Paul Giamatti Interview 0
For a man so preoccupied with exploring neuroses, and the peculiar bad habits of a plethora of characters, Paul Giamatti couldn’t be calmer. It may have a thing or two to do with the busy schedule of press interviews he’s had to deal with, and the late afternoon timing of our encounter. But while Miles in Sideways or Harvey Pekar in American Splendor might find comfort in their own thoughts, Giamatti seems most keen to wonder what those around him are thinking.
“When I meet a person,” he explains, “I have a tendency to x-ray them a little bit and try and find out what makes them afraid. I’m looking for flaws of character, even though I love people.“
It seems a strange contradiction, and it’s even a little awkward as Fotogramas sits opposite Giamatti – is he x-raying us? – but, he says, that’s acting. “Whatever the part is, it seems like my job is to find the opposite of it. You sympathise with people’s flaws. So if I’m going to play a heroic guy, my natural inclination is going to be to find his weaknesses.”
Not that he’s much of a hero all that often. Giamatti seems to gravitate away from those parts that drive the ego-fuelled profession he’s a part of. Is Miles, with his alcoholism and questionable moral compass, particularly heroic? Is Barney, the character in his new film Barney’s Version, even a little likeable?
“I know,” he laughs. “It doesn’t go along with Hollywood. Honestly, one of the nice things about going out of the States to talk to people is that I often feel like people appreciate it more. They don’t like weakness in America. You can’t show vulnerability.”
It’s no surprise to learn that Barney’s Version is actually Canadian, based on a much-loved novel by the late Mordecai Richler, published in 1997. “It’s a truly Canadian movie,” Giamatti declares. “A truly Canadian story.”
Giamatti plays the title character, television producer Barney Panofsky, as he reminisces, with varying degrees of accuracy, about a long life full of drunken outbursts, broken promises, lost loves and even a possible murder. He’s no Prince Charming.
“I’m never going to play those sorts of parts,” Giamatti laughs. “Acting’s about what you look like, so I’m not going to play the hero. I might as well get used to it!”
Giamatti was born in 1967, to an artistic family in New Haven, Connecticut. His older brother Marcus is an actor, while his father Bart was president of Yale University and encouraged his children’s creative interests. But the profession of acting was never a goal. “I never consciously wanted to be an actor,” he says. “I never thought you could do it as a living, even though my brother was doing it. But a certain point I realised I could, so I did.”
The revelation came following a move to Seattle after college. “I was intending to do other things, though I never really knew what. But I ended up working at this little theatre. I was making a little bit of money, and I managed to get an agent through it. I wasn’t making money doing other things, odd jobs, so I thought I’d give acting a try.”
Giamatti made a reasonable living in the theatre and found he was able to support himself with his profession. “I didn’t need to make a ton of money doing it at that time,” he reveals. “I’ve never had to make a ton of money, but at that time, where I was living, and how I was living, I didn’t need to make a ton of money. It was enough that I could get by.”
Real success took a lot longer to come, though Hollywood started paying attention by the late nineties, providing the 30-something Giamatti with small talking roles in films like Donnie Brasco and The Truman Show, perhaps inspired by an impactful supporting turn in the Howard Stern movie Private Parts.
Even in these smaller parts Giamatti impressed, attracting the attention of directors like Steven Spielberg and Milos Forman. He had a burning drive to keep working as much as he could, but he says he was never motived by a paycheck. “I’ve never done anything for the paycheck.” What, not even Paycheck? “I was excited to do a John Woo movie! Was it the greatest part in the world? No. Was it the greatest script for the greatest movie in the world? No. But I was happy to be doing it. Obviously I’m going to be fiscally responsible, but it’s a balance.”
In the case of 2001’s ill-fated Planet of the Apes reboot, that balance was firmly tipped towards the creative. “I was very excited to be doing that movie,” he says. “I think I could sense that it wasn’t a great script, and I think Tim Burton did everything you could possibly have done with that script, but he was handcuffed, in a way, by it. That’s just the way it was.”
