of "Mr. & Mrs. John Sacrimoni Present..." last night. Heaven.
The new Blu-Rays are so beautifully done. Tell me: what was it like working with that cast and crew on that show?
SB: The weird thing about directing on THE SOPRANOS is that I had watched it for a couple of seasons before I ever directed it. I was a huge fan of the show. So, it's a little surreal when you come onset and you're actually directing the show that you know so well from TV. It's very intimidating at first.
PC: I can't even imagine.
SB: It was all all right, though, because all the actors were really wonderful and welcoming to me. Certainly, Jimmy and Vince.
PC: And Frank Vincent as the vicious Phil Leotardo?
SB: Oh, Frank was just great, as well.
PC: I've seen you quoted as saying your SOPRANOS death was the greatest death you could have ever asked for - even in film. Do you think THE SOPRANOS will have a legacy like great films do?
SB: Yes. Absolutely. I think it's changed what people do now on television. A lot of the television series - especially on cable - are, to me, more interesting, in a lot of ways, than film. Now, working on BOARDWALK EMPIRE, I feel like I am doing a continuous film.
PC: I can't congratulate you enough for BOARDWALK EMPRIE. Along with MAD MEN, dramatic television doesn't just get any better than that these days.
SB: Yeah, and that's two alumni from THE SOPRANOS.
PC: Is that where you first met Tim Van Patten, who directs many episodes of BOARDWALK?
SB: Yep. Tim Van Patten and Terry Winter, both. I met them all on THE SOPRANOS - Matt Weiner, too [MAD MEN creator].
PC: Tell me about season two of BOARDWALK EMPIRE. Is Scorsese coming back to direct another episode?
SB: We hope so. I don't know for sure, but we would love him to come back. He has been very active as an executive producer on the show. It's really nice because he does get involved. We love him. We absolutely love him.
PC: The pilot is as good as any film released this year. Perfect.
SB: I am so thrilled to be working on it. I can't tell you anything about this season though!
PC: What's the scoop? A tidbit?
SB: I can't give away any of the plot. Sorry! (Laughs.)
PC: The music is excellent on that show - I've interviewed Nellie McKay and Amber Edwards about it - and to bring back the Cole Porter and George Gershwin songs like they do is just wonderful.
SB: Yeah, then to add the actual characters singing them on top of it - you know, Eddie Cantor and Sophie Tucker.
PC: Congratulations on the Golden Globe and SAG Award. Well deserved - and you certainly had some stiff competition.
SB: Thank you so much.
PC: Are you coming back to 30 ROCK this year?
SB: We just started filming BOARDWALK at the same time [as 30 ROCK]. But, I really loved working on that show as well.
PC: Define collaboration.
SB: That‘s a very good question. (Pause.) I think you just need to recognize what other people bring to the process. I mean, there are so many different forms of collaboration. For example, I used to work with Mark Boone Junior and we were a team, so it was equal collaboration all the time.
PC: What were you creating?
SB: We used to write and perform our own theatre pieces - mostly short pieces, but a couple full-length plays. They were mostly sketches and one-act plays. I really learned a lot from collaborating.
PC: What was the greatest lesson?
SB: I think the greatest lesson is learning to listen - to listen to the people I am working with. I realized that I could become even better by really listening. I was really lucky to find that collaboration. Of course, there are other forms of collaboration: when you are directing a film, if you let people do their best work, then everyone shines.
PC: And you, Jo?
JA: I would say that is comes down to mutual respect. It helps to have mutual admiration and trust. It's a matter of give and take.
PC: Do you find that in your relationship that working on the Issue Project Room is bringing you closer together or driving you apart?
SB & JA: (Both Laugh.)
JA: That's not fair!
SB: Great! Now, you're causing an argument! Thanks a lot, Pat! (Both Laugh.)
PC: OK, I'll take that as a "bringing closer together" since you're both laughing!
SB: Good idea! (Laughs.)
PC: OK. Tell me about ON THE ROAD, based on the Jack Kerouac novel.
SB: It's already been shot. Walter Salles directed it.
PC: Brilliant director. Have you seen it yet?
SB: No, I haven't seen it yet.
PC: Tell me about your role.
SB: Well, I worked on it for a few days. I play a traveling salesman who picks up the Kerouac and Neil Cassidy characters and gives them a ride.
PC: What was the set like?
SB: I think that Walter was the perfect choice for that film. And, Heaven knows, that film has been a long time coming. Sam Riley, who is playing Sal Paradise - the Kerouac character - is wonderful. Garrett Hedlund is playing the Dean Moriarty role. They are just wonderful together. I am really very excited about it.
