The son of revered Yale President and Major League Baseball commissioner A. Bartlett Giamatti, Paul Giamatti first rose to prominence as Howard Stern's enraged nemesis in 1997's Private Parts. A slew of flashy, scene-stealing supporting roles followed, in films including 1999's Man On The Moon and 2001's Planet Of The Apes. And in 2003, Giamatti made the leap from supporting-scene stealer to leading man as prickly comic-book legend Harvey Pekar in American Splendor. Giamatti followed up with 2004's Sideways, a bittersweet buddy road comedy widely tipped to score Giamatti the Oscar nomination he inexplicably didn't receive for American Splendor. Alas, he didn't earn that Oscar nomination until his turn as a ringman in Cinderella Man. In weeks to come, Giamatti will be seen in his highest-profile starring gig to date, M. Night Shyamalan's new film Lady In The Water, as well as the period drama The Illusionist and—if it gets a wide release—the falconry drama The Hawk Is Dying. The A.V. Club recently spoke with Giamatti about playing an orangutan, acting opposite hawks, Big Momma's House, and why he felt he didn't deserve to win an Oscar for Sideways.
The A.V. Club: You've said that you didn't deserve to win an Academy Award for Sideways. Why?
Paul Giamatti: I certainly probably said that. [Laughs.] Sure. I don't think I gave a good enough performance to be nominated for it. I thought I gave a fine performance, but those things are supposed to be about giving an extraordinary performance, aren't they? I don't feel like I did. I feel like it's a great movie, and everybody's really good in it. I feel like Tom [Haden Church] and Virginia [Madsen] actually gave the kind of performances that should have been nominated. I don't feel like I did. I'm not putting myself down or anything. I did a good job. But I always thought those things were about doing better than a good job.
AVC: Is that one of your favorite performances? Do you feel like there's another film where you really knocked it out of the park?
PG: No. I think I'm a fine enough actor. There are performances that I prefer to that one. I see a lot of flaws in that one. There are other things that I think I'm better in.
AVC: What kind of flaws? What would you have done differently?
PG: I don't know that it's so much what I would have done differently in playing the character—like I would have chosen necessarily to have done different things—but I think I would be more relaxed about doing it now. I think I felt a lot of pressure doing it, because I'd never played a part in a movie that big before. So I think I worked too hard at it in the wrong ways. I overworked it.
AVC: What about American Splendor? That was a lead role.
PG: Yeah. I prefer that performance. I think I was better in that one. I overworked that one, too. I think I have a tendency to overwork things. I have a hard time finding that sweet spot that most actors seem to be able to hit where they're doing the exact right amount of work, not overthinking, not underdoing it. I seem to either overdo it or underdo it, in my opinion.
AVC: What would be an example of a film where you underdid it?
PG: There are lots of those. I felt like I did lots of crappy work in the past. I can't even tell ya.
AVC: Do any of them involve Martin Lawrence in a fat suit?
PG: No, I actually think I was swinging a little too hard on that one. Believe it or not, I might actually have been working a little too hard. I probably should have backed off a little. Maybe I should have phoned that in a little more. [Laughs.] I don't really have any opinion about my performance in Big Momma's House.
AVC: When did you first start wanting to act?
PG: I don't know. I went to a grade school where we did the school play every year, and I always enjoyed doing it. I never copped to it, because then I'd seem like a geek, even though I was really into doing it. I suppose then. I don't feel like I ever had that moment where I was like, "Oh my God, this is destiny." I didn't have that kind of thing. Honestly, I think when I was in Seattle, and I was screwing around at this little theater, and then I actually made a little bit of money at it, that's maybe when I had more of a "road to Damascus" sort of thing, where I felt like I could actually do it for a living.
AVC: You studied drama at Yale, right?
PG: I eventually did, after realizing I could do it for a living. I thought I might as well get some training in it and actually know something about it, so I might actually know what the hell I was doing. Maybe that would help or be useful in some way. So then I went back to graduate school.
AVC: Was it at all intimidating growing up the son of a such a prominent man?
PG: I didn't know any different. I grew up around that university, and all my friends were professors and stuff like that.
