Paul Giamatti

Even the best actors’ careers can fall victim to typecasting. In some cases, it happens earlier than others. For Paul Giamatti, it began in the fourth grade, with a production of The Pied Piper of Hamlin. Giamatti remembers, “I was the corrupt mayor who says, ‘I will give you a bag of gold if you get rid of the rats’–and then says, ‘Fuck you, you won’t get your gold.’ I loved doing it–and that’s basically what I’ve done ever since.”

In a thirteen-year career, Giamatti has established himself as one of the leading character actors working today–which means that even after making more than 35 movies, most people have still never heard of him. He’s played a lot of blowhards and hapless schnooks: the station manager ‘Pig Vomit’ in Private Parts, the clumsy Sergeant Hill in Saving Private Ryan, Andy Kaufman sidekick Bob Zmuda in Man on the Moon, even a slave-trading orangutan in Planet of the Apes. Cast opposite much bigger stars, he not only holds his own, but delivers performances glowing with intelligence, passion, and a faint sheen of sleaze.

Improbably, at age 37, Giamatti has not only become a leading man, but is considered one of the main contenders for a Best Actor Oscar. Being a character actor means living with one foot in the spotlight and one foot in the land of “Do I know you?” Not entirely by design, Giamatti’s been sidling into the light. “I don’t know what makes me any more interesting than anybody else,” he says. “Crooked teeth?”

Last year, starring in American Splendor, Giamatti did a pitch-perfect version of autobiographical comics writer Harvey Pekar. This year, he’s topped his own portrayal of arrogant self-loathing in Sideways, carrying the movie with his portrayal of Miles, wine-lover and failed novelist. “There’s something interesting about that kind of pessimism,” Giamatti says of his two recent star turns. “You just don’t see it that much in the movies.”

Consider this moment from Sideways: at a genteel winery, Miles finds out that the novel he has taken years to finish has been rejected by the last in a long line of publishers. He demands a glass of wine, and then another. When the wine server politelyt attempts to throw him out, he pours a spit-bucket of wine over his head, gargling as much swilled wine down his throat as he can.

“I still don’t know if that’s funny or not,” says Giamatti. Director Alexander Payne had originally intended for the movie to be more of a straightforward comedy, but as he edited it, the characters’ blundering pathos came to the forefront. Now consider this moment: the day on the set when Giamatti portrayed Miles dumping the spit-bucket over his head, he had exactly four takes in which to nail it–because that was how many clean shirts they had. Giamatti recalls, “The last take, Alexander said, ‘That was really good because it wasn’t funny, so now it will be funnier.'”

Giamatti’s new leading-man status is a surprise in part because he’s average-looking, not movie-star handsome. His hairline is receding; his paunch bulges slightly; he’s five-foot-eleven when he stands up straight, but usually slouches down to five-foot-ten. Some people have commented on this in astonished tones, as if Giamatti were an alien with green skin and antennae, sent to this planet to take roles away from Jude Law. He says wryly, “It’s interesting to realize that normality is almost shocking to people.”

Those looks have made Giamatti into a sight gag in some movies–which he says he’s fine with. But something that made him happy in Sideways was that Payne never made his face a punchline, never made it seem impossible that the beautiful Virginia Madsen might fall for him. And he knows enough academic jargon to refer to Madsen’s idealized character as a product of “the male gaze.”

Giamatti’s own male gaze rotates from me to his thumbnails to his soft tacos. We’re eating in a Mexican bistro, walking distance from his apartment in Brooklyn Heights, New York. Even hunched awkwardly over his food, Giamatti is an entertaining lunch companion. After a career spent in dressing rooms and trailers, he can bullshit entertainingly about many aspects of the movie business: why end-of-the-world movies always have more than one character, how the life of Samuel Johnson would make a good film, which Italian zombie movies to check out. Giamatti is a huge horror-movie fan, although he’s never appeared in one himself. “I’d love to do that, but I’d have to have a wrestling match with my agent,” he sighs.

