“What I would hope is that people think that I was a guy who was good at his job.” So says Paul Giamatti about his potential legacy, and it’s hard to imagine that moviegoers could come to any other conclusion. The New Haven native has brought his unique brand of angst-ridden earnestness to great, real performances in “American Splendor,” “Sideways,” “Cinderella Man” (for which he earned an Oscar nomination), “Win Win” and many others.
Giamatti next appears in the Jan. 25 release “John Dies at the End,” a whacked-out horror film directed by Don Coscarelli (“Bubba Ho-Tep”) about a mysterious drug called Soy Sauce that allows users to read people’s minds and cross dimensions. Indiewire recently caught up with Giamatti to hear stories about what was going on behind some of his most memorable screen work.
“Safe Men” (1998)
Giamatti plays a fashion-challenged mob henchman named Veal Chop in this cult comedy written and directed by John Hamburg (“Along Came Polly”).
“The [look of] the wardrobe, for the most part, came from John. He had this idea that that’s what the guy would be like: net shirts and Zubaz pants. And then I certainly added things. The big disappointment was that I really wanted my hair to be permed, kind of like James Caan’s in the ’70s, but it was not in their budget. So I was like, that’s fine, I’ll go get it done myself. I went somewhere, and the woman said, ‘Oh, honey, we can’t perm your hair. It will all fall out.’ So we tried this hairdo where my hair looks all kind of swept up. It was weird and doesn’t really work, but maybe’s that’s actually better.”
This Sundance favorite features Giamatti as eccentric Cleveland comic-book writer Harvey Pekar in the actor’s first leading role.
“I was very nervous about meeting Harvey. He seemed insane. And it can be tricky playing a real person in a movie. But he actually turned out to be a great guy. So much of what he did publicly was a bit of an act in some ways. He wasn’t such a monster. I remember one day he came to the set and was walking around that horrible, disgusting living room that was supposed to be his. He started going through the records, and was like, ‘I’m going to take some of these, man,’ and he started taking some of them. And then he started eating all the free food — he came for the free food at craft service all the time. And then he lay down on the couch while we were setting up for a shot and fell asleep, like it was his own home. It was hilarious. They just literally worked around him. I think Ted [Hope, the producer] finally woke him up, but we let him sleep for a long time.”
In this comedy directed by Alexander Payne, which won six Independent Spirit Awards, Giamatti plays an oenophile who embarks on a wine-tasting road trip with an old friend (Thomas Haden Church) who is about to get married.
“Apparently, the movie actually affected Merlot sales pretty severely. [At one point, Giamatti’s character emphatically states, “I am not drinking any fucking Merlot!”] I remember that a Merlot growers’ organization approached me and Tom and tried to get us to do an ad campaign for Merlot to boost sales again, I guess. We didn’t do it, but I think sales have now recovered. What’s ironic is that Tom was much more like the character I played in the movie. He actually knew a lot more about wine then you would think. And I know nothing about it. [After the film came out] people would give me wine all the time. And it’s funny, because it is completely wasted on me. I’ll drink it, but it just means nothing to me what kind of wine it is. I would drink a bottle of paint thinner — I don’t care.”
“John Adams” (2008)
Giamatti won an Emmy for his portrayal of America’s second president in this HBO miniseries.
“I had never done TV before, and I was hesitant about the amount of time it was going to take. This series took a lot of energy and was kind of non-stop for about seven months. I’d never done anything like it before, and I don’t think I’ll ever do anything like it again. The character was really tricky. I thought, This is nine hours of a very unpleasant person — is this going to work? I don’t know. But then, I suddenly thought, this doesn’t come along very often and to not do it would be silly.”
Giamatti plays a New York actor named Paul Giamatti who has his soul removed in the hope that it will alleviate the crushing emotional burden of playing a role in “Uncle Vanya” on stage.
“Part of the idea was to have people be confused by it. And the surreal quality of the movie was helped out by it being my real name. I actually had some journalists ask me if I was really married to Emily Watson or if that was my actual house that I’m seen in. I was astonished. I was like, Wow, what an amazing childlike way you see the world. “
“John Dies at the End” (2013)
Giamatti plays a reporter who gets way deeper into the story than he bargained for, even encountering a caged, angry spider-like creature in the back of a parked truck.
“When we filmed, there was no giant spider there. It was just an empty cage that I had to react to. I had seen mock-ups of what it was probably going to look like, so I was aware that there was going to be some crazy-looking spider there. It actually [ended up being] pretty much exactly what I thought it was going to be. All I had to do was just flip out. That was really fun to do in a funny way, to have that kind of horror-movie freak-out moment.”