I’ve seen Steve Buscemi around a lot, but the Charlotte’s Web junket was the first time I ever interviewed him. We live in the same area in Brooklyn, and while we have some other local celebs – Heath Ledger and Michelle Williams, Jennifer Connelly and Paul Bettany – Buscemi is more like a local guy (same thing goes for John Turturro). If you live in this part of Brooklyn long enough you’ll run into Buscemi. In an interview he’s very Buscemi, which is a weird thing to say, but I think covers it – he’s got the same kinds of mannerisms and speech patterns he has in most of his films. And since they’re so distinctive there’s something surreal about sitting next to him.
Buscemi provides the voice of Templeton the rat in the new live action Charlotte’s Web. While Wilbur and Charlotte get all the glory, Templeton’s really the action hero of the piece, and to me he’s the character whose cartoon version is the most definitive. Happily, Buscemi doesn’t stray all that far from Paul Lynde’s territory – his Templeton isn’t quite as gay, but he’s got that sniveling edge.
Q: Was it daunting stepping into Paul Lynde’s shoes?
Q: The original Templeton from the cartoon. The greatest center square on Hollywood Squares. Uncle Arthur from Bewitched.
Buscemi: I’m not familiar with his work. [laughs] No, of course it is. It’s probably my only reservation about doing this was that it’s been done so well before. So yeah, it was pretty daunting. Thanks for bringing it up.
Q: Templeton’s so interesting because he’s hard hearted and selfish and awful, and then we discover he’s sweet and has a heart after all. Can you identify with that crusty exterior and soft interior?
Buscemi: [laughs] He’s a great character, and I like that he’s not a sentimental rat. He looks out for himself, takes care of himself and is not intimidated by all these other bigger animals. And in the end he does have a heart. If it was only the negative stuff, he wouldn’t be interesting. It was fun. He was a great character to play.
Q: Much of children’s literature is sentimental, but you keep him from that.
Buscemi: He’s a realistic rat, yes. But he’s also very funny with the wise cracks. But that’s…he’s brutally honest, and I like how much he affects the story. He sort of sets it in motion, and he’s the one who tells Wilbur what the deal is. And he’s able to exploit the situation for himself – but in the end you get the feeling he’s not just doing it for himself, he’s doing it because he’s made friends. He’s able to realize the value of that.
Q: When you started doing the voice, how much idea did you have of how Templeton would look?
Buscemi: I didn’t have any idea, and I was surprised that it was animated the whole way through. I thought they would mix it up with a real rat, but the whole thing was animated. In the beginning I had nothing to go on, and that’s always the hardest thing about doing this type of stuff – I’m just meeting the other actors for the first time today. It gets very technical and sometimes tedious and sometimes frustrating because you don’t know how it’s going to fit in. In the early stages it can feel a little dry. Later, when you start to see it come to life with the other voices and you see how your voice fits in, that’s when it gets satisfying.
Q: So this is satisfying beyond just doing the work and getting the paycheck?
Buscemi: On the one hand they are easy to do, logistically, because I get to stay in New York and I just have to go in a few hours every few months and there’s no wardrobe and make up and you just go in and do it. But the fun is the material, and seeing the final version. Actors do like to transform, and it’s nice when someone does that work for you! You get to see yourself as a monster in Monsters, Inc. Monster House was a little different because it was more involved because you act it out with the sensors.
Q: This is a weird question, but did you do any research into rats?
Buscemi: Yes and no. You can’t get too Method about it. I mean, I do live in New York, so it’s not like I’m unfamiliar with rats. It was interesting – you look up in the zodiac the Year of the Rat and those qualities are in Templeton: brutal honesty, cunning, intelligence, devious, and good at self-preservation. They know how to survive. Did you know that rats can survive without water longer than camels?
Q: Is there a metaphor that can be drawn between the rat in the barnyard and Hollywood?
Buscemi: I’m not going to go there. [laughs]
Q: Your last directing effort, Lonesome Jim, was at Gary [Winnick, the director]’s production company.
Buscemi: Yeah, it’s interesting. That’s how I learned of this film was through Gary on post-production on Lonesome Jim. It was cool knowing that Gary was going to do this because I know his work, and him, and how much care he puts into anything he does.
Q: You’re doing I Pronounce You Chuck and Larry, which has been shooting in Brooklyn, your home turf.
Buscemi: They did. Now they’re in LA. They did shoot a lot at a firehouse in Brooklyn.
Q: As a Brooklyn boy myself it’s been interesting to see the borough change over the last few years – what’s your take?
Buscemi: I read something heartbreaking today – developers in Coney Island are going to take away Astro Land, and we’re going to lose the Cyclone. My first thought was, ‘That’s it, I’m moving.’ I can’t take it anymore. There’s been so much development. This whole thing with Atlantic Yards, the stadium coming in with sixteen high rise towers… it’s changing too much. I just think I hate to lose the character of what makes Brooklyn different from Manhattan. Manhattan’s a great city, but Brooklyn should be different from Manhattan.
Q: Is there any turning back, or is it too late?
Buscemi: We’re trying to stop it. I do work with this group, Develop Don’t Destroy Brooklyn, and there is a lawsuit right now concerning the eminent domain. Hopefully if it can’t be stopped it can be scaled down considerably. But so many politicians are for it. Hopefully Spitzer, who I think is great, hopefully when he gets in it can be revisited and maybe some of the things can be reversed and it can at least be scaled down a lot.
Q: Yeah, I live in Prospect Heights. It’s depressing to imagine those big high rises looming overhead.
Buscemi: So you know. I think it’s a bad idea. It gets hard because we want employment and we want jobs, but I think Ratner has been exploiting that. I think there are ways to have jobs and affordable housing without this huge, mammoth development.
Q: Do you have another directing project lined up?
Buscemi: The next film I’m directing is called Interview, it’s a remake of a Dutch film by Theo Van Gogh. I also act in it – I play a political journalist who interviews an up and coming starlet played by Sienna Miller. It’s all done, we’re putting the finishing touches on it and it’ll premiere at Sundance. Hopefully we’ll get a distributor and it’ll get out there.
Q: When you’re doing Theo Van Gogh, there’s something automatically political about it because of his death. There’s the idea that an artist speaking out can be targeted.
Buscemi: It’s not the reason I got involved in it. I would rather have acted in it… Theo wanted to make this movie as American film. I would have much rather acted in it with him directing. It’s a tragedy that he was killed, but I’m glad that the work can go on, and I’m glad I can help to make that happen.