Despite her scholarly achievements, Buono could not resist the charms of theater and continued her tryst with drama. She was part of the cast of the 1989 revival of the ‘Broadway’ play ‘The Tenth Man,’ standing by for the character of ‘Evelyn Foreman.’ A year later, she was part of the opening night cast of ‘Some Americans Abroad,’ directed by Roger Michel, which delivered 55 performances between May and June 1990.
Her work in theater soon transcended into the worlds of cinema and TV. In 1989, Buono got her first screen role, on ‘NBC’s drama series ‘Dream Street.’ She received a ‘Daytime Emmy Award’ nomination for her performance in an episode of the ‘CBS Schoolbreak Special’ titled ‘Abby, My Love.’
In 1992, Buono made her movie debut with Stephen Gyllenhaal’s British mystery ‘Waterland,’ alongside Ethan Hawke. Years later, Buono would end up working with Hawke’s daughter in one of ‘Netflix’s accidental phenomenon, ‘Stranger Things.’ The same year, she was seen in the Cuba Gooding Jr.-starrer sports drama ‘Gladiator.’
She acted in three episodes of ‘NBC’s drama series ‘I’ll Fly Away’ in 1992 and continued appearing on several popular shows on TV, while furthering her film career at the same time. She appeared in one-episode or guest roles in series such as ‘Tribeca’ (1993), ‘The Single Guy’ (1995), ‘New York Undercover’ (1996), and ‘Law & Order’ (1996 and 1998).
As far as films are concerned, she was mostly cast in indies and low-budget movies, such as ‘The Cowboy Way’ (1994), ‘Killer: A Journal of Murder’ (1995), ‘Kicking and Screaming’ (1995), ‘Next Stop Wonderland’ (1998), and ‘Chutney Popcorn’ (1999). She co-produced ‘Two Ninas’ (1999).
Buono started the new millennium with premium TV shows, such as ‘Family Law’ (2001), ‘Law & Order: Criminal Intent’ (2002), ‘CSI: Crime Scene Investigation’ (2002), and ‘Miss Match’ (2003).
Her first big-budget motion picture was the 2003 ‘Marvel’ superhero movie ‘Hulk,’ as ‘Bruce Banner’s mother, ‘Edith Banner.’ The following year, she got a breakthrough role on the small screen in ‘NBC’s crime-drama series ‘Third Watch.’ She joined the cast as a paramedic named ‘Grace Foster’ in the sixth and the last season of the show and stayed until its end.
Buono bagged another recurring role, on one of the greatest shows on TV, ‘The Sopranos,’ in its 2006 series finale. She met Matthew Weiner on the sets, an association that was seminal to her TV career.
In 2007, Buono continued working on some of the most popular shows on air, such as ‘Law & Order,’ ‘Queens Supreme,’ and ‘The Dead Zone.’ The last one was based on a Stephen King novel.
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In 2010, Matthew Weiner created the role of psychologist ‘Dr. Faye Miller,’ which was to be introduced in the fourth season of the widely popular period drama ‘Mad Men.’ Buono, unlike many in the industry, lives in New York instead of Los Angeles. Upon receiving a call for an audition for the role, she made a one-day round trip only to get the news on her return that she was the chosen one. She was already an avid viewer of the show. However, it was beyond her expectation that her character would last one whole season.
Though she was seen in some of the most popular shows of the time, such as ‘Brothers & Sisters’ (2011), a reprisal of ‘Hawaii Five-0’ (2011), ‘A Gifted Man’ (2011), ‘Castle’ (2013), ‘The Good Wife’ (2013), ‘Elementary’ (2014), and the crime-drama series ‘Person of Interest’ (2014–2015), the best was yet to come her way.
In 2016, something unexpected happened in Buono’s life. The ‘Netflix’ original series ‘Stranger Things’ became a cultural phenomenon upon its release in July. Buono had great expectations from the series. However, its success reached a level that neither the creators, the Duffer Brothers, nor the cast members could have imagined. Buono continues to be an integral part of the ensemble cast, and this retro science-fiction horror series has only reached new heights of popularity with the release of its third season in 2019.
Buono’s performance in ‘Stranger Things’ won her the ‘Screen Actors Guild Award’ for ‘Outstanding Performance by an Ensemble in a Drama Series’ in 2017. She was nominated in the same category in 2018.
Buono continues to make guest appearances on TV shows. Some of her recent TV projects are ‘The Blacklist: Redemption’ (2017), ‘Bull’ (2017), and the Matthew Weiner-directed anthropology drama ‘The Romanoffs’ (2018).
Buono’s screen-acting career has been interspersed with ‘Broadway’ and ‘Off Broadway’ plays. She played ‘Rosa’ in ‘Tony Award’-winning director Robert Falls’s ‘The Rose Tattoo’ (1995), alongside Mercedes Ruehl and Anthony LaPaglia. She has worked with various theater companies, such as ‘Primary Stages,’ ‘Playwrights Horizons,’ and ‘Naked Angels.’ She also appeared in Jo Bonney’s ‘Good Thing’ for the ‘The New Group.’
In 1997, Buono directed a short film titled ‘Baggage,’ starring Minnie Driver and Liev Schreiber, which had its world premiere at the ‘Edinburgh International Film Festival.’ She co-authored ‘When the Cat’s Away’ with director Brad Anderson and wrote an adaptation of F Scott Fitzgerald’s first novel, ‘This Side of Paradise,’ both for ‘Miramax Films.’