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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

It’s a few days away, but actor Paul Giamatti knows it’s coming: the big shave-down. Even as he sits in Teresa’s, a neighborhood restaurant near his Brooklyn Heights home, drinking coffee and eating a BLT, Giamatti is anticipating having his head shaved to resemble the bald dome of Ben Bernanke, chairman of the Federal Reserve System. He’ll be playing Bernanke in an HBO film of Too Big to Fail, the best-selling book about the 2008 financial collapse that’s about to start shooting.

“My friends never know what the hell I’ll look like when they see me,” Giamatti says with a laugh. “I’ve always done things like that to change my appearance. At this point, I’ve done so many strange things to my appearance that the idea of shaving my head doesn’t freak me out. You try to change yourself physically so that even if I can’t achieve what I need to, character-wise, at least I did it physically.”

It can be disconcerting for his family and friends, particularly the ones who don’t see him regularly. He may show up with his head shaved—or with long hair and a lavish beard.

“I remember when I went to the Oscars (when he was nominated for 2005’s Cinderella Man), I was making this movie, Shoot ’Em Up, and I had this crazy comb-over,” Giamatti says. “People thought I was a freak. It can be hard to explain sometimes.”
Even harder to explain: the fact that Giamatti, 43, who has the ability to grow a rich, lush beard—whose beard, in fact, is a prominent feature in his new film, Barney’s Version—is clean-shaven just days before beginning to play the amply bearded Bernanke. The problem, Giamatti explains, is that Bernanke’s beard is mostly white, while Giamatti’s is brown with patches of gray.

“You can’t bleach facial hair, the bleach won’t take,” Giamatti says. “I even grew a beard and they said it wouldn’t work. So I have to wear a fake beard.”

The beard, no doubt, will be the only false thing about Giamatti’s performance. In a movie career that spans almost 20 years—but which really kicked into gear in the past decade—Giamatti has developed a reputation as an actor who almost never strikes a wrong note.

“Paul doesn’t fake it,” says actress Laura Linney, who played his wife in The Nanny Diaries and Abigail Adams to Giamatti’s title role in the “John Adams” miniseries that swept the 2008 Emmy Awards. “He goes there. He’s not phony in any sense. He’s a great acting partner because he knows how to give and how to receive—and how to listen.”

Says Tony Gilroy, who wrote and directed Duplicity in which Giamatti acted, “He’s a director’s gift. He’s all-singing, all-dancing, all-talking. He comes prepared, and he gives you all kinds of things you hadn’t expected.”

Giamatti’s latest leap into the unknown is Barney’s Version, a year-end film based on a semi-autobiographical novel by the late Mordecai Richler. Giamatti has received a Golden Globe best actor nomination for playing Barney Panofsky, a TV producer in late middle-age forced to defend himself against an attack in a newly published book, which charges him with escaping justice for the murder of his best friend. As he tells his story, Barney looks back on his life—from his early 20s until shortly before his death in a story that features behavior ranging from the passionate to the outrageous, through three wives and professional highs and lows.

The film offers Giamatti something of a rarity for his career: the chance to play a ladies’ man who cuts a swath through the female population—the guy even hits on the woman who will be his third wife at the reception for his second wedding.
It’s a tough mix, because Barney is the protagonist of the story, but he’s nobody’s idea of a hero.

“Barney is someone with a gruff exterior, as Mordecai was in life,” says Robert J. Lantos, who spent a dozen years trying to get his friend Richler’s novel made into a movie. “He’s someone with whom you fall in love very gradually, especially if you’re a woman. This is someone who has to work really hard at making women fall in love with him. And Paul not only captures Barney’s character but Mordecai’s. Without ever having met Mordecai, he captured Mordecai’s essence. He walks like Mordecai, he talks like Mordecai, he even wears his glasses like Mordecai.”

Richard J. Lewis, who directed Barney’s Version, says, “Paul was the only actor I could think of who could pull off both the age range and the emotional complexity—and the comedy. He finds a balance between the scoundrel and the good guy. You have to like the character and root for him. You don’t have to like what he does, but you have to like him. And Paul makes that happen.”

Giamatti has been so solid playing loners—whether they’re cranks, villains, neurotics or down-on-their-luck good guys—that it’s something of a revelation to see him woo actresses Rachel Lefevre, Minnie Driver and Rosamund Pike (as Barney’s three wives) in Barney’s Version. As Barney, Giamatti is aggressively seductive, a guy who’s definitely got game because he knows he doesn’t have good looks.

“This character could not be played by a conventional matinee-idol-looking actor,” Lantos says.

It’s a side that Giamatti has barely had a chance to show in his previous work, because he doesn’t have the profile associated with romantic leading men: “When they see a romantic movie, people want to project themselves on to Cary Grant or someone like that,” he shrugs. “I’ve played leading roles but certainly not a lot of romantic leads.

“This guy is difficult, but he’s a romantic underneath it all. So is the guy in Sideways and, in a way, American Splendor. The romantic is buried underneath. If I’m playing someone romantic, I’m able to transcend what he looks like.”

Indeed, Giamatti says, it wasn’t until American Splendor (2003) that he played a character who was romantically involved in any way: “That was the first time I actually had to kiss somebody on camera,” he says. “I guess I was romantically involved in Sideways. In this one, I get some great women.”

Why has it taken so long? “I guess it’s because I’ve played a lot of supporting character parts, a lot of sidekicks, guys like that,” Giamatti says. “A major part of it is what I look like.”

Ask some of the women who have worked with him, however, and you’d get an argument. Writer-director Sophie Barthes, who directed him playing a character named “Paul Giamatti” in the surreal comedy, Cold Souls, says, “There’s something very touching about Paul. A lot of women have told me they find him very charming. Beauty is not just about appearance for me; Paul has a soulfulness that’s very moving. He carries a lot of humanity; there’s something happening on his face all the time. It would be interesting to watch him look at the Yellow Pages because he’s extremely human.”

Adds Laura Linney, “Movie stars come in all shapes. So if people say he’s unconventional looking, I say: Compared to what? Paul is fantastic. When you’ve got talent like that, it’s undeniable.”

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.

“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.”

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.”

But, he admits, “I worry about money, about having enough. I don’t know why. I grew up comfortable and well-off. And I have a fair amount of confidence I’ll find another role. But it worries me—worrying about people being happy and feeling good.”

Theater, however, seldom pays as well as film. Plus, Giamatti notes, “There’s nothing worse than being in a bad play. It’s easier to be in a bad movie.”

The fact that he hasn’t been on stage in several years intimidates him a little—but may also push him to go back.
“Not having done it in a while, I have a fear of going back—that I got soft,” he says. “But that’s probably why I should. I’ve gotten a little lazy. So I’ve been thinking about it lately.”

Asked whether there are particular roles he’s dreamed of playing, Giamatti says, “I never know what it is until it’s in front of me.” Then he pauses and says, “Actually, there are two parts I’ve wanted to do for some time.

“I’ve always wanted to play Lucky in ‘Waiting for Godot.’ And the other is the character (Jean) who turns into a rhinoceros on stage in Ionesco’s ‘Rhinoceros.’ I actually do have a stage urge—and it’s not to play Hamlet or Lear. It’s to be a rhinoceros.”

Marshall Fine writes about film and entertainment at his website, www.hollywoodandfine.com.

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