Paul Giamatti has long been considered one of Hollywood’s most interesting character actors, almost exemplifying an ‘everyman’ quality. As we chat in a Toronto hotel room, the always ebullient Giamatti says he tries to constantly figure that out. “I think it has a lot to do with how I get cast what people want me to do because of the way I look I think I am a kind of an off beat looking guy at best,” the actor says, in between mouthfuls of salad. That sense of ordinariness that we often associate with Giamatti’ s characters, is put to the test most effectively in Sideways, a film that is garnering more attention for the actor than any of its predecessors.
In Sideways, Giamatti plays Miles Faymond, a divorced middle school teacher and failed novelist, who, with his altar-bound friend Jack (Thomas Haden Church) take a wine-tasting trip in California, pondering questions about their directions in life. Giamatti says that his odd looks help him tap into the apparent ordinariness of a character like Miles. “Yeah in a weird way, I like to find the quirkiness in ordinary things. I like to find what is ordinary in quirky people,” the actor explains. “It is funny, as my own personal tastes in other peoples performances and in art in general runs to grotesque, morose things but then in my own acting I tend to do these ordinary things; there’s something fascinating about ordinary.”
Giamatti sees his latest character, though, as odd, but admits that “everybody is odd I don’t know. But there are actors I like, like Jack Lemmon, who was really great at those kinds of ordinary guy things.” If one were to believe the critics, this is a unique character for Giamatti, both real and odd, and surprisingly, if not somewhat hesitatingly, even romantic. After years of being the supporting character, Giamatti gets to make out with Virginia Madsen no less. No wonder he was genuinely shocked when director Alexander Payne asked him to do the film. “I was very much shocked and I still don’t know why he cast me, I really don’t and for a while, I thought everybody was fucking with me,” Giamatti laughingly recalls. “I seriously thought this is some vast practical joke that everybody is pulling on me. I went out to dinner with him and he was like I really want you to do this movie and I really just wanted to go but why, but nobody will make the movie if you want me to do it, I mean I was like you could get anybody and everybody. I hadn’t ever done something like that before and certainly if I ever got into an audition for something like that, nobody ever considered me to be a genuinely romantic guy,” says the modest actor.
Giamatti says there are aspects of this character with whom he could identify. “I mean certainly all the sort of frustrations about his art and things like that I suppose I can identify with.” But this is also a character with a deep rooted sense of frustration about the direction of his life, which gets the actor talking about certain parallels between actor and character. “I mean there is a certain way I could identify with the kind of aesthetic pretensions that he has. At times I’ve found that in my life I have let that kind of thing run away with me, in that I feel like that kind of thing is sometimes a protective device, that pretentiousness, which was something I could identify with. and then you get kicked in the ass,” he adds, laughingly.
Almost forty films and 14 years after Giamatti’s debut in the 1990 TV film She’ll Take Romance, Giamatti, whose recent credits include the likes of Paycheck, Thunderpants [a very odd British kid’s film that is amongst his favourites’ and of course American Splendor, Giamatti may be discovered all over again thanks to his road trip comedy/drama Sideways, but this actor remains philosophical on the subject. “I don’t know, just to have the opportunity to do it once is fine, whether it changes it and people let me do more things like that I can’t really predict.” Like the character he plays in the film, Giamatti says he still feels the sense of frustration in his career, “and I don’t think it ever stops for actors. I did that movie Confidence and I remember talking with Dustin Hoffman and even HE was bitching about how he didn’t get some role, so it never stops.” Yet Giamatti, who lives in New York, says that he never been so frustrated as an actor that he has wanted to quit. “I haven’t reached that point and I probably won’t ever, because clearly there is nothing else I could conceive of doing.”
Acting, he says, is something that had always interested him, but doesn’t quite recall why he wanted to do it in the first place. “I guess I really started doing it in college and I mean clearly for every actor, there’s that sort of applause which is nice and all that stuff. I could never decide what to do and as an actor I get to be so many different things so I never had to decide to do one thing, but be an actor and be all these different things. I used to put a lot of philosophical weight on it, and I thought it was going to be something that was going to kind of answer great questions of life, which of course it is not, particularly not acting, I really did have this sort of pretentious attitude about it, which has definitely changed, and I don’t have that anymore. I guess your relationship to it always changes as you grow older, so now it feels like much more of a job to me, which it actually nice. I like that, Instead of feeling it was some sort of a mission I had.”
Giamatti is a successful character actor in a town that celebrates youth and stardom, but Paul is always working, always trying to find characters that challenge him. He says, these days, despite paying for his son’s private elementary school in Brooklyn Heights, he is learning to be more choosy when it comes to picking a project. “I’ve gotten pickier than I was, because I can afford to be and people are allowing me to be a little bit more so, but I am always a bit weary about that. I still have a little thing in the back of my head that says I should do what ever the hell anybody asks me to do because I got a kid, a mortgage and I got bills to pay. So that’s kind of a little bit of a constant struggle for me to just go, ‘well screw it, somebody is offering me this and it is fine and I’ll do it.’ And sometimes I have to step back and go, well maybe I shouldn’t do it and I should wait for something else more interesting or whatever. I don’t know, because there’s a part of me that just thinks that I’d just do whatever the hell came along and happily too! I mean as long as I would enjoy it I would do pretty much anything.”
Yet his next film is certainly something that he loved, Cinderella Man, directed by Ron Howard and starring Russell Crowe. “I had a fun character to play”, Giamatti says of the boxing biopic. As for Crowe, Giamatti describes him as a “super complicated guy, but really smart. I loved working with him and had more fun working with him than anybody I think I have ever worked with. I play his trainer, so everything I did was with him and I kind of loved him, even though there was a lot about him that I can’t even begin to understand and he’s a dangerously complicated guy! But from an acting point of view, if you walk in the room and start throwing stuff at him, he just loves it, because he seems to me like he is only really truly happy when he’s acting. Other than that, I don’t think he is not a happy guy.”
Giamatti says he looks forward to taking a break for a while, admitting that he is tired and yearns to spend more time with his family. “I have to look after my kid, as I haven’t seen much of him lately.”