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Roles of a Lifetime

“Billions” star Paul Giamatti shifts seamlessly from one unforgettable role to the next
| By Marshall Fine | From Paul Giamatti, May/June 2019
Roles of a Lifetime
Photos/David Needleman

Paul Giamatti stood on a movie set, surrounded by hundreds of extras, most of them made up to look like talking monkeys, just like he was. And at that moment, he knew he’d made it. “As a kid, if you’d told me I was going to be in a Planet of the Apes movie, I would have felt like the most powerful human being on Earth,” Giamatti says, his eyes brightening as he thinks back to Tim Burton’s multimillion-dollar 2001 remake. “Then I got paid, and I thought, ‘If I can keep working like this, I’m going to be OK.’ ”

Now 51, Giamatti is more than OK: He has flourished, in an almost-30-year career that has included Emmy and Golden Globe awards, along with nominations for an Oscar and a Tony. The man wears his stardom as lightly as the thin jacket he’s donned against a rainy March morning in New York. In a black sweater and khakis, balding with glasses, he looks like the kind of guy who reads books while he rides the subway. A voracious reader and science-fiction buff (“I like oddball things,” he says) Giamatti has been photographed doing exactly that, the photos going viral on social media.

Greeted as a regular at Teresa’s restaurant in his Brooklyn Heights neighborhood in the lull before lunch, he sits at a table in the rear and orders an egg-white omelette and kasha. In person, he looks like a carefree version of Chuck Rhoades Jr., his driven character on “Billions,” the Showtime series that had just finished filming its fourth season. His receding brown hair and beard show more gray than the burnished Rhoades. The ferocity that always flickers in his character’s eyes is nowhere to be seen. In conversation, Giamatti’s blue-green eyes are inviting, inquisitive, amused.

Part of a generation of actors that includes Tom Cruise, Brad Pitt and George Clooney, Giamatti has carved out his own unique place as a leading man with the soul and look of a character actor. If this were the 1940s, he wouldn’t be Cary Grant or Gary Cooper, he’d be Humphrey Bogart. In the same way that the teen and college-aged baby boomers of the 1960s rediscovered Bogart, Giamatti is connecting with a younger generation that was introduced to him as the crazy jerk who got dyed blue in the 2002 teen comedy, Big Fat Liar. His star run in “Billions” has reintroduced him to a millennial audience eager to delve into his rich filmography.

“Any person’s list of their 10 favorite movies will have one with Paul Giamatti in there somewhere,” says Valerie Bodurtha, one of the organizers of Wax Paul Now, an effort by fans to get Madame Tussaud’s to create a wax replica of Giamatti. “I thought it was hilarious,” Giamatti says. “They papered neighborhoods all up and down the East Coast with flyers. People were sending me pictures of the poster on telephone poles in Miami. Hey, nothing would make me happier.”

That attitude only adds to Giamatti’s street cred as a serious actor who doesn’t take himself too seriously. Since winning both the Emmy and the Golden Globe for John Adams in 2008, he has continued to build his reputation in films like 12 Years a Slave and Straight Outta Compton and television shows from “Downton Abbey” to “Inside Amy Schumer,” where he earned an Emmy nomination playing a very long-suffering God. “I just want to continue to be a working actor,” he says, an approach that has endeared him to a list of directors that includes Steven Spielberg, Milos Forman, Tim Burton, Alexander Payne, Ron Howard and Tom McCarthy.

“It’s always one thing to talk about complexity and conflict within a character. It’s quite another to witness an actor exploring that,” says Bill Pohlad, who cast Giamatti in Love & Mercy.

The youngest of three children of the late A. Bartlett Giamatti, a classical scholar who was president of Yale University and commissioner of baseball, Paul Giamatti attended private schools, then Yale, and considered teaching. But, after getting his undergraduate degree, a fondness for acting led to several years working with an experimental theater troupe in Seattle, an experience that made him decide to study acting seriously. He came back to Yale for grad school, then almost immediately launched himself on the New York stage, picking up TV work along the way. His breakout film role came playing Howard Stern’s explosive foil in 1997’s Private Parts, a character who Stern nicknamed Pig Vomit. Giamatti even got the film’s last word, in a post-credits monologue that ends with Giamatti screaming, “Howard Stern can kiss my ass in Hell!”

It’s amazing how many notable films Giamatti pops up in. You’re watching Saving Private Ryan, Donnie Brasco, The Truman Show or Man on the Moon and, suddenly, hey, isn’t that Paul Giamatti in that small but compelling role? He’s done so many different things that you’d be hard-pressed to single out one film that epitomizes his style. Nobody is better at the cranky loner (American Splendor) or the luckless scrambler trying to hold his own in a confusing world (All Is Bright). Dig a little deeper into the Giamatti filmography, however, and you find characters as diverse as the quietly authoritative police detective in The Illusionist or the seductive TV producer in Barney’s Version.

