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Steve Buscemi Discusses ‘Death of Stalin,’ Playing God and Adam Sandler

A favorite of directors like the Coen brothers and Quentin Tarantino, Steve Buscemi has proven his range over the years. Few actors could command the small screen as a leading man in Martin Scorsese’s “Boardwalk Empire” then get laughs popping up in an Adam Sandler film.

The actor is busier than ever; he’s currently on screens playing Nikita Khrushchev in “The Death of Stalin,” the so-bizarre-it-has-to-be-true comedy from Armando Iannucci (“Veep,” “In the Loop”) currently burning up the specialty box office. In April, he’ll be seen in Andrew Haigh’s “Lean on Pete” and Sandler’s “The Week Of.” And he’s set to return to television in the TBS comedy “Miracle Workers,” in which he’ll play God.

I hope you take it as a compliment when I say you’re not the first person I would think of to play Nikita Khrushchev, yet you’re so good.
I mean, I had that thought, too. But after I talked with Armando, he reassured me that I could do it with minimal make-up and a little bit of padding and shaving my head. And he got me excited about the whole project. It was all sort of intimidating because it was such a powerful subject and the script was epic. At first, I really couldn’t see my way through it. And it wasn’t until we really started rehearsing that I kind of let that go and told myself it’s not a biography of Khrushchev, he’s one of the characters in this ensemble film. The key to him was that he was fighting for survival; if you messed up in this world, it could mean your life. I was a bit intimidated at first. But honestly, if something scares you, then it’s probably good to do it.

Did it help that Armando didn’t require you to do Russian accents?
Yes, once I knew we could speak in our voice, it was less daunting. It was actually written into the script. There was a note in the beginning of the screenplay just saying that the actors would not be required to do any accents.

I would think one of the hardest things about doing this movie would just be not laughing and ruining a take.
I was definitely worried about that. Once we had got what he needed out of the scene, he would often let us play around or surprise each other or talk over each other. The talking over each other was a general note that he had, he wanted it to feel like we were all trying to get our voice heard.

Did you always start out intending to do comedy because I feel like early on you were best known for your dramatic work?
I guess it just depends what people know me for. I feel like, especially the Coen Brothers or Quentin Tarantino, there’s a lot of humor in those. And “The Sopranos.” I mean, “The Sopranos” is one of the funniest shows that I’ve ever seen. It can go to some dark places, but sometimes people are at their funniest when they’re most in fear.

Because you’ve had such a prolific career. What is it that you’re most recognized for? Do people stop you on the street?
It hasn’t happened so much lately, but when “The Big Lebowski” was just starting to become a cult favorite, I always knew I was being stopped for that. But now it’s gotten harder to guess. There are “Boardwalk Empire” fans and Tarantino fans and a wide mix.

Speaking of “Boardwalk Empire,” you’re returning to TV soon with “Miracle Workers.”
Yes, I play God. But it’s like a childlike God, who is incompetent in a dysfunctional Heaven. It’s from Simon Rich, one of the best writers to ever work on “Saturday Night Live.”

And you had another film at Sundance, “Nancy,” working with your “Death of Stalin” co-star Andrea Riseborough?
Yes, it’s by a director named Christina Choe and Andrea co-produced the film so she was the one that sent me the script. It’s a really low-budget, dark, independent film that was really great to do. I hadn’t done one of those in a while.

What attracted you to it, since it has been a while since you’d done something like that?
It’s always the script. First reading it, I could not tell where it was going, and so that really intrigued me you know? The writing was so smart and powerful. I hope to do more things like that. There’s another film I did, “Lean on Pete,” with Andrew Haigh, coming out. It has some dark edges as well and I’m very proud to have been a part of that.

You’re also in Adam Sandler’s new movie “The Week Of” hitting Netflix next month. How did you become part of his repertory company of actors?
We first worked together on “Airheads” and we just really hit it off. When he started making his own films, he asked me to be in the first one and we had a blast. He always puts together a good group and he’s been working with a lot of the same people since his college days.

You’ve really done every genre and kind of role; did you ever worry early on about being typecast?
Well typecasting has its advantages, too. Sometimes I try to look for roles that counter the idea of that, but if someone isn’t familiar with all my work and they see me one way, I’m just glad they’ve seen me.

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