It’s impossible not to like Paul Giamatti. He’s talented, smart, funny, genuine… the kind of guy you want to hang out with and the kind of actor whose work you never get tired of seeing.
He’s finally back as a leading man in M Night Shyamalan’s "Lady in the Water," and his performance is fantastic, as usual. As far as the movie is concerned, I really liked it. It’s a solid story with classic mythological undertones, a great cast and for once, M Night spares us a cheesy twist ending.
I met up with Paul at the end of a very long day of press interviews. I’m sure he’s friendly with all reporters but he seemed genuinely pleased to be talking to CHUD, and even offered me a sandwich from his lunch cart. (I told you he’s impossible to dislike.) What follows is one of the easiest, most pleasant interviews I’ve had the pleasure of conducting.
Giamatti: CHUD! I know CHUD… isn’t that from an old horror movie?
CHUD: Yes and no. I’ve heard you’re into horror movies…
Giamatti: I like a lot of old stuff. I like all those Hammer Horror movies, the old sci-fi, the old 50’s stuff, I like all of it. Recently, I don’t know, I liked Bubba HoTep. I thought that remake was good.
CHUD: Aren’t you involved with the sequel?
Giamatti: If they’re ever going to do one, sure. I’d happily do it. Have you ever talked to him, Bruce Campbell?
CHUD: Not yet.
Giamatti: He’s fantastic. He’s the best. I’ve never met him, but I think he’s great.
CHUD: I thought I read something with you both attached to a sequel…
Giamatti: We are I guess, if it ever happens, it would be great. I’d love it.
CHUD: Night commented today on your ‘everyman brilliance.’ I know you get the ‘everyman’ thing a lot, do you get tired of it or is it still a compliment?
Giamatti: I guess it’s a compliment. I’ve never thought of myself that way as an actor. It’s funny because when I used to act on stage, I basically played just freaks. If there was a freak, like a legless freak or a leper or some kind of psycho Russian cab driver, that’s what I did. So I never thought of myself as the everyman guy when I acted on stage. That’s something that’s happened more recently. It’s fine with me, it’s an interesting thing. Except, they always seem like peculiar characters I play. This character is a family doctor turned janitor who gets involved with a water nymph. It’s odd but I suppose there’s an everyman thing involved and I’ll just go with it.
CHUD: So maybe ‘everyman’ is really a weirdo in his or her own way…
Giamatti: Well exactly, I don’t think there’s any such thing. Nice. Well done. That’s very good.
CHUD: Yes! One for me. So one of our readers said he would happily watch you read the phone book…
Giamatti: Oh boy, which phone book are we talking about? Philadelphia? Miami would be good. [Laughs] I don’t know but I appreciate that, I think that’s a very nice thing to have someone say. I don’t know, I don’t really understand the phone book. The phone book is a weird thing.
CHUD: I don’t know how you could make reading the phone book interesting… maybe by dancing in a Speedo?
Giamatti: Oh boy, thanks for bringing that up.
CHUD: Hey some people loved that scene!
Giamatti: I know. A lot of people loved that scene.
CHUD: Is that something that haunts you or do you remember it fondly?
Giamatti: I don’t even remember it. While I was doing it, I was really thinking about it… No, it definitely doesn’t haunt me. There are other things that haunt me, that’s not one of them.
CHUD: In doing so many films, so much stage work, are there any scenes that stick out in your mind, or…
Giamatti: Does it all become a blur? Yeah. I’ve been in almost 60 movies or something; it’s a bit of a blur to me actually. It usually comes back to me later, in some ways, when I think about it again I’m like, ‘You know, that was really great,’ but while I’m doing it I’m doing it, I’m not particularly thinking about it. I have a very ‘job like’ approach to it, I do it and I go home and I forget about it.
CHUD: Did you have any expectations or goals when you set out on your acting career?
Giamatti: I wish I could remember [laughs]. I guess it was always something I was interested in, being other people and playing characters. I never thought I was going to do it for a living and I sort of ended up doing it for a living – by default almost. I had no great ambitions about it, I really just figured I’d be a stage actor and I would do film stuff to subsidize a stage career, which is what I did for a long time. The film stuff just started increasing, so I went with it. I had no plan, basically.
CHUD: So there’s been no change in where you thought you’d be, from when you started and where you are now?
Giamatti: No. So in that way it’s sort of pleasing, no matter where I end up. I just don’t really want to have a plan. I wouldn’t know how to have a plan, and then I’d be disappointed I suppose.
CHUD: You mentioned your work in the theater and Night mentioned earlier that he specifically hired theater actors for this film; does that make a difference on set or in rehearsals?
Giamatti: He did? I never knew he consciously did that, why did he do that? Did he say?
CHUD: He said he needed people who could tell a story, because the plot kind of reveals itself through the characters telling the story…
Giamatti: Well, that’s smart. He wanted people who were good with words, basically.
CHUD: Yes. He said the first reading felt like a play and he felt really good about it.
Giamatti: It was like a play. They were all theater actors and it actually had a ‘play-like’ feeling to it. It was all one set and no one really left this one place. I didn’t know he consciously did that. It’s smart to do that because there are a lot of good New York stage actors.
CHUD: Does that affect the on-set feel or performances in any way?
Giamatti: People are definitely, and this is a generalization, most of the time theater actors are completely prepared. They come in and they’re ready to go. It’s just a different work ethic from people who’ve only done film. Although that’s not fair to say, but a lot of the time it means there’s a certain level of preparation. Everybody in this thing, I haven’t done a play in three or four years, but because everyone was theater actors, there is a kind of fraternal order. Everybody kind of understands, is on the same page… but not only was everybody a theater actor, pretty much everybody in the cast was a character actor. Character actors tend to not have as much ego, well they do, but they have a different kind of ego. There’s just sort of a more laid back approach to things with character actors.
