Paul Giamatti: Hollywood's humble everyman comes out of his shell

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

He isn't leading man material and he has a reputation for being reserved, but Paul Giamatti is in demand

Two years ago, a piece on Paul Giamatti appeared in The New York Times. Written by the author Austin Ratner, cousin to comic-book creator Harvey Pekar – whom Giamatti so perfectly embodied in his 2003 breakthrough film American Splendor – it was "an odd article", according to the actor. A lament for the writer's own late father, who like Pekar had contracted cancer, it was inspired by the fact that Ratner, who lives in the same New York neighbourhood, had seen Giamatti in a children's playground, with his young son, and had "felt my father's presence".

"It's all about how I looked like a complete psychopath and he didn't want to come up to me and talk because I looked like I'd hit him or bite him," says Giamatti. "And I was thinking, 'People are reading this and thinking I'm a total fucking psychopath!'" He's exaggerating: Ratner wrote that Giamatti "gave off fairly clear signals that he didn't wish to be disturbed. In fact, he seemed to scowl and mutter to himself, while pacing the sidewalks." Even so, it unnerved Giamatti. "I was like, 'Jesus Christ, maybe I actually do!'"

Giamatti has made a career from playing curmudgeons: Pekar, his wine-quaffing writer in Sideways, a Golden Globe-winning television producer in Barney's Version. Even his Hollywood outings – a baby-hunting villain in Shoot 'em Up, a foul-tempered gangster in The Hangover Part II – see him cast as the "frustrated asshole bad guy". Maybe all this misanthropy and misery has started to rub off on him. "I'm sure I'm an asshole in my private life, more so than I think I am," he muses. "I don't think I'm an asshole but I'm sure that people think I am. I try not to be!"

In fact, Giamatti comes across as self-effacing, good-humoured and quietly humble. We're sitting on a sweltering day in an airless Venice hotel, and he's clearly suffering in the heat. "Is the back of my suit all sweaty?" he asks. A patch of moisture has soaked through the oak-green fabric, just underneath his shoulder blades. When I tell him it has, he shrugs. "Yeah, it's fine." Most actors would run for their nearest make-up artist if a bead of sweat appeared on their person. Likewise, most wouldn't turn up with bitten nails.

With his black-rimmed glasses and retreating hairline, Giamatti is hardly leading-man material (when M Night Shyamalan cast him as such in his modern fairy-tale Lady in the Water, he was a janitor with a stutter). Now 44, he's more at home supporting the A-list. Jim Carrey (in The Truman Show and Man on the Moon), Tom Hanks (Saving Private Ryan) and Russell Crowe (Cinderella Man, for which Giamatti won his only Oscar nomination to date as a cocksure boxing promoter) benefited from having him along for the ride.

His latest attempt to make others look good is George Clooney's The Ides of March, a potent political drama set around the race to win the Democratic presidential nomination. While Clooney's Ohio governor Mike Morris has the support of Ryan Gosling's ambitious press secretary and Philip Seymour Hoffman's veteran campaign manager, Giamatti plays Tom Duffy, the man orchestrating the campaign for Morris' rival. The crux of the film comes when the ruthless Duffy lures Gosling's character for a meeting about swapping sides, a move designed to destabilise his opposition.

"Throughout all of this, people keep saying I'm playing the bad guy, and how does that feel, and I keep thinking, 'I don't know I'm playing the bad guy in this. Really, am I playing the bad guy?' I don't think I'm any worse than anybody else." If the film is a little naïve in its cynical portrayal of Washington, the way Giamatti sees it, if you "take away all the political stuff, it's a really dark view of becoming an adult". Those yet to mature are Gosling and Evan Rachel Wood, alongside "the adults in the room" played by Giamatti, Hoffman and Clooney. "It's a grim view of being a grown-up. It's just a bad adult world that they inhabit."

