Paul Giamatti: He's Not An Asshole, Really

Being written about in the New York Times magazine should be a happy occasion. But when Paul Giamatti woke up to find himself portrayed in a way that could make readers think “I'm a f*cking psychopath”, it was possibly one of the worst starts he'd ever had to a day.

The essay was written by a neighbour who saw him on the street in Brooklyn and was all about how Giamatti looked, well, crazy. “He said he didn't want to come up to me and talk to me because I looked like I would hit him or bite him. I don't know why he wrote that. I don't do anything special. I just walk around.”

The problem for actors is that “everybody thinks you're the characters you play”. Which, in Giamatti's case, is a long line of men who are angry, neurotic, misanthropic, or, as in the case of his villain in the hysterically politically incorrect action movie Shoot 'Em Up, just downright nasty. The actor, by contrast, is friendly, self-deprecating and funny. “It's a bummer to have people think you're a psychopath,” he sighs.

However, he likes playing characters who aren't all good – or all bad, for that matter - although he admits to sometimes thinking, “enough with the assholes”. On the other hand, the one time he played a “really happy, nice guy”, a British priest, in a play by David Hare, “it was the hardest thing to do of anything I've ever done.” Giamatti likes his characters to be ambivalent, so they're tougher to pin down. “I think if I even got a heroic part I would probably make him an asshole in some way,” he laughs, “because I really just don't buy it that people are that heroic.”

Barney Panofsky, the role he recently won a Golden Globe for playing in director Richard J. Lewis's lively new adaptation of controversial Canadian author Mordecai Richler's final novel, Barney's Version, is, in many ways, the quintessential Giamatti character. Portrayed by the actor over 30 years of his life, Barney is angry, bitter, cynical, mischevous, disarmingly honest, funny; a disillusioned and frustrated romantic who falls in love with another woman (superbly played by Rosamund Pike) at his own wedding, and then pursues her relentlessly until she agrees to marry him.

“Twenty-five times a day I experience love at first sight,” says Giamatti, “but I wouldn't have the balls to do that. A lot of people wouldn't. But that's the crux of the dilemma you have with Barney, whether he's an asshole or not.”

A kind of lovable rogue, “he  seems like he's a vulnerable guy underneath all of his bluster and stuff.” Indeed, the screen Barney is softer than Richler's original, who is considerably more irrasscible and bitter. “He's bad enough in the movie, but he's really bad in the book. I would happily have been worse,” claims Giamatti, “but I think for a movie, in some ways, people are less tolerant. It's too bad, really.”

People have drawn comparisons between Barney and Miles, the wine-quaffing depressive the actor played in the independent road movie Sideways. And, in fact, it was his breakout performance in that film which made Robert Lantos, the producer of Barney's Version, think they'd found their man. Giamatti acknowledges some similarities between the characters – they're both “disappointed constantly in things”, for example – but considers them quite different, ultimately. “The other guy's [Miles] a terribly desolate guy,” he suggests. “That's a really sad character. I don't think of this guy as a sad character. [And] the other guy's a phoney in a lot of ways and this guy isn't.”

Barney is also Jewish, which Miles wasn't. And neither is Giamatti, although as he points out, he has often been cast as characters who have been explicitly Jewish, such as Harvey Pekar, the real-life comic book author in American Splendor, while other characters have been taken for Jewish when they weren't. He doesn't know why.

“I did Planet of the Apes,” he says, “it's not a very good movie, but somebody said to me once, 'Which ape are you?' and I said, 'I was the orangutang.' He said, 'Oh, the Jewish ape.' It was a Jew that said it, too, so it was funny. But I'm like, [sighs] 'Yeah, I'm the Jewish ape.'"

Giamatti's wife is Jewish and I ask him if this helped to give the actor an insight into Barney's personality. He didn't need it, apparently. “I think I actually appreciate some of the despairing nature [on my own]. There's something about the Old Testament which makes me go, 'Well, yeah, God seems like He's probably crazy, testing people for no reason at all.”

On the face of it, Giamatti himself does not seem to have had to struggle too much in life. He was educated at two elite American private schools, and then Yale University, where he was, reportedly, inducted into the notorious Skull and Bones secret society. He says he's been lucky because he found work from the beginning. “I was willing to do anything. I've done radio dramas, TV commercials and voice overs [he once supplied the voice of a talking golf club cover in an advert with Tiger Woods], industrial films, f*cking all kinds of crap, but I saw that as how I'm going to make a living. I had a very pragmatic take on it. I just wanted to work.”

When his son, Samuel, was born in 2001, he became even more pragmatic, but, ironically, also freer and less obsessive about acting. “I was like, 'Now I don't give a shit, I will do whatever I have to do.'” Three years later he earned his first Golden Globe nomination for Sideways, while his performance in the Russell Crowe boxing movie Cinderella Man brought him an Oscar nomination in 2006. No longer under pressure to take anything, he says: “If I keep reading a script that's a sign that it's interesting. Because I'll stop now, after five pages, if I'm bored.”

The next time we see him will be as King John in Ironclad, a brutal medieval action movie filmed in Wales. “It's really violent, insanely violent,” he says, excitedly. “It was a complete psychopath part. It was great. I was just chopping people up with an axe and covered in blood. I had a great time.”

He should be careful, people could get the wrong idea about him.

Paul Giamatti will next be seen in The Ides of March

This article originally appeared in The Big Issue, January 2011

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