You will be redirected back to your article in seconds
Back to IndieWire

Paul Giamatti Deserves an Oscar for Watching Porn in Tamara Jenkins’ ‘Private Life’

The beloved character actor reflects on his brilliant new performance, his newfound popularity, and what an Oscar would really mean to him.

Private Life

“Private Life” writer-director Tamara Jenkins and Paul Giamatti

Seacia Pavao/Netflix

ConsiderThis

Paul Giamatti watching porn is one of the most wrenchingly human things you’ll see on screen this year. This heart-rending spectacle happens just a few minutes into Tamara Jenkins’ “Private Life,” as Giamatti — playing 47-year-old theater director Richard Grimes —  sits alone in a small white room in the Manhattan fertility clinic where he and his wife (Kathryn Hahn) have come in a desperate bid to conceive. His job is to produce a sperm sample. On the TV screen mounted against the far wall, an adult actor can be seen pile-driving his co-star, causing her to moan loud enough for everyone in the crowded waiting area outside to know what Richard is supposed to be doing in there. Jenkins holds on a close-up; exasperation, futility, and shame are written across Giamatti’s face like subtitles. Has it really come to this?

As the scene continues, it’s like a vintage Charlie Chaplin bit in slow-motion. In a film that beautifully exploits Giamatti’s unique genius for blurring the line between schadenfreude and self-recognition, this introductory moment crystallizes why the beloved actor is more vital than ever.

Sitting unnoticed at a table in the middle of the Le Pain Quotidien near his Brooklyn Heights apartment, Giamatti couldn’t help but chuckle at the memory, or the idea that the moment epitomizes his art: “That’s pretty fucking grim!” Perhaps, but the 51-year-old actor has often been cast as a schlubby avatar for his audience’s self-loathing, and “grim” is what he’s always done best. In person, Giamatti is a joy to be around — friendly, curious, and happy to be there. On screen, he’s the Laurence Olivier of bittersweet curmudgeons. Some of them, like his breakout role as Kenny “Pig Vomit” Rushton in 1997’s “Private Parts,” are more bitter than sweet. Most of them, however, are decent and painfully relatable men just trying to weather life’s humiliations and disappointments. “I usually play the guy who gets shit-canned,” he said.

And he plays that guy to perfection. His signature performances are like pointillistic sketches of all the little indignities that make people who they are. That’s even true of the powerful District Attorney he plays on Showtime’s massively popular “Billions.” Giamatti has a rare talent for showing viewers their honest reflection without making them recoil in horror. Watching him act can feel like squinting at the wrong end of a two-way mirror; the harder you look for someone on the other side, the more clearly you see yourself starting back.

In fact, Giamatti’s screen presence so completely demolishes the difference between personal anxieties and public expression that it can be hard to know where he ends and his characters begin (a confusion he exploited for the 2009 oddity “Cold Souls,” in which he starred as a guy named Paul Giamatti who is nothing like the actor in real life). His raw and cutting turn as frustrated writer Miles Raymond in “Sideways” still feels like an open wound that will never heal, and the only possible reason why the performance wasn’t nominated for an Oscar is that everyone must have assumed that Giamatti was playing himself.

“Sideways”

Fourteen years later, Jenkins has knowingly invited that same assumption. The brilliance of Giamatti’s casting, and what makes Richard Grimes one of the actor’s most quintessential performances (despite being a supporting role), is that the film takes place in the empty space between who we are and who we might appear to be — the no-man’s land that a veteran character actor like Giamatti has always called home. True to its title, “Private Life” is a story about the wobbly balance between internal and external validation at a time when everyone is forced to live in public, whether they like it or not. And who better to embody that uniquely 21st century unease than a world-famous movie and television star who most people don’t notice even when they’re looking right at him?

Giamatti has been a fixture in film and on television for more than 20 years, and yet he still feels like a question that nobody’s ever really felt the need to ask. He was born in New Haven, where his dad was a professor at Yale (and briefly the commissioner of the MLB). He was married, divorced, and has a 17-year-old son. He’s been middle-aged for his entire life, and always will be. He owns a TV, but only really uses it to watch DVDs. Climate change keeps him up at night, and he fears that his kid might eventually have to live in some kind of underwater dome. What else is there to know? One time, on “The Chris Gethard Show,” Giamatti curled inside a dumpster for an hour as two comedians tried to guess what was inside; that episode is more revealing about what he’s really like than anything else you’re likely to find on the internet.

