Paul Giamatti is one of the great actors of our time. Because he’s nebbishy and plays nebbishy parts he doesn’t always get the respect he deserves, but the guy is just great. And he’s a blast to interview as well; this was my second junket with Giamatti and he’s never been anything but funny and interesting. This time it’s for Sideways, the brilliant new film from Alexander Payne, where Giamatti plays the nebbishy Miles, a loser writer who is taking his best friend on a tour of California’s wine country. You can also read my review of the film, as well as previous interviews with director Alexander Payne and stars Virginia Madsen and Thomas Haden Church.
Giamatti was the last person to come to our room – we had been hanging around the Newscorp building this rainy Friday drinking a nice pinot noir provided by the folks at The Hitching Post, a winery in the movie.
Q: Last year you were in town for American Splendor and you mentioned that was your first love scene in a movie. This film has you kissing Virginia Madsen – you’re really going places!
Giamatti: Yup. But Hope Davis is really beautiful. She would say to me during American Splendor, “I look so funny with this wig and these glasses on.” No you don’t. She looked really cute.
Q: You get singled out as someone who is great with everyman characters, and many people assume that’s close to who you are, but that could be just acting.
Giamatti: That’s right! I could be a horse’s ass!
Q: Are you relating to these characters or do you just find them interesting as a part?
I find them interesting as characters, and you know, I tend to be given
similar parts, so people start to think it’s something about me. Maybe
it is, but I don’t know. I’ve never had that experience in my life of
walking in and thinking “this is just like me” but I’ve never had that
thing. I’ve had aspects of that thing I can identify with. But with
this guy, if I was like this, I would have thrown myself under a train a long time ago. I couldn’t get through life like that.
Q: A lot of people ARE like that.
Giamatti: A lot of people are like that, actually, and it’s hard. Look, I’m not the happiest man in the world and I have my own problems and things like that, but they never have to mesh with what I have to do as a part.
Q: How is it different playing a fictional character to playing a real person like Bob Zmuda (Man in the Moon), someone you can actually meet?
Giamatti: It’s more fun – well, not more fun. You obviously get to create the character more. It’s always going to be a character even if it’s a real guy. In some ways it’s easier with the real person, because you’re given a template. You’re given certain things that you can do or they have something is fun to mimic, but it’s always a character. You don’t have that obviously with a fictional character, so you have more latitude to come up with something on your own.
Q: In a way the film is about finding a cushion, where these characters can find some kind of happiness. You go to Maya’s door at the end but we never see if she answers. Where does he go if she’s not there?
Giamatti: I don’t know. Alexander said she moved. He knocks on that door and some old woman answers the door. But I don’t know, he doesn’t go up. He goes sideways, he keeps drifting. But I really don’t know.
Q: But would you say that the movie is about finding a cushion?
Giamatti: I suppose it’s about finding a cushion. I just don’t know necessarily that that’s a good thing. Certainly in Jack’s case, he’s basically walling himself up in a tomb. He’s not going to,be happy married to that woman and it’s not going to be happy marriage. It’s not going to be good, I don’t think. He may repress enough that he can get through his life but it’s not going to be happy for him, and I don’t even think if Virginia and I got together, it would be happy. I drink too much and she drinks a lot and that’s not going to be good. And she’s attracted to a guy who drinks too much. There’s problems in all of it, so I mean, everything’s mixed. I don’t disagree that it’s about finding a cushion, but it’s not necessarily a good thing. The cushion may be a little bit not soft enough. Or too soft.
Q: Will you be playing a romantic lead opposite Julia Roberts soon?
Giamatti: Oh, man! I don’t see that happening any time soon.
Q: She’s doing a voice in the animated film Ant Bully.
Giamatti: She’s doing that? I didn’t know that. I play the psychotic exterminator in that. I don’t think I’ll be having any cartoon love scenes with her in that.
Q: So many of the best scenes in Alexander Payne films are these very understated moments. What kind of rapport does Payne get with you to pull these off?
Giamatti: It’s just who he is. He gets very intimately involved with you as an actor. He doesn’t use a monitor. He sits by the camera. He doesn’t have the little thing over where he has his soy latte and his baseball cap by the monitor. He sits as close to me as I am to you.
