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Contender Q&A: Paul Giamatti

The Golden Globe nominee for 'Barney's Version' wishes he were more like Kevin Spacey.

January 06, 2011|By Rebecca Ascher-Walsh, Special to the Los Angeles Times
  • "I don't really understand film acting... I'm always either underdoing or overdoing."
"I don't really understand film acting... I'm always… (Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles…)

New York — — Paul Giamatti swings both ways, meaning, of course, that he's a character actor as well as a leading man who has been honored for both types of roles, with an Oscar nomination (2005's " Cinderella Man"), an Emmy (as John Adams in HBO's 2008 biopic miniseries) and a Golden Globe nod for 2004's "Sideways." The 43-year-old has just earned another Globe nomination thanks to his starring role in "Barney's Version," a dark comedy based on Mordecai Richler's novel. Playing the eponymous grump through four decades, three wives and a lifetime of bitterness, Giamatti costars with Dustin Hoffman, Scott Speedman, Minnie Driver and Rosamund Pike.

Giamatti recently sat down in New York, where he lives with his wife and 9-year-old son, and talked about how saying yes to fun can be mistaken for a brilliant career strategy.

What did you think about playing such a dislikable guy?

I wish he'd been more dislikable. He's relentlessly nasty in the book. I just always think it's interesting to see how far it's possible to push someone being really awful. It was the right thing to do what they did [in toning that down], absolutely, which is why I don't write or direct movies, because I would make that mistake.

For such an unhappy man, he marries amazing women. Did you have a hand in casting?

I was auditioning these women, and they said, "Oh, yeah, there's this woman Rosamund Pike we're thinking about," and I said, "What do you mean, 'Oh, yeah, there's this woman'? Just cast her!" I have a mad crush on her and have been weirdly obsessed with her for 10 years since I saw her in James Bond ("Die Another Day"). I've gone to England to see her plays. I don't have this thing where I'm dying to work with a lot of people, but she's one of them.

When you take on a role like this, is it in the back of your mind that it's a potentially award-winning performance?

No. Do people do that? I mean, I make considered career decisions, I won't do any crap that comes along, but I don't think about awards. I think about whether the script is good and the people will be fun to hang out with. I've done things where I've said, "There's a mortgage to pay and a kid to put through school, and it will probably blow," but there's still something about it that will be a good time. I don't think I've ever said, "This is just going to blow."

Do you think at some point you'll decide to take only leading roles?

I like playing supporting roles. I don't think one is better than the other. And I never expected to play leading roles, ever, so I don't think of it as "going back to supporting roles." The pressure of carrying a movie is weird, and I don't know that I'm suited to being the team-leader guy. But when I started getting leading roles, that's when the supporting roles got really interesting, whether it's "Cinderella Man" or "The Illusionist" or this thing I just did playing [ Federal Reserve Chairman] Ben Bernanke in the HBO movie "Too Big to Fail."

Is there a particular acting skill you'd like to get better at?

I'd like to get better at it in general. I don't really understand film acting — I don't know what I'm doing. I mean, I know what I'm doing, but it's not good enough. I look at someone like Kevin Spacey, and I don't know how he does it. I'm always either underdoing or overdoing.

You seem to get a lot of work for someone who never nails it.

Yeah, it makes no sense to me either. But I just want to keep doing as many things as I can. I'm going to do this George Clooney-directed movie " Ides of March," about two political rivals, and I just did " The Hangover 2," and this summer I did a super-low-budget horror movie called "John Dies at the End." My agents are weirded out by some of the things I do, but at this point they're like, "Dude, whatever." Maybe no one will stop me, or I won't stop myself.

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