Arts: Jude Law he ain't

Paul Giamatti describes himself as the `funny chubby guy'. But critics are raving about his performance in the Oscar-nominated `Sideways'. Ed Caesar meets him

When God was creating the perfect Hollywood leading man, he probably wasn't thinking of Paul Giamatti, the star of Sideways, who is 5ft 8in on his tip-toes, chubby and balding. But, in the case of this dry, engaging New Yorker, it seems that the industry has failed to read the script - Giamatti and Sideways have accrued critical plaudits and award nominations left, right and centre.

"But Jude Law's not in danger of me getting his parts, right?" drawls Giamatti. "Yeah, Jude doesn't need to watch his back right now." One senses Giamatti's humility is reinforced, after years of bit-parts, by an unburdening sense of relief. "Yeah, it's kind of nice to be in the leading man category," he concedes. "There's only a certain amount of time that you can put up with being the funny chubby guy."

Giamatti's performance as the cartoonist Harvey Pekar in American Splendor, the sleeper hit of last year, had critics and audiences salivating, but it was not until the release of Sideways, the offbeat story of a wine buff (Giamatti) on a road-trip into the wine regions of Santa Barbara with his college buddy (Thomas Haden Church), that the world sat up and paid attention.

British critics have called Giamatti's portrayal of Miles "glorious" and "the performance of his life". But for the man whom many in the film industry feel was criminally overlooked for an Oscar nomination last week, acting was not always a sure thing.

"I was in college, and a friend persuaded me to do a play. I wasn't a drama major or anything - it was all very extracurricular," he recalls. "Then I moved to Seattle intending to do something in the animation business, but I knew a guy who ran a theatre out there. I started making a living out of acting. I thought, `Well, I'm making money and I'm enjoying it, so I'd better keep doing it. Anyway, this isn't such a bad second career.'"

Broadway came next for the Yale English literature graduate, and after impressive performances in Tom Stoppard's Arcadia, David Hare's Racing Demon and The Iceman Cometh with Kevin Spacey, America's theatre business knew they were on to a serious talent. In fact, Giamatti was doing so well on stage that he never really applied himself to cracking the film industry. "I kind of looked upon it [films] as a cash machine while I did plays. I suppose the point at which that changed was a movie called Private Parts. It was certainly a bigger and better role than I had had before, and that was the point at which I started to get more film work than theatre work. I thought, `I'd better start taking this a little more seriously.'"

Despite several small but effervescent performances in pictures such as Donnie Brasco - where his "fuggedaboutit" dialogue with Johnny Depp steals the show - Giamatti never felt entirely comfortable with the medium. "I used to hate it. You just feel cut off from everything," he complains. "Cut off from your body, because it's just all about your face, and cut off from the other actors. It was OK when they were doing the master shot, but the minute they get in your face I still don't feel comfortable with that. I mean, who cares? There's something inherently sentimental about close-ups - it's all about your dewy eyes."

It seems almost incomprehensible that Giamatti, now a 37-year-old veteran of more than 30 films, including Saving Private Ryan, The Truman Show and The Negotiator, still feels ill-at-ease in front of a camera. Certainly, Giamatti still displays no warmth towards the artificial environment of filming. "I've learnt, or begun to understand, that the camera's the eye, and you know, that's the audience," he sighs. "You are actually performing for someone. There's someone the other side of the camera. And when there's someone to act with that's great because you forget about the whole damn thing."

Still, "the film stuff", as Giamatti repeatedly calls it, doesn't appear to be going too badly. "People in the industry and people like yourselves are saying that actors like me can flourish in this `new' environment, but I'm not convinced I believe them," he says. "I guess I'm just more cynical than that. There's no great paradigm shift in my opinion, and neither should there be. I just think I got really lucky."

Giamatti has found himself at the centre of a Hollywood scrum that will only increase if, as expected, Sideways wins an Oscar or two. "Honestly, I'm not being ridiculously self-deprecating here," he says, "but I'm delighted when we're nominated for these things... there's a kind of nameless, useless anxiety that accompanies being nominated, but I don't actually entertain the notion of us winning any of these things."

But if Sideways were to sweep to a Best Picture Oscar in a few weeks' time, what would be his dream project? "I loved working with Mike Newell on Donnie Brasco. And Alexander Payne on Sideways - he was great. He's got a literate and literary mind: he likes words, and I like words." And actors? "I've always admired Robert Duvall, so I'd get on the phone to him. Although what he'd want to do with me I do not know. And John Hurt - he's a great actor. So maybe all three of us get hooked up in some sort of crime caper. That sounds OK."

Having suggested that Flying Pigs might be a good working title, we get back to what the immediate future holds. For the moment, it seems, the balance of small parts in big pictures and leading parts in small pictures is set to continue. He has just finished a tiny independent film called The Hawk is Dying, which he describes as "an American Kes", and supports Russell Crowe in the summer-opening Jim Braddock biopic Cinderella Man. Perhaps more exciting for British audiences, though, is Giamatti's wish to join the Hollywood hordes in the West End. "I know Kevin Spacey a little," he schemes, "so maybe I could wheedle my way into The Old Vic."

