Paul Giamatti is not an actor who takes on wallflower characters. By his own admission, the critically acclaimed Sideways star is less comfortable being naturalistic, than over the top and gets a chance at truly showing what he’s made of the cartoonish world of Mr Smith, an innocent bystander being pursued by Giamatti’s relentless hit-man. Genuinely modest about his success, the actor next plays Santa Clause opposite Vince Vaughan. In a New York hotel room, the actor talked exclusively to Paul Fischer.
Question: Now, the transition that seems to have happened between Sideways and in some way, is extraordinary for you. I mean, this career of yours has really taken off in leaps and bounds. How surprised are you?
Giamatti: I started making money acting when I was about 22. And I mean, I wasn’t making a ton of money, but I was making a living at it and I didn’t expect to do that at all. I expected to do other things, so I thought, “I’ll keep pursuing this.” My biggest ambition was to just make a living at it and there was a part of me that always figured I would work, and that was about the best I ever thought of it. So all of this is really a surprise to me.
Question: Why did you want to be an actor, in the first place?
Giamatti: I don’t know. I mean, I suppose ever since I was a kid, I liked watching plays, and movies, and I liked sort of acting things out, but I never had any conscious awareness that I would be an actor. Then once I actually started doing it as an extracurricular thing in college, I never had any awareness that I could be an actor, you know what I mean? It didn’t seem like something you would actually do with your life, but clearly I had some compulsion to do it, for whatever reason, I don’t know. I can’t really say why it satisfies me so much.
Question: You’re a character actor, in a kind of leading man industry. Yet you’re able to bridge those two worlds. Has that been incredibly challenging for you?
Giamatti: It’s strange. I never expected to be doing that. I mean, I don’t think I ever really played the lead in a play, particularly and never expected to be playing the lead in anything. I mean, I’m perfectly happy to do it, and I enjoy doing it. I mean, I was perfectly happy playing the sort of secondary characters. I’m happy to play the lead, but it’s a different mindset that I don’t think I have quite embraced. You really have to be kind of a team leader guy in some ways, especially on a movie, playing the lead. I mean, there’s an expectation of you to be that thing and I’m not really much a guy like that.
Question: Now, on a movie like Shoot ‘Em Up, do you look at the overall picture of it, or was this character so sort of irresistible on his own?
Giamatti: No, it was the overall picture of the thing, more than anything, actually, with this thing, because it was the people who were going to be in it. Then it was the script, and it was the director. But I knew the character would be fun to play eventually, once we kind of worked it up into something, because it was kind of sketched in, in a lot of ways, on the page. But I just thought the thing itself seemed kind of interesting.
Question: Michael increased what your character got to do, once you agreed to do the movie, I believe.
Giamatti: I suppose so. I mean, part of the thing was the director said, “If you want to do it, I want to kind of develop it up more, and build it around you, or what I would see you doing, maybe, in it,” and stuff like that.
Question: How do you draw the balance as an actor between being over the top, and keeping it kind of real with a film like this?
Giamatti: I don’t know. I mean, I always feel like I’m a little bit over the top. I don’t actually feel like I’m great at being so real, and naturalistic and have never felt like I was a great naturalistic actor, but like it’s a little bit heightened and unreal. I’m more interested in that and I feel like it’s just kind of how I do things, anyway. I didn’t really draw too many lines in this. I think sometimes I was a little too over the top in this thing, but it called for it, and it was a tricky line to draw, in this thing. But I didn’t worry about it too much in this thingI mean, the hardest – one of the hardest roles I’ve had was in Sideways, because it was a much more naturalistic part and I was not terribly comfortable doing that.
Question: How were you able to pull that off?
Giamatti: I don’t know. It was harder for me. I always feel like I’m not the greatest, most natural-seeming guy in the world as an actor, but I had to do it in that, and that was sort of the task. So maybe that’s how I pulled it off. Just knowing it was the job, I don’t know.
Question: What was the attraction of doing Fred Clause for you?
