steve buscemi in black and white
Vest, $1,195, and pants, $695, by Giorgio Armani / Shirt, $485, by Givenchy
When Steve Buscemi paints watercolors, he sets up in the kitchen, where the light is best. He lets himself make a mess, which, in turn, lets him relax. There is no agenda, just pure experimentation with shapes and colors. “Yellow has been a color that I didn't think that I was going to use much, but I do like the brightness of it,” he says. “I thought in the beginning that I would be expressing something dark within me. Maybe it does, but it's been surprisingly fun.”
Buscemi has a whole three-story brownstone to himself in Brooklyn's idyllic Park Slope neighborhood, which is basically Sesame Street if the Muppets were gluten-intolerant and wore fashion clogs. He moved here back in the early '90s, long before it became a punch line about yuppies. I live here too and can confirm he is a neighborhood institution: There's our famous park, there's our famous food co-op, there's Steve Buscemi. About a decade ago, a blog briefly existed that was devoted entirely to cataloging the miscellaneous items—a disembodied doll head, a Van Morrison cassette tape, a hat with a fake ponytail attached—left out on the actor's stoop.
Occasionally discarding tchotchkes is nothing compared with his current cleaning project, which is more a one-man archaeological excavation of his life. The house feels too big for him these days, so he's considering renting out a floor or even moving, which would be a huge blow to neighborhood morale. Mostly Buscemi wants to ensure that his son, Lucian, a musician in Los Angeles, won't have to inherit so much of his “junk.”
steve buscemi sitting in a lawn chair
Blazer, $3,750, shirt, $890, pants, $2,450, tie, $195, and shoes, $890, by Celine by Hedi Slimane / Socks, $4, by Uniqlo
“He'd be the only one when I'm gone,” Buscemi says matter-of-factly. “It's him that's going to have to go through everything.”
And yet, as he putters around, unearthing forgotten memorabilia—old letters and postcards, flyers from shows—he's finding it hard to part with them. “I'm kind of a hoarder,” he admits. “It's just a slow process, because I always get caught up in reading stuff.” Buscemi began this undertaking after his wife, the artist and choreographer Jo Andres, died of complications related to cancer in January 2019. In wanting to diligently archive her work, he has found himself sifting through the remnants of over 30 years together.
He's rediscovered some of his own old work too. Detailed drawings from his high school days. They remind him that he needs to make more time for things like that, hence all the painting in the kitchen. That used to be his priority—creativity for creativity's sake.
“Maybe I should take a creative-writing class,” he wonders out loud. “I've never done that.”
Not to discourage Steve Buscemi from pursuing new hobbies, but wouldn't the other students in this hypothetical writing class be a touch intimidated by the presence of, well, Steve Buscemi? (Imagine critiquing Mr. Pink's manuscript in workshop.) He ponders that possibility for a second and reconsiders the idea.
“I'd probably be too afraid,” he insists.

steve buscemi in black and white
Blazer, $3,200, shirt, $680, pants, $950, and tie, $220, by Gucci / Sunglasses, his own
Some actors make a show of their supposed humility. For Buscemi, that quality seems to suffuse his entire being. Despite his involvement in several cultural touchstones of our time—from Coen brothers classics to Adam Sandler blockbusters, from 30 Rock to The Sopranos—he cannot turn off the modesty.
When he first directed an episode of the HBO Mob drama, all he could think was “Oh, my God. I don't belong here. Why would they listen to me?” (That Sopranos episode would be “Pine Barrens,” considered by many to be the best of the entire series.) When he went to the SAG Awards earlier this year, he wanted to meet the cast of Fleabag but still felt nervous about introducing himself to Phoebe Waller-Bridge. During this very interview, when we hit a brief pause in conversation, he asks me semi-apologetically, “Have I been a hard person to talk to?” (Not even close.) He is endearingly understated, as if oblivious to how others perceive and contextualize him. Even though, as Pete Davidson (who helped cast Buscemi in the upcoming movie The King of Staten Island) and Daniel Radcliffe (who costars with Buscemi on the TBS comedy anthology series Miracle Workers) put it to me separately, he is “Steve Fucking Buscemi.”
I meet Buscemi (he says it boo-sem-ee, not boo-shem-ee) for the first time at an airy Italian restaurant a short walk from his place. Neither of us knows it yet, but this cloudless March Wednesday is one of the last normal days on record, before New York City all but shuts down because of the coronavirus and we are collectively advised to confine ourselves to our apartments. As it turns out, my last sit-down restaurant meal until who knows when is this lunch, with Steve Fucking Buscemi. He has the spinach frittata.
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 stingy, 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.”
steve buscemi in black and white
Blazer, $4,390, by Tom Ford / Shirt, $590, and pants, $1,190, by Tom Ford at Mr Porter
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.”
