Giamatti gives his ‘version’ at the Haifa Film Festival

American actor plays a ‘self-thwarting romantic’ in adaptation of a Mordecai Richler novel.

311_Paul Giamatti (photo credit: Gustavo Hochman)
311_Paul Giamatti
(photo credit: Gustavo Hochman)
“I’m not very smart,” said actor Paul Giamatti at a press conference on Monday, at the 26th Haifa International Film Festival.
The quirky actor, known for his offbeat looks and remarkable talent, was there promoting his latest film, Barney’s Version, an adaptation of a novel by Mordecai Richler. “I’m very impressionable.”
Giamatti, 43, made the obviously incorrect self-characterization as he answered a question from The Jerusalem Post about preparing for his roles playing two different real-life characters, underground cartoonist Harvey Pekar in American Splendor and John Adams, the second US president, in the miniseries of the same name.
He was trying to make a point – “I wasn’t really playing the people... When it’s someone who’s still alive I can study them and take things from them, but I try to do them as characters. I have to do the script” – but Barney’s Version producer Robert Lantos jumped in to contradict him.
“You’re one of the smartest people I know,” said Lantos.
“I’m not really a smart actor,” insisted Giamatti.
But Lantos wouldn’t let it go.
“You’re a brilliant actor,” he said.
Anyone who has seen Giamatti’s work, or who will see him in Barney’s Version, will be inclined to agree with Lantos – Giamatti may well be the smartest actor working today. His background is an obvious tipoff. His late father was A. Bartlett Giamatti, a literature professor who became the president of Yale University and then the commissioner of Major League Baseball.
Giamatti himself was educated at prep schools, Yale as an undergraduate, and the Yale School of Drama. Although he might have seemed destined for character- actor supporting roles, he broke out with the movie Sideways (2004), in which he played the lead, a frustrated writer and oenophile, and received a Best Actor Oscar nomination for his performance.
In Barney’s Version, he plays Barney Panofsky, a supremely self-serving man who stumbles to happiness and then loses it in a story that spans nearly four decades and features Dustin Hoffman as his cheerfully amoral father. Barney is the kind of guy who meets the love of his life at his second wedding reception and doesn’t feel a moment of grief for the bride he soon abandons.
Asked how much of himself he sees in this anti-hero, he said, “I liked playing him because I’m none of those things. I’m boring and sedate. I don’t see a whole lot of similarity between myself and him. I don’t want to see the similarities.”
Explaining his take on the complexity of the character, he said, “He’s childish in all senses of the word. The best ways and the worst ways. He’s a self-thwarting romantic.”
In preparing for the role, Giamatti said he focused on the script rather than the nearly 500-page Richler novel, and chose not to take a second look at Richard Dreyfuss’s acclaimed performance in The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz (1974), the best-known adaptation of a Richler novel to date.
“I didn’t see it again, because I didn’t want it to get too imprinted in my head. But what I vaguely remembered of it probably came out anyway,” he said.
Asked how he feels about going back and forth between low-budget, independent films and roles in Hollywood blockbusters (such as Duplicity, a thriller about corporate espionage in which he played a supporting role to Clive Owen’s and Julia Roberts’s leads), he said cheerfully, “I’m all over the map.”
Working with the blue screen for special-effects heavy big-budget movies reminds him of the stage acting he did in the early part of his career: “I like stuff I’ve done like that. I’m lucky enough to get offered these things.”
Next up for Giamatti is his part as US Federal Reserve chairman Ben Bernanke in the HBO docudrama Too Big to Fail.
“He [Bernanke] doesn’t have much personality. He’s like a lizard. He doesn’t move. It will be fun to play him,” he said.
Giamatti said he was also looking forward to shaving his head for the role.
Giamatti said that his dream project, and one that he has tried to develop over the years, would be a film based on the life of science-fiction author Philip K. Dick.
“He was a very interesting guy and a very complicated guy,” he explained.
Sounds like the perfect role for this cerebral actor.