Why Paul Giamatti Never Gets To Play Nice Guys (But Is Cool With You Calling Him Pig Vomit)

By  · Published on October 4th, 2013

We’ve seen Nicolas Cage lose his shit. Not just on the big screen, but with an infamous compilation of Cage’s finest moments of insanity. The only question is: why hasn’t Paul Giamatti gotten a video of his own? His performance in Ironclad alone would provide enough content. That’s just one example in a long line of Giamatti’s more bizarro choices ‐ choices that Giamatti is proud to be able to make.

As for his newest film, Phil Morrison’s All is Bright, Giamatti is fairly grounded as Dennis, an ex-con who heads to New York to sell Christmas trees with his old partner in crime Rene (Paul Rudd). All is Bright is a New Yorker dramedy with two Canadians at the center of it. We discussed the film, along with a wide range of topics, with Paul Giamatti at its press day:

Do you enjoy discussing your work?

[Laughs] It depends. Truth be told, I don’t. I’m okay doing it, though. I can find a way to enjoy it. In an ideal world, I would not want anybody to know anything about me.

[Laughs] So you think it takes away from the mystery?

Yeah, it does. Why does it even matter what I say about anything? The movie is all that matters. I just don’t think I matter. I’m happy to talk about the film, though.

Well, I can say you’re still surprising people. I didn’t even know you were in The Congress.

I haven’t seen that, actually. I’m really interested in seeing it. I read that script and I thought, “This is one of the craziest things I’ve ever read.” Actually, they came to me for a different part. I asked if I could play the doctor. They were, like, “Why?” First of all, I never get to play nice people. Second of all, this character is kind of like God. He’s so random. I’m really interested in seeing it. You liked it?

It may be my favorite movie this year.

Excellent. I don’t know when it comes out, but I’m interested. On the page it just read insanely. It was, “What is going on?” I can only imagine.

What are some of your favorite New York movies?

That’s interesting. Let me see…well, Martin Scorsese’s movies, of course. Everybody always says Sweet Smell of Success. There’s plenty of great New York movies, and I’d say Dog Day Afternoon is one of them. Another one is the original Taking of Pelham One Two Three, which I watched the other day. It’s an amazing document of New York at that time. That’s amazing.

It has one of the best endings.

[Laughs] It does! It really does. Walter Matthau is amazing in that. Nobody would ever make that movie now with guys like that, you know? They tried to remake it, but, Jesus, those guys. Jerry Stiller was just great in that.

Did you grow up as a film fan?

Yeah. I just think going to the movies was a big deal as a kid.

Were there any anti-heroes, in the vein of Dennis, that you were a fan of?

Oh, sure. I was a kid in the 70s, which was the great era for that.

There are actors, especially movie stars, who express concern over “likability.” I saw All is Bright and 12 Years a Slave in the same week. I’m guessing you don’t worry much about likability?

[Laughs] It’s not something I’m ever particularly worried about, no. It’s not something I’ve ever thought much about. There are parts that make you think, “Well, that’s supposed to be nice.” Like I said about The Congress, I never get to play nice people. There’s definitely a difference between the two. And likable? It’s subjective. For 12 Years a Slave? I don’t know… [Laughs]

What was interesting about the part was when I spoke to Steve McQueen I said, “I want this guy to look like he’s having a good time. This is something he enjoys doing.” His idea was to present it all as fact. It was just a fact of life, so my character treats them as livestock. That kind of movie requires a great eye, which McQueen has.

Why do you think people generally don’t cast you as the nice guy?

I don’t know. I think it just begins as the thing people start to associate you with. It’s a funny thing with actors, because that usually happens with the first couple of things you’re noticed for. I do enjoy playing those roles. I enjoyed playing that character in 12 Years a Slave. It was an interesting part. People ask, “How can you play such a character?” I say, “He’s having a good time.” I find it interesting to play unpleasant people.

This movie is all about the relationship you and Paul Rudd share. Do you have to find chemistry beforehand or can you get it on set?

I think you can find it. Maybe if you got to know someone, well, it’d make it harder, actually. Who knows? I kind of feel like an actor’s job is to have chemistry. It’s a job, so you have to find a way to do it. You can find it at the drop of dime, though.

Can you recall any examples where that happened?

I don’t think I’ve ever not hit if off with somebody. The guy I worked with in Sideways, Tom [Haden Church], we hit it off immediately. He wanted to call me on the phone beforehand to chat. I think he was thinking about building chemistry. We ended up talking on the phone for four or five hours. We got along fantastically.

