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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 6)

“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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