Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


Steve Buscemi Reveals Why His New Film Listens in on a Warmline

The director and star Tessa Thompson bring "The Listener" to screens.

Vertical Entertainment
Steve Buscemi
Vertical Entertainment

Steve Buscemi's new film, The Listener, takes viewers inside the home of a helpline volunteer, played by Tessa Thompson, during an intense overnight shift. Thompson's character, Beth, who is the only person viewers see, fields calls from a range of individuals (voiced by Rebecca Hall, Alia Shawkat, Ricky Velez and others) grappling with loneliness, anxiety, mental illness, and suicidal ideation but sharing a need to have someone listen to them—preferably someone from outside "the system."

The Listener, written by Alessandro Camon, is the fifth film directed by Buscemi, the star of films like Fargo, Ghost World, Reservoir Dogs, and Miller's Crossing. He recently spoke to Psychology Today about why Beth's story matters to him, and why it should matter to anyone who cares about the state of mental health in the U.S.—and for that matter, the mental health of the frontline workers and volunteers who respond to it.

Psychology Today: You hadn’t directed a film in about 15 years. What led you to direct this one?

Steve Buscemi: After living through the pandemic and being so isolated, connections with other people just became much more important. And we started to hear more stories of people who were suffering because of that lack of connection—

PT: —and about frontline workers like this character who were making a difference.

SB: I didn’t know that there was such a thing as a helpline like this one. I knew about suicide hotlines, of course, but this is what they call a “warmline” where you call and just talk.

PT: Many of the callers we meet in the film say they're using the warmline because they’ve lost their health insurance, or couldn’t get an appointment with a therapist, or just don't trust the traditional healthcare system.

SB: Yes, and Tessa’s character chooses to work at night which is when people are feeling most vulnerable. Really, it’s the middle of the night and who do you reach out to?

PT: That’s a great responsibility. Do you think people realize that these helplines or "hopelines" have become front-line mental health care for so many?

SB: As we learn in the film, Beth has gone through a lot her herself. She’s working through her own struggles, but then she’s also there for other people.

But I also think it’s brave of every person who calls. It’s not easy to do but maybe it is a little bit easier to be vulnerable with someone who you’re not seeing and is not your regular therapist.

PT: One of the most poignant calls, I thought, was one where Beth picks up and someone starts to say one word, but they can’t continue, and she encourages them but they hang up.

SB: That’s an important experience, too.

PT: More than once, the listener starts to give people contact information for a public agency of one form or another, and the callers reject her and insist they didn't call for that. Is that your sense of people who use warmlines—that they want to remain outside of “the system”?

SB: The first call she receives is from a character who is newly out of prison and the first thing he says is: I just want to talk. And he repeats that when he feels like she’s trying to refer him to [a service] and he says no; I tried that, but now I just need someone to listen to me.

PT: The listener must understand that she herself is in fact the last thing these people are going to try.

SB: The job is so tricky. You see it in Tessa’s micro-expressions: She doesn’t want to judge; she’s there to listen. But she’s also there to help. And sometimes it’s hard to find that line between how much do I say, and when am I saying too much? Should I not say anything? I think she’s learning from each call. At the end of the film I think she can feel as good as she can about herself and the work that she did.

PT: Volunteers like Beth are typically people who have lived experience with mental health issues, aren't they?

SB: Yes. She’s a volunteer and she probably couldn’t do it every night, but on the nights that she does, I feel like she’s doing something good for herself as well as for the people she’s listening to.

PT: Well, as viewers, we're certainly happy to see her get a win when she does. The risks for workers like helpline operators and traditional therapists—for secondary trauma, vicarious trauma, and compassion fatigue—are well documented. Your listener is working at home, and around her house, she has comfort objects that she reaches out for at different points throughout the evening. She also does some breathing exercises between calls, and her dog is by her side—

SB: That was actually Tessa’s own dog. It was written to be a cat, but Tessa pitched us her dog, Coltrane, and we said absolutely. But that is important. I’m approaching this film as something that can really show people what goes on in these conversations—including the self-care that’s so vital for the listener. For me, that was really essential—to see how the character lives, and the things that ground her, and are important to her.

PT: In the lengthy final call of the film, with someone indicating suicidal ideation, the listener says that when she’s doing this work, she’s 100-percent focused, which helps her—and she advises that caller, and others, to get similarly engaged with something they can care about. How important is that message?

SB: It’s really important. She’s in this sort of chess match with that caller (Hall) who is making very strong arguments about—what’s the big deal if I’m feeling this way, and I’ve thought it through? You tell me the reasons why someone shouldn’t do this. And Beth realizes that she really has to rise to this occasion. When that caller is fatalistic about the world, and specifically the climate, her response is: Well, you obviously care about that, so you care about something. Her point is to find and acknowledge something that you do care about and embrace that because it may lead to other things that you care about. And that is a reason to go on.

PT: As a viewer, you come away with a lot of respect for the strength these volunteers have, and their patience, but also a better understanding of their vulnerabilities.

SB: They’re people. They’re not saviors; they are people who, hopefully, if they’re good at what they do, make a connection and convey the feeling that you’re not alone. You’re not alone in this. There are many of us and we can help each other.

I think it’s important for people who do this work to see themselves on screen, and see that what they’re doing is important. It’s something that the general public is largely unaware of. So hopefully the film is engaging and entertaining. But I also hope that we learn something about the people who do this work.

PT: And they’re represented by Tessa Thompson, who’s great in the movie.

SB: Oh my God, she’s good in everything.

The Listener is in theaters and available on Apple TV+. If you or someone you love is contemplating suicide, seek help immediately. For help 24/7 dial 988 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, or reach out to the Crisis Text Line by texting TALK to 741741. To find a therapist near you, visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.

More from Gary Drevitch
More from Psychology Today
More from Gary Drevitch
More from Psychology Today