There is one recurring theme from Buscemi's previous work that he is determined to leave behind. “I don't have the tolerance for violence that I used to,” says the man whose most famous of many cinematic deaths involved getting hacked to bits with an ax and then shoved into a wood chipper in Fargo. After he got whacked on The Sopranos, he made a half promise to himself that he would stop taking on roles where he was murdered. (“Where does it go after you get killed by Tony Soprano? That should be the cutoff.”) And then there's the problem of playing the killer too. There was one particular scene on Boardwalk Empire, where Nucky shoots a teenager in the back of the head, that gave him pause. “It was hard for me to divorce myself from the feelings that it was actually me doing it,” he says.
Speak to colleagues and friends of Buscemi's and you will hear one word repeated over and over and over again: kind. “Everybody loves him,” says David Chase, creator of The Sopranos. “He feels a lot for other people, but he's very uplifting,” Jarmusch tells me. “I know this sounds ridiculous, but I just feel so honored to know him as a friend.” Jarmusch, by the way, says Buscemi is an “incredible” dancer. “Yeah, you got to get him loosened up and then ‘Hey, Steve, let's see you hit the dance floor.’ He's really good.”
Enthusiasm and excellent dancing aside, the actor seems to inspire a particular reverence in those who grew up watching his work. Simon Rich, the creator of Miracle Workers, cites how Buscemi's younger costars on the show look up to him. “It's how I imagine younger players on the Lakers probably feel around LeBron James,” he says. “Like, ‘Shoot. I'd better bring my A-game because I get to play with this guy.’ ”

steve buscemi adjusting his tie
Blazer, $3,750, shirt, $890, pants, $2,450, tie, $195, and shoes, $890, by Celine by Hedi Slimane / Socks, $4, by Uniqlo
Just when Buscemi should have been comfortably entering his icon era, personal tragedy struck. Andres was diagnosed with ovarian cancer in 2015. She went through chemotherapy, was in remission for a stretch. The cancer came back with a vengeance in 2017. When Buscemi talks about the last years of his wife's illness, his voice catches. “The pain was the hardest thing,” he says softly. “People who are going through that, it's painful. It's painful to die from cancer. There's just no way around it.”
Buscemi and Andres met in 1983, when they were living across the street from each other in the East Village. Buscemi had developed a crush on her from afar and would rush out to walk his dog when she was on her way to or from work, hoping to run into her. She had separately seen his face, without realizing it, on handmade posters advertising “Steve and Mark,” the experimental comedy duo Buscemi performed in with the actor Mark Boone Junior, and would joke to her friend, “I'm going to snag that guy.” Later, when Andres found herself in Buscemi's apartment, she saw one of those posters and the cosmic coincidence dawned on her. “I still remember when she went, ‘That's you,’ ” he says, smiling.
Back then, Buscemi had a day job as a firefighter. At the behest of his father, a sanitation worker, he and his three brothers had taken the civil service exam, a surefire path to steady and decent employment. Buscemi had originally landed in the city from the clapboard suburb of Valley Stream, Long Island, to take acting classes at the Lee Strasberg Theatre & Film Institute—again thanks to his father, who had suggested the classes to stop his son, adrift and miserable after finishing high school, from running off to Los Angeles to chase his dreams. (Buscemi eventually memorialized that aimless period in his sublime 1996 directorial debut, Trees Lounge.) Buscemi paid for the lessons with the $6,000 he received from the city after being hit by a bus when he was four, during his early-childhood years in the Brooklyn neighborhood of East New York. (He was also hit by a car when he was eight and stabbed by a stranger in a bar fight while out with the actor Vince Vaughn in 2001. “I came close to death,” he says, casually reflecting on the latter incident. “That was probably the closest I've been, besides being hit by a bus and a car.”)
Buscemi would spend four years at Engine Co. 55 in Little Italy. At first he kept quiet about his theatrical aspirations around his coworkers. “They already thought I was kind of a weirdo, because I lived in the East Village,” he says. “So I kept my mouth shut and my head low and just tried to get along.” Then one night, he got pretty drunk at a party—“firefighters always look for an excuse to have a party”—and started working the room, imitating all the guys. It was a hit. “They started coming to see the plays that I was doing,” he says. “They were really supportive.”
If it took Buscemi a minute to find his community on the job, he was also feeling like an outsider to the downtown scene flourishing around him. “I was very shy,” he says. “I would look around the East Village and see all these cool-looking people and felt like I could not fit in.”
By the time he and Andres got together, he was much more enmeshed, thanks to the show with Boone Junior. “Between both of our worlds, there was always somebody doing a show or a place to go to hang out,” he recalls. Andres, slightly older and renowned in the performance-art world, was a huge early influence in expanding his understanding of what could be possible. “Jo really trusted her intuition and would just kind of put images out there and didn't feel the need to have to explain it or have to make sense,” he says. “She just had to feel a certain way, like she was trying to evoke a feeling, or a mood.” For Buscemi, ever anxious and analytical, Andres helped him to tap into his intuitive side and trust himself more.
