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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 5)

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.”

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