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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 3)

“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.”

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.”

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