Paul Giamatti: The New Yorker Festival 2 October 2011

Paul Giamatti is probably a terrific interview when given the chance to speak. Unfortunately the interviewer was Mark Singer, who seems to be madly hopelessly in love with his own voice. Instead of asking Giamatti to set-up a film clip, Singer droned on and on. In introducing Giamatti, Singer spoke so long that I thought half of the 90-minutes had gone by. Giamatti was looking more and more uncomfortable – I think other actors would have cut Singer off and started speaking but Giamatti is too polite and too shy. He is very much not the characters he plays.

When listing Giamatti’s films, Singer condescendingly said Private Parts, at which point Giamatti said it was a good film. There was one very long question that ended with “Who are you?” and Giamatti had no idea how to answer that so Singer went on and on about when he (was sorry to say) had to interview Donald Trump and had asked him that question. Singer is everything I hate about The New Yorker and some of its fans.

When Giamatti curated a film festival at BAM, the list included Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978), The Big Clock, and Dawn of the Dead (1978). When reading the list Singer expressed approval for The Big Clock and said he rented Dawn of the Dead, thought it was terrible, and then looked it up online and saw that is it considered a great film. Giamatti tried to explain to Singer that in the zombie movie genre it is a classic – the Citizen Kane of zombie films.

Paul Giamatti has made his career playing everyman. He is a character actor who plays leading man roles. I wish someone on The New Yorker staff who can appreciate an everyman had been the interviewer. Even when talking about his father, Bart Giamatti, Singer’s emphasis was on professor of comparative literature and Yale University president rather than commissioner of Major League Baseball, which is what the elder Giamatti is most famous for.

Three clips were played. One each from American Splendor, The Ides of March, and Cold Souls. I hadn’t heard of Cold Souls (it played at Sundance in 2009 but I haven’t seen it in the theaters) but it looks really interesting. Giamatti plays an actor named Paul Giamatti who loses his soul, is a terrible actor (in the scene we saw he said he was playing Vanya as Shatner) and then gets a Russian soul and is a wonderful actor. Giamatti was smiling while watching American Splendor because he was enjoying it. That actor had more balls than he did and didn’t care. Now he cares too much because he’s famous.

For the John Adams mini-series, Giamatti did do a lot of research but stopped because his job is to make a compelling character from the script alone. Giamatti doesn’t do Method or use things from his childhood. In fact, a director tried to get him to do that once and it failed. It took him completely out of the character. He inhabits the role based on what’s written and what happens when he starts interacting with those around him.

One of the most surprising things Giamatti revealed was how much filmmaking is by the seat of your pants. Because of the money involved, I’d always thought it was more planned out. But he said that a lot of times even the director has no idea what kind of film they’re making or where they’re going until they get into it. That was true even of Sideways, which was supposed to be a stupid sex comedy. But then it became a much deeper film. Also, Alexander Payne fought for Giamatti and that guy from Wings to be the leads and Giamatti thought the director was crazy.

By the way, most of the information above came from the answers he gave to audience questions. I’d never been so happy to have the audience ask questions.

When asked who he’d like to work with, Giamatti said that most are dead but he would not want to work with Daniel Day Lewis – he’s too scary. But he would like to work with Russell Crowe again. He said Crowe is happiest when he’s in front of a camera and he wants everyone in the film to be good. He also wants everyone to have fun and you and throw anything at him (even a phone).

I wish I’d been given the opportunity to get to know Giamatti better but that will have to wait until he has a better interviewer.

By Carene Lydia Lopez