Paul Giamatti on Barney's Version, Playing Drunk and the Politics of Karma

paul_giamatti_barneys_500.jpgLast time Movieline caught up with Paul Giamatti, the actor was still getting his head around having played a version of himself in the curious indie Cold Souls. Then last year in Toronto, we reconvened to discuss a matter of similar weight and import: How a guy from Brooklyn came to play one of the most celebrated characters in recent Canadian literature -- in a film adaptation all of Canada had its eyes on.

Needless to say, Giamatti pulls Barney's Version off -- more than pulls it off, actually, stalking, swearing and swooning his way through three decade in the life of TV producer and Montreal gadabout Barney Panofsky. Director Richard J. Lewis and screenwriter Michael Konyves acquit their adaptation of Mordechai Richler's bestseller with taste, humor and grace, and a cast including Rosamund Pike as Barney's long-suffering wife, Dustin Hoffman as his cheeky father, and Scott Speedman as his drug-addled best friend do superlative ensemble work in Giamatti's orbit.

Not long after its Oscar-qualifying run, Barney's Version receives its proper release this week. I sat down with once and future Oscar nominee to talk about pressure up north, Dustin Hoffman's generosity and the implications of that one time he interviewed Russell Crowe.

This is so strange, because the last time we spoke it was also at a round table in a huge empty room. Very uncommon!

I recognize you, and I recognize you sitting a round table. Very strange. And in a very weirdly empty room. Very creepy, empty room. We'll try what we can in here.

That's the spirit. This is such a great role for you, but it's so Canadian.

It's very Canadian.

Did you ever sense any territorialism from the Canadians, especially adapting such a beloved source?

I was worried about it; I was worried I was going to get sh*t from Canada. But I never did. It was really more my problem; I worried about screwing up this Canadian national treasure. But I let go of it pretty fast. Nobody was ever like, "Goddamned American! How daaarrre you?" It was never anything like that.

One thing you've always said is that every time you take a role, there's always something scary about it.

Oh, always.

How did that affect you in developing this role?

That's interesting. The first things we had to shoot were the things in Rome -- when I was youngest in the movie. I was most scared of myself doing younger than older. Older is easier to do than younger, and I was worried it wouldn't be convincing, and I was worried I wouldn't be able to remember what it was like to be young. But also that guy is more bound up and repressed when he's young. So it's funny; it informed that part of it for sure -- that fear about those kinds of things.

What specifically is easier about playing older than younger?

Well, you know, that's receding, and this is coming. I can see this coming, and that's just disappearing more behind me. It's easier to age me up than to make me look young again; I'm never going to have hair again, unless I go with the Rogaine. Or unless I wear a wig, which I had to. But also, at least maybe as an actor it felt like that. But as a person, I don't know that it's so much gone. I guess... [Long pause] Sorry I lost my train of thought. I was going to say something interesting, and I lost my train of thought about it.


No, hold on, I had something really interesting to say. It was about being younger...


Wigs... Damn it. Damn it. It's slipping away. F*ck it. It's gone. See? Old.

The thematic implications of Barney's Version have literally taken over our interview.

F*cking hell. That's a drag. I had something really interesting to say. Oh, well, it'll come back to me. Sorry.

But you also had something very interesting to say five years in an interview you did with you Cinderella Man co-star Russell Crowe. You had asked him about the physical transformation: "Do you believe in the differences between the internal and the external and all that crap?"

[Laughs] Yeah. What did he say?

I'm more interested in what you have to say, particularly as it pertains to Barney's Version.

I tend to find -- and I don't know if this is necessarily a good thing -- external things giving me sort of internal cues. That's better; I guess I work more from the outside in than the inside out. But that said, it's much more mixed up and complicated than that. I definitely find things like that help me: Wearing the make-up and all this stuff does actually affect me physically, and therefore internally, more than the other way around.

"The audience expects you to transform," was something else you mentioned. Do you still believe that?

The audience expects an actor to, in general?


I don't know if that's necessarily true anymore. I think audiences many times actually want you to be the same, you know? Or something. I wonder what I was thinking.

It might have been more in the context of a question, if Russell believes that himself.

Yes, he definitely feels that he needs to transform. That's how I feel, too, though I don't know if I transform as well as he does. That's what I figure I should be doing: to give people something different every time.

And so the prosthetics are practical.

That's what I'm saying: They do a lot of work for me. It makes me obviously look old, so I don't have to do a bunch of "old man" acting. But you can feel that stuff; it gives you a sense of weight. The sense of seeing yourself with the hair does all kinds of things for you. It works for you amazingly well. That stuff made me look heavier and alchol-bloated... It's great stuff.

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