By DAVID CARR
Directors adore Steve Buscemi. They lavish him with great roles, stellar dialogue, generous screen time, and then — and there is no nice way to say this — they generally bump him off.
"When I get cast, I always flip to the end of the script to see if my character gets beaten up or killed," Mr. Buscemi said, recalling a history of being stabbed, axed, shot and fed to a wood chipper. "I really thought that after getting killed on 'The Sopranos,' I should not accept scripts where I die. I mean, there's nowhere to go after getting killed by Tony Soprano.
"But then I got offered this great part in 'The Island,' " he said, with a whaddayagonnado shrug. "I didn't even make it a third of the way through the movie."
"I have been surviving a lot more lately, though," he added brightly.
In "Lonesome Jim," which opens tomorrow, Mr. Buscemi does not die, perhaps only because he directed the film and does not play a role.
The Jim of the movie's title, played by Casey Affleck, is no barrel of monkeys; he recalls many of Mr. Buscemi's losers and victims and perpetrators. He arrives home from the big city on the bus, his tail not so much tucked between his legs as trailing behind him, maimed and run over. He is sucked into the gaping maw of a nuclear family he quietly loathes and spreads his misery — he diagnoses his condition as "chronic despair" — between bouts of ennui. He is more of a loser than, say, the ice cream truck driver of "Trees Lounge" (1996), the first feature film Mr. Buscemi directed, but has a little better luck with women. The female love interest, played by Liv Tyler, sees something in him that Jim, alas, cannot see in himself.
"I don't tend to think of these characters as losers," Mr. Buscemi, 48, said, pushing around some eggs at French Roast in Greenwich Village. "I like the struggles that people have, people who are feeling like they don't fit into society, because I still sort of feel that way."
Over breakfast, after taking the F train from Brooklyn, where he lives, Mr. Buscemi hardly comes across as the twitch he frequently plays in movies. Sad-sack or homicidal roles aside, he is a working actor married to a writer and filmmaker, Jo Andres, and they have a 15-year-old son. After his breakout turn as Mr. Pink in Quentin Tarantino's "Reservoir Dogs" in 1992, he has had big roles in big movies — "Armageddon" and "Con Air" — and continues to make smaller movies with the pals he came of professional age with in the 80's, including Mark Boone Junior, who played fireplug to Mr. Buscemi's skinny fireman — his day job at the time — in comedy bits they worked up. Mr. Boone plays Evil in "Lonesome Jim," a Hells Angel type who rides a moped.
Mr. Boone, who has known and worked with Mr. Buscemi for 25 years, is unsurprised by his success. "He's got a great face, great eyes, he knows his mechanism and knows how to use it," he said, adding that in spite of Mr. Buscemi's ubiquity, "I think he is underused. There are a lot of things that he can do besides the kind of roles that he is cast in."
"Lonesome Jim" made its debut last year at Sundance to mixed reviews. Mr. Buscemi has no sense of entitlement around his work as a director, but has yet to figure out the folkways of the movie business.
"As much as you tell yourself, 'We made the film and here it is and that is enough,' you would like to come away with something," he said. "We didn't get distribution, we didn't come away with any awards, you just feel sort of invisible.
"And yet I sat in a screening with a packed audience and I could feel that the audience enjoyed the film. It can be very confusing."
He finds his success as baffling as his failures.
"I've been very lucky," he said. "There is a whole other level to this business. I don't have an interest in what those people are trying to get, and I couldn't get that stuff anyway."
Nevertheless, he has appeared in more than 75 movies and directed 3. He is currently working on cobbling together money to direct a remake of the murdered Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh's 2003 film "Interview."
In spite of his version of steady success in the movie business, Mr. Buscemi comes by his loser credentials honestly. A product of Valley Stream, the setting for "Trees Lounge," he washed out of Nassau Community College, although he did study acting at the Lee Strasberg Theater Institute. He got the bug after he and a pal were cast in the chorus of "Fiddler on the Roof" in high school, but he could not simply wait around for parts. He worked as a firefighter with Engine Company 55 in the 80's and lurked around the theater-comedy scene. His first big notice came for his portrayal of a musician with AIDS in "Parting Glances" (1986).
The Coen brothers have found a muse in Mr. Buscemi, casting him in "Fargo," "The Big Lebowski," "Miller's Crossing," "Barton Fink" and "The Hudsucker Proxy." His characters are usually wild-eyed, with flecks of spittle at the corner of their mouth and a manner that suggests they may have a gun in their pocket.
Directors tend to focus on Mr. Buscemi's visage, shooting his face so it looks something like what might happen to a bowl of mashed potatoes if it were sculptured by an ax. In person, he is borderline handsome, with calm blue eyes that hold the gaze of others in shy, engaging ways. His teeth are, as has been noted, a tiny train wreck, but he knows better than to mess with the franchise. "They never look that crooked in the mirror," he said.
Mr. Buscemi's direction of the "Pine Barrens" episode of "The Sopranos" in 2001 is the stuff of television legend — an Emmy-nominated walk in the woods that goes very much awry — but he suggests that it was merely a lucky grab.
"We didn't plan on the snow, and then there it was," he said.
His death as Tony Blundetto at the hands of the other Tony in "The Sopranos" was a bit of wise-guy opera: he was granted a reprieve that turned out to be mortally temporary.
Even as a New Jersey gangster, Mr. Buscemi had his softer side, trying to leave the business by the unlikely route of becoming a masseur. But the guy who played the cowardly lion in "The Wizard of Oz" in fourth grade is no patsy.
He carried his weight as a fireman and came out of retirement after the Sept. 11 attacks to punch in with his old company for a few days; later, he was hauled off to jail for protesting the shutdown of firehouses in Brooklyn. And he has a few knife wounds to demonstrate that he would not back down when his pal Vince Vaughn was getting hassled at a bar in Wilmington, N.C., during a shoot. He may have weighed 110 pounds soaking wet as a wrestler in high school, but his gangly arms served up many opponents in a reverse cradle.
"It was my secret weapon," he said. "But once it came to the end of the year they all knew what was coming, so I lost the element of surprise."
Filmgoers can see him coming a mile away. He has become That Guy, so when he comes on the screen, people know that he is probably not going to get the girl — unless he abducts her at gunpoint.
"It's weird; I was not a really tough guy in high school, but I end up playing all of these psychopaths and criminals," Mr. Buscemi said. "I don't really care who they are, as long as they are complicated and going through something that I can understand and put across."