How about with [All is Bright] director Phil Morrison?

It’s the same thing with directors, too. Phil is great. He’s a lovely and open guy. He wants everyone to have a good time.

He’ll shoot longer takes of straight dialogue scenes, really focusing on the performance. Is that comforting, knowing your performance is going to breathe?

Oh, yes, that’s a big difference. He does a lot of two-shots, wide-shots, and master shots. I’d be fine if someone never did a single closeup for a movie. It’s so much fun seeing the other person in the frame as an audience. It does allow the work to breath, particularly with this character. I don’t even say much. I’m taking everything in; he’s seeing everything.

Going back to The Congress, it’s a movie that deals with the importance of choice for actors. Paul Rudd has always found the question, “Why did you choose this part?” funny, as if that’s how it works.

Yeah, no.

For the past few years, you’ve seemed to have real control in the choices you make, though.

I feel like I have crazy ass control over the stuff I do. I do some weird, weird stuff [Laughs]. I have way more control than I used to and way more than I thought I would. Even so, it’s a tricky art form. You can still get trapped. It’s a weird thing, because you can still be confined in someway.

Is this a good weird or…

[Laughs] Sure! It can be good. It just depends. You can be trapped by persona, what people expect from you, and other ways. You can also be trapped by because you “can’t.” People may not come to you for certain roles. You can get to a point where you have a control over your choices, but only within a small circle of stuff. I mean, I think actors always have the opportunity to do stuff way outside the box if they want to. It can get tricky economically, because you need to make money. You can’t always just do things like The Congress. That’d be great, but I wouldn’t be able to survive if I just did that or theater. It’s life, you know?

Right. And then if you didn’t do The Congress or Cosmopolis you may not feel creatively satisfied.

Right. That’s exactly it. That’s the stuff I like to do [Laughs]. Like I said, I’m lucky. I get to move around all over the place. People let me do that for some reason.

We spoke for Cosmopolis, actually. At the time, you wouldn’t discuss what the “towel” meant to your character. Now are you willing to discuss it?

No. I want to keep that to myself. I think there’s a million ways you can look at it. I always think whatever someone else thinks about the towel is more interesting. I wouldn’t say if you’re right or not.

Is that a movie people mention to you often?

[Laughs] You’re the only people that ask about that one. Very few people saw that.

It’s a great movie.

I agree. I think it’s an amazing movie. It’s not an easy movie to take in. I mean, it’s challenging. I don’t even know if the people who saw it stuck around for when I showed up at the end.

[Laughs] That movie felt five hours long when I first saw it.

Yeah, right.

But I watched it for the second time the next day. It has a strange effect.

Yeah, that movie is brutal. It’s totally nuts. I almost feel like that movie defies criticism. I loved making it, though.

What are some other movies you’re proud of that don’t get mentioned often?

There’s a lot of movies like that. There’s a very small movie I did called The Hawk is Dying. Have you seen it?

I’m sorry to say I haven’t.

No, no, it’s an example. Nobody has ever seen it. It’s a really, really small budget movie. We shot it in two weeks. The original cut of it, I think, was brilliant. It got cut down for distribution, though. It’s a good movie now, but it’s really weird. I really, really have a strange affection for that movie ten people have seen. If you ever get a chance to watch it, I’d be interested in what you think.

I’ll make sure to watch it.

Good. Be prepared, because it’s an odd movie. Like I said, the original cut of it was different and better, but it still has its moments.

You seem to have a real affinity for those odder projects. I mean, your performance in Ironclad is something else.

That was awesome to do! I loved that. That’s what I mean, you know? I’m going to do that because when else am I going to do that again? I get to ride on a horse, hang around a beach, and there’s vikings everywhere. That’s great.

How about Private Parts?

I used to hear about it all the time and more so than I do now. I think more time has gone by. It’s definitely something that comes up. I love that movie and it’s one of the best parts I’ve ever played.

I’ve always imagined strangers calling you “pig vomit” because of that movie. Does that happen?

It used to happen a lot, but, yeah, it still happens. That’s great, though. Honest to God, I love that movie, so I’m totally fine being called pig vomit.

All is Bright opens in theaters and on VOD October 4th.

Longtime FSR contributor Jack Giroux likes movies. He thinks they're swell.