Considering his first high-profile film role was playing a man called Pig Vomit, in the Howard Stern biopic, "Private Parts," it's nice to know that Paul Giamatti has morphed into one of our finest character actors. In films like "American Splendor," "Sideways" and "Cinderella Man," and in the HBO miniseries "John Adams," the 43-year-old actor has shown a depth and versatility that few contemporary performers can match. He also has received major critical acclaim: from 2001 to 2008, Giamatti was nominated for 45 awards and won 26 of them, including an Emmy and a Golden Globe for "John Adams." Lewis Beale caught up with the witty and erudite actor during a publicity tour for his latest movie, "Barney's Version."
In "Barney's Version," which takes place over the course of more than 40 years, you play a larger-than-life TV producer who falls in love with his third wife at his second wedding ceremony. What attracted you to the role?
There was no question that it offered me an opportunity to do everything. The aging alone was enough, and the guy has all sorts of points and colors that he hits. And I like the sprawl of the characters.
You gained a lot of notoriety back in 1997, when you played Pig Vomit, Howard Stern's much-reviled producer in "Private Parts." That was a heck of a way to get noticed.
At the time, and still, I love that movie and that part. It's still one of the funnest parts I've ever played. I was doing theater stuff, and that was a great job to have. It got me more work, playing weird parts like that. But I never felt people felt, "What do we do with this guy?"
You studied drama at Yale. What were some of your influences at the time?
I went to the movies a lot, and it was a time when universities still had film societies, and they were showing crazy films. Any actual direct influences, I always liked actors like Robert Duvall and Alec Guinness a lot. Guinness seemed to do so many colorful, eccentric things. They are not big gesture-y guys, but they are very character-y, but it's contained. They make showy choices, but they don't come across as showy. Guinness can be big and over the top, and grounded and believable at the same time.
Any particular way you prep for roles?
It's a case-by-case thing. I never know how much I need or want to do. I'm not a guy who sits around in character all the time. Like in "Cinderella Man" , I did lots of research, and hung out with boxers and boxing trainers. Sometimes, I need to learn an accent for something. I like doing things like that. In , I am doing something vocally, but I'm glad very few people noticed it. There is a Montreal accent I used. And there are people I've known that I modeled the character on. But I didn't want to get too in my own way.
"Sideways," in which you played a depressive wine connoisseur, was the film that really made you a character star. You were nominated for, and won, numerous awards, including best actor from the New York Film Critics Circle. How did it affect your career?
I got a lot more actual scripts sent to me. The number and variety increased. I have and had choice in what I do, but not unlimited choice. I think people mostly looked at and went, "This guy can carry a film, he can play a big part, he can handle it."
You've said that acting became a lot more fun when you started looking upon it more as a job than as a mission. What do you mean by that?
I put too much pressure on myself about it, that I need to destroy myself to do it, and that is something I let go of. It was a maturation process, and at the same time realizing I was injuring myself a lot, and I had to calm down. So I thought, "This is crazy."
Your dad, Bart Giamatti, was president of Yale and commissioner of Major League Baseball. Does that mean you have a lifetime pass to the majors?
No, I don't. I probably could get one. I'm not a huge fan, and it was mostly by default. My dad and brother were big fans. It was around, and when I do follow it, it's the Red Sox.