Behind the Dude: Steve Buscemi on "The Big Lebowski"

His secrets to understanding Donny and learning to bowl

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How did you first hear about The Big Lebowski?
I only remember getting the script. Ethan probably called me and said, "We have a script and we're sending it. Tell us what you think." As simple as that. I do remember my impressions reading it, that it was funny and unpredictable. I couldn't tell where it was going. But also, specifically in looking at the Donny part, I kept thinking that there was gonna be more. I was feeling myself getting sort of upset on Donny's behalf, that Walter was treating him that way, and thinking, "This guy doesn't deserve this."

Ok, he's a little annoying, but why is Walter so over the top? You know, almost having a feeling like, "I'm not sure I wanna do this." And it was painful. Like, "How am I gonna tell the guys that I don't wanna do this?" Until I got to that last scene, where they're in the parking lot being confronted by the nihilists and Donny feels scared and turns to Walter — how sweet and protective Walter was of Donny really moved me after this whole movie of him constantly being annoyed and telling him to shut the fuck up. And then I understood their relationship. I thought that was really cool.

What really sold me further was the eulogy that Walter gives for Donny. I just loved that. And finding out for the first time that he's a surfer. Then I went back and re-read the script and really appreciated how those scenes were constructed. When Donny says something, it's like screwball comedy. And those scenes were really fun to do.

They got you a bowling instructor, right?
Yeah. John Turturro is another Brooklyn guy. We've known each other a long time and our kids are the same age, so we went to the Melody Lanes [in Brooklyn, New York]. I had my own custom ball made. I was getting into it, and I really thought, "Oh, wow. I'm gonna become a bowler now." Of course, after filming, I think I've gone bowling once or twice since then.

Did you think much about the back-story of your character to get into his head at all?
I didn't. The only moment that I remember that we specifically talked about is Donny's last set, when he doesn't get a strike and it disturbs him because it's almost like his intuitive feeling. Like, "This is not gonna be a good day." Of course, he dies later on down the road. That was the only time that they specifically talked to me about that moment, you know, something that relates to something that's happening later and that there could be a look on my face or just to be aware that something is not right. It wasn't just a missed strike, that he couldn't just go, "Oh well." Not getting that strike meant something bigger.

I don't know how big this is but there's this new theory that Donny is just a figment of Walter's imagination. Like he's an old army buddy that had died or something. It almost works. There's the "your phone is ringin', Dude" "thanks, Donny…" [exchange]. But that's the only acknowledgement that the Dude makes of Donny. If you watch those scenes, it's like Donny would come in, Walter gets so upset and it's like the Dude never hears it.

Do you wonder why these three characters are friends with each other, — they seem so different.
No, it seems like bowling was the common thread, and it probably evolved over the years that these three came together as a team and then became friends. Walter and the Dude, they're so different, but they respect each other's take on life. I'm not quite sure how Donny fits in there, but I do think that he's loved by these guys, and that Walter loves him like a brother, and that's why he's able to treat him so badly at times [laughs]. Because you do that to the people you love. So when I finally understood that I thought it was really cool, and that that's how Donny is able to sort of just take these insults. Because he loves Walter and he feels love by Walter.

Were you surprised the movie tanked at the box office?
No, it didn't surprise me. Even I thought it was a weird follow-up to Fargo, and I didn't expect anything from it. I just thought, "These guys made a really fun movie, a great character, kind of, genre, you know, weird genres that kind of mixed, and that it was really fun." It's probably the film that I've done that people have seen the most. I mean the number of times people have seen it. And I guess that started happening about five years ago, when people started to come up to me—usually it was like college guys that would tell me that they and their friends would watch it every weekend, or they had seen it five times. And at first, I didn't really believe it, you know they say five times… or seven times. But so many people would tell me that now I believe it.

So how do you explain that? How do you explain this radical cult following?
I don't know, my wife and I kind of joke that everybody really wants to be the Dude. It's somebody you go, "I like this guy. I like the way he operates." That's part of it. Jeff is the heart of Lebowski. It's just great writing and it goes in unexpected places. And each individual scene is like this brilliant short film. And then it all comes together… but I can't explain it. I think there's something unexplainable about it. There's some mystery to it that keeps people coming back, that they want to see it again and again.