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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)

Not that it rubbed off on Giamatti, at least initially.

“I was not a very good student, in a determined way,” he says. “I guess it was my way of rebelling. Was it a conscious thing? Probably. I wasn’t crazy about school—the regimentation, the confinement. Do you know I’ve never read ‘Catcher in the Rye’? I can remember being in high school (he went to Choate) and having the cool young English teacher, who was teaching us ‘Catcher in the Rye,’ and everybody loved that book. It seemed like the biggest bunch of bullshit. Everyone was raving about this book and I thought, ‘You guys are drinking the Kool-Aid.’ It’s funny because I’ve read (J. D. Salinger’s) other books and they’re amazing. But not that one.”

Still, Giamatti wound up at Yale: “There was a certain amount of family pull, I’m sure. But I ended up doing well in things I was interested in. I did well on the SAT. It was complicated, my relationship with school. I did enjoy certain things and I worked hard the last couple of years. My life is kind of an unclear narrative.”

He admits that, these days, his passions—aside from his work and his son Samuel (he and wife, Elizabeth, have been married since 1997)—are mainly books: “I feel like an anachronism because I don’t like to read things on a screen,” he says. “A book is an amazing thing to have.”

At Yale, Giamatti tried out a couple of majors (“I thought anthropology was really interesting until I found there was a lot more science to it than I could handle”), including classics: “But I ended up an English major. I had no particular game plan.”

He considered a career in academia, because of his parents: “That’s definitely an attractive life but I wasn’t suited to the actual work,” he says. “I had no aptitude for the actual work. But it certainly went through my head.”

Instead, he moved to Seattle after college because he had friends who were working there. Some of them ran a theater where Giamatti worked at odd jobs and would occasionally act in the plays they put on. One night an agent saw him perform and offered to represent him and find him work.

“I thought, ‘Sure, I might as well try this,’ ” he recalls. “And I started making some money from that. My whole mindset shifted. I didn’t know if I was good or not but I was making money.

“As much as I say I didn’t know if I was interested acting when I was younger, it was the most fun thing I remember doing, back to when I was a kid. I was in the school play every year and always looked forward to it as something that was fun to do. But it was just this thing I did. When I started making money, I decided to get serious about it.”

That meant going back to Yale, where he enrolled in graduate school “because I didn’t know what the hell I was doing. I thought that I could maybe have a stage career. So I wanted to train my voice. I wanted to get better at it, to whip myself into shape and get some technique. But I mostly thought I would do stage stuff.”

Writer-director Tom McCarthy (The Station Agent, The Visitor) was a year behind Giamatti in Yale’s graduate theater program, where they became friends. He remembers Giamatti in a production of Chekhov’s “The Bear” that cemented his regard for his friend.

“Anything by Chekhov is difficult for American actors,” McCarthy says. “But Paul made it so accessible. He just has this uncanny ability to make text his own. It was practically a one-man show.”

After graduate school, Giamatti moved to New York and began working steadily in theater, mostly off-Broadway, and TV: “I was really lucky,” Giamatti says. “I did theater and lots of odd jobs. That really kept me afloat. Of course, I had low expenses, so I was able to make an OK living and managed to do alright.”

The watershed year was 1997, where he won small but noticeable roles in films as diverse as Donnie Brasco (as an FBI technician) and My Best Friend’s Wedding (as a bellman who has a heart-to-heart moment with Julia Roberts)—six films in all.
But the one that turned him into a hot commodity as a character actor was the short-fused station manager who becomes Howard Stern’s nemesis in Private Parts. As Kenny “Pig Vomit” Rushton, he exploded to the camera, “There ain’t no God while Howard Stern’s walking the Earth, I’ll tell you that.”

“I started getting a lot more substantial movie work after that,” Giamatti says. “In fact, I began to do movies more than theater.”

Initially, the movie roles were variations on a theme: a twitchy criminal caught in a hostage situation (The Negotiator), a hyperbolic mob enforcer named Veal Chop (Safe Men), a sidekick to comedian Martin Lawrence (Big Momma’s House), even the bombastic villain in a kid’s comedy (Big Fat Liar). He worked for major directors, even if his roles were small: Steven Spielberg (Saving Private Ryan), Milos Forman (Man on the Moon), Woody Allen (Deconstructing Harry) and Todd Solondz (Storytelling).

Which may be why it seems like a leap for Giamatti to play a romantic lead in Barney’s Version: “After a while, a persona begins to accrete around you, whether you like it or not. People have a lot of associations with me playing unpleasant or difficult people. But I admit I’m more interested in playing the stranger characters.”

He’s also extremely convincing. After American Splendor, he would be approached by people who assumed he was as consumed with comic books as his character, Harvey Pekar. After Sideways, people would engage him in conversations about wine, though his knowledge was limited: “That is flattering because it means my performances were convincing to people,” he says.

