When Indiewire sat down with Paul Giamatti, the veteran actor had shot the first three episodes and was beginning the fourth of his new Showtime drama “Billions,” which marks a semi-surprising twist in the veteran actor’s career… Until you look at his resume and realize that while he’s been nominated for an Oscar, the Emmys and the Golden Globes have given him a lot more recognition for his television work. Thus, maybe a series regular role isn’t such a bad idea.
Below, Giamatti explains his personal connection to Chuck’s backstory, his approach to developing the unconventional marriage of Chuck and Wendy (Maggie Siff) and under what circumstances the show could become a romantic comedy between him and Damian Lewis. (We’d watch.)
With “Billions,” what was your first thought upon reading the script?
I really liked it. I mean, I had to read it twice because I didn’t follow it necessarily, and I thought that’s kind of cool, that it’s that intricate and that it’s smart and not sort of spoon-feeding me everything, which I really liked about it. I know those two guys, I’d worked with them before, Koppelman and Levien, so I knew it was going to be something that was going to interest me. I thought the kind of panoramic views of different levels and different entities in New York City was really interesting, and you know it’s obviously globally larger than that, but I thought the character was really cool. I thought, “This guy could be really interesting.” The sex thing was interesting to me, too. I thought that’ll be kind of interesting to do, especially since it’s within a marriage and not outside of a marriage. Then, I just thought, “This could be a really nuanced, interesting character,” which it’s proving to be as the episodes go along.
I love that you brought up the marriage aspect because one of the questions I love asking actors, especially actors starting a new project, is what goes into building that relationship. It’s not like you’re pretending to just fall in love with someone, you’re pretending to have–
I’ve been with them for 10 years.
Yeah, exactly. A decade-long relationship. So it’s always interesting to ask that question to any actor, but especially with a relationship that’s a little more unconventional, to say the least. What was really key for you in terms of working with Maggie [Siff] on that?
Well, her. She’s great and she’s so available. She’s such a great actress and such a wonderful person and a very steady person. You feel immediately that you can create a chemistry and go different places. In terms of the kind of thing we have to do with that stuff, being comfortable with somebody makes that just easy to do. That’s nice, to be able to not feel like a fool, being tied up on the floor because somebody’s with you and you’re both on the same page. That’s nice.
You know, it’s funny, that thing of diving into a relationship that’s supposed to be well along. I found that I’m generally not an actor who’s great at talking a whole lot about things, so I feel like I lucked out with Maggie because she doesn’t really need to. I don’t know. Again, what’s cool with the TV thing is that I don’t know a lot of the details of it yet. I mean we’ve talked and we’ve made up stuff and a lot of that’s useful, but it’s going to unfold as it goes along. A lot of it is just very, very mysterious, how that stuff can work. But it’s also in the writing, too. It’s a good relationship they have. They fight and they get into problems and things like that. I think it’ll actually be a good, realistic portrait of a decent, good marriage.
TV marriages seem to lean towards either the happy, sappy type or the “this is incredibly messed-up.”
Incredibly dark and fucked-up, yeah. I thought that that was interesting, too. I think that’s a more interesting and more difficult thing to do. That’s why the S&M thing makes it even more interesting because to have that in a kind of normal, healthy relationship, to actually have that probably be an important part of why it’s normal and healthy, maybe, is interesting. That it’s a good outlet for both of them in some way is interesting.
It’s kind of an explicit way of bringing up the fact that so much of any relationship has to do with questions of who has power.
Control and power and all that stuff.
When you come to those scenes, do you approach them just the same as any other major relationship scene?
Yeah, I think so. I mean they’ll break down in similar ways. Again, I think that’s one of the interesting things is that you can just deal with them. I think it’s the interesting, smart way to deal with them. I think one of the things people benefit from that when they have that in their marriage is that it can help bring out the problems and bring them up in a way that gets dealt with in those ways. Maggie and I talked to a guy who’s in a marriage like that. I don’t remember who found this guy, but they said, “If you want to talk to somebody…” and we talked to the guy. A lot of what he talked about was the fact that it becomes for the people doing it the way they relate sexually and it helps you work out this stuff so it is normal, it’s not abnormal, it’s the normal way that it works out.
So you do approach it that way. It has interesting implications in other things. It’s interesting to feel like– How much my character can be somewhat sadistic in his job begins to become interesting. There’s a scene where I have a run-in with a guy totally just on the street and it’s a very interesting moment, where I treat the guy in a kind of very aggressive way. That made me think, “Oh, this is interesting for a guy who then goes home and gets tied up.” So it’s going to be an interesting flavor throughout for both of us and our jobs and stuff.
I had thought originally that you and Damian Lewis were both playing industry tycoons, but instead, you’re representing the side of law and order. Do you feel like you’re representing justice?
I definitely do. How the guy achieves those ends is interesting, I mean those guys are willing to probably do a lot that would look very cynical or unpleasant from the outside in order to achieve the ends of that. I think they’re doing a nuanced job of painting the guys in complex ways. I’m not the hero, but he’s not the bad guy. But he’s not the hero. So far, it looks like neither one of us is going to be the hero. But those guys genuinely believe in what they’re doing in terms of representing justice. They’re not kidding around, they really do believe that. I don’t think you could pull that job off unless you had a genuine moral compass. It’s nuanced in other ways; he’s ambitious and he’s vindictive and he’s all kinds of colorful things, but he genuinely believes in the ends of justice.