AVC: Did you ever think of rebelling by going to Harvard?
PG: [Laughs.] No, it never crossed my mind. There were other places I thought about attending, but I actively wanted to go there. I liked it and I got in, so I went there.
AVC: Did you do a lot of theater after college?
PG: I did some regional theater. I acted in Seattle. I did off-Broadway, off-off-Broadway. I did Broadway. I did any theater work I could find.
AVC: Any highlights or lowlights?
PG: Plenty of lowlights. I was in plenty of crappy regional productions. I was in a god-awful production of Golden Boy, Clifford Odets' play about the boxing violinist, the guy who can't decide whether he wants to be a boxer or a violinist. It's a great play, but it was just beyond crappy. With Odets, it can go horribly wrong, and it was just awful.
AVC: Any Starlight Expresses on your resume?
PG: No. I've never played in anything like that. I never did any musicals. I'm trying to think of really crappy stage plays I was in. I know there were a lot of them. A lot of the time, it was like a really bad production of a Molière play, a highbrow thing that went south and was just bad. Just terrible. And bad Shakespeare is even worse than Starlight Express. You're handing a real cultural artifact over to people, and it just sucks.
AVC: One of your big movie breaks was Private Parts. Were you a Howard Stern fan before you did the film?
PG: I appreciated him. I wouldn't call myself a big fan. I didn't listen to him regularly or anything, but I would listen occasionally, and I liked him. I thought he was fine, yeah.
AVC: In that film, were you playing a specific person, or was it more of a composite of different people in his life?
PG: It was a real guy. It was based on a real guy, which I didn't know until afterward. Somebody complimented me on really seeming like the guy, and I said "What guy?" I felt kind of bad about it after that. I felt like I was probably not going to make that guy's life any easier.
AVC: Why do you think they didn't tell you about him up front?
PG: I think they just assumed that I knew. That was one of the best-written parts I've ever played in a movie. Everything was pretty much right there on the page. It was a really well-written character, so I just kind of went off of whatever he was getting at in the script. There was nobody I was consciously drawing on. There were guys like that who I've known in my life, but I wasn't actually thinking of anyone specific.
AVC: Did you get recognized a lot by Howard Stern fans after the film came out?
PG: Sure. I still do. They're friendly people. They scream and pick at me and stuff like that. Nobody ever attacked me violently or anything. It's surprising the spread of people who recognize me from that movie. I don't know if they're Howard Stern fans necessarily, but it's all kinds of people. It definitely seems to have a following.
AVC: You've said that you just kind of take whatever roles you can get. Has that changed after American Splendor, Sideways, and Cinderella Man?
PG: I have a little more choice between roles now, but I find it hard to shake, a little bit, that feeling of, "I should just take whatever the hell I can get."
AVC: In the back of your mind, is there ever a little voice saying, "This could all disappear tomorrow"?
PG: Yeah. That's what I did to make money for a long time. I don't feel like I've ever done anything—even Big Momma's House—that I didn't really have some desire to do. Still, I was pretty willing to do whatever a lot of the time.
AVC: You've played a lot of real people. Could you talk about what it was like playing Bob Zmuda in Man On The Moon with Zmuda looking over your shoulder?
PG: That was tricky. That was the only time when the person was actively trying to have a hand in my performance. The whole movie was tricky, because Andy Kaufman's family wanted to sort of have a hand in it. That made it hard for me, at least, because you kind of felt like you were skating on thin ice much of the time. You didn't want to end up offending anyone. Zmuda's a great guy. He's a very enthusiastic guy. But there were times when it was a pain in the ass, because he was trying to get me to do whatever—to throw in certain things, dialogue or a new bit in there, whole-cloth. It's hard for someone to watch themselves getting played and not want to add details that they know oughta be in there, or should be in there, or that they think would enhance it. There's a reason it's not in there, and sometimes too, it's just hard. I can't remember specifically—mostly he wanted me to add things that would bring something out, but a lot of times it just wouldn't work. But he was fine about it. I'd have a little squabble with him, and he'd lay off for a couple of days, and then he'd be right back at it. But he's such a charming guy that it was fine.
