When Buscemi calls me from his home a few weeks later, the world around us is completely altered by the pandemic. Well, mostly. “It doesn’t feel that much different from what I do when I’m not working,” he admits. “Except that I would usually go out more.”
Buscemi’s life has been composed of layers of distinct New York City experiences: the blue-collar childhood in far-flung East New York, the formative years in a since vanished East Village scene, the quiet and quasi-suburban Park Slope adulthood. He has been present for the city’s worst moments in recent memory, rushing over to Ground Zero after September 11 to spend 12-hour days clearing ash and debris from the fallen towers, to be there for the guys from his old firefighting company. But the coronavirus response is something new. Something that is, by design, singularly isolating.
“One of the things that I think a disaster brings out is that people really support each other and help each other,” he says. “It feels so weird not to be able to be with people.” The other day, he and one of his brothers brought their mother cupcakes and flowers at her assisted-living center on Staten Island for her birthday but could talk to her only through the window. “That’s been the hardest thing,” Buscemi says, sighing. “She has a pretty good sense of humor about the whole thing, but it’s hard on us all.”
He’s been keeping busy, though. Painting some. Indulging in Turner Classic Movies, specifically the “Noir Alley” programming that airs on weekends, because “it just feels so good to be watching a movie on a Sunday morning.” Buscemi is also supposed to play Chebutykin in a much anticipated production of Chekhov’s Three Sisters this spring, alongside Greta Gerwig, Oscar Isaac, and Chris Messina. It is slated to be his first theater work in nearly two decades. They’ve already held a virtual cast meeting, and so Buscemi has found himself in the same boat as those of us with far less glamorous jobs: “I have to learn Zoom, because everybody’s Zooming.”
And, of course, there’s all that cleaning to keep him occupied. He tells me he’s come across some old childhood cartoons, just riffing on what he saw in the pages of Mad magazine. This talk of cartoons gets him thinking: “You know what kills me? When The New Yorker comes and I look in the back, and they have those cartoons, I would love, one day, to be able to think of one. I look at them and I just go, Why can’t I think in that way? I’m always shocked when I see who the winners are, and I go, Oh, right, of course, but then I go, How does somebody think of that?”
Then he remembers a bit that Andres used to do, when she would send in her submission for the caption contest but it would always be the same joke: “Does the pope shit in the woods?”
“It actually works for a lot of them,” he points out.
In grieving, Buscemi has had days when he feels like he’s underwater and doesn’t want to be comforted. Other days when he’s immensely grateful to have friends and family to lean on for support. Last fall, when he had to fly to Prague to film something after Andres died, he was racked with anxiety about being so far from home. The process is anything but linear. I ask him how he’s weathering it now, with so much uncertainty swirling around us.
“It’s been over a year now since Jo passed, and I’m just starting to feel lighter,” he says. “It is very strange that, oh, now this is happening. If it was another personal thing, I think that would be really hard.
“But the fact that everybody’s going through it doesn’t feel as isolating,” he continues. “It feels like it’s something that we’re doing together.”
Gabriella Paiella is a GQ staff writer.
A version of this story originally appears in the June/July 2020 issue with the title “The Big Buscemi”.
Photographs by Fanny Latour-Lambert
Styled by Jon Tietz
Grooming by Kumi Craig for The Wall Group
Tailoring by Todd Thomas
Set design by Molly Findlay for Walter Schupfer Management