Left: Paul Giamatti as
Barney Panofsky (left)
with Dustin Hoffman
as his father, Izzy, in
Below: Giamatti, as Barney,
with Minnie Driver as
“The Second Mrs. P.”
version A conversation with Paul Giamatti
E1 FILMS CANADA
By J. Rentilly
WHETHER PLAYING legendary American
statesman John Adams, curmudgeonly comic
book maestro Harvey Pekar, a crestfallen
drunk, a Depression-era boxing hustler or a
bad-to-the-bone arms dealer, the 43-year-old,
Oscar-nominated Paul Giamatti is busy turning his soul inside out, crafting a gallery of
troubled souls who are, nevertheless, somehow beautiful, and perfectly human.
In Barney’s Version, based on a book by
Mordecai Richler, Giamatti plays a briar patch
of a human being, a charming, guileless, hopeless romantic who nevertheless immolates all
he adores with a volatile amalgam of ego, rage
and fear. It’s a brilliant performance, Golden
Globe nominated, simultaneously volcanic and
tender, scattershot and exact, hilarious and
heartbreaking, from an actor quickly redefining Everyman for contemporary audiences.
The Costco Connection: While
the Brad Pitts of the world still hold court,
it seems the 21st-century man is a whole
lot more like you than like him.
Paul Giamatti: Somebody recently
asked me, “How do you find these parts, anyway?” I don’t think it’s me finding them; I
think suddenly people are more interested in
seeing them. The idea of masculinity, the
square-jawed thing, is taking a hike in a final
way, I think. There is no more Iron John. At
this point in history, we can see all of that
macho posturing as a bunch of crap. We’re
a mess, broken and doing the best we can
with what we’ve got. I play those guys.
CC: You take these broken men and
you go all the way with their imperfections.
PG: I’ve played a lot of unsympathetic
characters, people you wouldn’t necessarily
like to have in your life. Sometimes I just
want to see how much audiences can take.
[Laughs] And they still seem to want to fol-
low the stories. I think I first made that com-
ment in relation to the John Adams thing
I did for HBO. I really dug in, probably to a
not-good degree, and made that guy unre-
lievedly obnoxious and a pain in the ass.
I thought, I just want to see how far I can go
and have people still accept him. It can be
simultaneously true that a man is a monster
and capable of extraordinary things. And
there’s always something lovable about every-
one, no matter how horrible they are. I think.
[Laughs] I like to play with that.
CC: There’s some really profound, entertaining father-son stuff in Barney’s Version.
I’m wondering if the father-son material
was revelatory for you to play as an actor.
PG: One of the things I loved most and
first about the script when I read it was the
father-son stuff. It’s not contentious, the relationship, the way those relationships so
often are in the movies. These guys are actually almost complicit. They really are.
When I first read the script, the thing that
stuck out for me is when the father gives
Barney the gun at the wedding. That’s the wedding gift. And I thought, I really want to play
this moment. It’s very small. It’s not a big thing
in the movie. But it’s a great moment to play.
For myself, my dad died a long time ago.
I think he died before he hit that time when
we would have that kind of
relationship. My brother’s
Barney’s Version is
available on a Blu-ray/
DVD combo in all
seven years older than me. He was old enough
to begin that kind of relationship, that friendship thing. They were able to transcend that
authoritative, “I’m your father, you’re my son”
thing. You have that when you’re younger and
then, if you’re lucky, maybe you get it again
when you’re older. I didn’t really get that.
Which is too bad. My dad was a great guy.
CC: You’ve talked about acting as being
fundamentally a silly thing, but there’s
clearly a passion and a method at work here.
PG: You’re calling me out, man. [Laughs]
I mean, yeah, I play it off that way. Am I supposed to say that this stuff really matters to
me and that I love it more than life itself?
It’s tricky to talk about this stuff without getting totally naked or sounding like a total
idiot. There are lots of ways in which I don’t
want people to know me. I don’t want to give
too much of myself away.
It’s too bad, I think, that people know as
much as they do about certain artists. We’ve
stolen most of the mysteries of the world one
way or another, and I don’t think that’s a good
thing. I want to sit here and be completely
honest with you, and maybe man to man I
would, but I also want to keep some things to
myself—some things that are only for me and
some things that one day will be only for the
characters I play. C
JULY 2011 ;e Costco Connection 31
J. Rentilly is a Los Angeles–based journalist
who writes about film, music, literature
and pop culture for a variety of national
and international publications.