AVC: Does it make you more self-conscious playing someone who actually exists?
PG: Oh, sure. If they're there it does. If they're absolutely around, it certainly can. If they're not there, it's fine. A lot of the people I've played—and Bob was one of these people—I'm not playing Johnny Cash, somebody who everyone knows. So I do have a certain freedom and leeway to do what I want to do.
AVC: Except for American Splendor, perhaps because you're appearing alongside the man you're playing.
PG: For whatever reason, [Harvey Pekar] had an uncanny ability to separate himself from it. He just kind of looked upon it as, "You guys know what to do. This is your job. I don't know how to make a movie. I don't know how to act. I don't know how to write a script." He was very mature in that way.
AVC: And he had experience seeing himself portrayed in art already.
PG: Exactly. He was already used to people drawing him a certain way. He'd already created a persona of himself that got kicked around anyway. He just seemed to have no anxiety about it at all, which was fine, really. It was great having him around.
AVC: You've been in a lot of movies where you've played really sad, haunted characters. For instance, The Hawk Is Dying—
PG: I like that movie a lot. If anyone tells me they've seen it, I'm curious as to what they thought about it. People seemed to have a hard time with it at Sundance, so I was curious as to why. It's not that strange of a movie. It didn't feel like it was.
AVC: It isn't a terribly commercial film.
PG: I suppose that's true.
AVC: When you're doing a film like that, where your character is so haunted and miserable, does it get under your skin, or can you just shed it the moment the director yells "Cut"?
PG: I feel like I'm able to turn it off pretty well. It's not my misery. It's not my life. I feel like I'm a lot better at doing that. I think at one time it affected me more. Maybe I was a better actor then. I don't know. I think I might have been. I think I am better at turning it on and off now. Sometimes you can get off on it, the misery. It can be weirdly exhilarating sometimes.
AVC: In the movie, it seems like the character gets increasingly distraught until he achieves this weird sort of transcendence.
PG: It does. You're right. That's part of the point of it, that the guy actually ends up weirdly happy at the end.
AVC: Were you worried about being attacked by the hawks you were working with in that film?
PG: Not as much as you would think. I was before I actually had to deal with them. The birds are completely terrifying. I was like, "I need three months to work with these birds." Of course, I had a week. I thought it was going to be impossible. I was terrified of them. But then I actually got there and it was a piece of cake. It was ridiculous. Those birds were so well-trained that they're not going to do anything. You inevitably get scratched by them by accident. The thing that was scary was the beak. I thought it was going to rip my eye out. But they don't actually use their beaks. They use their talons to do the damage. By the time I got sliced up, it wasn't that bad, and it was an accident. They're actually very pleasant animals to be around.
I had to irritate them to get them to behave like wild animals, because otherwise they would have just sat there on my arm and not done anything. So I had to tighten these things around their feet and keep them off-balance. No animals were harmed in the filming, but I had to make their lives unpleasant so they'd start flapping around and trying to get away from me. I was bothering them a lot more than they were bothering me. I had to tire them out so they'd jump off my arm, which is what a real wild bird would do. If you tire them out enough, they want to get the fuck away from you, so they kept diving off my arm. One of them was nasty and I had to be in the car with it at one point. That was actually terrifying, because it just went fucking crazy. I wanted it do that a little bit, but I definitely was not comfortable. I mean, I was driving in a car with this hawk going crazy. It was a real wild-card scene. We didn't have any idea what it would do. Unfortunately, they didn't keep in any of the scenes where it'd crap. They have huge, giant crap and it would just fire this stuff out its ass, but they didn't keep any of that, unfortunately.
AVC: Speaking of animals, one of your more memorable supporting roles was as a conniving ape in Planet Of The Apes.
PG: I was an orangutan, I think.
AVC: Did you study primates to prepare for that role?
PG: A little bit. I looked them up. I watched those Clint Eastwood movies [Every Which Way But Loose and Any Which Way You Can] with Clyde the orangutan. Have you seen those? They're fantastic movies. I took some things from Clyde, hopefully. I really wanted them to make the mask so that I could do the bending-the-lips thing, the baring-the-teeth thing, but they didn't do that.
