He has made a career out of playing life’s unlikeable oddballs – the needy losers and the creeps – but Paul Giamatti is fine with that
Paul Giamatti’s identity is unusual for a Hollywood star: he’s an abrasive ass. Not in real life, you understand, but he has made his name playing them in films. From the wine snob of Sideways to the irresponsible and breathtakingly rude TV producer with three dysfunctional marriages of Barney’s Version, he has made a brilliant career out of portraying characters that we couldn’t bear to sit beside for two minutes in real life, but who you can watch with appalled fascination for two hours at the cinema.
That’s fine by Giamatti. “I've played a lot of cynical characters,” he says easily. “Maybe that's a good thing because I don’t get bothered much at airports."
Giamatti gives brave, generous performances but sometimes even he hesitates as to whether everyone wants to see them. When he was offered his first lead role, in Sideways, he thought, “No one will want to make this movie – and who the hell is going to want to watch a movie about wine?"
As it turns out, his crashing wine snob’s cry of “not the merlot!” became the cry that haunted purchases in Oddbins. After the film was released in 2004, merlot sales dipped, while pinot noir – his character Miles’s grape of choice in the film – received a boost.
Giamatti men can be crabby or calculating, funny or sweet, but they are practically always the best thing in a film. Even if you are unfamiliar with the name, most of us can place his pudgy face and nervous grin in some of the 50-odd films he has appeared in, and sometimes stolen on the strength of a few choice scenes.
I first noticed him as Pig Vomit, the censorious radio producer in shock jock Howard Stern’s scabrous and self-regarding biopic Private Parts, which ushered in a string of roles as annoying creeps, conmen and arrogant losers. From there he broadened out to work as a talking orangutan in the Planet of the Apes remake, appearing in the TV gallery of The Truman Show and supporting Tom Hanks as a GI in Saving Private Ryan.
There have been some lows – you can only assume that baby really needed shoes when he appeared in the British comedy Thunderpants, about a fat, flatulent British child – but even when the script is fluff, Giamatti can whip up vital energy or eccentricity.
Some actors make a fortune looking like an ideal – the rascally matinée idol (George Clooney), the chipper, over-energetic hipster (Robert Downey Jr) or the slightly tarnished golden boy (Brad Pitt). And actually Giamatti is rather fond of Clooney, who cast him in The Ides of March last year. “I like him. He’s smart, he makes good movies and it’s always fun with George. And he didn't pull any pranks on me, only because he thought I'm too old and I'll rattle if he pulls a stunt on me.”
The point is that Giamatti is younger than all of them, but he looks like a university professor. “I played old men back in drama school," he says. “It’s just now that I’m drawing level with the age of the characters I play, but I’m fine with that and I've certainly never envied people who became hugely famous when they were young."
The funny thing is that when Giamatti was young, he almost considered becoming a professor, following in the footsteps of his academic father, who became Yale’s youngest president. As far back as he can remember, he never wanted to be an actor. “I was never the class clown, or put on shows at home. I never thought of acting as something I could do with my life. When I was a kid, I used to run around wrapped in toilet paper so I could be the Mummy,” he says. “But that wasn’t a sign that I was dreaming of being an actor. I was just an odd child.”
However, he did grow up surrounded by the performing arts. His sister Elena became a ballet dancer, his older brother Marcus is also an actor and his parents were both involved in the liberal studies. His Irish mother taught English, while his father specialised in Renaissance poetry. Giamatti followed his father as far as Yale, but when his father died in 1989, shortly after Giamatti completed his English degree, it galvanised him into a change of direction. “It was more I had to do something with myself, rather than thinking, ‘Now I'm going to do what I always wanted to do,'” he says.
He started working on stage in experimental theatre and then on Broadway before picking up work in movies. His first role was as a brain-damaged stablehand, where he just had to stand there and brush a horse, and for seven or eight years he subsidised interesting work on stage thanks to bit parts in television's Law and Order, which paid the rent. In those days he would be the druggie, or the homeless man who saw the crime, or the FBI technician with headphones in the back of the van. His one line in the show was, “We lost him."
The way Giamatti tells it, his career path was less a vocation, more something he drifted into after doing a lot of odd jobs and considering working in animation. He taught himself from Asterix the Gaul books, but says he came to realise this wouldn’t work out. But he still draws, making his casting as cult crank cartoonist Harvey Pekar in American Splendor a spot-on choice.
He has also played himself, at some personal discomfort, in the underrated Cold Souls, as ‘Paul Giamatti’, an actor so drained of creativity after a spell in Uncle Vanya that he swaps his soul out of his body until the end of the play.
An early draft of the film was a little too close for comfort for the privacy-minded Giamatti, and another rewrite took out some too-personal details. “He was really a version of the character people assume me to be; a neurotic New York actor.” Even now, he still has to correct presumptions from the film. No, that was not really his house and Emily Watson is not really his wife. The real Paul Giamatti lives in Brooklyn Heights with his wife, writer/producer Elizabeth Cohen, and their 11-year-old son Samuel.