Giamatti grew up in New Haven, Connecticut. His mother Toni, a former actress, taught in the public schools, while his father Bart was a Yale professor specializing in Italian literature, then president of Yale, and ultimately commissioner of baseball, famous for banning Pete Rose from the game. (Giamatti’s father died in 1989; his mother, this past September.) “I was pretty close to my dad,” Giamatti says. “He was an intimidating intellect, but he was also a very warm, down-to-earth guy. He had a definite thing for scatological humor.” Giamatti’s early memories with his father are set inside movie theaters: Italian films, Pink Panther flicks, Monty Python comedies.

When Dad was the ultimate baseball insider, Giamatti didn’t want to collect autographs from his beloved Red Sox–he wanted to meet the umpires. “I was fascinated by them,” he says, getting slightly excited by the memory. “They’re the great moral arbiters of the game, and they’re these weird, chunky blue-collar guys, so separate from the game but so much a part of it. When I was a little kid, I wanted to get a chest protector like the home-plate umpires just because I thought they looked really cool. How fucking weird is that, that I was obsessed by the umpires?”

Giamatti attended Yale himself; he wrote his senior thesis on Herman Melville and spent lots of time acting in collegiate plays, including a production of The Coarse Acting Show where he and future star Ed Norton moved furniture and did schtick between the scenes. But what he really wanted was to be an animator. He did a comic book of a gothic western and collaborated with a friend on a short cartoon called “Flip the Chimp”: “It was about two monkeys fucking and bouncing all over–as much crazy violence and drug-and-sex humor as possible for five minutes.”

Just a few months after Giamatti graduated from Yale in 1989, his father died of a heart attack. Giamatti, depressed, moved to Seattle, where he started smoking large quantities of pot, and reading a lot. Some of the books were pulled directly from his father’s extensive library, as if that would maintain their relationship. “Reading was always a connection to him,” Giamatti says.

Books became a lifetime habit, but after a few years, Giamatti stopped smoking pot and lost his interest in animation. “It’s just a hard life, hunched over the drawing board,” he says. Instead, he did local theater, and even got cast in Cameron Crowe’s Singles as “Kissing Man,” for which he made out on-camera with his then-girlfriend, and even got a line of dialogue. Let history record that Giamatti’s first line in a movie was the single word “What?”

Only then did he get serious about acting, returning to New Haven for a couple of years at the Yale Drama School; while there, he met his future wife Elizabeth, who was studying as a dramaturge. (They now have a four-year-old son, Sam.) He moved to New York to pursue a career as a stage actor, and has appeared in dozens of plays, including The Iceman Cometh with Kevin Spacey and The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui with Al Pacino, where Giamatti did the whole role of an Austrian midget dictator on his knees.

Pacino had previously appeared in one of Giamatti’s dreams; in the dream, when Giamatti got him a sandwich, Pacino pointed at him and said, “Hey, you’re doing a great job.” That praise became a catchphrase with Giamatti’s sister–so it was a surreal day in rehearsal when Pacino offered Giamatti his sandwich.

“I’m amazed that I have now been in 35 movies,” Giamatti says. “A lot of the time, I was doing it to subsidize doing plays. I didn’t take the film thing seriously until not that long ago. You could look down my long and illustrious resume: There’s a lot of stuff I did that I never even saw.”

As it happens, I have with me a printout of his IMDB listings. “Oh, let me see,” Giamatti says eagerly. Grabbing the pages, he reviews some of the obscure points of his filmography: “Detective Wilson in Arresting Gena! I didn’t even know I had a name in that movie. Thunderpants is a good movie, actually. It’s British–for some reason it never came over to America.” He flips the page. “Breathing Room, I never read the script. I got the pages one day, and they said ‘They need you on Tuesday in a diner.’ And I had a ridiculous sweater with a reindeer on it. That’s all I remember.”