He’s as much at home as the irascible wine snob of Sideways as he is playing the good-guy wrestling coach in Win Win. He’ll disappear into a real-life character like former Federal Reserve chairman Ben Bernanke (Too Big to Fail), then turn around and do a literary costume drama (Madame Bovary). He’s played Santa Claus (Fred Claus,) a Marvel villain plucked from the comics (The Amazing Spider-Man 2), a crucial Shakespearean character (Romeo and Juliet)—Giamatti has even played an actor named Paul Giamatti in the funny, strange Cold Souls.

If the man hasn’t been film and TV’s most valuable player for the past decade, he’s certainly among the top contenders. For a perfect example of Giamatti’s ability to find humanity and humor in a cringe-worthy moment, look at a scene from the early going in 2018’s Private Life. Giamatti and Kathryn Hahn play a married couple desperately and unsuccessfully trying to have a child. When a doctor suggests the husband’s fertility may be the issue, Giamatti is sent off to produce a sperm sample. As ’90s-era porn plays on a TV in his sterile little collection room, he sits there, pants down, cup in hand, obviously not aroused, a look of resignation and futility on his face. He’s ready to give up—but when he reaches for a remote to turn the video off, he instead seems able only to make the volume louder, stabbing at the remote frantically, to hilarious effect.

“Everything he does is done with such integrity and truth and longing and angst,” Hahn says. “I had worshipped him from afar. People kept telling me, ‘You’re going to love him’ and it was like walking into a friendship. I remember Tamara [Jenkins, director of Private Life] saying that watching Paul’s face is like watching the weather. He’s an incredible listener.”

Casting directors tend to remember the more flamboyant roles, like the cartoonishly volatile bad guy in Shoot ‘Em Up or the paranoid CEO in Duplicity. When he was being considered to play an amiable, upbeat driver for starchy Emma Thompson in Saving Mr. Banks, there was doubt. “They were concerned if I could seem like an ordinary, nice guy,” Giamatti says. “Dustin Hoffman told me once that every actor has two characters in him—three, if he’s lucky. Everything else is just a variation. People used to only see me for certain kinds of things—more depressed guys, at the start. Now I get more power-monger roles offered to me. I don’t get offered that many leads, but the supporting stuff is intriguing and varied.”

Every character is distinctive, but his performances share a common feature: Giamatti’s seamless transformation, to the benefit of the project around him. “You can’t take your eyes off Paul Giamatti when he’s performing,” says director F. Gary Gray, who cast Giamatti in two films. “That’s a very unique quality. You know he’s giving his all. And he happens to be extremely entertaining.”

Paul Giamatti

Tom McCarthy, who cowrote and directed the Oscar-winning Spotlight, has known Giamatti since they were grad students at the Yale School of Drama: “I don’t think I’ve considered a project where his name didn’t come up,” 
says McCarthy, who directed Giamatti in Win Win. “It’s not just his range, it’s the way he connects with material. It’s about how literate he is and how he handles language. He can make even bad writing seem good.”

Maggie Siff, who plays Giamatti’s wife on “Billions,” says Giamatti’s talent comes without an ego. “As talented and powerful as he is, Paul is humble and self-effacing. He’s the least hierarchical person I know. He’s got a voracious appetite for work, a passion and a quick intelligence.”

While the role of Chuck Rhoades wasn’t written specifically for Giamatti, he was always the producers’ first choice, say two of the show’s cocreators, David Levien and Brian Koppelman. But Giamatti was involved with a pilot for another show and originally unavailable. When they heard that pilot didn’t get picked up, Levien and Koppelman pounced, locking Giamatti down for their series.

“We’d seen him play those characters who get the short end of the stick, which he does so well,” Levien says. “But in The Illusionist, he was playing a guy who was the smartest guy in the room, next to the Illusionist. That was when we saw he could play this kind of commanding figure. So for him to play a powerful prosecutor—a high-flying achiever—well, we felt we knew something other people didn’t know.”

“He has an incredible tool kit,” says Koppelman. “He’s a brilliant man, with a wicked sense of humor. Which dovetails nicely with Chuck Rhoades.”

For its first three seasons, “Billions” pitted Giamatti’s Rhoades against Bobby “Axe” Axelrod, played by Damian Lewis. Rhoades, U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, wanted to bring down the ruthless hedge-fund billionaire Axelrod. To make things interesting, Rhoades’ wife, Wendy (Maggie Siff), works for Axe as his in-house shrink. By the end of the third season, both men had suffered serious career reversals and wound up as allies for the start of Season 4. But, Giamatti notes, they’d probably never be friends.

“The wife is the complicating factor,” he says. “My guy is very jealous of that relationship between Axe and Wendy. Chuck and Axe are both super-Type A. Not being a Type A myself, I don’t know how they’d get along. But they’re both pragmatists. So each one recognizes the usefulness of the other.”

And Mr. and Mrs. Rhoades are not your run-of-the-mill power couple. The very first shot of the show’s pilot revealed that Chuck and Wendy’s sex life was far from the mundane, and involved sadomasochism, with her as the dominatrix and him as the submissive. Playing that particular sexual twist with Giamatti is always educational, says Siff: “Paul has so much power as an actor but, from a professional perspective, he never feels dominant,” she says. “His acts of submission on this show are so forceful that it makes the act of being dominated powerful and mind-bending.”

