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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

(continued from page 1)

“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.”

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