The Perfect Actor
In Barney's Version, Paul Giamatti makes the leap from a career of offbeat roles to the romantic lead as a cigar-smoking ladies' man
From the Print Edition:
Paul Giamatti, January/February 2011
It’s a few days away, but actor Paul Giamatti knows it’s coming: the big shave-down. Even as he sits in Teresa’s, a neighborhood restaurant near his Brooklyn Heights home, drinking coffee and eating a BLT, Giamatti is anticipating having his head shaved to resemble the bald dome of Ben Bernanke, chairman of the Federal Reserve System. He’ll be playing Bernanke in an HBO film of Too Big to Fail, the best-selling book about the 2008 financial collapse that’s about to start shooting.
“My friends never know what the hell I’ll look like when they see me,” Giamatti says with a laugh. “I’ve always done things like that to change my appearance. At this point, I’ve done so many strange things to my appearance that the idea of shaving my head doesn’t freak me out. You try to change yourself physically so that even if I can’t achieve what I need to, character-wise, at least I did it physically.”
It can be disconcerting for his family and friends, particularly the ones who don’t see him regularly. He may show up with his head shaved—or with long hair and a lavish beard.
“I remember when I went to the Oscars (when he was nominated for 2005’s Cinderella Man), I was making this movie, Shoot ’Em Up, and I had this crazy comb-over,” Giamatti says. “People thought I was a freak. It can be hard to explain sometimes.”
Even harder to explain: the fact that Giamatti, 43, who has the ability to grow a rich, lush beard—whose beard, in fact, is a prominent feature in his new film, Barney’s Version—is clean-shaven just days before beginning to play the amply bearded Bernanke. The problem, Giamatti explains, is that Bernanke’s beard is mostly white, while Giamatti’s is brown with patches of gray.
“You can’t bleach facial hair, the bleach won’t take,” Giamatti says. “I even grew a beard and they said it wouldn’t work. So I have to wear a fake beard.”
The beard, no doubt, will be the only false thing about Giamatti’s performance. In a movie career that spans almost 20 years—but which really kicked into gear in the past decade—Giamatti has developed a reputation as an actor who almost never strikes a wrong note.
“Paul doesn’t fake it,” says actress Laura Linney, who played his wife in The Nanny Diaries and Abigail Adams to Giamatti’s title role in the “John Adams” miniseries that swept the 2008 Emmy Awards. “He goes there. He’s not phony in any sense. He’s a great acting partner because he knows how to give and how to receive—and how to listen.”
Says Tony Gilroy, who wrote and directed Duplicity in which Giamatti acted, “He’s a director’s gift. He’s all-singing, all-dancing, all-talking. He comes prepared, and he gives you all kinds of things you hadn’t expected.”
Giamatti’s latest leap into the unknown is Barney’s Version, a year-end film based on a semi-autobiographical novel by the late Mordecai Richler. Giamatti has received a Golden Globe best actor nomination for playing Barney Panofsky, a TV producer in late middle-age forced to defend himself against an attack in a newly published book, which charges him with escaping justice for the murder of his best friend. As he tells his story, Barney looks back on his life—from his early 20s until shortly before his death in a story that features behavior ranging from the passionate to the outrageous, through three wives and professional highs and lows.
The film offers Giamatti something of a rarity for his career: the chance to play a ladies’ man who cuts a swath through the female population—the guy even hits on the woman who will be his third wife at the reception for his second wedding.
It’s a tough mix, because Barney is the protagonist of the story, but he’s nobody’s idea of a hero.
“Barney is someone with a gruff exterior, as Mordecai was in life,” says Robert J. Lantos, who spent a dozen years trying to get his friend Richler’s novel made into a movie. “He’s someone with whom you fall in love very gradually, especially if you’re a woman. This is someone who has to work really hard at making women fall in love with him. And Paul not only captures Barney’s character but Mordecai’s. Without ever having met Mordecai, he captured Mordecai’s essence. He walks like Mordecai, he talks like Mordecai, he even wears his glasses like Mordecai.”
Richard J. Lewis, who directed Barney’s Version, says, “Paul was the only actor I could think of who could pull off both the age range and the emotional complexity—and the comedy. He finds a balance between the scoundrel and the good guy. You have to like the character and root for him. You don’t have to like what he does, but you have to like him. And Paul makes that happen.”
Giamatti has been so solid playing loners—whether they’re cranks, villains, neurotics or down-on-their-luck good guys—that it’s something of a revelation to see him woo actresses Rachel Lefevre, Minnie Driver and Rosamund Pike (as Barney’s three wives) in Barney’s Version. As Barney, Giamatti is aggressively seductive, a guy who’s definitely got game because he knows he doesn’t have good looks.
“This character could not be played by a conventional matinee-idol-looking actor,” Lantos says.
It’s a side that Giamatti has barely had a chance to show in his previous work, because he doesn’t have the profile associated with romantic leading men: “When they see a romantic movie, people want to project themselves on to Cary Grant or someone like that,” he shrugs. “I’ve played leading roles but certainly not a lot of romantic leads.
