Paul Giamatti: The Movieline Interview
Don't ever accuse Paul Giamatti of playing himself -- even when he literally plays himself, as he does in his new film Cold Souls. The Oscar-nominee took a studio hiatus for writer-director Sophie Barthes's indie meta-comedy, featuring Giamatti as a fussy New York actor struggling desperately with his title role in Chekhov's Uncle Vanya. He finds a potential solution in The Soul-Storage Company, a gleaming, high-tech facility where one Dr. Flintstein (David Strathairn) guides Giamatti through the extraction of the soul that he believes is weighing him down. Trouble and even international intrigue ensue, with his soul hijacked to Russia and his professional and personal lives trapped in a tailspin until he can rescue it.
Giamatti talked to Movieline this week about reconciling his deadpan self and his neurotic Cold Souls likeness, how soul storage might have helped on Sideways, and how dreams can be an actor's best coach.
So who is this "Paul Giamatti" we see in Cold Souls? The one who stars in romantic comedies with lines like, "Let's go someplace and make love," yet who can't quite crack Chekhov?
Who is that guy? It's not me, that's all I can say. [Laughs] I forgot about that movie I'm in -- that cheesy romantic comedy. But I don't know. I think it's got a lot more to do with persona than actually "me." It's some kind of a play on a certain persona you've seen me do in some other movies. That's the only way I can define it off of myself in some way.
Are there roles you can't break, though? Either specific parts, or maybe styles that are more challenging than others?
It depends. It's not necessarily what you would think. It's not necessarily the emotionally taxing thing. That can be tiring, but sometimes it can be... not easier, but it can sometimes be more cathartic and liberating to do than a funny thing. I can actually find those harder to break through.
So let's take Sideways. Short of soul storage, what kinds of preparations would you undertake to nail a role like that?
That was a hard part, and I've never felt like I actually got that part right. I always felt like I was too serious or something. I don't really know how to play jokes as jokes; it's easier for me to play all the comedy deadpan. I had a hard time doing that part. [Pauses] It's interesting to use the metaphor of the soul-storage thing. If I'm going to define myself as an actor in some way, I'm more of the outside-in kind of actor than the inside-out. It's often easier for me if I have an accent or an eye patch or something, you know? A funny walk -- if I have no legs or something? Something like that is easier for me to hook on to. I didn't have that with that part, and I had to find my way into it. The wine stuff, actually, was what I started to use. The behaviorisms of that stuff. What do they call them? Oenophiles? That was sort of the "in" with that. So in some ways, yeah. I had to find the right soul for that guy, I guess. It wasn't an easy part. None of them are, but that one especially.
One of the implications of the soul trade in this film is that your actor's soul might be damaged when it goes to a soap-opera actress. Do you ever sense similar consequences for going more pop with your work?
The pomposity of that was funny, but I don't feel that way. I don't necessarily feel like because I'm going to do some pulpy action thing, then that's it, I've ruined my soul somehow. Obviously doing Chekhov is probably going to hone you a little more than doing a bad guy in an action movie, but it's just as rewarding. They're different rewards. I think a steady diet of being just the pulpy guy might get [you] a little complacent. You've got to do something with it to keep yourself sharp.
The actual portrait of your soul that we see here is kind of intense. You've got all the phases of life, some cadaverous guys in robes, but it's all very beautiful. How much of your insight did you contribute to those images?
That was all Sophie. Most of it was taken from her dreams. There's a [shot] with a guy pulling the things out of the kid's head -- the weird little purple blocks? There was a lot more stuff that she cut, too; it's too bad. But none of it was my stuff. And somebody asked me, "Did she ask you about your dreams?" And I thought, "Interesting. It would have been very different if it had been my dreams."
What would it have been?
[Long pause] A lot more weird. A lot more animals. I dream about animals all the time. There would have been a lot more animals, and the bald guys are a lot more like something from my dreams. So yeah. More animals.
But when you have a film depicting you this personally, though -- when you're literally playing yourself -- how OK are you relinquishing control of the Paul Giamatti we see onscreen?
We went through a version at one point where she did make it more actually me. She added biographical detail and things from different jobs I've had, and that did not make me comfortable. I didn't want to be playing myself, actually. I wanted to be playing a character. I had that much control -- to say, "Don't actually make it me." The most important thing was getting that persona into it. More than personal things, we had to make sure whatever persona she wanted to communicate to the audience was there. But I never felt any existential crisis in any way because of the part.
I did find myself wondering during the film why it had to be Paul Giamatti.
I've thought a lot about that, too. Why does it have to be me? I go back and forth thinking, "There's not really any reason it has to be me." They had a version where they changed the name to... I don't know, Dave Edwards or something. And it did weirdly feel like it lost something. It comes from a dream about Woody Allen, so there may be some way in which it [has] a more dreamlike quality because it's a real person -- that it actually causes you to wonder, "Why is it him?" You have a dream, and the guy on House is in your dream. And you're like, "Why is this guy in my dream? There must be some significance to it." So I almost feel like it pulls you into it in a weirder way by giving you this off-center, surreal thing.
And there are ways in which it works, too, because it's about what actually goes into making a person. So I suppose a real person does help forefront that idea of what constitutes what a person is. I think it does help with some of the metaphysical stuff in there, at least in a subconscious level. But it's an interesting question. I do wonder what the movie would be like if it weren't my name.
Do you ever go through this process with other characters? Where you might analyze their dreams or their subconscious? Even, say, John Adams.
I have, sometimes. Yeah. Well, he's an interesting case; all those guys were interesting. He had the clearest spiritual life of any of those guys. He had a very simple relationship with his faith, and that was definitely a part of that character. He was conflicted about things, kind of puritanical. There were definitely spiritual struggles he was having with himself. But sometimes I do. I remember playing a part on stage where it seemed like the part was causing me to have certain dreams that were relevant to the part. And it helped with things.
Well, it was a Commedia [dell'Arte] piece. It was this clown piece, and I was playing a guy who keeps flip-flopping between these two personalities. And I kept having dreams about different opposed... things. I don't want to go into the whole thing. But it helped me to think, "This is a good, simple way to think of this personality, and that is a good, simple way to think of that personality." So yeah. It did sort of work.