In "Cold Souls," opening Friday in limited release, the actor Paul Giamatti plays an actor named . . . Paul Giamatti. The on-screen Giamatti is struggling through rehearsals for a New York stage production of Chekov's tragicomedy "Uncle Vanya" when he finds out about a medical facility that can extract and store his soul. Desperate to lose himself in the role as completely as possible, he undergoes the procedure and afterward is shocked to learn that his soul is only the size of a chickpea. Later, after his soul has been smuggled to Russia to be sold on the black market, he travels abroad to get it back.
"The whole idea that it was me, or that it was my name, didn't really strike me at first," the actual Paul Giamatti said recently. "The penny didn't really drop on me that I was playing myself in some way until much later in the process."
The deadpan comedy is the feature debut for 34-year-old French-born writer-director Sophie Barthes, who currently lives in New York City. The idea for the film came to her, quite literally, in a dream. One night a few years ago she watched the Woody Allen film "Sleeper" and then was reading Carl Jung's "Modern Man in Search of a Soul" before going to bed. That night she had a particularly vibrant dream, in which a "Sleeper"-era Woody Allen was ahead of her in a line as they both held white boxes that contained their souls. Allen protested greatly when told his soul was just the size of a chickpea. Barthes awoke before finding out what her own soul looked like.
She wrote down the dream the next morning and began teasing out the ideas contained within it. Figuring she would be unable to entreat Woody Allen to appear in her debut feature, and having just seen Giamatti in "American Splendor," she wrote the script with Giamatti in mind. Her script would go on to win a screenwriting competition sponsored by the Nantucket Film Festival, and as luck would have it, Giamatti himself was at the ceremony to present an award to the "Sideways" writing team of Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor. Barthes seized the opportunity to tell the actor about her script.
"That was an interesting moment, to sit there and think, 'Do I have a persona that's concrete in people's minds?' " Giamatti recalled of his response to reading the script for the first time, and the idea someone would write a role specifically for him to play a variation on himself. "Ultimately I guess in her mind I did."
With his balding pate and doughy physique, Giamatti, 42, has a character actor's look and the talent to spare. He was nominated for an Academy Award for "Cinderella Man," and picked up numerous prizes for his roles in "American Splendor" and "Sideways." He won a Golden Globe, Screen Actors Guild Award and an Emmy for the title role in the miniseries "John Adams." It is perhaps the roles in "Sideways" and "America Splendor" that have defined him in the popular imagination, playing prickly misanthropes and malcontents who feel perennially wronged by the world. He inhabits his parts with such a convincing singularity it is perhaps easy to understand why audiences may mistake the roles with the actor.
"I think a lot of people see him as this kind of guy," Barthes said in a separate interview of the perception of Giamatti's screen persona. "We think we know actors, we think they belong to us in a way. We see them on screen and imagine we know them."
For actor and filmmaker alike, the real hurdle of the role in "Cold Souls" was not the divide between the person and persona of Paul Giamatti, but rather the difficulty of portraying something as intangible as the loss of one's own soul.
"What was interesting about the character," said Giamatti, "I suppose the challenging thing about the character, was the whole soulless, soulful, my soul, not my soul, that was what the character was really about. That's what I had to be thinking about more than anything, what was it like to not have a soul, or a bit of a soul or somebody else's soul."
"It was difficult to articulate, what is soulfulness," acknowledged Barthes. "I still don't know. We decided it was a question of layers, the more layers a performance can have, the more complex the feelings, the more soulful it would be."
Ever since the film's premiere at this year's Sundance Film Festival, it has seemed a requirement to compare "Cold Souls" to the work of writer-director Charlie Kaufman, creator of the twisting takes on identity and celebrity in "Being John Malkovich." But for all their seeming similarities, "Cold Souls" has its own distinctly dry sensibility and purpose for the device.
"It gives it a dreamlike quality," Giamatti said. "You have a dream and all of a sudden the actress from 'CSI: Miami' is in your dream. Why is some random actor in my dream? What is Henry Kissinger doing here? It felt like it had that quality to it. So the audience can wonder 'Why is it that guy? The movie is about who are we, who am I, and in the movie I play a guy who's having a hard time playing a character, and then of course, it's ostensibly me having a hard time playing myself."
For his part, as odd as it may have initially seemed, Giamatti -- who has never seen "Being John Malkovich" -- came to his own understanding of where Barthes was heading by having him play "himself," allowing him to tweak his image of being an actor who is very serious about the craft of acting.
"I got what she was playing off of," Giamatti admitted of his on-screen persona. "I can't be too coy about it. I got it."