Paul Giamatti won both the recent Golden Globe and last year’s Emmy for Best Actor in the extraordinary John Adams, and after the sheer exhaustion of appearing in almost every scene of the epic miniseries, the actor has been able to relax and star in a very unique, Indie film which premiered at Sundance.
The film is Cold Souls, in which he plays a character called Paul Giamatti, self-absorbed and self-obsessed, who is rehearsing a production of Uncle Vanya. Embittered and angry, he reads of a company that will extract your soul, keep it in reserve until you need it.
Giamatti also serves as a producer on the project which he was more than happy to discuss with PAUL FISCHER, following the film’s Sundance press screening.
Question: When this came to you, what was your immediate response to the idea of playing a character loosely based on you, but not?
Giamatti: It’s funny, because when I met her – and I met her at the Nantucket Film Festival. And she had written this thing. And my wife pulled her over, because she had told my wife the idea. She was, I guess, shy to come up to me to tell me. So she came up to me and told me the idea. And in point of fact, I heard, yes, I’ll be playing myself. But it was – the idea was actually far more interesting to me than the idea of playing myself. Then when I went back and thought about it, I was a little bit uncomfortable with the idea of, like – I don’t want it to be something that’s all about me, so then I actually read the script. And I was like, ” It’s not all about me,” so I was comfortable with it. You know, I mean, it’s a character and I think one of the reasons she wanted somebody to be using their real name is really just to give it a kind of surreal edge. I don’t really think that it’s a dissection of me, in some way. So I was comfortable with it. It was okay. It was like – it’s a character. And it’s necessary for the kind of absurdity, for it to be ” me,” quote-unquote.
Question: How does something like this read on paper? I mean, it is like looking a theatre of the absurd.
Giamatti: It was and it was a very sparely-written thing, too, the first version of it. But I actually feel like I got her tone, and what she wanted to do with it, pretty well. And the theatre of the absurd sort of quality of it was what appealed to me.
Question: What are the challenges of playing the character in so many different stages? I mean, the angst the soulless guy. There are all of these different levels.
Giamatti: Well, we tried to define them in some ways and I hope that it’s clear in the movie, the different levels of it. But that was the fun of it, and the challenge of it, was to try to figure out what will read as soulless. And when I try to do sort of – more broadly physical things to differentiate the difference. Hopefully, it’s clear. But that was the fun of it, was playing all those things. And it was what was hard about it. She had a very specific tone for the movie. And she was very good about keeping me on point, of what that tone was, because it could very easily have gotten too broad, or not enough. So hopefully it works.
Question: Do you see it as a comment at all on the nature of the actor?
Giamatti: Yeah, sure. I don’t think that’s the major point, but I think it’s interesting to use the central figure of a guy who’s having trouble with his identity, in some ways. An actor’s a good metaphor for it. I mean, so I think that there are some things in the movie that play with the idea of, Is your soul what constitutes you? Or, what constitutes who you are? And so an actor is constantly playing around with who they are. So I think that – yeah. And I liked the way she kind of portrays the sort of somewhat self-serious, depressive, self-involved actor.
Question: Now, did you shoot this after John Adams?
Question: Was it a release for you to go from doing something as incredibly exhausting, I would imagine, as the John Adams miniseries, to doing something like this?
Giamatti: Yeah. Yeah, sure. It was. I was really tired when I did this movie, which I actually think helped, in some ways, with doing this character, because the guy’s really tired, so I could relate, in some ways, to it. But yeah, it definitely was. It was a much more fun thing than the Adams thing was. Which was a great job, and I loved it, but it wasn’t fun. This was fun.
Question: Finally, you’ve won various awards for John Adams. Are you kind of gratified?
Giamatti: Sure. Yeah. Especially with that. I mean, I think everybody felt pretty gratified by the response to the Adams thing, because it was really hard for everybody. So the fact that it went over well – yeah, I think it made people feel good.
Question: Now, you’re coming up in Duplicity with Julia Roberts?
Giamatti: Yeah, and Clive Owen.
Question: Was it a good choice for you?