AVC: They didn't have the budget for it?
PG: Oh, they had the budget for it. They just didn't care to indulge me that way.
AVC: How many hours did you have to spend in makeup getting dolled up as an orangutan?
PG: I was out of makeup in about two hours. I lucked out and got a makeup guy who was really fast. It doesn't have to take four hours. It really doesn't.
AVC: When you do a giant blockbuster like Planet Of The Apes, do you feel as emotionally invested in its outcome as you would with a smaller independent movie?
PG: Ultimately, no. No. I was a big Planet of The Apes fan, so I was really excited about being in it. I had a really good time. I liked wearing all that stuff, and I liked playing the part. It was not the most engaging script in the world. And ultimately I didn't feel the same investment, no.
AVC: You've played sad, bitter men in many of your lead roles. Are you worried at all about being typecast?
PG: Not really. It's an interesting thing to get typecast as, in a way. I don't mind being typed, if that happens, a little bit. It's all decent work, so I'm not too worried about it. To some extent, people want to type you when you play leads, a little bit. I guess that started happening when I started getting supporting stuff that's more varied. If I continue to play leads—which I don't necessarily know will happen—it doesn't bother me getting typecast, no.
AVC: You don't think you're necessarily going to continue getting lead roles?
PG: Who knows? I take it all with a grain of salt.
AVC: What's the best part of playing a lead?
PG: People are so much more attentive to you, in ridiculous ways. Everybody will just wipe up your every spill. There's so much more indulgence. You're given a lot more room to screw up. You're given much greater run of the thing.
AVC: Do you think that's a good thing?
PG: I think it's a great thing, acting-wise. I don't really care about the rest. I'm not necessarily looking for everybody to get me my iced latte, but everybody will. They'll do all that for you, but acting-wise, it's great. You get a lot more time to figure things out. I think it's demented that for these huge movie stars, they'll fly in steaks from Indonesia. That's ridiculous. That's obscene. Those guys are more powerful than the presidents of small countries. They're more powerful than the president of France. That's awful, but I appreciate the fact that people give me more time to figure things out on the set. There's a lot more of that, "Quiet, quiet, he's working!" kind of thing, and that's nice.
AVC: Do you have an entourage yet?
PG: No, I didn't have any kind of entourage.
AVC: Is it tempting, all these things that people throw at you when you start to be in really big movies?
PG: You mean goods and stuff like that? Nah. I've got enough shit. I've got plenty of stuff. And you get these huge leather bags full of shampoo and stuff, and I don't really want it. It's nice and everything, but I've got enough stuff, I really do. It's a little weird, that swaggy thing, like "Here's an iPod." I'll buy my own iPod.
AVC: It seems counterintuitive that the more money you have, the more free stuff you get.
PG: It's beyond counterintuitive. It's insane. You see these people with shopping bags, heads of studios with shopping bags stuffed full of goods. It is a little bizarre.
AVC: Of all the films you've done, which do you think is the most underrated?
PG: The Hawk Is Dying. [Laughs.]
AVC: And that hasn't even come out yet.
PG: I don't know that it ever will! It's going to come out in Europe. It's going to come out in France and a couple of European countries. Nobody bought it here! It doesn't seem like it's that weird of a movie. It's not that uncommercial of a movie. I don't actually know what the situation with the movie is domestically, but I did feel like it's a really good movie, and hopefully someday people will take a closer look at it.
AVC: If you had to choose between only doing lead or supporting roles for the rest of your career, which would you choose?
PG: I would probably choose supporting roles, if I had to make a choice. It's actually a really hard thing to say. It's all on a role-by-role basis, ultimately. I shouldn't be so quick to say that. I feel like you're given greater license to be colorful and eccentric in supporting roles, and that's interesting to me. Your job is to be a little more invented and kooky, to kind of fill in the gaps and put some color around the lead people, and that can be more interesting to me. But there are lead roles that can be interesting in the same way as well.