Atlantic City. Bootlegging was booming business in the spats-and-suspenders Roaring Twenties. Prohibition was in full swing and so was Steve Buscemi’s career. He landed the lead role on HBO’s Boardwalk Empire as Enoch Lewis “Nucky” Johnson, an underworld captain of industry, an Irish Catholic county sheriff who ran gambling, prostitution and racketeering. His illicit enterprises didn’t just run parallel with his New Jersey law and order, they were inextricably linked with and wholly facilitated by his legal jurisdiction. Double lives were open secrets and a complex man with a formidable sphere of influence is the kind of challenge actors hone their craft for.
In 2011 Buscemi hosted Saturday Night Live. His entire opening monologue was interrupted by actors parodying themselves for being character actors longing to be lead actors. Typecast actors — the clumsy best friend in romantic comedies, “magical African American who gives the pretty white guy advice”, the sassy female judges and a foul-mouthed grandma all want tips from a character actor who finally shed the constricting skin of supporting roles.
As they say, simple is not the same as easy. The key to success is simple. But it’s not easy. The entry fee is consistency.
As Buscemi says in his monologue, “after years of playing the creepy bellhop, the creepy homeless guy and the creepy creepy guy, if you learn your lines, work hard, cross your fingers, then maybe — just maybe — you’ll get to be a leading actor.”
“Paying your dues” implies a guaranteed payout. But whether your “lead role” is a syndicated column, an advance on your political thriller, a three-album record deal or a multi-million dollar multi-year sports contract, success isn’t guaranteed. The best way to pursue it is consistency.
Steve Buscemi played supporting roles for 35 years before landing a complex character like Nucky Johnson. 35 years, not just 35 parts. According to IMDB, Buscemi has played 162 parts since he began his career in 1985. What that number doesn’t reflect is all of the auditions that didn’t lead to roles. How many rejections does it take to land 162 roles? And of those 162, how many led to The Lead Role? One.
Prior to Boardwalk Empire I knew him as the sniveling character from Reservoir Dogs, whose name I didn’t even remember but hated tipping, and the sniveling fuckup in Sopranos — whose name I also don’t remember. According to IMDB he landed roles in a number of blockbusters I’ve seen and don’t even remember him being in.
This is the proverbial “toiling in obscurity”. Are you willing to play the tambourine for three decades just for the possibility of becoming the lead singer? It’s not even guaranteed.
Will Smith once said the only thing that distinguishes him from others is, “I’m not afraid to die on a treadmill. I will not be outworked. Period. You might have more talent than me. You might be smarter than me … you got it on me in nine categories. But if we get on a treadmill together there’s two things — you’re getting off first or I’m gonna die. It’s really that simple.”
How long are you willing to run on your treadmill? How many supporting characters are you willing to play? How long are you willing to wait tables while you wait for your big break? And if you never land a leading role are you still proud of those 161 other roles?
If you’re doing what you love you already know the answer to that. It’s why you started. And it’s why you’ll keep running.
However bright you want your spotlight to be, consistency doesn’t guarantee success. But very few succeed without it.