For now we will have to be content with the quirky delights of Sideways - a film that has been called both redemptive and hopeful. Giamatti, however, disagrees: "I find it a very depressing movie," he says, as if he had nothing to do with the whole enterprise. "I mean, if that guy and that woman were to have a relationship, it's not going to be a very good one. He's an alcoholic and a wreck, and she drinks a little too much, too. And the marriage, don't get me started. That's going to be horrible. It's kind of a grim movie." This "grim movie" has floored entire audiences with its blend of tragedy and comedy. With Oscar night approaching, it looks like someone had better start writing that crime caper.

Arts and Entertainment
Keith from The Office ten years on

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Maisie Williams prepares to enter the House of Black and White as Arya Stark in Game of Thrones season five

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Albert Hammond Junior of The Strokes performs at the Natural History Museum on July 6, 2006 in London, England.

music
Arts and Entertainment
Howard Mollison, as played by Michael Gambon
tv review
Arts and Entertainment
Colin Firth and Geoffrey Rush in The King's Speech

The best TV shows and films coming to the service

tv
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift won Best International Solo Female (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Shining star: Maika Monroe, with Jake Weary, in ‘It Follows’
film review
Arts and Entertainment

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith arrives at the Brit Awards (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Boleyn's beheading in BBC Two's Wolf Hall

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Follow every rainbow: Julie Andrews in 'The Sound of Music'
film Elizabeth Von Trapp reveals why the musical is so timeless
Arts and Entertainment
Bytes, camera, action: Leehom Wang in ‘Blackhat’
film
Arts and Entertainment
The Libertines will headline this year's festival
music
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Dean Anderson in the original TV series, which ran for seven seasons from 1985-1992
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Muscling in: Noah Stewart and Julia Bullock in 'The Indian Queen'

opera
Arts and Entertainment
Olivia Colman and David Tennant star in 'Broadchurch'

TVViewers predict what will happen to Miller and Hardy
Arts and Entertainment
Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright in season two of the series

Watch the new House of Cards series three trailer

TV
Arts and Entertainment
An extract from the sequel to Fight Club

books
Arts and Entertainment
David Tennant, Eve Myles and Olivia Colman in Broadchurch series two

TV Review
Arts and Entertainment
Old dogs are still learning in 'New Tricks'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
'Tonight we honour Hollywood’s best and whitest – sorry, brightest' - and other Neil Patrick Harris Oscars jokes

Oscars 2015It was the first time Barney has compered the Academy Awards

Arts and Entertainment
Patricia Arquette making her acceptance speech for winning Best Actress Award

Oscars 2015 From Meryl Streep whooping Patricia Arquette's equality speech to Chris Pine in tears

Arts and Entertainment

Oscars 2015 Mexican filmmaker uses speech to urge 'respect' for immigrants

Arts and Entertainment
Lloyd-Hughes takes the leading role as Ralph Whelan in Channel 4's epic new 10-part drama, Indian Summers

TV Review

The intrigue deepens as we delve further but don't expect any answers just yet
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Segal and Cameron Diaz star in Sex Tape

Razzies 2015 Golden Raspberry Awards 'honours' Cameron Diaz and Kirk Cameron

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Syrian conflict is the world's first 'climate change war', say scientists, but it won't be the last one

    Climate change key in Syrian conflict

    And it will trigger more war in future
    How I outwitted the Gestapo

    How I outwitted the Gestapo

    My life as a Jew in wartime Berlin
    The nation's favourite animal revealed

    The nation's favourite animal revealed

    Women like cuddly creatures whilst men like creepy-crawlies
    Is this the way to get young people to vote?

    Getting young people to vote

    From #VOTESELFISH to Bite the Ballot
    Poldark star Heida Reed: 'I don't think a single bodice gets ripped'

    Poldark star Heida Reed

    'I don't think a single bodice gets ripped'
    The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

    The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

    Netanyahu knows he can get away with anything in America, says Robert Fisk
    Families clubbing together to build their own affordable accommodation

    Do It Yourself approach to securing a new house

    Community land trusts marking a new trend for taking the initiative away from developers
    Head of WWF UK: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

    David Nussbaum: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

    The head of WWF UK remains sanguine despite the Government’s failure to live up to its pledges on the environment
    Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

    Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

    Set in a mythologised 5th-century Britain, ‘The Buried Giant’ is a strange beast
    With money, corruption and drugs, this monk fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’

    Money, corruption and drugs

    The monk who fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’
    America's first slavery museum established at Django Unchained plantation - 150 years after slavery outlawed

    150 years after it was outlawed...

    ... America's first slavery museum is established in Louisiana
    Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

    Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

    The first 'American Idol' winner on how she manages to remain her own woman – Jane Austen fascination and all
    Tony Oursler on exploring our uneasy relationship with technology with his new show

    You won't believe your eyes

    Tony Oursler's new show explores our uneasy relationship with technology. He's one of a growing number of artists with that preoccupation
    Ian Herbert: Peter Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

    Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

    The England coach leaves players to find solutions - which makes you wonder where he adds value, says Ian Herbert
    War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

    The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

    Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn