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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
Marshall Fine
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.

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