NEW YORK — Shortly before he had to transform himself into John Adams, Paul Giamatti was portraying Santa in "Fred Claus." And as TV viewers were getting set to see him in powdered wigs while becoming our second president, he was already on to his latest role, in a comedy about a guy whose soul is extracted and stolen by the Russian mob. That one's called "Cold Souls," though Giamatti refers to it as "the soul-sucker picture."
His early films had him playing such characters as Pig Vomit (in Howard Stern's "Private Parts") and Veal Chop ("Safe Men"). But Giamatti didn't break through as one of our leading character actors until his 2003-04 doubleheader of "American Splendor," in which he portrayed VA clerk/comic book author Harvey Pekar, and "Sideways," in which he was the frustrated Merlot hater who somehow gets the girl. After those, who seemed more logical than this son of a Yale president to play a neurotic, cynical everyman, hardly how we think of a founding father?
"I have no idea how they came up with me," Giamatti says of his casting as in the seven-part costume epic that concludes on HBO next Sunday. In fact, the maxi-series was built on that not-so-obvious casting, in part thanks to co-producer Tom Hanks, a master at playing everymen, just the sort we expect to get the girl. Giamatti was "the only cast member who was part of the reason it was happening," said director Tom Hooper.
Both he and historian David McCullough, author of the biography on which the series is based, described the casting as an effort to avoid another portrayal of Founding Fathers as one-dimensional icons -- something hard to avoid with war leader George Washington and only slightly less so with the courtly Thomas Jefferson and early America's other Renaissance man, Ben Franklin.
But Adams? "The short, fat, cranky Yankee," in McCullough's words.
"He's irascible, he's got anger management problems, he's got this huge ego," Hooper said. Giamatti "fit the sense I had of Adams as an antihero, to explore the flaws of the man in addition to his greatness, [given] how brilliant Paul was at creating portraits of men struggling with demons, this kind of marginalized figure. When you cast Paul Giamatti, you knew you were getting a fresh look at the Revolution."
Then the critics weighed in -- and rarely have you seen such a divided score card. The Boston Globe found Giamatti "riveting," the Chicago Tribune "brilliantly understated." The Washington Post said he was "captivating, often poignantly so," as when farm-raised Adams finds himself among the "French snobs . . . painfully aware that he is being mocked for his lack of sophistication."
But USA Today blamed a "hang-dog" Giamatti for making Adams seem inconsequential, and this paper's critic found him hard to believe as the Colonial who talked others into revolution, saying: "It's as if he is loath to play Adams as a leading man." And that was mild compared with a New York Times rant about the casting of "a prisoner of a limited range and rubbery, cuddly looks -- in 18th-century britches and wigs, he looks like Shrek."
Then there's the critic who said: "I definitely find the idea of failure interesting. I feel like I failed all the time. Yeah. But it doesn't bother me. It's life. I feel like I don't get it right ever."
That's Giamatti speaking.
He was talking in New York hours before he had to fly to Russia to do more filming on his soul-sucker comedy -- to get his soul back from the mob.
Giamatti was hoping to take a break after that, for he was still feeling the grueling Adams shoot, which consumed 2 million feet of film on location in Hungary and Virginia. Hooper said that they had 108 shooting days and that Giamatti was in 106. A heat wave sent temperatures to 110 in Hungary and he lost 15 pounds. He had to wear a fat suit to portray the Founding Father sometimes dubbed by critics "His Rotundity."
When Giamatti first heard he was being mentioned to play Adams, he had no qualms about the role. "No, no. It's a character, man," he said. "I never thought, 'Oh, my gosh, I can't play the president.' Unfortunately, it never occurs to me that I can't play anything."
That may seem like a contradiction, his belief he can play anything, then his fear that he never gets it right, "I could have done better." Or that can be seen as two sides of a complex human being, in that sense like Adams.