Even on studio projects, Giamatti usually doesn’t have much prep time. “That’s the nature of being a supporting actor,” he says. “Nobody really cares if you know how to throw a knife with your feet or not.” He was cast in American Splendor with only a week to learn how to mimic the real-life Pekar, which seemed impossible but turned out fine. “You read about these guys who play cavemen,” he says. “They live in a cave for a year and a half and make their own arrowheads.” He marvels at the process behind that: is the second month of arrowheads that much more educational than the first one?

The wine expertise Giamatti acquired filming Sideways hasn’t lingered with him; he’s returned to drinking vodka. Basically, Giamatti enjoys staying at home with his family and reading–lately it’s been the novels of Samuel R. Delaney and Kingsley Amis. But another movie he just finished filming, The Hawk Is Dying, has gotten him interested in falconry.

The movie, based on a Harry Crews novel, is about a bored auto upholsterer in Gainesville, Florida, who starts training a wild hawk. “I had the bird on my arm most of the movie,” Giamatti says. “It was fascinating, because you’d rehearse a quasi-love scene, and then you’d put the bird in there, and it would completely change the scene.” Although Giamatti was initially terrified of the hawks, he’s considering spending some free time working with their trainer. He leans forward. “Did you know they have these weird air sacs all over their body?”

Giamatti also has two animated films in the works (Robots and Ant Bully), plus Cinderella Man, a boxing movie directed by Ron Howard, starring someone even more difficult than a wild hawk: Russell Crowe. Giamatti says, “The first thing he said to me was ‘I can just be a horrible, irascible guy, and I apologize ahead of time if I get that way.’ And I had heard horror stories, but I loved working with him.”

Despite all this productivity–Giamatti made more movies in 2004 than he saw–he has a confession. “I’ve gotten really lazy as an actor.” By this, he means he hasn’t done any theater in the past couple of years. “You’re dead from the neck down in movies a lot of the time. It’s not about your whole physical being, it’s about your eyes. And you get really hooked into intense whispering. That’s lazy lazy lazy, man. My voice is probably really flabby. But theater is really daunting–I think about all those horrible productions of stuff that I was in and you just can’t get out of it. You’re locked up in prison for however long it goes on.”

What’s the most Hollywood thing about Giamatti? He ponders. “There’s got to be something… I don’t know that I have enough self-awareness. A big DVD collection? No, that’s kind of nerdy.” Then the answer comes to him: “I have five nice suits in my closet now, which is five more than I’ve ever owned before.” When he needs to attend a premiere or an awards show, the film company insists on buying him a new suit. “I said ‘Just get me a black suit and a white shirt and a black tie–I’ll never have to think about it again.’ But they said, ‘You have to have a blue suit.’ At a certain point, it becomes clear that they’re going to give you a suit whether you want one or not.” So he grudgingly picked out a suit–but was in such a hurry to escape from the store, he forgot to get it altered. He says, “If they gave me free books, I’d take them, but nobody is giving me books.”

We walk out of the restaurant and down Court Street. On his way home, Giamatti stops in Barnes and Noble–he wants to see if they’ve got the new issue of The Fortean Times, the UFO/conspiracy theory magazine. I mention that the success of Sideways may accelerate Giamatti’s career, especially with his nominations for the Golden Globes, and the one everyone assumes he’ll be getting for the Academy Awards.

He looks worried. “I don’t have any complaints about the kinds of jobs I’m getting, or the level of interest. I hope things don’t change,” Giamatti says. “It would be great to get an Oscar nomination, but it would be sadly ironic. My parents would have been thrilled, especially my mom–their absence colors any success.”

Asked if he owns a tuxedo, Giamatti says, “No–should I?” He might need to wear one to the Oscars, I remind him. With a pained expression, he considers yet another formal suit. Then he brightens: “Maybe I’ll rent one.”

Article by Gavin Edwards. Originally published (as “Paging Paul Giamatti”) in a slightly shorter form in Rolling Stone 966 (January 27, 2005).