Steve Buscemi is slight in build but he's the boss in "Boardwalk… (Abbot Genser / HBO )
In a memorable scene from "Boardwalk Empire," HBO's epic drama about Prohibition-era Atlantic City, N.J., bootlegger Nucky Thompson visits the childhood home where he suffered the abuse of his father, and after taking a grim last look, douses it with gasoline and sets it ablaze.
"It's symbolic of the way he has remade himself by tearing down his past," says Steve Buscemi, the well-known character actor who's been unconventionally cast in a leading role as Thompson, a civic leader who leads a double life as a ruthless crime boss. "He's certainly learned from his past, and he's not forgetting it, but the way he distances himself from it is a survival method for him."
The same cannot be said of Buscemi, the soulful, dyspeptic performer whose bulging eyes and air of comic exasperation have helped make him a stalwart of the independent film world for nearly 25 years. He slips into a discussion of his roots as easily as if he'd broken in yesterday, referencing the influence of teachers whose names he's careful to spell, such as acting teacher Sabre Jones, and of such creative cohorts as actor Mark Boone Junior (currently a regular on FX's "Sons of Anarchy"), with whom he broke into theater in the early '80s.
Buscemi, raised in a blue-collar family on Long Island, worked as a firefighter in New York City's Little Italy while he took classes at the Lee Strasberg Institute, following an inclination he'd had since childhood. His father, a sanitation worker, encouraged him, as did his comrades at Engine Co. 55. "We'd have these firefighter parties, and one night I got up and did this impromptu stand-up routine," he recalls. "I was literally the quietest guy in the firehouse, but that night I came out of my shell, and they loved it. I started doing theater, and a lot of them would come to the shows. And they were very supportive when I needed nights off."
It was only when his growing confidence led him to hang up his helmet after just four years on the force that he encountered resistance. "They thought I was crazy to quit," remembers the actor, who's now 52. "We joke about it even now. I went to a retirement party a couple of years ago for some of the guys I used to work with, and they said to me, 'Wow, you blew it. You're still working, and we're retiring.'"
Indeed, Buscemi seems to be everywhere. Coming up, he'll appear in "On the Road," director Walter Salles' film of Jack Kerouac's classic beatnik novel, as well as in "Rampart," the story of the Los Angeles police scandals in the 1990s, from director Oren Moverman ( "The Messenger").
In television, he earned an Emmy nomination in Season 5 of "The Sopranos" as the cousin who gets out of prison and tries to go straight before Tony Soprano eventually kills him. (That's when he first met Terrence Winter, creator of "Boardwalk Empire," who was a writer-producer on "The Sopranos.")
On the indie film scene, Buscemi appeared in Terry Zwigoff's "Ghost World" (for which he got a Golden Globe nomination), as well as six Coen brothers movies (including "Fargo" and "The Big Lebowski"), in Quentin Tarantino's "Reservoir Dogs" and " Pulp Fiction," and in films by Jim Jarmusch, Tom DiCillo and Alexandre Rockwell. And he's been just as busy in mainstream movies, racking up credits in the works of Adam Sandler, Jerry Bruckheimer and Michael Bay.
He excels at playing hapless outsiders and wild-eyed, foul-mouthed two-bit criminals, often hilariously enraged — picture him as the kidnapper in "Fargo," staunching a gunshot wound to his face with a wad of paper towels while railing away at his inert, emotionless partner in crime.
So it's a surprise to find him soft-spoken and thoughtful, and almost resistant to drawing attention to himself.
"To me, 'Boardwalk Empire' is a great ensemble show," Buscemi says. "Even if an episode is centered around what Nucky Thompson is doing, there are so many characters and stories that I don't really see him as the one lead. But there's no denying that it's fun to be the guy who's in charge and to play a guy who's very perceptive, very smart and reacts almost immediately to what's going on around him."
Tim Van Patten, who's directed several episodes of the series, sees Buscemi's performance as a little like Humphrey Bogart's in " Casablanca." "He's elegant and tough and a little world-weary," he says. "Nucky is both benevolent and cruel, and Steve has a great understanding of how to navigate all those parts of the character."