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It wasn’t the most glamorous breakthrough role in the history of cinema, but Paul Giamatti’s scene-stealing turn as Kenny “Pig Vomit” Rushton in the 1997 Howard Stern vehicle Private Parts immediately made him one of the most sought-after character actors around. From there, Giamatti got memorable supporting roles in a wide range of projects in Hollywood and the indies, including Saving Private Ryan, The Truman Show, The Negotiator, Cradle Will Rock, Man On The Moon, Storytelling, and a scrappy little comedy called Big Momma’s House. But with his superb work as Harvey Pekar in the biopic American Splendor, Giamatti proved he could carry the lead, too, and his breakthrough there led to even juicier roles in films like Sideways, Cinderella Man (which earned him a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination), Lady In The Water, The Illusionist, and the title role in the HBO miniseries John Adams, which swept the Emmys and earned him a Best Actor prize.
In the new film Cold Souls, written and directed by first-timer Sophie Barthes, Giamatti is out front again as “Paul Giamatti,” an intense New York actor tortured by his role in a stage production of Uncle Vanya. When he learns about a “soul storage” service that could unburden him from his troubles, Giamatti has his chickpea-sized soul extracted. But being unburdened has consequences, and by the time he decides to return his soul to his body, Russians gangsters have absconded with it. Giamatti recently talked with The A.V. Club about choosing his roles, playing “himself,” playing real-life people, and what’s up with the sequel to Bubba Ho-tep.
The A.V. Club: How you would describe the relationship between yourself and “Paul Giamatti” in Cold Souls?
Paul Giamatti: I suppose the uninteresting answer but the honest one is, it always seems like a character to me who just happened to have my name. It felt like a certain kind of neurotic New York actor. I wasn’t really thinking of it so much as me. So I never got too hung up about that any more or less than I do with any other character I’ve ever played.
AVC: Are there some similarities, though?
PG: That’s a tough one, because like I say, no more so than other things. There’s no direct biographical connection, and I certainly hope I’m not as neurotic as this guy is. I don’t know that I’d be able to get out of bed in the morning. [Laughs.] I don’t want to get too heady about it, but I don’t know how much any character has of me in it, or it doesn’t. I really looked upon it as if it was just another character. If I thought about it too much, I would have had a hard time doing it; if I thought, “Oh, this has gotta be me in some way.”
AVC: So there was never any impulse to draw that character closer to you?
PG: No. In fact, at one point, the director actually did a version of the script that had more directly biographical references that were identical to my life. And that didn’t make me comfortable. Not just because I felt private about it, but also because I thought maybe it would get distracting to have these things thrown in there that might distract from people just taking in the movie.
AVC: So was this her conception of what she imagined you to be, based on your work?
PG: I guess. Yeah, I think more so the idea for her was something to do with a persona that I have in relation to some of the work I’ve done. Definitely. The movie is about the soul and how much that has to do with who a person is and things like that, and how much it goes toward making up people’s ideas of themselves. So I think that was the more interesting thing to her: the persona, rather than the actual person.
AVC: Was it flattering for you to have this role written with you in mind?
PG: Sure. Yeah. It was very much so, though I think she originally conceived it for Woody Allen. I guess she figured she wouldn’t get him, but I’m available and I’ll do anything, so I was glad to do it. [Laughs.]
AVC: Your character is tortured by the role he’s playing in a stage production of Uncle Vanya. Do you have trouble living with your roles as the character does in this movie? Some actors say they can just walk away from a part, while others talk about it almost like detox.
PG: I don’t know that I’ve ever felt like I was so overwhelmed by a part that I was kind of crippled, and that I would come home and beat my wife because I was playing a wife-beater or something. [Laughs.] But I definitely notice sometimes in unconscious ways, it can sort of affect what I’m doing. If I play a more aggressive, stronger guy, I often go through my day feeling a bit better than when I play somebody who’s not. So I suppose in subtle ways I sometimes feel like it can, but I don’t feel like I’ve ever been unable to go on with my life because I was playing some suicidal guy, or something like that. I think I’ve gotten better at letting go of it. Part of the fun of it is that you get to take out your angst and then leave it behind you.
AVC: When you’re on set, are you the sort of actor who remains in character to some degree, or is that just when the cameras are rolling?
PG: It depends. I don’t think I’m a guy who stays in character all the time, but there are definitely times when I feel I need to be a little more focused, so I’m not fucking around all the time off-camera. Other times, I feel like fucking around off-camera helps me stay looser and more up for what the thing is. So it’s case-by-case. But I don’t think I’ve ever walked around in character off-camera. No.
