People love to talk about Steve Buscemi’s face. The fourth most-searched term on Google involving his name is “Steve Buscemi eyes”; a host of memes have superimposed those eyes onto the faces of other celebrities. In one of his most well-known roles, as the psychopathic kidnapper, Carl Showalter, in the Coen Brothers’ Fargo, the film makes a point (twice) of having characters refer to him as “funny lookin’.” But this sort of pop-culture fascination with his looks belies the deeper legitimacy of his acting and the rather surprising realization that, in spite of his appearance, Steve Buscemi is a chameleon who perpetually resists typecasting.
An actor usually “plays against type” in an attempt to escape typecasting, choosing roles that defy those for which they are typically known. Performers like Michael Cera, Julia Roberts, and, of course, John Wayne, come to mind as people that Hollywood pigeonholed into certain recognizable personas. If Michael Cera were to, say, suddenly decide to take on the role of a serial killer in a Christopher Nolan murder mystery that would certainly go against type.
Ostensibly, one might be able to say that Steve Buscemi has a “type,” in part informed by his scrawny physicality and soft-spoken demeanor. In Terry Zwigoff’s Ghost World, he plays a meek and lonely man looking for love. As Donny in The Big Lebowski, he is similarly timid and acquiescent. These roles do paint him as the “funny lookin’” guy that people tend to perceive. In The Wedding Singer, he plays a drunk best man, and in Armageddon, he’s an oil driller who loses his mind in outer space. These characters, too, have accentuated the impression that the actor gravitates towards off-beat, eccentric characters.
In spite of these kinds of roles, though, the vast majority of Buscemi’s performances actually defy pigeonholing, and scrutinizing his characters in purely physical terms overlooks the actual nuances of his performances. Though Trees Lounge (which he also directed) is in many ways a comedy, his portrait of a struggling alcoholic goes deeper than cliché eccentricity. Other comedies, like the recent The Death of Stalin, in which Buscemi played Nikita Khrushchev, find him nearly unrecognizable. Alongside Nicholas Cage in Con-Air, he plays a mild-mannered serial killer, one whose appearance completely belies the supposed brutality of his crimes.
Though he has performed in a significant number of lighthearted films, Buscemi’s more dramatic turns further identify him as an actor with significant range and the ability to lose himself in a character. In Oren Movermen’s The Messenger, he plays a grieving father whose son was killed in the war in Iraq. In Lean on Pete, he’s a gruff, world-weary horse trainer. In his career-defining role as the icy, calculating Nucky Thompson in HBO’s Boardwalk Empire, there are few traces of that “funny lookin’” guy.
There’s a slight irony to Steve Buscemi’s success. For someone so physically recognizable, the actual trajectory of his artistic career has been subtle. Sure, he’s a well-known actor who crops up frequently, but it may come as a surprise to many to know just how prolific he is. Buscemi has over one hundred and fifty acting credits, with more in the pipeline. The sheer longevity of his career reflects the actor’s ability take on a multitude of roles that resist defining himself through any one persona.
In that sense, Steve Buscemi may be the only actor to experience a sort of “reverse-typecasting.” While pop culture finds a way to frequently pigeonhole him, actual films have not been able to do so. Fittingly, as the voice of Randall in Pixar’s Monster’s Inc., Buscemi plays a literal chameleon. While the memes may continue and follow their predictable theme, there will actually remain very little that’s predictable about the career of Steve Buscemi.
Watch Now: See Steve Buscemi defy type in Trees Lounge, The Messenger, and Parting Glances, all streaming here on Fandor.