For his part, Giamatti says that being trussed up as part of the Rhoades’ bondage-and-domination rituals is actually relaxing. He’s even been known to doze off between takes while tied up on the set. “It’s akin to swaddling a baby,” Giamatti hypothesizes. “Obviously, it’s comforting, though probably not in the way most people think of comfort.”

Like a number of characters he has played over the years, Chuck Rhoades indulges in cigars, usually with his power-broker father (played by Jeffrey DeMunn). “I remember we shot a scene at Nat Sherman, because Jeff’s character had a private humidor there,” Giamatti says. “In fact, Jeff had a whole speech about cigars. It’s definitely a cigar-y world. These are ostentatious, wealthy guys. Cigars are a symbol of their power and wealth.”

The varied characters Giamatti has played approached cigars in different ways. The conniving movie producer Marty Wolf in Big Fat Liar lights a huge stogie, then uses it to ignite papers. In his Oscar-nominated role as boxing manager Joe Gould in Cinderella Man, he kept a cigar jammed in the corner of his mouth: “He was very feisty and old-school.” And the aging womanizer in Barney’s Version? “That guy smoked very self-indulgently.”

Giamatti smokes on-screen, but not off. Cigars are props through which he helps both create and discover the character—in the same way he uses things like a cane, a pipe or a pair of glasses. “There is a way that it physically frees you up,” he says. “It frees the mind and the body; it’s very expressive.” While researching America’s second president to play him in John Adams, Giamatti says, “I came across this stray anecdote, which made a reference to Adams ‘chain-smoking’ cigars. So I talked to the show’s period advisers about it. We decided he must have gotten them shipped to him from Holland. We finally settled on these little black cigars from Connecticut and I smoked them all the way through.”

“Billions” examines power in all its forms: how to get it, how hard it is to keep it and how it transforms the people it touches. Giamatti doesn’t pretend to understand the series’ serpentine saga of aggression, reversal and double-dealing. (“I can’t keep up with the plot,” he admits.) Still, he says, “It’s enhanced my understanding of the transactional nature of those worlds and how deep it goes. But that kind of thing exists in my profession as well.”

Paul Giamatti

Being in a television series allows Giamatti regularly scheduled hiatuses, which he has used for other projects, starring in Private Life and playing supporting roles in films such as The Catcher Was a Spy, The Phenom and Morgan. He’ll be seen opposite Dwayne Johnson in next year’s Jungle Cruise. He also used some of the time to shepherd his son Samuel to look at colleges. Giamatti has been divorced from his ex Elizabeth for nearly a decade.

“If it’s possible, we’ve managed to have a happy divorce. We live in the same neighborhood and we’ll all have dinner together. It’s all very Brooklyn Heights, very ‘woke,’ ” he explains, arching a trademark eyebrow to mock himself.

In addition to his on-screen work, he’s also produced films and TV series (AMC’s “Lodge 49”). “There’s a certain satisfaction in helping to facilitate something, or to help a writer,” he says.

The alliance between former enemies Rhoades and Axelrod on Season 4 of “Billions” meant more scenes between Giamatti and Damian Lewis, who’d rarely shared the screen in the first three seasons. That has renewed talk about Giamatti and Lewis doing a play together. At one point, a couple of years ago, the two floated the idea of hitting the boards in Neil Simon’s The Odd Couple. The casting seems obvious—or does it?

“Clearly, the obvious thing is for Paul to do the Walter Matthau role and Damian to play Felix,” Koppelman says. “But I think both could do either role.” Giamatti was a creature of the stage before he moved into film: “I’ve never gotten the same satisfaction working in film that I get onstage,” he says. “But I’m more used to it now. I’m more in control, yet free at the same time. It’s funny and odd. But I would like to do theater again.” He last was on stage in 2013, when he played the title character in Hamlet at Yale Repertory Theater. The experience was both exhausting and enriching.

“I took away so much from that,” he says. “The major thing is that I think it’s actually a pitch-black comedy, a sick comedy. You can’t do it right without mining the comedy. I feel like I got about 40 percent of it right. It’s such an interesting part. As a stage play, it will always be a step ahead of us. And we’ll always be catching up…physically, I don’t think I could do it now. Stamina is hard.”

Giamatti is reminded of a scene from 2002, where he danced while clad only in a plaid Speedo. “Yeah, I was in very good shape then,” says Giamatti, whose body has lately trended more round. “I was swimming and doing yoga. Right now, I’m in better shape than I have been for a few years. I started doing yoga and exercising again, knowing I was going to need stamina for this series.”

Indeed, one of Giamatti’s secrets may be that he has, to a certain extent, looked middle-aged since his 20s. Now 51, he seems comfortable with just who he is.

“I never cared much about what I looked like,” he says. “I’m perfectly comfortable with it. Turning 50 was not bad. Although, physically, it was like someone flipped a switch and I started falling apart. Literally on my 50th birthday. Those biological milestones hit with real accuracy. But I think I’d rather be this age than 20 again, except physically.

“When I was 20, I thought I knew everything. Now I know that I don’t know shit. And I’m more comfortable with that.”

Contributing editor Marshall Fine is critic-in-residence at The Picture House Regional Film Center in Pelham, NY.


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