Paul Giamatti doesn’t appear until late in David Cronenberg’s latest thriller “Cosmopolis,” but he leaves an indelible impression as Richard Sheets, a disenfranchised former employee intent on assassinating Robert Pattinson’s 28-year-old billionaire asset manager Eric Packer.
Based on Don DeLillo’s prophetic 2003 novel, “Cosmopolis” follows one turbulent day in the life of Packer as he heads out in his tricked-out stretch limo to get a haircut from his father’s old barber while remotely wagering his company’s massive fortune on a bet against the Chinese Yuan. Throughout the day, he’s visited by a string of characters, including his fetching art dealer (Juliette Binoche), his icy wife (Sarah Gadon), his financial adviser (Emily Hamsphire) and his outspoken ‘theorist’ (Samantha Morton). Sheets is the last person Packer meets during his whirlwind 24 hours, and in an unexpected turn of events, it’s Packer who seeks out Sheets and not vice versa.
Indiewire caught up with Giamatti by phone to discuss the experience of working with Cronenberg and his upcoming role as a slave trader in Steve McQueen’s follow-up to “Shame,” “Twelve Years a Slave.” “Cosmopolis” opens in select theaters today.
Although you play the protagonist’s assassin, I’d wager you play the most sympathetic character in “Cosmopolis.” Would you agree?
I suppose in some ways I’m the most sympathetic guy in it, I would agree with that. And I think that was part of the idea, definitely. I talked to David briefly about it. He didn’t say, “Be sympathetic.” He said, “I’d like you to bring a certain amount of you, of empathy to this part.” So I think that was the idea.
Were you at all familiar with the work of Don DeLillo before taking this on?
I actually was. I like him very much, but I had not read this book. Him, along with Cronenberg and the cast of great people all appealed to me.
So you no doubt must have had a good sense of DeLillo’s use of language before taking on this role. Cronenberg’s script derives a lot of its dialogue directly from the source.
I had some sense of the kind of moral that exists in a lot of his books. There’s a similar sort of style in the dialogue, and David does a really good job of the rest of the dialogue. Something about his style as a filmmaker seems to fit well with the book. The kind of strange, slightly clinical, deliberately slightly flat kind of filmmaking style.
How did you wrestle with the verbose dialogue and own it? You essentially talk in wordy, extended diatribes in your scene opposite Robert Pattinson.
Well, I mean it was nice dialogue to say. It’s eccentric, and it’s definitely got a rhythm. It was a bit of a trick to feel your way into it. My character, he’s got a very elaborate fantasy life. He’s got a very intense story playing out in his own head about the other guy and about himself and this relationship. So I think one of the ways it helped me to feel like I could bring the dialogue to life was to make sure that I was constructing this elaborate, emotional life behind all these words so I could connect them all up. And it was weird, the leaps and logic between the speeches — all of a sudden somebody would start talking about something that seems completely unconnected. So I had to make all these connections, and once I could emotionally figure out what was going on, the words then came pretty easily.
It’s odd dialogue, it seems very kind of bare. I don’t know if it’s very complex and intellectual, but it actually comes to an emotional life very well, at least for me. And I think that guy is, as you say, in some ways the most sympathetic because he’s the most visibly emotionally engaged.
Was it difficult to act opposite Pattinson, whose character is beyond detached from any semblance of emotion? Or did his passivity fuel the scene?
It’s like a therapy session in that you keep switching back and forth between, who’s the therapist and who’s the patient? And so yes, some of his passivity absolutely brought a lot of it to life for me.
How long did you and Robert have to shoot the scene?
I think it took us about two-and-a-half days, maybe? You know, it’s a long scene. I think it was nearly twenty pages long, which is a lot for a single scene. So they had set aside maybe four or five days, but it only took us two and a half. Given that you shot the scene in such a short amount of time, I’m guessing Cronenberg had you two rehearse it?
We didn’t rehearse it at all, which made me a little bit nervous. But in retrospect it probably contributed a certain amount of spontaneity to it. I don’t know that David likes to rehearse much. I’m sure if I had been able to — I couldn’t because I was working on another movie — he would’ve allowed us to.
Are you a fan of rehearsing when it comes to film?
I’m a fan of rehearsing whenever I can, but it doesn’t happen much. That’s just the nature of it. And it can be frustrating. I would prefer to rehearse.
This marks your first time working with Cronenberg. How long had you been itching to collaborate with him?
As long as I’ve been acting professionally, he was a guy that I always thought, “Boy, I’d love to work with him someday.” I had met him a few times when I worked in Canada, and he’s such a nice guy. He’s an incredibly personable, funny, warm, very free man. I kept thinking, “God, man, that would be awesome to work with him.” I didn’t think I’d actually get the opportunity, though.
How did the experience compare to the expectations you had of the guy?
He certainly seems like he’s going to be very meticulous and pay great attention to detail. I really only formed an idea about him by talking to an actor that had worked with him. I worked with William Hurt and asked him what it was like, and he said, “In some ways he’s meticulous technically, but when it comes to the acting he’s incredibly warm and helpful. But his attitude is, you’re in charge of the character, and he gives you an intimidating amount of freedom.” I mean, he will direct you if he feels the need to, but he just says, “You know what you’re doing, go do it, and I’ll tell you if I need to tell you something.”
In your upcoming comedy “Lucky Dog,” you play a Canuck opposite Paul Rudd. Did you get any pointers from David on how to portray properly a guy from North of the border?
Oh, I didn’t get any from David [laughs]. I’ve worked a lot up there, and I’ve been around a lot of Canadians. I love it up there, and I enjoyed working with Canadians. For that movie, we actually put on a bit of an accent. But I think it was just years of working up in Canada that paid off in that way.
Do you speak any French?
No, I don’t. Paul’s character is the one that speaks French in it. I actually play an Anglo-Canadian and Paul’s more the Canuck guy, he’s more the French-Canadian guy.
What can you tell me about your work on Steve McQueen’s “Twelve Years a Slave?”
I just finished working on that. They are finishing today, I believe. I just shot for the last week-and-a-half or so, and it was great. I like his movies a lot, too. I like “Shame,” and I really like “Hunger,” even more than “Shame,” I think. He was similar to David, in a funny way. He gave me a great amount of freedom, and he’s a very warm, funny guy. Very meticulous about the technical aspects of it, and then when it came to the acting, he really likes actors.
It seems like the scope of it is larger, the energy of it seems a bit different. I think even the way he was shooting seems a little bit different to me; certainly the stuff I did seemed very different from “Hunger,” actually. The stuff I did with him, there was a lot of movement with the camera that was different from what I’ve seen by him.
I think it has the potential to be extremely compelling. He’s trying to sort of tell this story in a historical moment rather than tell it with any kind of contemporary take. He’s trying to present slavery as a completely normal fact of life and not engage in any kind of retrospective idea about it. So it’ll be interesting.