Working with Burton made the project worth taking on. “He was like, ‘We’ll make the best of this thing, and we’ll have a good time of it,’ and we did. That’s a big, crazy, over-the-top movie that could have a real drag to do. But he made it feel like a small movie, in the way he was having a good time with us, and how involved he was. So the experience of it was really great, and that’s what I think of when I think that movie.”
When true fame found Giamatti, with the one-two punch of American Splendor in 2003 and Sideways the following year, the media rewrote Giamatti as a serious star of indie cinema, which made later roles in the likes of Lady in the Water and Shoot ‘Em Up stand out even more.
But genre movies have always been a fascination for the actor. “They’re why I became an actor,” he says. “I never had any aspirations to do the highbrow arty movies. I wanted to be in The Dirty Dozen or Where Eagles Dare. And I think they’re the movies that last, actually. They’re the movies that people are going to watch. Even the crappy ones. But I feel like, if they’re really good, there’s so much more in them that you can find. I just love them.”
Shoot ‘Em Up may not have much beneath the surface, but it was a particular treat, as evidenced by Giamatti’s almost overenthusiastic turn as psychotic baby killer Hertz. “Everybody was like, ‘Why the fuck would you do that movie?’” he says. “But I met the director and he was a real character. He was bizarro. It looks like we made the part up, and we did, in a lot of ways!“
Having fun on set is what it’s all about. “I’d rather go home having had a good day at work then spend my time worrying about how it’s going to be received,” he admits. “Because who the hell knows? It could be the greatest thing in the world, and nobody will ever see it, or it can be the biggest piece of crap and everybody will see it. Who knows? You just can’t know.”
That increased scrutiny is a side effect of fame, something Giamatti misses from his time as a jobbing, unheralded actor. “You feel much greater freedom when nobody is paying attention,” he says. “You can explore more as an actor, and have more fun with it. It’s less fun now, in some ways, which is too bad. It just becomes fraught with having to do lots of press for the thing, and people better like it because it’s got to get nominated for awards and blah blah blah. And that’s too bad, it’s just not fun, that stuff. It really doesn’t matter.”
There comes that awkward feeling again…
But he appreciates the interest, too. “It’s actually very nice to know that perfect strangers like something that you did,” he admits. “People are always nice. But it’s a weird side effect of the job, that suddenly people pay attention to you. I feel a little bit better about it now, but at first I felt I suddenly had to be much more careful as an actor, which was not the case; it wasn’t true.”
He can’t pinpoint exactly why it makes him uncomfortable. “It’s some indefinable thing. I mean, I don’t get people recognising me like crazy, that’s not a big deal for me at all. It’s a different thing, and I keep trying to find what it is. It’s some higher level of critical scrutiny, perhaps.”
Has Sideways proved to be something of a yardstick for people, against which they can judge his subsequent choices? “Yeah, that’s it,” he exclaims. “In a funny way for me, because while it’s a great movie I don’t necessarily consider it my favourite thing. There are other performances where I think I was better. But I think that happens especially with film acting – something gets stuck in people’s heads. At least it’s a complicated, interesting role to have stuck in people’s heads.”
There’d be no Barney’s Version without Sideways. Producer Robert Lantos saw it and knew there was only one performer capable of bringing Barney to life, which led to Giamatti having an opportunity to explore one of those flawed, but oddly loveable characters he finds so fascinating. He’s happy to agree that that’s a pleasant side effect of people’s preoccupations.
“What’s interesting is seeing how many scripts there are with these kinds of different roles, now that I’ve got people interested in me playing them,” he reflects. “There seem to be more of these kinds of films being made in America. I think in general you’re seeing odder movies being made. Think about that Black Swan movie. It’s really about somebody’s insecurities. A movie that everyone’s talking about, and is getting all this attention, is about someone who’s essentially fucked up.
“Isn’t that funny?”