Giamatti: Oh, I really liked the script. It’s funny. It’s as of cameo-ish part. It was a really fun little part. Tom Wilkinson and I play these rival CEOs, these completely egotistical lunatic CEOs. And he has a product that they’re developing in secret, that I want, so what the movie’s really about is these corporate spy systems. Julia Roberts and Clive Owen are sort of on opposite sides of the corporate spying game.
Question: It sounds like a lot of fun.
Giamatti: It was a lot of fun. It was great. And it was – again, I was – it was something fun to do. I did that right after this, Cold Souls, but it was fun. That’s the thing, it was really a low-pressure job for me. I’m not in it very much and it was a couple of really fun little scenes that I had. I got to have a nice suit, and order everybody around, and be kind of like, an effectual, captain of industry kind of guy, so it was actually kind of a different role from what I’d been doing right before it.
Question: One of the last times I interviewed you, you talked about how the job needs to be something very attractive to you in order to leave Brooklyn. But yet, you’ve been working non-stop.
Giamatti: I know. Yeah.
Question: How are you able to balance all of this?
Giamatti: Well, it’s tough. I mean, it was definitely a tougher year. In some ways it was fun, because this movie – I actually produced it with my wife, and my partner in this company that we have, Touchie-Feelie Films.
Question: I like the name.
Giamatti: That was my idea. I, like, picked it out of a hat. And they were like, ” Fine. Good.” So in a way, I was home more, doing this movie. I mean, I really was. So that was easier. But I took some time off, actually, for the past couple of months, and just haven’t done anything.
Question: Have you signed to do anything?
Giamatti: I’m going to do a movie called Babylon in Jamaica in a couple of weeks. Again, it’s not a big part, which is nice.
Question: What is that?
Giamatti: It’s a movie about Jamaican – the Yardies, the gangs in Kingston. And it’s directed by, really, an interesting Colombian director named Andy Baiz. And it’s a kind of socially-conscious thriller. I play an Anglican minister in it.
Question: Do you try to be very selective in what you do?
Giamatti: [LAUGHTER] Yeah. I don’t want to be precious about it. But I try to – I want to do stuff that’s gonna be interesting to me to do, yeah.
Question: Well, you played Santa Claus. I mean –
Giamatti: Yeah. But I wanted to do that, you know?
Question: And it was fun.
Giamatti: Yeah. I had a good time doing that. I mean, and I’ve gotten a lot of goofie kids comedies. And look. I mean, obviously it was a nice payday, too. But it was a payday that I wanted to do. That I felt good about doing.
Question: I liked Thunderpants very much. I own that film.
Giamatti: Oh, I love that movie. Now, that was a movie I did entirely because I thought it was hilarious. The script.
Question: It’s so original.
Giamatti: That’s a great movie. And it was weirdly ignored.
Question: Very underrated. The Weinsteins really threw it away.
Giamatti: I know, it just vanished. And it was a criminally underrated movie. It’s a great movie.
Question: I know. It has a lot to say.
Giamatti: It does. And it’s beautiful – that movie, to me, is one of the best examples of what you can do with no money at all. Cold Souls, actually, is too. But that movie, the production design of that movie, they had no money on that movie, Thunderpants and it looks great.
Question: I think the first proper interview I did with you was here at Sundance for American Splendor. Having gone to Sundance a number of times over the years, do you think the festival has changed dramatically since you’ve come here?
Giamatti: No, what was funny, when I first came here, it was like, 2003 or something and everybody had said to me, ” It’s changed completely. It’ not like what it used to be.” So the brief time that I’ve come here, four or five years that I’ve come here, no. I don’t feel that. I mean, clearly the economic situation in the world is affecting it here, but it’s doing that everywhere. I mean, I think people are probably a lot more terrified about buying films, and things like that. But that’s inevitable.
Question: And in fact, with a movie like Cold Souls, which is a very nervous film, how nervous are you about the fact that –
Giamatti: Well, I was – I would be nervous with anything here. But people are interested, so I’m really happy that anybody’s interested. We’ll see what happens. I think this year people are gonna have to buy things. They’ve got to have movies to put out, right? I mean, they’ve got to have something to put out there.