Nor is he likely to swap his soul for a respite from the business of acting, although he admits that he sometimes stresses about missing the mark in a performance. “I’m pretty easy to get along with on set,” he considers, “but I’m probably hard on myself. On the other hand, what’s the point unless you are going to try to get it right?”
It helps that he seems to have a grounded life, although he skilfully dodges describing it. He’s a guy who likes stability, he says, and Elizabeth is the reason for most of their socialising, since she’s energetic about keeping up with friends and going out. What does she like? Well, you would really have to ask her that yourself. And, of course, she isn’t here.
In person, Giamatti is sharp, self-deprecating and at ease with himself, which is perhaps why he lacks the vanity gene. Even when he played the president of the United States, it wasn’t a Lincoln, a Washington or a Franklin, but John Adams, who was oversensitive, stubborn and a great pain in the neck for most of the nine-hour mini series. It won him an Emmy to set alongside his only Oscar to date, as best supporting actor in The Cinderella Man, but it underlines yet again why he’s the go-to guy when you need someone unhappy or edgy. When Tom McCarthy wanted someone to play an everyman hanging on by his fingernails, he courted Giamatti for the rather great Win Win.
“I'm not an actor, I'm a movie star," exclaimed Peter O'Toole's over-the-hill swashbuckler in My Favorite Year. The opposite applies to Giamatti, who would rather be an actor, using his hangdog look and imperfections to power his way through human messes and morasses with passion and humour. “When I was looking to make a living, I realised there would always be a use for a guy who looks like me. The white male is one of the easiest things to be. There’s always a job, there’s always something for you to do.”
He’s a little shocked by the idea that it is brave to play someone unlikeable, but it has come to the point where most of our favourite actors play heroes in white hats or cartoonish villains. The discomfiting, the needy, the brashly deluded are usually presented in diluted form, even if you are a quirky draw like Johnny Depp. “It’s as if the existence of these characters makes some people angry. I find that strength of reaction fascinating. Shouldn’t we see it on screen? I find the selfish narcissists and the crazies are often fun to be around. I don’t have a problem with that. I don’t mind ‘unlikeable’.”
He picks projects based around what tickles his interest, but also because he fears movies will become homogenised if we avoid messy situations, difficult psychologies or the risky.
Recently he completed The Congress, a live-action science fiction animation piece from the director of Waltzes with Bashir, Ari Folman, and bagged a role in a version of Romeo and Juliet, where his Friar Lawrence dishes out advice to British actor Douglas Booth, who has been cast as Romeo, and True Grit's Hailee Steinfeld, the film’s Juliet.
There’s also an as-yet unrealised ambition to play the science fiction writer Phillip K Dick, a project he has supported and tried to get off the ground for some years now. More immediately, Giamatti has two films released this month. In Rock of Ages, he joins Tom Cruise and Russell Brand in a Broadway musical based around 1980s metal rock songs. A shirtless Tom Cruise plays a self-absorbed guitar hero, not unlike Axl Rose of Guns ’n’ Roses, Brand gets to wear leather pants again, and Giamatti plays Cruise’s sleazeball manager. “I sing Whitesnake’s Here I Go Again and Journey’s Any Way You Want It,” he says, a little sheepishly. It’s not the first time he has sung – there’s a ferocious karaoke version of Try a Little Tenderness in the film Duets, co-starring Gwyneth Paltrow – but getting in touch with his inner rocker required a key change. “I like the idea of having a whole bunch of people around me singing and dancing, but those songs are hard to do – they’re high.”
In Cannes, he looks more manager than rocker in a light summer suit, black-rimmed glasses and a close-cropped haircut, here to promote David Cronenberg's adaptation of Don DeLillo's Cosmopolis, where he plays a stalker to Robert Pattinson's billionaire asset manager. The film is abstruse, challenging, and a wordy take on the greed-is-good arrogance of modern capitalism, culminating in a 22-minute, two-handed showdown between Pattinson and Giamatti.
At the global press conference that follows the film’s first screening at the festival, it’s Pattinson, just emerging from his Twilight phase as a lovestruck vampire, who draws the bulk of the questions, while director Cronenberg and writer Don DeLillo mop up the rest of the attention. Giamatti is only consulted once.
Other actors might get cranky about being overlooked like this, but Giamatti is rather amused by the Pattinson land-grab. Apparently he has seen all the Twilight films. “There was just me and Rob,” he teases, meaning that he has an edge over the rest of us – apart from Kristen Stewart. “I got to gaze into his eyes and just be in love with him. It was a little mini movie, which was nice.”
• Rock of Ages and Cosmopolis are both on general release from 15 June
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