“The fact that everything is out in the open these days is so bizarre,” Giamatti said. “The whole social media mishegoss is strange, particularly for someone who’s known.” Even though the actor stays away from the online scene, a benign photo of him looking sad on the subway went viral a few months ago. “Privacy is now almost like a strange choice that you have to make,” he said. “Privacy has become equated with secrecy, and that’s weird — they’re different things. Not that I have a problem with secrecy; it’s fine as long as you’re not secretly murdering people.”

For Richard and Rachel Grimes, privacy isn’t really an option. At times, it seems like everyone in New York knows about their endless run on the fertility treadmill. In one telling scene, an argument about egg donation spills out onto the sidewalk, where Rachel accuses her husband of wanting to have sex with younger women. “There’s one now!” she yells at a twenty-something stranger walking down the other side of the street. “Why don’t you go fuck her!?” Elsewhere, they find themselves sitting in silent waiting rooms, where they’re surrounded by other couples suffering through their own private sorrows. “It’s like they’re all stuck in the same purgatory,” Giamatti said. “Birth and death are very private, but we all do it. It’s specific and universal every time. It just used to be easier to get away with not telling everyone on the planet about when you’re going through it.”

This image released by Netflix shows Paul Giamatti, left, and Kathryn Hahn in a scene from "Private Life." (Jojo Whilden/Netflix via AP)

“Private Life”

Associated Press

Asked how much of himself he puts into his roles, Giamatti only muddied the waters. “It’s an essential question,” he said. “But, in a great way, there’s no real answer for it. It’s one of the amazing things about acting. The short answer is no, it’s not me. I don’t consciously draw from my own experiences or anything like that. But, in the universal sense, yes, I’m obviously in the parts that I play. I’m creating him; that guy is coming out of my imagination.”

Sitting across from Giamatti and watching him smile as he contemplated his craft, it was easy to think that there’s more of Giamatti in some of his roles than there is in others; that there’s more of him in a stressed but supportive artist like Richard Grimes than there is in a Machiavellian, BDSM-loving District Attorney like “Billions” protagonist Chuck Rhoades. Giamatti laughed at that suggestion. “I’d like to think there’s more of me in Richard than there is in Chuck,” he said, “but Chuck must have something to do with me, because I’m playing him.”

Wherever Giamatti ends and his latest character begins, he certainly seems to relate to Richard on a genetic level. “The crazy sci-fi shit involved with in vitro fertilization is mostly reserved for the women,” he said, “but the existential part of it definitely resonated with me.” He suggested that, by the time we meet the Grimes, they’ve been trying to conceive for so long that the process of having a baby has taken on a life of its own. “It’s like ‘Waiting for Godot!’” he said. “Forget the kid, at this point these people just don’t know who the hell they are anymore.”

Billions Season 3 Paul Giamatti

“Billions”

Jeff Neumann/SHOWTIME

Giamatti likes to mix things up. In an eccentric career that’s ranged from playing John Adams in the epic HBO miniseries of the same name, to playing the Rhino in “The Amazing Spider-Man 2,” change has been the only constant. “I always want a different flavor in my mouth,” he said. After chewing the scenery on “Billions” for a few years, the actor was eager to downshift into a slower gear.

But Tamara Jenkins was the real attraction. “I’ve known her for a long time,” Giamatti said, noting that the filmmaker originally wanted him for “The Savages,” her acclaimed 2007 drama. “But I was shooting ‘The Illusionist,’ so she had to go with Phil Hoffman, who I’m sure was a huge letdown for her,” the actor said, joking, with a twinkle in his eye. Fortunately, it wasn’t a complete loss, as Giamatti cites “The Illusionist” as the most fun he’s ever had on a film set, beaming that the Vienna-set period piece is “the kind of thing I would have watched as a kid, and the fulfillment of a lot of fantasies I had. If that was the only movie I got to make, I would have been happy.”

