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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 2)

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.

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