Giamatti: Well, I’ve gotten a lot of these sort of big comedies like that and most of them I was not particularly interested in. Again, there was an odd part to be playing [Santa Clause]. I mean, that I sort of said, “Well, this is one of these kind of silly comedies that I could see doing,” because most of the time I’m getting these things where I play some guy who gets his head stuck in a toilet, or somethingand then I got this, and I thought, “Well, playing Santa Claus will be sort of interesting.” It was just such an odd idea, to play Santa Claus. I thought, “That would be kind of funny.” So, that was appealing to me and I thought, “Vince is a funny guy, so this could work.” Plus you know, it is a payday, that thing, too and I’m not gonna pretend that it wasn’t a motivation.
Question: A big studio movie.
Giamatti: Yeah, a big studio movie. A lot of those, I kind of go, “Eh, it’s a big studio movie, but this, I liked it very much. So I thought, “Well, I can be comfortable getting a payday, and doing something that I like.”
Question: Vince generally has a very different approach to acting than you do: How did the two worlds mesh?
Giamatti: The improvisation thing is what he was all about. I don’t know what he’s like on other things, but he’s a really good actor, but the improvisational thing is huge for him and in a lotta ways, you have to just follow that lead, because he’s the center of this movie. That was a challenge, but again, it was like, “Well, this is the job and the task I have to do.”
Question: So, they hired you, and they said, “You have to be prepared to do this.”
Giamatti: They did say to me – yes. I said, “Is there gonna be improv in this?” And they said, “Probably. So be prepared for the fact that it will be there.” So I was. And it’s a different skill set. I don’t know that I necessary have it as a skill. But I was willing to – I was game to do it.
Question: Was there any stuff you did that you – that you thought afterwards, “This is really not bad, actually.”
Giamatti: I actually did have moments of going, “Well, I’m better at this than I thought I was.” And I would go, “Well, okay. I pulled some things out.” I’m able to do it way better than I thought I was gonna be able to do it, which actually was a big hurdle for me to get over, because I’ve never been comfortable doing it a lot. Sometimes they’ll ask you to improvise stuff in movies because the script is bad and because they want you to improve it, which is much harder to do, because you sit there and go, “Well, I don’t know what to do. I mean, I don’t quite know how to help you save this moment, because this is badly written. What am I supposed to do?” So, if there’s a foundation of something, I felt more comfortable improvising and there was a definite foundation to this thing.
Question: Now in the latest indie movie, Pretty Bird you’re doing, you play what kind of character?
Giamatti: I play a rocket scientist. I play an out-of-work aerospace engineer in this thing. And he was a real guy, who’s in prison now. So I play this sort of angry tough guy rocket scientist and it’s a funny part.
Question: Do you have anything booked after that?
Giamatti: I don’t have anything definitely booked, but there are definitely things I’d be interested in doing, so we’ll see what happens. I don’t have anything definitely booked. I should probably take a little time off, probably.
Question: You work pretty hard.
Giamatti: I do.
Question: How does that affect your family life?
Giamatti: It’s rough. You know, it’s not easy and I missed a lotta stuff this year with my kid because I was working so much. It’s gotten a lot harder, because I’m wanting to take advantage of things. It’s definitely a thing I have to figure out.
Question: Is it hard to find that balance?
Giamatti: For me, it has been recently, yes, because there’s been a lot of things I’ve been like – ooh, ooh, ooh, I want to do that and I want to do that and I want to do that. But I can’t do all of it and I’ve got a family, so I’m figuring it out.
Question: Was it a challenge for you to play John Quincy Adams?
Giamatti: Well, the thing was I’m in every scene of this nine-hour thing, and I never stop talking. The entire thing was a challenge. It was just a hyper-ambitious thing and the whole thing was a challenge.
Question: Did you immerse yourself in research?
Giamatti: I did, for a while, and then I stopped, because it actually started to become too much information. And inevitably it’s a character, and they were messing around with this character, and with history a lot.
Question: Oh, they were?
Giamatti: Well – I mean, they were taking liberties. They weren’t going nuts with it, but, you know, it is a character and if I started getting too hung up in the actual historical details, it would have gotten hard to do.
Question: Were the costumes fun?
Giamatti: Oh, fantastic. Yeah, the period stuff is great. I love doing that kind of thing.