Opening this Friday is director Don Scardino’s magician comedy The Incredible Burt Wonderstone. The film stars Steve Carell as a Vegas magician whose relationship with his partner becomes strained as the two start getting upstaged by a hipper illusionist, played by Jim Carrey. The pic is full of wild comedic performances, and one of the highlights of the film is most certainly Steve Buscemi as Carell’s partner Anton Marvelton. A beloved character actor, Buscemi has been shining in supporting roles for years, and he’s one of the few who can seamlessly move between drama and comedy. Buscemi has been doing stellar work as the lead on the HBO drama series Boardwalk Empire for the past few years, but with Burt Wonderstone he gets to show off his comedic chops in a fairly large supporting role as Anton.
I recently attended the press junket for The Incredible Burt Wonderstone in Las Vegas, and while there I got to sit down with Buscemi for a one-on-one interview. The actor talked about how refreshing it was to play a character like Anton, how he goes about choosing which film projects he’s going to make during his hiatus from Boardwalk Empire, and much more. Buscemi also talked about the upcoming fourth season of Boardwalk Empire, his voice work in Monsters University, and his many memorable roles in Adam Sandler’s films.
STEVE BUSCEMI: It was pretty much all on the page and I just worked with Don Scardino when we were rehearsing and with Steve, just to strengthen the relationship between Anton and Burt, and you know things just happen in rehearsals, little things that you discover and when you’re shooting with the whole dancing in unison. But Anton was really there on the page, I mean who he was as a character was pretty clear to me.
You talked a bit about the dancing you do with Steve Carell in the film yesterday and that’s one of the highlights of the movie. How much preparation was there for the role? In addition to getting down the dancing and stuff, did you go through a crash course in magic?
BUSCEMI: A little bit. Like we said, David Copperfield was around. There was an onset magician, whose name escapes me right now, but he was good. Just to kind of remind us about the showmanship and the presentation of it, that that’s what will count for a lot.
David Copperfield designed a special magic trick for the film, the Hangman. What was the experience of shooting that like? If I’m not mistaken, that was done in one take.
BUSCEMI: Yeah, it was really exciting. Whenever you do something that is in a continuous take, and something that we’re not used to doing, because it was all in the details of if you don’t make one move seem natural it can give away all of it.
Was it pretty tough to get down? Did you have to do that quite a few times?
BUSCEMI: We rehearsed it a little bit, but not enough, and then there we were the day we were shooting it so we were just kind of rehearsing it on camera. We just needed to start shooting. We would just do it, something would be wrong, and we’d watch it on playback and we just kept doing it.
You go through quite a few wigs and costumes in this movie. Once you put that very outlandish-looking stuff on, did the character just click when you looked at yourself in the mirror?
BUSCEMI: Yeah that happens. You can’t help but feel a certain way when you have the wig on and the costumes.
Were there any specific inspirations for your character from the magic world? Were you into magic as a kid growing up?
BUSCEMI: Yeah but I really didn’t have anybody that I was modeling the character on. Growing up, yeah I had a magic kit with learn tricks and learn card tricks, but I was never…I used to watch whatever magic special was on as a kid but then, it’s not that I lost interest, but to be a magician you really [Laughs] it’s really hard work. Learning lines is hard enough, learning sleight of hand, that’s real practice.
I kind of gathered that from the press conference yesterday, you guys kind of all looked at each other when people were asking how tough the magic tricks were. Do you kind of have a much larger sense of respect for magicians after trying to learn that stuff yourself?
BUSCEMI: I’ve always had respect for what they do. It is pretty incredible.
Was there much room for improvisation on the set? I imagine the magic tricks were pretty intricate.
BUSCEMI: Not with the magic itself but just with our characters, we were able to play with the lines a little bit. It’s just the way that Don Scardino, and I imagine that’s how Steve Carell works on his other films, to have a solid script and then be playful with it.
You balance working in comedy and drama so well, and Boardwalk Empire isn’t exactly a light show. Was it kind of nice to have this refresher to live in the world of Burt Wonderstone for a while during your break from the show?
BUSCEMI: Yeah it’s a lot of fun to play a character who’s just totally uninhibited and just kind of wears his heart on his sleeve, and is just very very open-hearted
How did the project initially come to you? I know you worked with Don on 30 Rock.
BUSCEMI: Just through Don. Yeah I’ve worked with Don and the timing was right because the movie began in January and we started the third [Boardwalk Empire] season in February, it overlapped a little bit, but both times we worked with each other to make the dates work. So it was nice to be able to do it, it made for a very long year, going from shooting a movie and then going into eight months of shooting on Boardwalk. It was a lot.
How do you kind of go about choosing—because I know Boardwalk takes up quite a bit of your time—how do you go about choosing which project you’re going to film during the hiatus?
BUSCEMI: Well it’s hard because something has to be really worth it, otherwise I would rather spend my down time not doing much, or, you know, directing a film if I can. But you know, I just really loved the script and these characters and everybody involved, and I thought, “wow if we could make this work, it’s worth it.”
It’s been a while since we’ve seen you in a comedy role this big. You shine in these kind of smaller roles and I was really happy to see you get quite a bit more screen time in this. Watching it, I was constantly afraid that Anton was going to abruptly die at some point.
BUSCEMI: [Laughs] A trick gone horribly wrong.
BUSCEMI: Yeah. I mean, I wish I had time to do more comedy, or I wish I was cast in comedies more. It’s funny because with the Adam Sandler films, the last few have been right when Boardwalk is shooting so I literally can only do a couple days at a time and they’re really great about accommodating me and not making the part so big so that I can’t do it. But it is nice to be able to really kind of relax into a role and do that and only do that.
One of my favorite things over the years is seeing you kind of pop up in these Adam Sandler movies in these small but memorable roles. Is there one that stands out to you, that is particularly special to you, or that you enjoy the most? Or is there one that people always want to talk to you about?
BUSCEMI: No, I mean it kind of varies, but I still like the very first one. I mean Adam and I worked together in Airheads before Billy Madison, but Billy Madison was his first venture into his own films and there was something special about that and how, people still will tell me, finally, how they liked the scene or liked my character in the film. So, yeah that’s still one of my favorites.
Anytime I catch Mr. Deeds on TV your part just floors me, no matter how many times I’ve seen it.
BUSCEMI: I like that one.
I definitely want to ask about Boardwalk Empire. Do you know when you guys start filming yet?
BUSCEMI: We’re back now.
BUSCEMI: Not really. I’m never sure what to say. I mean it will be interesting for me to see where it goes with Nucky and Margaret, and you know Nucky now is a committed bootlegger. I’m still hesitant to call him a gangster because I don’t see him as a gangster, I think if he had his way he’d be a politician.
What was it like to jump back into the world of Monsters, Inc. for Monsters University?
BUSCEMI: It was really fun and kind of surreal, but really different because it’s a prequel so I’m doing a much younger version of Randall and he’s in college and he’s kind of a nerd, so it’s a nice twist.
Is he a principal character in the prequel or is he more of a side character?
BUSCEMI: Kind of about the same I think [from] the last film, he kind of comes in and out.
The Incredible Burt Wonderstone opens on Friday, March 15th.