The appeal for Giamatti was to play a character who, despite limited screen time, casts a "shadowy presence" across the film – often talked about or glimpsed on TV in the background (echoing Giamatti's own early career). It's not his first political piece: he won an Emmy for the 2008 mini-series John Adams, in which he played the title role, the second President of the United States. The way he sees it, the backstabbing that goes on now is nothing compared to back then. "The level of personal attack that went on is actually much worse than it is now. They were deeply, personally insulting to each other, in the way you can't be now. You have to be better behaved."

Raised in Connecticut, the youngest of three children, Giamatti comes from a family steeped in the liberal arts. His older brother Marcus acts, his Irish mother taught English and "was very briefly an actress", and his half-Italian father was a professor of comparative literature at Yale. Did Giamatti consider an academic career? "I thought about that. But it didn't happen. I had other interests – acting and animation, though that always seemed like a pretty tough racket." He still draws now, making his casting in American Splendor spot on.

Following his father to Yale, Giamatti graduated with an MA in drama, but never felt confident in his abilities. "It took a long time for me to feel like I could call myself an actor," he says.

His first "meaningful pay cheque" came at New York's experimental theatre La MaMa: "It was no more than $200. I did a weird play in which I played a leg-less, leper monk... it was an opera about a saint in Ireland! I had to drag myself around, and I hung myself at one point. It was completely crazy."

Things didn't get much better when he started getting screen work. Early credits included "Man in Sleeping Bag" in NYPD Blue. His first speaking role, in 1992's Past Midnight, saw him play a mentally disabled stable boy. A decade later, he was further humiliated when tween star Frankie Muniz dyed his ulcer-inducing Hollywood producer the colour of a blueberry in Big Fat Liar. In between, he won bit parts for Sydney Pollack (Sabrina), Mike Newell (Donnie Brasco) and Woody Allen (Mighty Aphrodite and Deconstructing Harry) before anyone knew who he was.

Giamatti gained critical plaudits for Sideways, though he wasn't at ease with it: "The hype actually bothered me," he sighs. "The hype got on my nerves. Everybody is shouting at you and that annoyed me." But he was prevented from becoming a household name when he was cruelly overlooked for an Oscar nomination. When he did pick up an Oscar nod in 2006, for Cinderella Man, Clooney beat him to the punch, winning for Syriana. He admits finally getting nominated "made me feel more relaxed and more confident in some ways. Which surprised me, because I didn't think it would but it did."

While the leading man roles are still few, he's in demand. He's recently completed The Congress, a live-action/2D animated piece from Waltz with Bashir's Ari Folman. He also features in David Cronenberg's forthcoming adaptation of Don DeLillo's Cosmopolis, playing a stalker to Robert Pattinson's billionaire asset manager. "It all takes place in one day, and a lot of it takes place in the car. He's in a limousine, stuck in traffic the whole day. It's a wonderfully strange – very strange – movie." Then there's Rock of Ages, a big-budget adaptation of the 1980s-set hit musical, co-starring Russell Brand and Tom Cruise.

He gets to sing Whitesnake's "Here I Go Again" and Journey's "Any Way You Want It" here. "They're so over the top emotionally that it's really great," he laughs. It's not the first time he's sung on screen – he starred in the karaoke tale Duets 11 years ago – but it is his first all-out musical. "It was really liberating and really fun. I was a little scared of it, then once I started doing it, I could see why people loved doing it." He's playing "a scuzzy music industry guy" – yet another chance for people to confuse him with his characters.

In reality, he's a shy family man who lives with his wife of 14 years, Elizabeth, and their 10-year-old son, Samuel. He collects books – "hard to find, rare" editions – and about the most dangerous thing he seems to do is put on a Led Zeppelin album. So it's not hard to see why this New York Times piece affected him – to the point where, if you bump into Giamatti on the street, you might see him raise a smile now. "I think I have had an eye towards trying to be more friendly," he admits. "So people don't think I'm such a horrible person."