“This guy is difficult, but he’s a romantic underneath it all. So is the guy in Sideways and, in a way, American Splendor. The romantic is buried underneath. If I’m playing someone romantic, I’m able to transcend what he looks like.”
Indeed, Giamatti says, it wasn’t until American Splendor (2003) that he played a character who was romantically involved in any way: “That was the first time I actually had to kiss somebody on camera,” he says. “I guess I was romantically involved in Sideways. In this one, I get some great women.”
Why has it taken so long? “I guess it’s because I’ve played a lot of supporting character parts, a lot of sidekicks, guys like that,” Giamatti says. “A major part of it is what I look like.”
Ask some of the women who have worked with him, however, and you’d get an argument. Writer-director Sophie Barthes, who directed him playing a character named “Paul Giamatti” in the surreal comedy, Cold Souls, says, “There’s something very touching about Paul. A lot of women have told me they find him very charming. Beauty is not just about appearance for me; Paul has a soulfulness that’s very moving. He carries a lot of humanity; there’s something happening on his face all the time. It would be interesting to watch him look at the Yellow Pages because he’s extremely human.”
Adds Laura Linney, “Movie stars come in all shapes. So if people say he’s unconventional looking, I say: Compared to what? Paul is fantastic. When you’ve got talent like that, it’s undeniable.”
Barney’s Version offered Giamatti the chance to wear a variety of wigs and beards to capture Barney at different ages. One thing, however, remained constant from start to finish: the cigars that Barney inevitably was smoking in most scenes.
“Richler was a big cigar smoker,” director Lewis says. “We had a whole design to the cigar and cigarillo use in the film, as they pertained to different parts of Barney’s life. Richler smoked Montecristos, and Romeo y Julietas; Barney smokes Montecristos.”
Giamatti isn’t a cigar smoker in his everyday life, but he’s played a number of roles that called for him to smoke cigars on camera. None of the characters, however, indulged in the intense cigar use that Barney’s Version offered.
“I was amazed because I was smoking cigars in pretty much every scene,” Giamatti says. “For a guy like this, it’s kind of a neurotic thing. I decided he was a guy who smells like cigars all the time. That gives you a texture and a feel to the character. He was also drinking the whole time. He lives in that cocoon of smoke and booze.
“It’s not necessarily a power thing, like with some of the guys I’ve done. On the other hand, you see some of those guys who look like they smell like cigars and they do well with the women. They’ve got some sort of charm. I left it up to the actresses to find the reason to like my character.”
For an actor, having a prop like a cigar can be revealing about a character. Giamatti relishes the opportunity to latch on to something quirky—like the way a character deals with the everyday objects of his life—to help him give the character added depth.
“They’re wonderful props to have,” he says. “Cigars have a lot of paraphernalia—all that clipping and poking—so you’ve got to get up on that. It can become such a ritual.
“The guy in Cinderella Man was a cigar smoker. And I smoked cigars in ‘John Adams.’ He chain-smoked what were considered cigars at the time, ones from Holland. It was an eccentric thing to do. They were these intense, dark little cigars. Those were great. That whole culture of smoking was fascinating, because they had no ashtrays. John Adams would just throw the butts on the floor—in the White House! There was no nicety about it. They were probably a Victorian thing, ashtrays.”
Giamatti looks at different smoking options as keys to the characters that use them: “Everybody associates contemplativeness with smoking a pipe,” he says. “I smoked a pipe in The Illusionist. I chose a pipe because I was playing a Victorian-era detective, so I had to smoke a pipe. I loved that. I was tempted to take that up myself, but smoking a pipe, that’s a tough one to pull off. You have to have a certain gravitas.
“Cigarettes seem more neurotic. Smoking cigarettes for a role made me take it up briefly as a habit. But the cigar thing didn’t seem to take with me. I don’t know why.
“I’ve never had somebody get worked up about me smoking a cigar in a movie, the way I have with cigarettes. There’s something more in-your-face about cigars, something a bit more aggressive. It’s that whole Groucho Marx thing—that attitude seems to go along with it.”
Giamatti says his own associations with cigar smoking aren’t necessarily pleasant: “I associate it with making me nauseous, probably because, in Cinderella Man, it got to me a couple of times. We were working in an enclosed space for long periods, where I had to blow through about 10 cigars.”
Giamatti grew up the youngest of three children of A. Bartlett Giamatti, a Yale University professor of comparative literature who went on to become Yale’s president and, later, commissioner of Major League Baseball until his death in 1989.
Acting wasn’t a particular passion when Giamatti was a kid: “I went through all kinds of phases,” he says. “I wanted to be an admiral—I wanted to be in the Navy. I remember being quite serious about that. And I was very interested in archaeology; that was a boyish enthusiasm. Acting was not something that occurred to me.”
When he thinks of his parents (his mother was also a teacher), “the first thing I think of is an interest in learning,” he says. “They had an intellectual curiosity about everything—the love of that kind of thing, the love of the intellect and the mind.”
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