For you, one other interesting element of the show is that you’ve got characters who come from extreme privilege and characters who do not. As someone who does represent that side of it, was there something specific for you that you did in terms of building that character, building that part of his backstory?
It’s interesting, part of it is that I don’t know a lot of it yet, which has been really fascinating to me. But I grew up in an Ivy League setting and there’s a lot of stuff– I grew around a lot of those law schools, where a lot of those guys come from, they’re all from Yale and Harvard. And that was interesting to me. I’ve never actually gotten to play something that has some resemblance to my own background. I mean, I came from a very different part of that kind of thing, but that was interesting to me. And it’s interesting, the idea of inherited wealth and gained wealth and the complications of that are going to be interesting I think as they play out over the show. Is one more worthy than the other? Is one more respectable than the other? I don’t know.
There’s something to be said for the fact that your character is working a job that doesn’t pay as much.
Yeah, they don’t get paid very much, those guys. One of the things that I did sort of say to them that would have been interesting to do and I understand why they didn’t do it, but you know, those guys’ offices are terrible. They look like bad soundboarding and bad drywall and stuff like that. They’re not nice offices, they’re federal government offices, which would have been interesting to see. But I know why they didn’t do it, and I think it helps to kind of beef up the positions of the two guys in opposition to each other. But it’s interesting, no, they don’t get paid well. And again, that’s interesting.
At some point, is it explicitly made clear why your character chose to take this particular path?
No, I think these guys go into the law and for them it’s a discipline that’s beyond just practice of law. It’s a kind of high-level science to these guys. They have a hyper-level interest in this stuff and it’s an incredibly powerful thing. So I mean, I don’t know if it’s ever explained, I don’t know if it needs to be explained. These guys are just drawn to the law and then they’re drawn to the power of it and the intricacy of it. It’s incredibly satisfying to them, and I think they have a personality that lends itself to wanting to see these things done right.
What interests me now is what do you think your character cares more about: power or justice?
It’s a hard thing to say. All the levels of control and power and things like that are very difficult to say. That certainly becomes a thing that becomes nuanced and tricky and interesting about him, that abuse of power to the ends of justice and things like that gets very blurry and confusing for this guy. So that becomes one of the interesting, dramatic elements of the character is his own sort of conflict with it and his own relationship to that stuff that he becomes conflicted about stuff and he starts questioning his own motives and things like that, so that’s what makes him interesting, his confusion about that stuff.
So I know you don’t know much about what’s coming next–
I do up to the fourth episode. [laughs]
Episode 4, you’re covered. Especially given that you have a feature background as well where you do know the ending of your story, how is this different?
Well, I am not thinking ahead in some way. I think I’m probably more available to just doing what I have to do in the moment, so I’m not worrying about having to play something or I don’t make the mistake of playing something down the road too early on, which is a mistake that I frequently make when I know the whole story.
I try to avoid it, but it’s an easy trap for me to fall into. So I actually find it really interesting, I’m kind of happy not to really know. I know the general shape of what’s going to happen, which I don’t want to give away, I know the general shape of the whole arc of their idea of the show, but specifically, I’ve been enjoying not knowing because it just allows me to play what I’m supposed to play that’s right in front of me and not over-informing it.
In terms of looking forward — I’m not trying to bait you for details — but I am curious because when talking about shows, a lot of times there’s this idea of the status quo. Like in a doctor show, if there’s a character who starts out as a doctor, the show’s probably going to end with him as a doctor. Do you have that same sense of status quo from this?
Yeah, to some extent. It’s interesting, there are things being built in about his possible career trajectory that could move beyond him just being a career attorney. At some point, I could see that. But I think for the most part, yes, it will maintain a status quo in the sort of baseline shape of the thing. I could see it going beyond that if the thing kept going beyond that baseline thing, he could move into other realms of power.
But Season 4 isn’t a romantic comedy featuring you and Damian Lewis?
As far as I know, no, but that could be interesting. We’d have to both end up in prison together. That would be interesting, we could have a nice, romantic prison drama together. As far as I know, no, I think it’s all fairly status quo.
In terms of working with Damian, I know that you aren’t working together that much —
I think that’s part of the idea, too, that they don’t show us together very much.
What does that create for you, in terms of this person you’re chasing — the specter you’re chasing?
It’s great. It leaves a certain mystery for me to be able to fill in, to not be so around him all the time. The guy wouldn’t be around this guy ever, so there’s this kind of figment, it takes on this kind fantastical dimension. I keep saying it reminds me a little bit of “Les Miserables,” with Javert and the other guy, except Damian stole more than a loaf of bread. [laughs] But something about it reminds me about that weirdly obsessed thing where the other person begins to take on these crazy dimensions that are not necessarily [real] — and likewise for him with me, too. You begin to become outsized in each other’s minds.
“Billions” airs Sunday nights on Showtime.