Steve Buscemi is used to being ”that guy.” You know that face, especially those beady eyes that look as if they’re just dying to pop right out of his skull. That shrill, mile-a-minute delivery. And those greasy hoods and down-and-out fringe dwellers he always plays. Does he care that you don’t know his name? ”It’s okay,” Buscemi says. ”I’ve been doing this for 10 years. If people don’t readily know my name, but know my work, that’s pretty big.”
In his new movie, the heavy-metal comedy Airheads, it’s only fitting that he portrays a bass player — after all, how many bassists can you name? But Buscemi hasn’t exactly been toiling away in dinner-theater obscurity. Plenty of Hollywood’s biggest directors (Scorsese, the Coens, Tarantino) and hippest downtown auteurs (Jim Jarmusch and Alexandre Rockwell) know exactly who he is.
While his offbeat characters have been stealing the show ever since his film debut as an AIDS-stricken gay musician in Bill Sherwood’s 1986 drama Parting Glances, Buscemi is best known as the hypercaffeinated Mr. Pink in Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs. Tarantino had written the role for himself, but he saw Buscemi’s audition tape for, of all things, a Neil Simon movie, and ”he really thought I looked like a criminal,” Buscemi recalls. The director also found a small part for him in the upcoming bullet-riddled comedy-drama Pulp Fiction.
So what is it about the 36-year-old onetime New York City firefighter and family man (he and his wife, choreographer Jo Andres, have a young son, Lucian) that makes him think he can get away with playing a burnt-out twentysomething headbanger? ”Well, it’s not like that world is totally foreign to me,” he says. ”I grew up [on Long Island] listening to Led Zeppelin, Alice Cooper, Pink Floyd, and Kiss.” Okay, if that wasn’t a stretch, how about his next role, as a transvestite taxi dancer in Rockwell’s Somebody to Love? ”No, not really, that part came pretty easily to me,” Buscemi says with the straightest of straight faces. Who is this guy, anyway?