AVC: How do you prepare for a role like in Cold Souls? You’re asked to do quite a lot, but it doesn’t seem like much can be researched.
PG: [Laughs.] There wasn’t a whole lot to research. I mean, again, it’s a case-by-case thing. I never know. Some jobs, I’ll feel like I have to do a lot more research—literally research, if I’m playing a historical character or something like that. And some things, if there’s something about the movie… I did a movie about boxing [Cinderella Man] and I got very interested in boxing and watching boxing and reading about boxing. And it helped, too, with the part, hanging around with boxers and stuff. With this thing, I just needed to be a bit more loose with it and open to what [Barthes] wanted to do with it. It was more spontaneous. And she talked to me about what she thought about the idea of soullessness and stuff, so I had to think about it. But it always seems like a different thing. Sometimes I just need to read the script a lot, and sometimes I need to read other sources or study a particular kind of person more. Just whatever feels right.
AVC: In this film, the pre-and-post-desouling scenes from Vanya look like they were a substantial challenge.
PG: [Laughs.] Yeah.
AVC: Because when you’re doing it seriously, it seems you’re playing more the part of a quote-unquote “serious actor” than an actor playing that role. Is that fair to say?
PG: I know what you mean by that. In trying to be serious with it. That was actually the most difficult part of the whole thing. Just having to do that in the first place was a little bit tricky. And trying to come up with a way to play it badly was tricky in its way, but I knew it would be easier than having to play it well. And if I take what you’re meaning, that in some ways I had to seem like the actor being more serious about approaching it than—is that what you mean?
AVC: Right. More serious than the way you would perhaps approach it.
PG: Yeah. I think that that’s actually kind of true. But definitely that was one of the trickier things, because there had to be a discernible difference between the performances. So hopefully you can see a difference, however it’s playing out.
AVC: I was curious to see more of the soulless version of Uncle Vanya, and what that would look like over the long haul.
PG: Oh, me too. I liked [Barthes’] idea that you sort of become overly confident without a soul, like your regulating device gets removed. So the idea of playing Vanya so completely wrong like that, as this overly confident guy, is a funny idea.
AVC: What was it like shooting in Russia?
PG: It was great. I was only there for about 10 days. I wish I could have been there longer. But all the Russian actors—and there’s a number of them in the movie—prepared us for it to be this terrifying sinkhole of vice and infamy and mobsters. Like we’d all end up in the trunk of a car, strangled with barbed wire. And it didn’t end up being like that at all. They were really nice people. And it’s nice shooting a movie in a place like that, because you really get to see the city in a way you wouldn’t otherwise. You don’t go to the touristy places. You go to the places where people are actually living. And in a city like that [St. Petersburg], it’s pretty intense. People are living in pretty ghastly ways in parts of that city.
AVC: Is that part of the appeal of being an actor, getting to go off on adventures like these?
PG: Big part of it for me, yeah. Always been a big part of it, going to some weird city. Now, actors get so familiarized with Eastern Europe. [Laughs.] I never imagined I’d get as familiar with Budapest and Prague and places like that in my life. But I definitely like that part of it.
AVC: Looking at your filmography, it seems like since American Splendor, you’ve been out front in a lot of movies in a way you hadn’t been in the past. Are you more insistent on playing larger roles?
PG: No, I’m definitely not insistent on it. If a good one comes to me, I’m happy to do it. What’s expanded in a nice way for me has been much more interesting supporting parts, and that’s a nice sort of baseline to have. To have suddenly gotten more interesting supporting stuff was great. And then I’m more than happy to play the lead in things, if people are interested in me doing it. I don’t know how long it’ll last, but it’s definitely something I enjoy. Lead roles are fun, but I’m especially happy other, more colorful supporting stuff has come along.
AVC: Do you feel more comfortable in a supporting role, as opposed to having to carry a movie?
PG: No. They’re both challenging in different ways, in nice ways. It’s been more of an adjustment doing the lead thing. And it’s harder, in its own way. You’re having to invent more as you go along, you know? Working in a bigger space like that can be tricky. But they’re both wonderful things to do. I’m happy to do whatever the hell somebody wants me to do.
AVC: What about a situation like John Adams? What kind of an undertaking was it to play a character over such a long span of screen time? Does it become difficult to modulate your performance?
PG: Yeah, it definitely does. On the other hand, what was great about that was the amount of time I had: I really felt like it gave me a lot of time to relax into the thing. There was this huge sweep of time, playing 60 years of somebody’s life. [John Adams] was a difficult man, and playing him right was difficult to modulate in general. But yeah, that was large. Just the physical stamina for that was the hardest part of that.