One of the one directions I heard from him more than any other, particularly for me and Tom, is to “cover it up more”. Don’t show as much. Sit on it more. He wants it to be hidden more and understated. His comic tone lives in understatement somewhere and downplaying things more often than not. It’s a tricky tone to capture. He doesn’t want you playing things funny necessarily. Sometimes he would have us play something a little more broadly, and then he never uses those takes in the movies. He always uses the more real take.
Tom has a lot of the burden of the humor in this thing. He has to be funny. He had more of a task to be funny, and he was the funnier side of the two guys. For me, it was easier, because I could just forget about being funny. I knew it would be funny in context. But that’s a great thing to be able to do. You don’t have to worry about being funny. You can play it fairly straight and it will hopefully be funny.
Q: There’s a lot of talk in the movie about the wonder of wine, but I got an underlying sadness from your character, an alcoholism. We’re drinking wine here –
Giamatti: It’s a little scary! You guys are drinking wine at 11 in the morning! I just walked into the other room, and those ladies are hammered!
Q: Your character is on the fine line of someone just about to go over the edge.
Giamatti: That’s one of the things I liked in the script when I first read it. I liked the idea of the wine in the specific instance of my character, being sort of a persona that he created for himself. He’s aspiring to something better in his life. You see the weird mother he came from who lives in horrible tract home. He obviously comes from a background he’s obviously trying to forget about. He generally loves the stuff, but his persona is a blind to get drunk. And that was really kind of interesting about it. That was something that I responded to in the script.
Q: Is Miles a good writer?
Giamatti: No. I don’t think he’s bad and I don’t think he’s very good. I think he’s just kind of mediocre, and I think that if he’s bad, he can probably just write some crappy spy thriller and make a lot of money. He just misses being good
Q: And he goes long.
Giamatti: He goes way long! He’s probably not that great.
Q: There is some great chemistry between you and Thomas Haden Church. How did you capture that – did you guys hang out a bunch before shooting started?
Giamatti: A lot of the time in that whole idea of chemistry, a lot of the time you walk in and it just happens. And that just happened in this instance, what a lot of people think is magical. I tend to think that if you have two good enough actors, they come ready and you can create the chemistry. If you have good actors, then can do it. You can fake it, and then you have rehearsal to set it in place. We didn’t even really rehearse that much. We hung out a little bit, but it is something that happened instantly, but it’s mostly because he’s a good actor, I’m a good actor, and we knew what we had to do. We knew that we had to be buddies, so we could do it. Then we also got to be friends, but that’s a nice ancillary thing. I often feel like that “chemistry thing” is something not so mysterious, and it will happen if you just have good actors.
Q: You have done a lot of character parts, and then when you do these leads everyone is blown away by them. Do you think some of the – I don’t want to say better looking –
Giamatti: You can say it! It’s OK, they’re better looking!
Q: Well, do you think that a Brad Pitt or a Tom Cruise can get away with more leads just because of their looks?
Giamatti: It’s an interesting question. Look, those guys are good actors, too. They also happen to be really good thing, which doesn’t hurt. It’s a weird thing.
Doing these things for me has been interesting, because I think it’s confused people in Hollywood more, because they didn’t think I could do something like this and I’m sure they didn’t think Tom could either. So it’s more confusing to them to see someone who’s funny looking because I’m just supposed to be goofy. I’m not supposed to be able to play a serious moment. Guys like that, they’re good actors and good looking. Sure, it helps to be good looking and you can suck and be good looking but it will ultimately bite you in the ass if you’re not a good actor. You’ll only be able to get so far if you’re some good looking guy. Tom Cruise is a good actor.
Q: The roles that you get there isn’t as much pressure to carry the movie. You can do a role or a small play and it’s not a big deal, but Tom Cruise does a play and the world expects magic.
Giamatti: Yeah, that’s a whole different thing what those guys do. I don’t even consider myself playing a lead in this movie. It’s an ensemble thing. I mean, I’m the guy you follow through the movie and you see the whole thing through my eyes, but I didn’t have to carry this movie. We all carried it. The movie star thing is a completely different thing. I saw The Terminal and I was thinking that same thing – the movie is all about him [Tom Hanks] and who he is. That’s a whole different thing.
Q: Well, with the movie stars it’s almost impossible to go see Tom Cruise in a movie and not realize it’s him and think that you’re watching Tom Cruise In Space or whatever. But with a film like American Splendor, you can melt into the role.
