Steve Buscemi - The face of indie cinema

Steve Buscemi is a cult-movie favourite. He tells Stephen Applebaum about his latest role, in the story of the courage of a Nazi in Japan

Steve Buscemi was never going to be regarded as one of Hollywood's beautiful people, or find regular work as a romantic lead. But it is his less-than-perfect appearance – his unvarnished ordinariness, if you will – that is a major part of the New Yorker's appeal.

In an era where even politicians are vainly succumbing to airbrushing, he feels authentic; and even though we might not always like his often jagged, weak or weaselly characters, we can at least empathise with their flaws, vulnerabilities and insecurities, precisely because Buscemi feels like one of us. As his friend and sometime collaborator Jim Jarmusch observed: "In the characters he plays and in his own life, he's representing that part of us all that's not on top of the world."

Buscemi has often found himself cast as characters who fail to make it through a movie unscathed, if they make it through at all. His small-time crook Carl Showalter, for instance, was unforgettably fed to a wood chipper in the Coen brothers classic Fargo, while his exit from The Sopranos was dramatically facilitated by a bullet from Tony Soprano himself.

Although his characters have been luckier of late, the beatings and slayings became so frequent at one point that Buscemi actually started flipping to the end of scripts to see if his character emerged alive, or at the very least in one piece.

He is now cast as a real-life figure in German director Florian Gallenberger's award-winning wartime epic, City Of War: The Story Of John Rabe. Buscemi plays an American doctor in Nanking, in 1937, who forms part of a group of foreign nationals led by John Rabe (Ulrich Tukur), the manager of the Chinese branch of Siemens and a member of the Nazi party, who uses his influence with the invading Japanese to set up a safety zone for Chinese civilians during the rape of Nanking, saving an estimated 200,000 lives. In this context the Nazi flag, instead of being a symbol of death and oppression, ironically becomes a symbol of security. While this element presented Gallenberger, as a German, with a dilemma, Buscemi says he "never had any qualms about it". "I was just really interested in the story from the very beginning, and even before I read the script. I love stories that are about complex people, and John Rabe, I think, was a very complex person."

This is not the first time that Buscemi has appeared in a film reflecting on Second World War atrocities. In 2001 he played a prisoner in Auschwitz-Birkenau, in Tim Blake Nelson's disturbing The Grey Zone. An unrelievedly harrowing Holocaust drama that assiduously avoided the sentimentality of Schindler's List, the film failed to receive theatrical distribution in a number of territories, including the UK, despite featuring a quality cast comprising Buscemi, Harvey Keitel, Mira Sorvino, Allan Corduner and David Arquette. Buscemi is philosophical about the film's fate. Having seen other movies of his go the same way, he "learned quite early on that the experience to really treasure is the making of the movie... I mean, it's great if a film gets attention. But now I'm grateful if it even gets released."

He was already in this mindset when he hooked up with an unknown film-maker named Quentin Tarantino on a low-budget thriller called Reservoir Dogs. It would be the movie that brought Buscemi recognition.

Buscemi is the son of a sanitation worker and a hotel hostess. He gained an appreciation for movies through his mother, who'd often take him and his brothers to the cinema, and later developed a taste for the theatre. Acting interested him from a young age, but, "I never really believed it was something I could do," he says.

Eventually enrolling at Manhattan's Lee Strasberg Theatre and Film Institute two years after he left high school, he studied acting by day and did stand-up comedy at night. Buscemi was good enough to get a slot at New York's prestigious comedy club, The Improv, but realised that he wanted more to be an actor. "I liked working with other people rather than being up there alone."

He had not done with comedy completely, however, and in the early 1980s formed a surreal double act with Mark Boone Jr, which lasted for almost a decade. Around this time, Buscemi also met his future wife, Jo Andres, an innovative choreographer and film-maker, and had his eyes opened to the performance-art and experimental-theatre scene that was exploding around him in the East Village. "Once I got involved in that, that really opened my world up," he says.

His his first screen job came courtesy of Eric Mitchell, who cast him in The Way it Is. But it was his third film, Parting Glances, in which he played a dying HIV-positive rock musician, that got the ball rolling, Buscemi says. ("The first couple of films didn't get released until after Parting Glances.")

While working with the likes of Jim Jarmusch, Tom DiCillo, Alexandre Rockwell and the Coen brothers turned him into a mainstay of American independent cinema, Buscemi has avoided pigeonholing by also appearing in more mainstream fare, including the ludicrous Michael Bay-directed Armageddon and Jerry Bruckheimer-produced Con Air.

"I just go where the interesting work is," he says. "That has been primarily in independent film, but I'm certainly not opposed to doing more commercial work."

The bigger paydays that come with commercial vehicles also give him the financial wherewithal to be able to direct his own films, such as 2007's Interview, starring himself and Sienna Miller. "It helps to know that later I can do a bigger film and be okay."

If truth be told, one look at Buscemi's ever-expanding CV, which now features a recurring role in HBO's Martin Scorsese-generated show Boardwalk Empire, suggests that he is probably doing a lot better than just "okay". So what does he think of Jarmusch's quote about him not being on top of the world? I ask.

"I think it's good not to be on top of the world," he says, sounding like the anti-James Cameron. "It must be lonely being on top. I'd rather be with everybody else."

'City Of War: The Story Of John Rabe' opens in cinemas today, and is released on DVD on 3 May.