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The night after HBO’s glitzy and elaborate Midtown bash that rang in the final season of Boardwalk Empire, Steve Buscemi headed downtown for a down-to-earth celebration of another milestone: his first documentary.
“It’s work, but it’s good work,” he told The Hollywood Reporter before the film’s premiere at Landmark Sunshine Cinema in New York City on Thursday. “Because there’s no script, you’re sort of making it up as it goes along, so that’s the most challenging part. But I never viewed any of it as difficult. It was a honor and a privilege to make it.”
The film, A Good Job: Stories of the FDNY, follows Buscemi inside Manhattan’s Engine House 55 in Little Italy, which he joined at 22 years old and worked for four years. The actor returned to the firehouse following the Sept. 11 attacks and continues to contribute to the cause as an advisory board member of the Brooklyn-based Friends of Firefighters, among other efforts.
“I’ve always, in the back of my mind, wanted to do something about the fire department, but I didn’t know what, and I also felt like I was too close to it.” Buscemi said, adding of director Liz Garbus, he explained, “The struggles of what goes on on the job, the culture of the department and what it was like before 9/11 — all those things were certainly on my radar, but we needed someone to come at it with a fresh eye.”
After being introduced by HBO documentary films president Sheila Nevins, Buscemi got choked up while introducing the doc for the theater of firefighters and their families, who laughed during the segment highlighting “kitchen culture,” and got teary during footage of their World Trade Center recovery efforts and its health-related repercussions. The film, which took over two years to finish (around Boardwalk’s shooting schedule), also walks through the physical and interpersonal demands of the job, touches on Buscemi’s volunteer work with the department after Hurricane Sandy and outlines the historical plight of female firefighters.
“Steve is so loved by the department that we had this wealth of stories open up to us,” said director Garbus, noting that they narrowed down over 80 hours of new and archival footage to an hourlong special. “We all walk by a firehouse and gaze at the truck and the mostly guys that are there, but this film is like x-ray vision into their kitchen, and you hear their stories after a day of work. There’s a lot of dramatic moments but also humor, and it gives you depth and understanding and compassion.”
Producer Wren Arthur, who was gleaming after the screening while greeting firefighters at the after party, called the film “a love letter” that was made possible by Buscemi’s rare openness. “He’s a very private person, so this is an extraordinary moment of letting people into a part of his life that’s a very private place,” she said of actor’s anecdotes and photos in the film, adding that firefighter culture doesn’t always make room for sharing feelings about trauma and loss. “He did that so that they would do that. … In order for them to open up and be comfortable telling stories they’re not comfortable telling, he had to do the same.”
“It was about time that he was himself, and this gave him a chance to really celebrate these guys, and they kind of celebrated him, they were happy to see him as well,” Nevins added of the doc, which she calls an homage to the trade and the people who choose to serve. “You think of an actor as a part, you don’t think of him as a firefighter. He’s a firefighter at heart.”
Following the premiere, guests were shuttled west to the New York City Fire Museum in Hudson Square. After walking through two floors of vintage fire trucks and helmets, Buscemi gathered with the off-duty firefighters over beer, wine and various versions of sliders and mac and cheese. The actor spent the evening alongside his wife, Jo Andres, of whom he humorously told the audience beforehand, “She knew me when I was a firefighter and used to come by the firehouse, and really gave me some good cred with the guys! They finally thought, wow, this kid’s okay, with a nice girl from Ohio!”
A Good Job: Stories of the FDNY airs Monday at 9 p.m. at HBO.
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