Anyone who has ever gambled in a Las Vegas casino probably has encountered that awful downturn, the moment where your luck starts to turn bad and then even worse; soon, you’ve lost all the money you’ve gained as well as the money you had when you sat down. (Or maybe that’s just us!)
That sinking feeling seems to be the normal pattern suffered by Steve Buscemi’s John Alighieri in Hue Rhodes’ comedy Saint John of Las Vegas until he leaves Vegas and takes a job working at an insurance company in Albuquerque, New Mexico. While trying to get a raise to impress his cute cubicle neighbor Jill (Sarah Silverman), John is coerced by his tough boss (Peter Dinklage) to team with the company’s top fraud investigator Virgil, played by Romany Malco (The 40-Year-Old Virgin), to look into reports of a car accident just outside Vegas, forcing John to return to the place where his luck is at its worst. Along the way, they encounter all sorts of strange characters including a wheelchair bound stripper (Emmanuelle Chriqui), a malfunctioning human flamethrower (John Cho), and a nudist militia man played by Tim Blake Nelson, an actor who arguably shouldn’t be doing full frontal nudity. This quirky mix of strange and dark sensibilities shows that there’s a unique sense of humor at play in the film, and much of what will win most people over is the genius pairing of Buscemi and Malco.
Over the years, we’ve had the chance to talk to Buscemi quite a few times and we were equally excited to talk with Malco, having been fans of his comedy since The 40-Year-Old Virgin. ComingSoon.net sat down for an impromptu chat with the two actors who spend much of Rhodes’ movie out in the desert together.
ComingSoon.net: How long ago did you guys make this movie? It must have been some time ago, because it premiered at CineVegas last year.
Steve Buscemi: Yeah, we made it about a year and a half ago, I guess. It was the summer before last, right?
Romany Malco: Yeah, August, the summer before last.
CS: How did you guys get involved with the movie? Steve, you’re also producing the movie, so did you get involved very early before casting anyone else?
Buscemi: Yeah, I was on it pretty early, and just read the script and really liked it and met with Hue. At the same time, I was forming this company, Olive Productions, with Stanley Tucci and Wren Arthur, and then we came on as co-producers. We’re not the main producers, and all that meant to me was that my interest in wanting to co-produce was to help Hue make the film he wanted to make, so whatever that meant helping was, I was there to help.
CS: Was that the main reason you got more involved in production, to help other new filmmakers?
Buscemi: No, not necessarily, no. We started the company really so that Stanley and I could direct our own movies but since this was happening at the same time and Wren was friends with another producer from Circle of Confusion, so it just happened organically. Originally, Stanley was going to act in the movie as well, but then he had a scheduling conflict.
CS: Was he going to play Romany’s part by any chance?
Buscemi: I didn’t want to say that, but… No, he was going to play Peter Dinklage’s part, and I’m proud that I was the one who thought of Peter and it was really great that they hired him.
CS: Had you had a chance to work with him since “Living in Oblivion”?
Buscemi: Yeah, we also did “Pete Smalls is Dead,” the latest Alex Rockwell movie and another Alex Rockwell movie called “13 Moons” so we’ve worked together a few times.
CS: Romany, how did they approach you for this? Was it the same thing where they sent the script through the normal avenues? Did you know someone involved with it?
Malco: No, they really just sent it to me. I was completely flattered since Steve was involved and said, “I’ll do it!” And they said, “Read it first, please,” and that’s when you read something and think, “Please be good, it’s gotta be! Why would (Steve) be doing it if it wasn’t?” Read it, enjoyed it, saw a couple things about it that I really liked and I thought, “Yeah, that’s going to be different.” Honestly, the timing was right. It was during the summer, and I had the time, and I wanted to get next to Steve. That’s the honest to God truth! And I met with them in New York, Steve and Hue, and just automatically knew that I was not going to be able to rely on my bag of tricks for this role. I liked the challenge and…
Buscemi: We were depending on your bag of tricks! (laughter)
Malco: Yeah, you guys shut that down real quick. I remember that first day of rehearsal, I was like, “Oh, sh*t, okay…” Hue was like, “The word’s not ‘ain’t’, it’s “it’s not.”