Lucky for him, it wasn’t the only movie he got to make, and he’s pretty thrilled with how the latest one turned out. “‘Private Life’ wasn’t just a change of pace, it was a change of pace that was going to be under Tamara’s guidance, so I knew it was going to be something special,” he said. Giamatti no longer reads his own reviews (“the pans always hurt, and the raves are never good enough”), but this time around he feels secure about what’s on screen: “I can be brutally critical of my performances and the movies themselves,” he said, “but I just love this one. I really do. I even like myself in it, which I don’t often say.”

Asked if he still cares about winning an Oscar after being snubbed for “Sideways,” the actor put things into clear perspective. “To me, it’s like winning the lottery,” he said. “How mad can you be about not winning the lottery?” At this point, would an Academy Award even change anything for him emotionally or professionally? Giamatti doesn’t think so. “I can’t sit here and say that it wouldn’t be nice to have people acknowledge my work in that way,” he said, “but no, I wouldn’t be disappointed if I never won. Trophies are nice things, but my life is totally fine.”

Giamatti is a man of few regrets, at least so far as they pertain to his professional career. He may not love all of the movies he’s made — in fact, it’s safe to say that he doesn’t — but at least he enjoyed making them. When pressed, he only laments that he let theater out of his life, but (the rising oceans aside), remains optimistic about the future. “I’m not dead,” he said, “and I’m hopefully not dying anytime soon, so I can make up for it. When my kid goes off to college I’ll be able to get back on the stage.”

“Private Parts”

Things are looking up. Thanks to “Billions,” the artist formerly known as “Pig Vomit” is even perilously close to being cool. “I don’t even know what that means!” Giamatti said. “‘Cool’ is such a destructive thing. ‘Billions’ is very much about cool, and how dangerous it can be. A lot of people love that show unironically, which is so disturbing!” He laughed and refocused. “Someone should do like a social history of the concept of ‘cool.’ When did it start? Did it end with me?”

In his more self-deprecating moments, it grows difficult to locate Giamatti in the amorphous stream of characters he’s played; he blends in with the gentler ones, like Miles Raymond and Mike Flaherty (“Win Win”) and kind-hearted boxing coach Joe Gould (“Cinderella Man”). Wherever bastards like Jerry Heller (“Straight Outta Compton”) and Eugene Landy (“Love & Mercy”) are hiding in there, they’re harder to find. Eventually, you can’t help but reflect on why you’re so eager to look for them. What is it about movies that makes us so curious about the people who made them? Is there a reason why a guy like Giamatti, who grew up wanting to be a teacher, fell into a different profession that can inspire people to open their minds and absorb new truths about the world around them?

Giamatti was sheepish on that subject, but it was clearly something he’d thought about before. “I put a lot of philosophical weight on this work that I don’t know it could necessarily bear,” he said. “I wouldn’t have thought of it as teaching necessarily, but acting is a tool to investigate things, and it gets into really weird shit about people and life — basic, titanic questions that no one can answer.” He stopped and shook his head. “This sounds so fucking pretentious, but those questions have made it harder for me to act, because I can’t turn that part of my brain off,” he said. “And sometimes it’s like, dude, you just need to show up and be Man in a Sleeping Bag on ‘N.Y.P.D. Blue.’” He smiled and sighed and went quiet.

Then, after an unusually long pause, he went on: “I hope that what I do gives people something. The way I was raised, things had to have a larger meaning if you’re going to bother doing them with your life. My father would’ve been like: ‘If you’re going to be a dentist, that’s fine, as long as you see the larger value of being a dentist in the world. Nothing against dentists, but you know what I mean. For me, everything always needed to have a larger dimension to it, which is great, but can be tough.”

Especially, one would imagine, when millions of people have been watching you try to find that larger dimension for so long. The things you might want to know about Paul Giamatti appear to be the same things that he wants to know about himself; even after all these years, he’s still trying to figure out where he ends and his characters begin, and what there is to be gained from mapping the borders between them. If he shows us some part of ourselves along the way, that’s wonderful, even if it just comes with the territory of a job that can only be done in public. “All of those things?” he said, “they’re still tough. But I think I’ve lightened up a little.” And with that, he smiled, stood up, and went back to work.

“Private Life” is now streaming on Netflix.

Sign Up: Stay on top of the latest breaking film and TV news! Sign up for our Email Newsletters here.

This Article is related to: Awards and tagged , , ,


Get The Latest IndieWire Alerts And Newsletters Delivered Directly To Your Inbox

Newswire