But then, because his father was the commissioner of Major League Baseball—who oversaw Pete Rose’s ouster from professional baseball for gambling—people also assume that Giamatti is as rabid a baseball fan as his late father was.

“People used to come up and ask me about Pete Rose all the time.  Not so much anymore,” he says. “My dad had two sides. One was a professor; the other was this sports guy. I was more interested in the other side; my brother is the huge baseball nut.”

Sideways, the movie Giamatti says did the most to establish him, offered a role that was, at least on the surface, an unhappy person, disappointed with himself and what life had to offer him. Yet that kind of role, Giamatti says, often offers more for an actor to dig into than more well-adjusted characters.

“When I think about it, when I was a kid, I was always drawn to those characters,” Giamatti notes. “If I saw The Maltese Falcon, I wanted to be Peter Lorre or Sydney Greenstreet, not Humphrey Bogart. There’s something very interesting about the grotesque, something funny and vital in the idea of that kind of character. They always appealed to my imagination. It’s more of an invitation to an actor to be eccentric and vivid.”

There’s a different challenge, Giamatti says, to playing a character based on someone in history, whether it’s someone whose face is on television all the time (like Ben Bernanke) or someone out of the history books, like John Adams.

“I took a lot of liberties with John Adams, but who knew?” he says. “The series was based on David McCullough’s book, but I’ve got to make a character out of him. I thought, ‘Let’s not see him as the guy on the money or a marble bust.’ So I had to allow myself a lot of latitude not to be that.”

The miniseries, for which Giamatti and costar Laura Linney swept acting awards from the Screen Actors Guild, Golden Globes and Emmy Awards, took six months to shoot “and I think Paul had one day off,” Linney says. “It was a Herculean effort. We had a real adventure together. We’ll always be somewhat bound to each other because of that.”

“It was physically hard,” Giamatti says. “But it was fantastic to be immersed in that character and that world 24/7. Getting to do it for that stretch of time, it gives you a chance to relax into a role.”

Part of Giamatti’s appeal on screen is his ability to show you exactly what he’s thinking, even if his character is maintaining a poker face. That’s true whether he’s playing John Adams, the grumpy would-be writer Harvey Pekar in American Splendor, the earnestly aggressive boxing manager in Cinderella Man or the maniacally competitive corporate giant in Duplicity.

“Paul is an actor who would have worked in any era,” says Duplicity director Tony Gilroy. “There’s no era where he would not have been an MVP, the actor that has every director saying, ‘I’ve gotta have that guy.’ He brings all that truth into a really fun place. He’s so truthful and fluid that he can be brave and bring strong flavor to your project. And he just gets better and better.”

Still, perception—such as the one that Giamatti only plays characters who have some dark, twisted kink to their soul—is “nine-tenths of the law,” says college colleague McCarthy. “People tend to generalize and categorize. When you look closely at Paul’s body of work, he’s done an amazing range of characters. He takes every role so seriously that he finds something original.”

McCarthy recently directed Giamatti in a film, Win Win, which he also wrote and which will be released in April 2011. The movie takes Giamatti in an unexpected direction: likeability.

“You see him playing Pig Vomit or that American Splendor role and he nailed them—he’s the ultimate grouch,” McCarthy says. “That’s how everyone sees him, and he’s not like that. So when I told him about this film, I said, ‘There’s one obstacle. This character, he’s a happy dude.’ This isn’t a guy who’s been beaten down or one having a mid-life crisis. He has everything he wants.”

“Tom approached me and said, ‘I’m interested in seeing you play this guy because he’s nice,’ ” Giamatti says with a laugh. “ ‘He’s friendly. He’s not unpleasant or unlikable.’ And that was a challenge for me to do. It’s a challenge anyway because a character like that can quickly seem like he’s not dramatic. Drama is about conflict. An unconflicted person is not a dramatic person. Someone like that can be clownish or vapid. There’s not as much to grip on to. And that might be my inclination as an actor—to find something unpleasant or dark, with the vulnerability hiding underneath. Not that this character doesn’t have those things, but he negotiates stuff differently.”

Giamatti, who got his start on the stage, was last on Broadway in the 1999 revival of “The Iceman Cometh” starring Kevin Spacey, and last appeared on a stage in an off-Broadway production of Bertolt Brecht’s “The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui” with Al Pacino in 2002.

“I’ve tried to get him back on stage,” Linney says. “He’s fantastic on stage. I saw him in ‘The Three Sisters’ and he’s just a great actor who can do whatever he wants.”

Giamatti, however, has more than enough movie work lined up to keep him busy for the next few years—and a certain fiscal fear that keeps him in front of the camera, though he says, “I want to be in things I hope are good.”


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