AVC: How so?
PG: Oh, I was just there every day for six or seven months, all day long. I don’t think I had a day or two off the entire time. So it was just a lot of talking and walking, and a lot of makeup, and getting handed a three-page speech five minutes before I had to do it.
AVC: Last time we spoke to you, for Lady In The Water, you were very self-deprecating or critical of your own work, even in movies like Sideways, which many people adored. What do you see in your performances that perhaps fans of your work don’t? Do you have a tendency to pick apart your performances after a movie is completed?
PG: I definitely do. I definitely have a tendency to only see the blemishes of things, and see lots of things about my acting that I don’t like. I think I’ve gotten a little easier on myself, or at least a little more usefully critical of myself. I think before, I just couldn’t take looking at myself at all. I don’t know. I’m happy people see something I don’t see. I’ve very critical of myself, and film has been an adjustment for me. I’m glad; it’s a challenge in some ways. Certainly not boring. But it’s always been hard for me to feel like I get it, get how to act on film. I feel like I’m gradually getting it.
AVC: As opposed to on the stage?
PG: I was more used to acting onstage, for a long time. I don’t know, maybe I was temperamentally more suited to stage stuff. And there are things about the stage that I miss in a lot of ways. It’s just a definite adjustment.
AVC: You’ve played a lot of real people onscreen. Some of them are still alive, like Bob Zmuda [in Man On The Moon] or Harvey Pekar [in American Splendor]. Others have families watching over your work. Is there a pressure or responsibility that goes along with that?
PG: There definitely can be. I think some people are more invested in it than others. Harvey Pekar was actually very easy to have around. I think he was also affecting nonchalance, like he didn’t give a shit about it. He did. But maybe because he played around with his own persona so much, he was very comfortable with someone else playing him, and very comfortable with the idea of somebody not taking off from his persona. So he was great to have around. But with other people, it can get tricky, and understandably. They can get a lot more invested in it. It can be tricky to have them around, because they want to look good. They don’t want to come off bad in any way. But Harvey is so invested in coming off bad all the time that he’s happy to see himself behaving like an idiot on camera.
AVC: There’s been a lot written lately about how intelligent adult entertainments like Duplicity, for one, have a problem succeeding in Hollywood.
PG: Did you like that movie?
AVC: Yeah. I think it’s fantastic.
PG: I do too.
AVC: Is that something you’ve thought about? It happened with Cinderella Man as well. Do you ever wonder, “What needs to be done for a movie like that to find an audience?”
PG: I don’t know. I always feel like it may not be a big box-office success, lots of these movies, but I often feel that any movie, no matter what it’s like, as long as it gets released and ends up on the screen or on DVD, it’ll find the people who are into it. I know that it’s a business and people have to be concerned about it making money. I’m happy to just imagine—and I think it’s true with lots of things—that they settle in somewhere and find the people who really like them. Like Cinderella Man. It didn’t set the world on fire, but there’s definitely people who like that movie. And it definitely sort of found its place for people. Duplicity will too. I mean, whether it’s too intelligent or not, I don’t know. And I certainly feel like there’s a place in the world for stupid, silly stuff, too. With Duplicity, I was a little bit like, “This isn’t that hard of a movie.” This isn’t like some huge brain trust of a movie. You gotta be a little bit awake to follow the plot, but it’s really just a kind of light entertainment. It’s like those Cary Grant movies, which are not meant to be anything other than diverting. In a nice way.
AVC: How much calculation goes into what roles you choose to do? Are there balances you’re trying to strike in terms of what you take and what you turn down?
PG: I just don’t want to be bored. That’s the only criteria I have. I like it if the script is good and the director seems like he’s gonna be good. But if I can find a variety of things to do, which I feel like I manage to do, as far as the actual performing goes and the character, that’s huge for me. To be able to feel like I can do a fairly diverse array of things. I’ve been lucky in that way. I don’t mind being stereotyped in some way and playing certain kinds of guys, but if I can find something to occasionally get a break from that, that would be nice. And I feel like I manage to. But there’s no grand scheme other than that.
AVC: What’s next for you?
PG: I’m doing a movie called Barney’s Version, with Dustin Hoffman.
AVC: And have you shot the sequel to Bubba Ho-tep?
PG: We’re trying to get that made, man. We’re determined to get it done. I think it’s a tricky time in the movie business, and I think two years ago, it would have been no problem to get done. But people are fearful. We definitely have a line on some money, and hopefully the beginning of next year, we’ll be able to start shooting it. It’s a really good script.