Paul Giamatti doesn’t care what you think of him. No, really. This is not just some posture to cover up deep actorly insecurity. Rather, the Oscar-nominated star of “Sideways” and “American Splendor” is somehow immune to the tyranny of likability, which is particularly acute in his line of work. “I would not be a typical example of what someone would be like doing what I do,” says Giamatti. “I suppose I must not give a shit in some ways what people think about me.”
People pleasing is an equally low priority for Barney Panofsky, the dyspeptic, impolitic bon vivant Giamatti plays in the big-screen adaptation of Mordecai Richler’s Barney’s Version, which opens in limited release today. Barney storms through life, leaving a tail of cigar smoke, ex-wives and enemies in his wake. Finally, he settles down with a virtuous wife, played by Rosamund Pike (“Pride and Prejudice,” “Atonement”), who somehow tolerates his peccadilloes. “This guy has a lot of vitality too and he’s very liberated by not caring what people think about him,” says Giamatti, 43. “He doesn’t care if he gets drunk and acts like a complete imbecile in front of people. I have great enthusiasm for playing characters like that. It’s really freeing.”
Giamatti’s filmography is lousy with misanthropes, defiantly unlovable losers, and deeply flawed lost souls. He received an Oscar nomination for his alternately cringe-inducing and moving portrayal of Miles, the uptight wine snob with a talent for self-sabotage in 2004′s “Sideways.” And there was certainly nothing nice or conventionally appealing about his portrayal of the late Harvey Pekar in “American Splendor,” whose bleak, unsentimental depictions of American life have made him a cult hero. “These are all literary characters and maybe there is less care taken in being liked in books; at least you can expand a personality more,” says Giamatti. “In the book, Barney’s Version, he’s way worse than in the movie, but ultimately probably more appealing somehow, because you get so many more facets of his personality. And the guy in ‘American Splendor’ truly doesn’t give a shit. He truly is the most freed up in terms of not caring what people think about him. But he probably is also the most neurotic one. He’s got a lot of issues that guy.”
So does Barney, but he actually resolves some of them along the way. “I hate using words like journey or arc — that sounds like such bullshit — but he does change from being a little held back to taking that step,” says Giamatti, referring to Barney’s commitment to his third wife. “I don’t know that up until then he does let himself feel those things. It’s really pleasurable to play a guy who’s discovering he can love like that.” Still, this is not a story with pat resolutions or Hollywood endings. “This guy doesn’t really change much by the end of the movie. He’s just a magnified version of himself.”
Barney’s flaws are both magnified and made more lovable by his close relationship with his father, a guileless former cop (played by Dustin Hoffman) who is at home in his own skin as Barney is uncomfortable in his. Giamatti was inspired by the childlike enthusiasm Hoffman still has for acting and creativity in general. “He’s completely sincerely connected to acting and really curious about things in a really great way,” says Giamatti, recalling how the film’s producers suggested he and Hoffman find an activity to do together for their first meeting. “I was thinking, what the hell am I going to do with him? And he was like, ‘I want to go see this [LINK CORRECTED] Francis Bacon show. And I was like, ‘Great! I totally want to see that!’ He’s really into painting and painters. He’s not jaded or cynical at all. It’s amazing because I am and I’m half his age.”
Giamatti has more in common with the older actor’s passion and inquisitiveness than he’ll admit. For instance, in preparation to play Ben Bernanke in the recent HBO film based on Too Big to Fail, Andrew Ross Sorkin’s blow-by-blow of the ’08 financial collapse, Giamatti knocked himself out to find a way to meet the Fed Chairman, just to satisfy his curiosity about whether there was a difference between Bernanke’s inscrutable public persona and his personality in private. “It’s fascinating to see someone who’s got the point of a pyramid resting on top of his fucking head,” says Giamatti. “Five seconds into the lunch, I forgot that I wanted to watch how he holds a fork. I was just transfixed by this guy. Like how does he fucking get out of bed?”
That’s bound to be a question Giamatti will have to wrestle with while shooting his next role, only in a completely different way. He’s heading off to Thailand to shoot “The Hangover 2.” After that, he’s got his sights set on playing another unsavory type — a stalker pursuing a sudden billionaire (Colin Farrell) in director David Cronenberg’s adaptation of Don DeLillo’s Cosmopolis. “If the movie happens, I’m all for it,” says Giamatti, who, in his seemingly nonexistent free time, recently read Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe. “It’s really complex and cool and weird. It’s inside the title character’s head. He crashes, has some despair and he’s like, OK, I have to make a house, a boat. It’s really spare and odd. It’s like Beckett or something, so I really liked it.