Before Steve Buscemi was one of the city’s most beloved actors, he was one of New York’s Bravest. In the 1980s, the “Boardwalk Empire” star served Engine Co. 55 in Little Italy and learned firsthand the challenges and joys of one of the city’s toughest jobs.
Now, he’s sharing those experiences with a new documentary, “A Good Job: Stories of the FDNY,” which premieres on HBO Monday. Along with Oscar-nominated director Liz Garbus, Buscemi covers the physical and mental demands — and the rewards — of being a firefighter, as well as the history of the department. One-on-one interviews between Buscemi and firefighters give the film depth and personality.
amNewYork spoke with Garbus about the film.
We know firefighters work hard — but the documentary really gets into some of the hardships of the job. Why is it so important for New Yorkers to know about that?
I think few of us actually consider the psychology of what it means to have this job day in and day out, where you basically leave your families every single morning with this kind of jeopardy in your daily work. People know about the risks in our military: People come back with PTSD and need treatment. With firefighters, there’s such an idolization of them, which is appropriate, but there’s not the same understanding of the kind of psychological pressures these guys face. It’s necessary that we learn about what they go through so we have an understanding of these heroes who live [among] us.
Steve worked at the department decades ago but he’s still so invested in it. What about the FDNY inspires that kind of loyalty?
I think there’s something about Steve as a human that makes him incredibly devoted. He’s a prince of a human being. We all know there are many celebrities who get involved with causes and go on TV to promote them and get attention, which is totally necessary, but Steve is the kind of guy who does that all the time when there are no cameras around. The other thing is about the department and the kind of bond that forms when you’re with your company and those folks are the only people who can understand what went on that day. That forges incredible bonds that last a lifetime.
Why is it an advantage to have a former firefighter like Buscemi do the interviews for a project like this?
Normally when I make a documentary, I spend six months getting access to the people I want to interview and every time I request an interview, everyone needs to size me up top to bottom. Working with Steve cut right to chase. Everybody knew him — not just the guys on the ground, but also the top brass. They all knew Steve was a faithful, honest person who’d do it right. And then when Steve was interviewing these guys, there was a base of understanding. I think that’s what is special about the film. People felt really comfortable opening up to Steve in a way they wouldn’t have been comfortable talking to someone from the outside.
What’s your biggest take-away personally from working with the firefighters on this film?
This may sound cliché, but I’d say the preciousness of life. We filmed so many people who saw so much loss. When I leave for work in the morning, I rest assured that I’ll see my kids when I come home and they’ll see me. That’s not something to take for granted.
On TV: “A Good Job: Stories of the FDNY” premieres tonight at 9 on HBO.