'The Ides of March' opens on 28 October

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

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Feeling all at sea: Barbara's 18-year-old son came under the influence of a Canadian libertarian preacher – and she had to fight to win him back
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Living the high life: Anne Robinson enjoys some skip-surfed soup
TV review
Arts and Entertainment

Great British Bake Off
Arts and Entertainment
Doctor Who and Missy in the Doctor Who series 8 finale

TV
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Chvrches lead singer Lauren Mayberry in the band's new video 'Leave a Trace'

music
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Home on the raunch: George Bisset (Aneurin Barnard), Lady Seymour Worsley (Natalie Dormer) and Richard Worsley (Shaun Evans)

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Strictly Come Dancing was watched by 6.9m viewers

Strictly
Arts and Entertainment
NWA biopic Straight Outta Compton

film
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dormer as Margaery Tyrell and Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

Game of Thrones
Arts and Entertainment
New book 'The Rabbit Who Wants To Fall Asleep' by Carl-Johan Forssen Ehrlin

books
Arts and Entertainment
Calvi is not afraid of exploring the deep stuff: loneliness, anxiety, identity, reinvention
music
Arts and Entertainment
Edinburgh solo performers Neil James and Jessica Sherr
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
If a deal to buy tBeats, founded by hip-hop star Dr Dre (pictured) and music producer Jimmy Iovine went through, it would be Apple’s biggest ever acquisition

album review
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith is joining The Voice as a new coach

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Dowton Abbey has been pulling in 'telly tourists', who are visiting Highclere House in Berkshire

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Patriot games: Vic Reeves featured in ‘Very British Problems’
TV review
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

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

    Refugee crisis: David Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia - will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi?

    Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia...

    But will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi, asks Robert Fisk
    Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

    Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

    Humanity must be at the heart of politics, says Jeremy Corbyn
    Joe Biden's 'tease tour': Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?

    Joe Biden's 'tease tour'

    Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?
    Britain's 24-hour culture: With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever

    Britain's 24-hour culture

    With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever
    Diplomacy board game: Treachery is the way to win - which makes it just like the real thing

    The addictive nature of Diplomacy

    Bullying, betrayal, aggression – it may be just a board game, but the family that plays Diplomacy may never look at each other in the same way again
    Lady Chatterley's Lover: Racy underwear for fans of DH Lawrence's equally racy tome

    Fashion: Ooh, Lady Chatterley!

    Take inspiration from DH Lawrence's racy tome with equally racy underwear
    8 best children's clocks

    Tick-tock: 8 best children's clocks

    Whether you’re teaching them to tell the time or putting the finishing touches to a nursery, there’s a ticker for that
    Charlie Austin: Queens Park Rangers striker says ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

    Charlie Austin: ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

    After hitting 18 goals in the Premier League last season, the QPR striker was the great non-deal of transfer deadline day. But he says he'd preferred another shot at promotion
    Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

    How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

    Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
    Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

    'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

    In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea
    Tunisia fears its Arab Spring could be reversed as the new regime becomes as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor

    The Arab Spring reversed

    Tunisian protesters fear that a new law will whitewash corrupt businessmen and officials, but they are finding that the new regime is becoming as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor
    King Arthur: Legendary figure was real and lived most of his life in Strathclyde, academic claims

    Academic claims King Arthur was real - and reveals where he lived

    Dr Andrew Breeze says the legendary figure did exist – but was a general, not a king
    Who is Oliver Bonas and how has he captured middle-class hearts?

    Who is Oliver Bonas?

    It's the first high-street store to pay its staff the living wage, and it saw out the recession in style
    Earth has 'lost more than half its trees' since humans first started cutting them down

    Axe-wielding Man fells half the world’s trees – leaving us just 422 each

    However, the number of trees may be eight times higher than previously thought
    60 years of Scalextric: Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones

    60 years of Scalextric

    Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones