Paul Giamatti for “American Splendor”

You look at actor Paul Giamatti and there is an unassuming quality about him. One of Hollywood’s busiest actors, he is a rarity in this town: A character actor. And in the Sundance Film Festival award-winning American Splendor, Giamatti excels at playing the brooding, working-class loser, the anti-hero of underground comic strip creator’s Harvey Pekar’s American Splendor.

Despite the film’s critical acclaim, sitting with Giamatti at a purple-d├ęcor restaurant in Park City’s trendy Main Street during Sundance, Giamatti, 36, underplays the way in which this choice project fell into his lap. “It was just sort a standard thing. My agents got it and I read it and went in and met these guys. At that point they were thinking of having the real Harvey Pekar be in the movie, so they definitely wanted the actors playing it to be able to be as much like him as possible. I didn’t know if I could do that, so I met them and then auditioned for it. It was right around September 11, the process was really slow, and so I think nobody really got cast until a week and a half before I started,” Giamatti recalls.

American Splendor is hardly a comic book adaptation akin to those we’ve seen from the big studios. Spider-Man this is not. A unique combination of documentary, dramatized biopic, animated comic book hybrid charts the life and times of Harvey Pekar, the underground sensation whose series of scathing autobiographical comics in the late ’70s and early ’80s gave voice to everyman feelings of boredom, resentment, anger, desperation, paranoia and caustic disgruntlement.

Pekar was a lazy, cynical guy working a dead-end file clerk job in the mid-’70s when–in order to express his consistent irritability and depression over a second failed marriage, as well as to try and emulate his friend Robert Crumb’s success as a counter-culture comic book sensation–he began writing stories about his mundane life. With a variety of artists illustrating his stories, Pekar became moderately famous with his American Splendor series, even regularly appearing on Late Night with David Letterman to hawk his books, but despite this modest success, he never left his day job.

There’s a fine line in American Splendor, between a certain earthy realism and a comic book sensibility, and a line Giamatti, playing an exaggerated version of an actual character, was aware of. “There were times that I was thinking he’s more cartoon-like in some scenes than in other scenes, very much like his own books,” the actor explains. “Some of his stories are more kind of outlandish, broad and cartoony, and drawn in a way that makes them look more grotesque; while them some of them are more realistic. So they were smart about trying to shade it that way sometimes.” The actor says that he was concerned that this comic book-realism combo wasn’t going to work. “We were all worried that it was going to look too over the top or even too under.”

For some, Pekar, at least the persona presented in the film, is such an oddball that he is difficult for audiences to identify with. But Giamatti, who excels at being Everyman, had no such problems. “I definitely feel there were certain things I relate to in the role, though I’m not even definitely sure what they are, but I mean it was the first time I played something, I thought to myself: I actually sort of feel like this guy sometimes.”

The actor adds that “there are definitely certain interests I have in common with Harvey such as music, books and stuff like that. But, I also suppose there’s a certain way of feeling about how you fit or don’t fit into the world the right or wrong way. I also don’t have such an upbeat view of things, so I think I have a match there,” he adds with a nervous laughter. Perhaps that is why Giamatti became an actor, to mask that sense of perpetual pessimism. The actor doesn’t disagree. “I’ve never gone to a shrink to talk about it because sometimes I’m afraid to know why I became an actor, he says laughingly.

Giamatti is the son of the author, Yale president, and major league baseball commissioner A. Bartlett Giamatti. After earning his M.F.A. in Drama from Yale, the younger Giamatti got started on his acting career with small film parts and TV guest spots. He quickly became a recognizable face but his name was not yet well-known in Hollywood, while on-stage he appeared in lead roles for Broadway productions of The Three Sisters and The Iceman Cometh. Giamatti’s film breakthrough came in 1997 with the role of media executive Kenny (aka “Pig Vomit”) in the Howard Stern movie Private Parts. In his next few films, he played small yet funny parts like the inept mob henchman in Safe Men, the slave-peddling ape in the Planet of the Apes remake, and the bellboy in My Best Friend’s Wedding. He then got starring roles in the HBO movies Winchell (opposite fellow character actor Stanley Tucci) and If These Walls Could Talk 2. Giamatti seemed to get good parts in both independent films (Storytelling, Confidence) and in major studio blockbusters (Big Momma’s House, and the hit Big Fat Liar).

After playing the real-life eccentric Bob Zmuda in Milos Forman’s Man on the Moon, he got his first major starring role in 2003 as Pekar in American Splendor, which won the Grand Jury Prize at this year’s Sundance Film Festival as well as a key role in the TV movie The Pentagon Papers with James Spader. He also played a key role in the quirky kid film, Thunderpants, about an 11-year-old boy’s amazing ability to break wind which leads him first to fame and then to death row, before it helps him to fulfill his ambition of becoming an astronaut. Giamatti plays one of the good guys, a secret service agent. A huge hit in Australia and the UK, Thunderpants is still awaiting North American release, and Giamatti says that this one of his films worth seeing. “I’m really glad somebody saw it,” Giamatti says laughingly. “I talked to one guy in England who saw it, and he really liked it.” Here is a case of a genuinely original kid-friendly film that may never see the light of day on this side of the Atlantic. “I think maybe they thought to themselves that it’s too gauche and the humor is not American enough or something, which I don’t actually think is true. Interestingly, my agent sort of thought I would never want to do it, but part of the reason I DID want to do it was because it was the kind of part I’d never really played. I actually played one of the more normal people I’ve ever played, who was a decent guy, and I don’t have to blow up at anybody.”

While Giamatti, who has appeared in over 30 films, laughingly says that many of his films are not necessarily anything you would like to see, the actor remains one of Hollywood’s busiest actors. He will be seen in the Ben Affleck thriller Paycheck later this year, is a voice in the star-studded animated film Robots, he has signed as star of Alexander Payne’s Sideways and John Waters’ A Dirty Shame. The actor admits that he is finally getting a bit more recognition these days. “I’m probably a little bit more known, but I haven’t noticed that anything has increased particularly,” he says, modestly. In an industry full of leading men, Giamatti is a character actor, with no Giamatti persona to hide within, and the actor wants to keep it that way. “To me acting seems to be about trying as much as I can to be different and not ME. I wouldn’t know what sort of persona that I have. The whole point with me is to not have any persona grafted off of myself.” The actor says he’s willing to play any kinds of characters, but yet he doesn’t mind being typecast “as these weird, sort of repressed and angry guys, which is interesting, because it’s an interesting fit.” Harvey Pekar in American Splendor is the latest, and the perfect Giamatti character..