Giamatti’s first high profile role was in the film adaptation of Howard Stern’s “Private Parts” before appearing in a number of supporting roles in big-budget movies such as The Truman Show, Saving Private Ryan, The Negotiator, Man on the Moon, Big Momma’s House, Planet of the Apes and Big Fat Liar. He has most recently appeared as a building superintendent who discovers a water nymph in M. Night Shyamalan’s supernatural thriller “Lady in the Water” and talked about the project recently in New York:
Question: How was the character of Cleveland interpreted?
Giamatti: Well, I guess to some extent, it was my interpretation of the script. But everything was in the script. It’s great. I mean, you know, the guy’s a doctor but you only hear that once. And you never hear it again. I mean, it becomes significant at the end of the movie, but that… it was important. There were times Night would say to me, ‘Don’t forget the guy is a doctor.’ Because I would react in a way that seemed more like a janitor. It was important to keep in mind how this guy behaved. We had this kind of back-story, that he was from U-Cal Berkeley, a slightly crunchy kind of guy with the glasses and stuff, but mostly the script is there. And then, he rehearses a lot. So it gives you the opportunity to get a lot of detail into it, instead of just diving into it with no rehearsal and throw the thing together as it goes along. He lets you build the detail into it.
The rehearsal time is nice. I mean, I’m fine not doing it too – that can bring a whole different thing to it. But it’s nice to rehearse, and he wanted to rehearse that much. The story had to be so clear, and Night wanted to make sure that everyone was telling the story as clearly as possible because if they weren’t, there was kind of no point to it. If the audience isn’t following the story, then they’re literally going to miss the whole point of the movie.
Question: What about Cleveland’s stutter?
Giamatti: I didn’t want it to become too much of a ‘thing’, because I really worried about that getting in the way of the clarity of the story. Night really wanted it, though. So I kind of just mostly… I, uh, had a friend growing up… and I was just sort of imitating with the stutter. That’s mostly what I was thinking of when I did it.
Question: Did your love of books and sci-fi help inform the character?
Giamatti: Yes, I love science and all that stuff. It definitely gave me the opportunity to sit around and read whacky books about ghosts and weirdness and UFOs, so it gave me an excuse to indulge in that stuff, which was good. It read weird stuff, like books on Big Foot. It didn’t have any bearing on the movie. I read a lot of H.P. Lovecraft, even though it didn’t necessarily have anything to do with the movie, it felt like the right idea. The creepy element, and the whole idea that there’s this whole weird menacing world going on while the normal world is also going on. It felt right. That whole pre-historical thing in the beginning of the movie [the credits] is something that was in the script and then he didn’t want to do it. Then he decided to do it again, and I’m glad he did, because I like the whole mythic caveman kind of thing. It’s great!
Question: What did you think, when you were first approached to play Cleveland?
Giamatti: Night was very secretive about the script. I met him for lunch, and he was real cagey about the script and what it was about. He just wanted to hang out and have lunch. It was pleasant, but he was real cagey. Then he sent me the script, and I read it. It was weird, but it was really good [laughs]. It was really odd, in a good way. I was like, ‘This is just weird, and he can pull this off it’ll be cool.’
Question: I read you were playing ‘hard to get’ with Night.
Giamatti: I don’t recall it that way. [laughs] To him, it might have felt like five months, but I think it was about a week. I wasn’t playing hard to get, I think I was just… I think my wife was on me about spending time with my kid, or something. So I just didn’t get around to reading it for a few days. Night is an enthusiastic guy [laughs], so I think he was like, ‘Come on, man. Do you want to do this, or not?’ I feel bad now, knowing that. That I left him in suspense like that. I mean, I’m always thinking, ‘This guy’s not serious… he doesn’t really want to hire me…’ Which I know is stupid, but I feel bad that I left him in suspense.
Question: What if he’d never shown you a script?
Giamatti: I would have been sold anyway. I mean, I would like to have known what was going to be going on. I’d like to know I’m not going to be naked and painted like an idiot, or something like that. I would have been sold anyway, because I like his movies.
Question: So, what did you think of the script?
Giamatti: He didn’t explain it to me, I had to read it. He wouldn’t tell me what it was about, and I didn’t ask. He said, ‘It’s a fairy tale,’ that’s all he said to me. ‘This movie is like a fairy tale’. I was like, ‘All right…’ I mean I understood it, it’s an ambitious idea. It’s ambitious to make the main point to the movie the story. To literally make the action of the movie the unfolding of the plot, in two ways. The plot unfolds, because all anybody does in the movie is sit around and tell each other the plot. It’s a really weird thing to try to do. But he pulls it off, I think. A lot of times with the writer-director guys, it ends up being like what you thought it was going to look like because it’s so specific and Night is so specific about it to begin with.