CHUD: What kind of ego do they have versus a film actor’s?
Giamatti: Ego, a lot of the time with a character actor, you have to kind of put it on the shelf because you can’t really afford to have one. People don’t really give a shit about your character actor ego. They’re going to take care of the lead actor’s ego all the time, because it needs to be tended to, but the character actors have to, out of necessity, get good at just popping in and doing their job. There’s kind of a left baggage in a weird way, a different set of baggage.
CHUD: So is that something you’re dealing with now that you’re getting more lead actor roles?
Giamatti: I’m getting a little bit more comfortable in the lead thing, but it would be okay if it didn’t continue, whatever’s fine. I think temperamentally, I may be more of a supporting actor.
CHUD: Because of the camaraderie?
Giamatti: Yeah, maybe. I don’t like to have that much responsibility. I’m fine playing the lead in an ensemble thing, I don’t think I’d be capable of the whole star vehicle thing, it’s a whole different ball of wax.
CHUD: Do you find major differences between the ensemble and lead actor/actress projects?
Giamatti: I tend to think of everything as an ensemble. I need the other actors to help me out, you know what I mean? There are people who can function completely on their own, they have a strong enough persona that they can just rise above the movie and be the whole movie. I can’t do that, I don’t know how they do that.
CHUD: I read somewhere that it’s not necessary for you to relate to your characters…
Giamatti: I think I may have said that ‘I don’t think I’ve ever played a character that felt like me.’ People will ask me if I think a character is a lot like me, but I don’t really think I’ve ever had that experience.
CHUD: So how does it become real for you? How do you get into your characters?
Giamatti: I know what you mean, how do you ever feel like you’ve got a grip on it… it’s hard in a movie. You have to just assume you do. You assume you will, in some ways. That’s a good question. I’ve only ever rarely felt, as an actor, that I’ve nailed a part. It was in a play a long time ago. I guess I felt like the character went places I didn’t think it was going to go and I started thinking so unconsciously, and started thinking more like the character. I wasn’t making the choices, It sounds really warm and squishy. That’s a lot more touchy-feely than I wanted that to sound, but I was much less consciously making choices about where the character was going to go, so it ended up in a completely different place and it’s probably the only time I’ve ever done it, but I felt like I was a completely different person. I wasn’t doing anything like myself at all.
CHUD: Seems like that might be a little creepy… I’ve heard some actors have to go into therapy after taking on certain roles.
Giamatti: It can be creepy. I’ve played roles where it was hard on me – emotionally and psychologically hard, I’ve done that.
CHUD: How do you get in and out of those places?
Giamatti: You get better at just turning it on and off, basically. I don’t know how you get there, it’s just something you like to do, you kind of get off on it and you get off on other people watching you do it. It’s weird. It’s a very weird thing to get off on.
CHUD: You’ve said that the whole awards thing doesn’t bother you, but I’ll have you know that on our site there was a huge outpouring of discontent at your not receiving proper recognition. Does that serve as any sort of consolation?
Giamatti: Honestly it was never in the game plan to be getting awards. The idea that people were even talking about me for awards was so far above and beyond anything I’d ever thought… I mean, the whole Academy Award thing was like another profession or something. I never watched it. It was a wonderful thing for me to even be nominated, in a lot of ways, but it just didn’t enter into my thinking really. So I couldn’t really be disappointed to not be nominated for an Academy Award. It was a little weird to me the idea that I would complain about that. Honestly I would so much rather be in a good movie. That stuff goes away pretty fast. No one even remembers what I was nominated for, if I won or not, so it’s the movies… it’s been nice to be in movies that I feel are actually going to last for some time, rather than [being in] just crap.
CHUD: So as far as not having a plan, is that something you can consider successful?
Giamatti: More so recently… I feel like I’ve done some movies that are going to have some life beyond, say, six months.
CHUD: What gives a film that staying power for you?
Giamatti: Film is weird. It can be really unsatisfying, in a different way from a play. I’ve never had the kind of sadness when a movie ends, that I would have when a play ends. So in actual fact, all you have left is the film. You have nice memories from making the movie and that’s fine, but it’s nice to have a good movie. So when I can look at a couple movies I’ve made recently, and say, ‘I really like that. That’s pretty good.’ It’s better than the alternative. Better than looking back on a piece of crap…
CHUD: But;crap is sometimes fun…
Giamatti: Absolutely. There is absolutely good crap, but there’s a lot of bad crap and that’s not good.
CHUD: What can you tell us about Tender Interface? Is it true you’re working on that?
Giamatti: Do you know what that is? You’re the second person who’s asked me about that. It’s an amazing script, but I don’t know how that got to be known, where did that come from?
CHUD: Well I found it on IMDB, which is often inaccurate, so that may explain it.
Giamatti: I am attached to it. It’s a script that I was sent by a Hungarian director. She’s an amazing woman and it’s an incredible script, but it’s so strange she’s having a hard time getting the money for it. It’s this weird science fiction movie about a young girl in Hungary who becomes obsessed with the guys who build the atomic bomb and she has this computer game about them. It’s a really bizarre script, beautiful actually. Most of it would be animated and green screen. It’s fantastic but it’s so off the wall that I don’t know if she’s ever going to be able to find the money.for it
CHUD: And what about the Philip K Roth project?
Giamatti: You mean Philip K Dick?
CHUD: Yes! Damn, I meant Philip K Dick…
Giamatti: [Laughs] Philip Roth… yeah, I’m going to play an old Jew! Philip K Dick… it’s like a Philip K Dick story, the [Tender Interface] movie, it reminds me of one of those things. There’s a possibility of a Philip K Dick movie, it would be great. But Philip Roth, I’d love to play Philip Roth…