PC: You have a bunch of projects coming out, so are there any you particularly want to touch on right now?
SB: I do have a Production Company with Stanley Tucci and Wren Arthur, who used to produce for Robert Altman.
PC: Wow. Altman was a god.
SB: Definitely. We have a company called Olive Productions. We are just in the midst of a lot of different things right now - trying to get a few films off the ground, and some TV series. We're getting close. Stanley and I both want to direct more and now we have Wren as our producer. So, hopefully, you'll be seeing something from us soon.
PC: Stanley's movies are wonderful. I love the one with Patricia Clarkson!
SB: BLIND DATE! Wow, you're good!
JA: You've seen some good movies! (Laughs.)
PC: THE SOPRANOS episodes that you directed are as great as any feature film, to be perfectly honest. Do you think the character of Tony Blondetto and your directing work on that show will be one of your longest-lasting legacies?
SB: I think that that show will endure and I am very proud to have been a part of it. I don't really think about legacy or anything - I just try to keep busy and keep working and try and do the best work I can.
PC: You always give your very best. Case in point: THE LARAMIE PROJECT with Moises Kauffman. Tell me about that.
SB: I loved Moises. He had a way of getting right to the heart of things without pounding you over the head. He would just gently massage your performance. He's just really sensitive, really smart and a wonderful collaborator.
PC: And the message of that film is especially important today in the age of the IT GETS BETTER campaign and so on.
SB: Absolutely. I mean, everybody should be free to be who they are. Nobody should be persecuted or bullied - or worse. In the case of Matthew Shepard, who, of course, was killed, I think whatever we can do in this country to break down those prejudices, the better. It's really just ignorance. It's really important to fight that.
PC: What is your favorite film of this year?
SB: Wow, that's a tough one because there were some very good films this year. (Pause.) I really loved THE FIGHTER and THE KIDS ARE ALL RIGHT.
PC: Interesting choices. What do you think of Aronofsky?
SB: He's brilliant.
JA: OK. I have to go back to editing.
PC: Thank you so much, Jo. This was great.
JA: Thank you and good luck with everything, Pat.
PC: Tell me about INTERVIEW, the film that you recently directed and starred in.
SB: INTERVIEW was a remake of a film of Theo Van Gogh. It was the same with Stanley Tucci and BLIND DATE. It was a series of films that Theo Van Gogh wanted to make as American films before he was murdered. BLIND DATE, INTERVIEW and now John Turturro has made the third film.
PC: So, the trilogy is completed!
SB: Yes, it is.
PC: ART SCHOOL CONFIDENTIAL is such cool movie. Any memories of working on that, since I asked about GHOST WORLD at the beginning?
SB: It was a fun character and Terry Zwigoff let me improvise a bit. I love working with people who give you a little bit of freedom and there's that mutual trust.
PC: Is it true you were cut out of a Woody Allen movie?
SB: Yep. In the movie ALICE I was actually cast as, believe it or not, Jesus Christ.
PC: So, you appeared in one of the visions of Mia Farrow's character - like Alec Baldwin and Bernadette Peters do?
SB: I was one of the visions, yeah.
PC: Do you remember the scene or any dialogue? Was it with Mia Farrow?
SB: It was one of those fantasy sequences, a trial scene and I was Jesus Christ as a character witness. I was very nervous.
PC: What was Woody Allen like?
SB: I remember the one direction Woody gave me. He said, "That was good, but could you be a little more Christ-like?" (Laughs.)
PC: You are such a superstar actor to my generation. RESERVOIR DOGS is so, so classic. All my best to you on BOARDWALK - that's back in September, October, right?
SB: Yeah, right around there.
PC: Thank you so much, Steve. This was beyond amazing.
SB: Thank you so much, Pat. I really appreciate it.
Further information about ISSUE venues, new and old - and how you can become a member - can be found here.
This marks the first benefit event to be held at ISSUE's future location at 110 Livingston in Downtown Brooklyn, a beautiful 1925 McKim, Mead, and White theater space to which ISSUE was awarded a 20-year rent-free lease. In 2009, ISSUE was awarded a $1.133 million grant from the Brooklyn Borough President towards the estimated $2.5 million necessary. ISSUE has been working with WORK Architecture Company and ARUP to develop the design concept for the space. March 4 Benefit attendees will enjoy the first public preview of the new designs for the space.
Also, be sure to purchase tickets to ISSUE Project Room's many exciting events in the Spring, Summer and beyond, kicking off with the gala performance ELLIOTT SHARP AT 60 on March 4 in a special ceremony featuring the world premiere of musical pieces dedicated to Buscemi and Andres, who also host. Tickets for that event are available here.