Question: It’s been published that Kevin Costner was another choice to play Cleveland…
Giamatti: I think Kevin Costner would have been great – I like Costner. But I’m glad it was me.
Question: Was that really you doing that extended underwater scene?
Giamatti: Right. I did all that stuff. That’s me [laughs]. It’s all cut, so I didn’t have to hold my breath for the length of that sequence. But there were times when I had to hold my breath for a long time, definitely. I think it’s still in the movie, that part when I have to breathe out of that glass [underwater]. It gives a surprising amount of air. I was amazed by how much air I got out it. I was like, ‘This is going to look ridiculous, I’m not going to be able to do this.’ But I learned how to do it, and you can actually get a lot of air out of it, which is convincing [on-camera]. I enjoyed doing that, it was a lot of fun, actually.
Question: Can you talk about the benefits of shooting in sequence?
Giamatti: I think that was probably pretty helpful. I’ve never done that before, and sometimes, in ways, it’s actually OK to not shoot it in sequence because you get the hard parts over with early. But I think for the clarity of this story it was important.
Question: Bryce Howard, your costar and the daughter of Ron Howard, is kind of naked in this movie… Did you talk to her dad about that?
Giamatti: He was like, ‘What are you doing with my daughter in this movie? He was a little bit like, ‘… So what, exactly…?’ She was great. She’s fantastic, and she is an incredibly open and vivid and vibrant person and she’s just really fun. She’s a really good actress. It was meant to be, I mean, the holding-close; there’s meant to be a somewhat sexual undertone to some of it. I mean, that there’s a kind of attraction and it works that way, then it turns into a father/daughter thing. So that makes it a little bit interesting, but she was great. She is incredibly skillful, and she’s one of those people who makes you better. She sharpens you up a lot.
Question: Night has a pretty significant role in this movie; what was it like acting opposite your director?
Giamatti: I had seen him in his other movies, and I always thought he was good. I never thought about the fact he wasn’t an actor or anything. He’s really good, and he’s totally natural. He’s very hard on himself, wants to make sure that he does a good job. He’s interested in it and he has a good time doing it so it actually kind of never occurred to me that he wasn’t an actor. There were times I was like, ‘Damn, he’s a good-looking man,’ It’s like, ‘Wow, god. He’s got more on the ball that I do as an actor.’ He can just kind of stand there with a smoldery look and I was like, ‘God, I wish I wish I could do that.’ I think the way he looks, and his naturalness, lends himself to being an actor.
Question: Did he talk to you about the apocalyptic and philosophical underpinnings that run throughout Lady In The Water?
Giamatti: [We discussed it] sometimes. I mean, definitely. You know, he wants it to have a big, cosmic kind of message to it. When that eagle comes down in the end, it’s kind of a myth more than a bedtime story. He really wants to create kind of this weird, modern myth. [Joseph Campbell] There’s a lot of Joseph Campbell stuff. I mean, I don’t know whether he intends that, or he’s consciously doing that, but there’s an awful lot of it in there. I’d be interested to know. [When you interview him] ask him, because he’d never cop to that, to me.
Question: Did Night do any on-set rewrites?
Giamatti: No, not really. He’s interesting too, because he does reshoots as you go along, sometimes. He’ll go back… I’ve never done that before, but I know that there are directors who do it. So sometimes he’ll go back and look at something and if he’s not satisfied with it, and because he doesn’t make them these ridiculously longs days, he was able to go back and reshoot some things as we were going along.
Question: Is it any different working with a writer-director?
Giamatti: If the guy is good, it’s actually much better. Because they know it better than you’re ever gonna know it. So they have a really sure hand on it, and it just feels comfortable. It just feels really comfortable to me. Somebody like Alexander Payne and Night, there’s a real comfort level with it. They’re not trying to negotiates something with another writer; they’re got the whole together, and that’s all taken care of. You know what I mean? So that’s great, you feel like you can do your job and they can really help you.
Question: What’s coming up next?
Giamatti: I did Rob Zombie Presents: The Haunted World of El Superbeasto, and I have The Ant Bully coming up; I play an exterminator. The Illusionist. And I did a thing called The Amazing Screw-on Head, which is a cartoon. It’s a half hour cartoon for the Sci-Fi Channel and it’s about a Civil War era secret agent.