Giamatti: That’s great, but that’s lucky, but I’m sure that Tom Cruise would rather that you didn’t go in and think it’s him all the time. But that’s part of movie culture, that you have to know the actor as much as you know the parts they play.
Q: Look at the marketing of this film. The poster doesn’t have your face plastered all over it.
Giamatti: Because people would avoid the theatre if our actual faces were on the poster. Tom and I were joking about that. It’s true, actually. We wouldn’t sell the movie. Alexander is what is going to sell this movie, and that’s what’s great about it. I’m lucky that I don’t have to be, and I’m not exposed the same way. That’s part of the sad thing for actors in the movies. I think it’s better if you can separate the person from the part.
Q: Speaking of movie stars, you’re doing a Russell Crowe movie. What’s it like to work with him, do you have to duke it out for alpha male supremacy on the set?
Giamatti: The movie is done, Cinderella Man. He’s a very interesting guy. He’s a complicated guy. I didn’t have to fight him for Alpha Male supremacy. He does do that and he’s the first person to admit that he does it. But for some reason he was great with me and I ended up kind of loving him, because he’s amazing to work with. He’s a very kind guy, but he’s a very complicated guy. A lot of stuff gets blown out of proportion. I saw things happen that when I read about them in the paper they had no relation to what I saw happen. He gets a bit of a bum rap. He’s complicated and there are people he wants to pull the Alpha male thing with, why I don’t know. But I didn’t have to. I think maybe he took pity on me, because he realized I was the Zeta male.
Q: What’s your part in the film?
Giamatti: It’s a true story about a boxer in the Depression, he was a washed-up guy who became a heavyweight champion. I played his manager/trainer guy. They’re both real guys.
Q: You play a lot of managers.
Giamatti: I do. I never thought of that.
Q: You’ve done a bunch of big films, but you’ve developed a real following with your character work, and people get excited when you have these lead roles. You must have a lot of good projects coming your way.
Giamatti: Like I say, people are a little confused, so there is more stuff coming my way and that’s great. There’s more people interested in me for more substantial things but whether I actually play that stuff, I don’t know. I’m perfectly happy playing supporting parts. I actually feel I’m more suited to be a supporting actor than a leading actor. I’m more than happy to read these things and if someone wants to cast me, that’s great. I’m still a hard sell to a lot of those guys in Hollywood. They’re like..”He’s fat! He’s bald! His teeth are crooked!”
Q: Are you seeing something anything resembles a dream project? What do you want to do?
Giamatti: There is a guy I know, and he could be a completely sketchy character, who wants to make a movie about Phillip K. Dick, the science fiction writer. He was interested in me playing that, and that would be something very interesting to me, because I’m very interested in him. He’d be an interesting character to play.
Q: That’s pretty different character for you.
Giamatti: I guess. I mean, he was schizophrenic and out of his mind. That would be neat to me.
Q: It’s interesting that you bring that up, because at the American Splendor junket we were asking you about Paycheck and you though that Philip K Dick movies should star Steve Buscemi.
Giamatti: I think to make a good adaptation of one of his books, Steve Buscemi should be playing the Ben Affleck part. That’s the kind of person that should be playing it. In the books, it’s somebody like Steve Buscemi, not Tom Cruise. It’s this kind of little nobody guy who is the hero in those books.
Q: Everyone else on Earth has been rumored: has anyone asked you to be the next James Bond yet?
Giamatti: You know how much I would love to be in one of those things? I want to be a villain with steel hands or something. I want to be the crazy world domination obsessed villain. I would love to be a Bond villain.
Q: Have you played many villains?
Giamatti: I play comical, cartoony villains. I”ve never played a real villain. There was a thing that I was reading recently, a script where there’s a character that’s sort of the bad guy.
Q: What are you working on now?
Giamatti: Nothing right now. Just looking for a job.
Q: My readers need to know: Who’s tougher in real life, Russell Crowe or Craig Bierko? My readers are huge Bierko fans.
Giamatti: Who are your readers? Craig Bierko is popular with me! He’s amazing. Who’s tougher? It’s a tough call. Craig is a big guy, he’s a real big guy, and he was in amazing shape. I guess I have to call it a draw.