Outside of documentaries about poverty in Africa, AIDS has more or less slipped off the map of Western cinema and out of public consciousness. Which is only one reason to bring back, in a version newly restored by Outfest in conjunction with the UCLA Film and Television Archive, Bill Sherwood’s 1986 Parting Glances, one of the best American movies ever made about the disease. Not that Sherwood, who died of AIDS-related complications in 1990 at the age of 38, would have appreciated the label. More a WASPishly funny portrait of the hip downtown Manhattan arts scene of the early 1980s than a disease movie, the defiantly unapologetic drama turns on the ambivalent but enduring bond between two former gay lovers — one of them a punk rocker trying to continue his work while dying of AIDS, played by a then-unknown standup performer and firefighter named Steve Buscemi. Now a ubiquitous actor and a director in his own right — his new film, Interview, in which he co-stars with Sienna Miller, opens this week — the very modest, very low-key Buscemi recently spoke to us by phone from New York about working on Parting Glances.
L.A. WEEKLY: One of the great things about Parting Glances is that AIDS is woven into the fabric of the characters’ lives, not the other way about.
STEVE BUSCEMI:Parting Glances was the first movie about AIDS, made before Longtime Companion but around the same time as the television movie An Early Frost. But I never saw Parting Glances as an AIDS movie, just as a great character-driven New York film whose characters happened to be gay and living with AIDS.
How did you get cast?
Bill Sherwood was a friend of The Drew Carey Show’s Kathy Kinney, who’s in the film. Kathy used to perform in an improv group and at the time I did theater improv with my friend Mark Boone Junior. Bill came down to see our shows, and he asked me to audition. My audition was terrible and he told me so, and said that if he hadn’t seen me in theater, he wouldn’t have cast me on the strength of my audition. It was a long shoot — he would shoot a couple of weeks and then raise more money, then shoot again. I was still working for the New York Fire Department at the time and had to take a leave of absence.
This was a risky part for a young actor just starting out on his career. At that time, not many would have taken it. Why did you?
I didn’t see it as risky, because it was a wonderful part. I can’t see why anyone would turn it down just because the character, Nick, was gay. Nick is in a state of denial and shock about what he’s going through, and he doesn’t want to alter his lifestyle. It’s very important to him to keep working and not be treated as a sick person by his friends. At the same time, he feels his mortality and wants to re-establish that connection again with his former boyfriend, Michael, and let it be known that he loves him. This was an independent film and Bill had the creative freedom to do it as he wanted. Hollywood would have watered it down.
Talk a bit about working with Bill Sherwood.
He could be hard on people. He cared so much about what he was doing, and because he had such a low budget he had to do most of it himself. Sometimes I would get frustrated with him, because he’d give me very specific instructions, and then we’d do a take and he would berate me for not being spontaneous. But that was part of his master plan to keep me in an agitated state. Whatever he was doing he was doing it right, because the role remains one of my favorite performances.
It also launched your career.
Parting Glances was certainly the first role that got me any notice at all. I got an agent on the strength of it and that got me more work. But it wasn’t until Reservoir Dogs that I got wider recognition. Quentin (Tarantino) had definitely seen Parting Glances — so there you go.
You’re terribly handsome and James Dean-ish in Parting Glances. Yet you’ve gone on to play nebbishes, neurotics, weasels, paranoids and, of course, Templeton the rat in Charlotte’s Web.
It’s just the way things go. I was very fortunate to have played a role like that and hoped it would lead to similar roles. But it’s led to a variety of roles, among them Living in Oblivion and In the Soup. I’m not a character actor, I see myself as an actor, period.
You’ve been trying to get an adaptation of William S. Burroughs’ novel Queer off the ground for a long time.
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It’s just been a challenging project to finance, but we’re still trying. I loved that period of Burroughs’ life, when he was living in Mexico City with a wife and kids, and yet was obsessed with this young male student who’s there on a scholarship. It was a crossroads in his life before he became a writer.
Do you see yourself primarily as an actor or a director these days?
If I could make a living directing, I’d do that. But I also like acting, and I can’t afford to stop.
Parting Glances screens at the Directors Guild of America, July 16 at 8 p.m., followed by a panel discussion with Steve Buscemi and other cast and crew members.