After booking the part of a gay man dying of AIDS in the 1986 movie Parting Glances, Buscemi took a temporary leave from the firefighting department that would end up being permanent. “I really believed that [Parting Glances] would get me more work,” he says. “It got me an agent. It didn't get me more work right away, but it did get the ball rolling.” (The movie feels dated now, but a young, sneering Buscemi blows everyone else out of the water.) The work really picked up for Buscemi after 1992's Reservoir Dogs, from a first-time director named Quentin Tarantino. And he credits Willem Dafoe, an actor who “did independent film but also did commercial work,” as an inspiration for how to model his budding career. “It just showed me a way that you can do both,” he says.
By then Buscemi and Andres had gotten married, had Lucian, and settled into a quieter rhythm of life in Park Slope. Their nights traipsing around the East Village until 4 a.m. gave way to Little League games in Prospect Park. Andres continued to create work that was sublimely dreamy and avant-garde, like Black Kites, a remarkable mixed-media short film, based on the journals of a Bosnian artist during the siege of Sarajevo, that hit the festival circuit in 1996. The couple started a regular meditation practice and bought a property upstate where they could escape the city and get some fresh air. Even as jobs sent him around the world, they would make sure to never go three weeks without seeing each other. “It just became unbearable after three weeks,” Buscemi says. The one exception was when he was filming the movie John Rabe in Shanghai, when Lucian was a teenager. “I thought, at the time, Well, he's in high school. He doesn't care,” he remembers. “I really feel like, Oh, I wish I was around more. With parenting, it sometimes doesn't matter if you're relating to your kid or talking. Just the fact that you're there goes a long way, even if they're ignoring the hell out of you.”
Before Andres died, Buscemi says, he hadn't thought much about death. “If I should happen to go not suddenly, I hope I could be as present as Jo was,” he says now. “She led the way. She was surrounded by friends and family. She really faced it. I really don't think she was afraid of dying. I think it was just a whole series of ‘Oh, I don't get to do this anymore.’ ”

steve buscemi in black and white
When Buscemi calls me from his home a few weeks later, the world around us is completely altered by the pandemic. Well, mostly. “It doesn't feel that much different from what I do when I'm not working,” he admits. “Except that I would usually go out more.”
Buscemi's life has been composed of layers of distinct New York City experiences: the blue-collar childhood in far-flung East New York, the formative years in a since vanished East Village scene, the quiet and quasi-suburban Park Slope adulthood. He has been present for the city's worst moments in recent memory, rushing over to Ground Zero after September 11 to spend 12-hour days clearing ash and debris from the fallen towers, to be there for the guys from his old firefighting company. But the coronavirus response is something new. Something that is, by design, singularly isolating.
“One of the things that I think a disaster brings out is that people really support each other and help each other,” he says. “It feels so weird not to be able to be with people.” The other day, he and one of his brothers brought their mother cupcakes and flowers at her assisted-living center on Staten Island for her birthday but could talk to her only through the window. “That's been the hardest thing,” Buscemi says, sighing. “She has a pretty good sense of humor about the whole thing, but it's hard on us all.”
He's been keeping busy, though. Painting some. Indulging in Turner Classic Movies, specifically the “Noir Alley” programming that airs on weekends, because “it just feels so good to be watching a movie on a Sunday morning.” Buscemi is also supposed to play Chebutykin in a much anticipated production of Chekhov's Three Sisters this spring, alongside Greta Gerwig, Oscar Isaac, and Chris Messina. It is slated to be his first theater work in nearly two decades. They've already held a virtual cast meeting, and so Buscemi has found himself in the same boat as those of us with far less glamorous jobs: “I have to learn Zoom, because everybody's Zooming.”
And, of course, there's all that cleaning to keep him occupied. He tells me he's come across some old childhood cartoons, just riffing on what he saw in the pages of Mad magazine. This talk of cartoons gets him thinking: “You know what kills me? When The New Yorker comes and I look in the back, and they have those cartoons, I would love, one day, to be able to think of one. I look at them and I just go, Why can't I think in that way? I'm always shocked when I see who the winners are, and I go, Oh, right, of course, but then I go, How does somebody think of that?
Then he remembers a bit that Andres used to do, when she would send in her submission for the caption contest but it would always be the same joke: “Does the pope shit in the woods?”
“It actually works for a lot of them,” he points out.
In grieving, Buscemi has had days when he feels like he's underwater and doesn't want to be comforted. Other days when he's immensely grateful to have friends and family to lean on for support. Last fall, when he had to fly to Prague to film something after Andres died, he was racked with anxiety about being so far from home. The process is anything but linear. I ask him how he's weathering it now, with so much uncertainty swirling around us.
“It's been over a year now since Jo passed, and I'm just starting to feel lighter,” he says. “It is very strange that, oh, now this is happening. If it was another personal thing, I think that would be really hard.
“But the fact that everybody's going through it doesn't feel as isolating,” he continues. “It feels like it's something that we're doing together.”
Gabriella Paiella is a GQ staff writer.
A version of this story originally appears in the June/July 2020 issue with the title "The Big Buscemi".

Photographs by Fanny Latour-Lambert
Styled by Jon Tietz
Grooming by Kumi Craig for The Wall Group
Tailoring by Todd Thomas
Set design by Molly Findlay for Walter Schupfer Management