CS: Yeah, I think we’re used to you doing far more comic, almost outlandish character roles, and in this one, you’re really playing the serious half of the equation here.
Malco: Absolutely, and I loved it. It took a minute, it REALLY took a minute, because I felt so awkward with the lighter and the cigarette, because I don’t smoke, and I had to do all these tricks and the props were such a distraction, but in a weird way, they ended up serving the character so well, because it gave me business that I wouldn’t have had. Anyway, they came to me and I was basically like, “Honored to do it.” I know that’s a cheesy word in the game now but I was to be able to work with Steve. I liked the way that Hue articulated what he wanted, which was so specific.
CS: There’s quite a few outlandish things in the movie, such as the characters the two of you meet along the way. When you were reading the script the first time were you thinking, “Who is Hue going to be able to convince to play this character?” Or did you just figure that Hue could pull it off and figure it out.
Buscemi: It’s funny. I don’t think of actors when I read stuff. I think of these people like real people, and it’s only later that I think, “Well now who can play this?” I really got off and was really sold on the script after the scene where we visit the Flame Lord. If I wasn’t sold up until then, that was where I remember going, “Oh, that’s great. I wanna be in a scene with the Flame Lord.”
CS: And that role is played by John Cho, where he’s basically playing a role where no one sees his face, which is just so rare, because people are used to him playing certain characters as well.
Buscemi: That’s true.
CS: Was it Hue who decided he wanted to cast a lot of people against what they normally might do? Did that come from him mostly?
Buscemi: You know, I’m not sure. Everything first comes from Hue and it was important that nothing be forced on him, that every actor that was there was there because Hue wanted them there.
CS: Romany, what was your first impression of Virgil when you first read the script and what he brought to John’s journey? Was it very clear from the script?
Malco: Yeah, I was like, “Okay, this guy’s a d*ck.” (laughs) It was interesting and I liked that he wasn’t a stereotypical character, and I saw him as kind of a bad guy, but at the same time, a bad guy that you could like and root for. What was really cool was that Steve’s character was in this weird way this loser down and out guy who just went on this journey Virgil took him on, and with each step of the way, John would shine in each challenge, sometimes I’d even say outshine Virgil in each challenge. So John eventually developed his confidence and at the end of all of that, though he’s being hoodwinked, he walks away with the girl, and I felt even though he was getting hoodwinked, he developed this pattern of success that gave him the confidence, so I felt like Virgil facilitated that, that’s kinda fly, and I also felt it was a win-win. The other thing that I liked, that I liked and didn’t like, was that you watch this type of movie, and I’m programmed and expecting to see some type of friendship forge along the way, which of course never happens.
CS: Right, the movie just goes against what we’re normally used to seeing. Of course, he builds John’s confidence until John sits down at the blackjack table, which is just a horrifying thing to watch, and I have to say that I had that exact same thing happen to me. Not that much money though… but have either of you guys ever had that kind of experience in Vegas or known anyone like that?
Buscemi: I didn’t base this on any person or anything I’d seen. The script was so rich and it seemed familiar. I mean I’ve been to Vegas, I’ve gambled, so it’s certainly something I could relate to and sympathize with this guy. You get a taste of winning and after a while, it’s not even about the money, you just want to be the guy, you want to be the guy at the table.
Malco: I grew up gambling. I’ve been going to the racetrack with my father since I was like seven years old. I’d place my show bets when he placed his win bets and I’d just do them through him, because at that time, you had to be 18, and I’d be the winner a lot of nights, but not really a gambler. I’d just do it because it was a way of bonding with my father, who was very much a gambler. I associated my character with street gambling, where I’ve been caught in a game of Three-Card Monte where they’re laying out three cards and you guess which one. There’s the guy dealing the cards and then there’s a guy on the side, and every time the guy dealing the cards looks away, the guy would look under the cards and go, “Oh, it’s right there.” So I’d pick that card and it wouldn’t be there. And $240 later, I’m in my car and it hits me that I’d been duped. In this particular scenario, I got to be the dealer and I saw John as me…
Buscemi: It’s funny you mention the Three-Card Monte, because I was thinking I’m not the guy who would spend his last five bucks on lottery cards, but I do remember in New York, Lower East Side, 1979, move to the city, spending my last 20 bucks, literally my last 20, on Three-Card Monte, because I saw somebody else win and it wasn’t until later where I went, “Oh, yeah. Of course that guy won. He was working with the dealer!” You think, “Oh, he just did it,” and you watch and go, “I got it!! What the f*ck!?!?” (laughter)
Malco: Yeah, we’ve had that. It happens.
CS: In New York when you’re starting out as a poor starving artist, you often think that spending your last five bucks on the lottery is what might help you, so in that sense, John is a very relatable character. Steve, you’ve played a lot of characters who gain a lot of sympathy even though you do question their reasoning and motives. Did you see something in this role that was very different from past characters you’ve played?
Buscemi: No, I just saw this guy as somebody that I did have sympathy for, and I like playing characters that have problems and are struggling and have something… that are not shut down. What I liked about John was that he was able to learn something along the way, even while he was being duped. I think he still, even at the end, realized how much Virgil gave him or taught him.
Malco: That’s the thing. There’s just a quality about Steve that’s himself. (To Steve) I’m not trying to read you here, but I think he’s just naturally empathetic, and I get the vibe that he can see and relate from different angles, so he sees things other than the way he sees them. In this weird way, there’s a likeability and a comfort that comes with his package and who he is. So he can play this despicable character, he can play this less than credible character, and you still develop empathy because (to Steve) I’ve never seen you play any of these characters in a glorified sense. Did you ever see a movie where these robbers come in and they rob an Asian family in their little shop in the neighborhood, and then they leave and it’s all a gangsta thing? Steve is like what happens if you STAY with the Asian family. (laughter)
Buscemi: That’s really funny, yeah.
CS: This is somewhat of a tangent, but you mentioned being a fan of Steve’s, and I know that some of the other guys from the Apatow gang, like Adam Sandler, he has worked with Steve and John Turturro. There certainly seems to be a lot of respect from the current comedy guys to the character actors who came out of New York in the ’80s, and was that something you noticed when you worked with Judd?
Malco: I’m reluctant to go with that because I feel there’s this huge ’70s influence with a lot of the guys that I worked with, especially with Judd, where he seems to find that marriage. I feel like for the sake of business, you divide the film and you go, “Okay, it’s a drama or a comedy” so you can allocate the proper amount of funds based on market research and blah blah blah. Judd kind of blurs the lines in the same way that life does, where here, it seems like a big over-the-top comedy but it’s very based in reality so there’s a genuine story established and maybe we’re poking fun at circumstances beyond that point, but I do feel like he’s a huge fan of ’70s projects. I sat on a panel with him and a few other writers and it was clear to me that his heroes came out of that era.
CS: What have you guys been working on since finishing this?
Buscemi: Right now, my life is “Boardwalk Empire,” this HBO show that I’m really happy to be doing. It’s all about Atlantic City in the 1920’s and Scorsese directed the pilot. Terry Winter is the writer/producer/creator of the show, and I’m just so happy to be doing that.
CS: You’ve also been directing a lot more television yourself in the last couple years.
Buscemi: Yeah, I did a few episodes of “Nurse Jackie” last season and I directed an episode of “30 Rock.”
CS: Romany, what do you have going on? Don’t you have another movie with Peter Dinklage yourself?
Malco: Yeah, I did that Jack Black movie “Gulliver’s Travels” (not with Peter Dinklage) where I got to play this…
Buscemi: With Billy Connolly? Did he do “Gulliver’s Travels”? Do you know Billy Connolly?
Malco: I’m going to in a second here… I did all the shooting in England and then one week we were shooting in Ventura, so I ended up working with Jack Black the majority of the time, and I didn’t get to meet Billy. Me and Jason (Segel) missed each other by days, so no, I didn’t get to meet him. That and I’m doing the Kate Hudson movie, “Earthbound,” about a brash woman who discovers that she’s dying of cancer and meets the love of her life, and realizes that she’s more afraid of falling in love than she is of dying. I play her best friend. It’s the most emotional taxing project I’ve ever worked on. I cry almost every single time during rehearsal.