Barney's Version - Paul Giamatti interview
Interview by Rob Carnevale
PAUL Giamatti talks about some of the challenges of making Barney’s Version and working alongside a cast that includes Rosamund Pike and Dustin Hoffman (as his dad).
He also reflects on his career to date, finding success later in life and which roles he remains particularly fond of…
Q. Did you enjoy playing Barney?
Paul Giamatti: Yeah, very much so. I liked him a lot. I know he’s a bastard in a lot of ways but I liked him a lot, certainly playing him. From the ‘inside’, he’s a lot of fun. There’s a lot of vitality to it. I mean I realise that subjectively he’s a dick. But it was fun to do [laughs].
Q. So, how do you play that and keep it light enough for the audience to sympathise?
Paul Giamatti: Well, the likeable things about him are built into the script… the relationship he has with his father, things like that. The way he is towards his first wife. She’s crazy and he marries her for the wrong reasons but he marries her to take care of her. So, he has this sense of responsibility. So, there are things just in the course of the script that humanise him. It’s not so much me, it’s the character’s there and I have to get it right.
Q. What do you think drives Barney’s outward gruffness?
Paul Giamatti: I think he’s not terribly tolerant of bullshit. I think that’s what it is. He has this intensive bullshit meter. No, no, I think part of it is that he’s vulnerable and sensitive and he wants to cover it up. So, he’s a lot more sensitive than he likes to let on, and I guess people who are like that try to cover it up sometimes by being gruff.
Q. You’ve played a few laconic, cynical characters. Why do you think that is?
Paul Giamatti: I don’t know. I think part of it is people have just seen me do it. You know what I mean? And that becomes what people come to me with. I think it’s partially that. I’ve been through so many cycles in my life… I went through a period where I played nothing but priests. I played priests ALL the time [laughs]. I don’t know why, I just did! I was in my mid-20s and I played priests all the time. So, I don’t know what it is.
Q. Is that how people expect you to be?
Paul Giamatti: Totally, yes. Absolutely they do, but maybe that’s a good thing because then people don’t bother me at airports so much [laughs]. Maybe they think I’ll go nuts on them or something like that. It’s an interesting thing.
Q. Rosamund Pike is very well cast…
Paul Giamatti: Absolutely. When I heard that they were thinking of her for the role… they had a group of about five people that they were considering, but I immediately said you really don’t need to think of anyone else. I’ve been kind of obsessed with her since I first saw her in that Bond movie [Die Another Day] and I thought she was amazing. So, I had this weird determination to work with this woman at some point and I was ecstatic when they cast her. She’s a great actress and a great person and I just loved acting with her.
Q. And how was working with Dustin Hoffman?
Paul Giamatti: It was great, he’s great, and he’s kind of like that as a guy – he has a lot of vitality to him. He doesn’t shut down ever, he’s amazing. They were exceptionally fun things to do, You have to keep up with him. Not always, but in some scenes, if he doesn’t feel comfortable with the way things are going, he’ll go off-road while he’s doing the scene and you have to go with him. But he’ll always come back, but it’ll be different, and it’ll land in a different place to how you thought it was going to.
But it’s really fun… it was challenging sometimes for the people who weren’t used to it, who were with him for a day. They were like: “What the f**k is he doing?” But you had to just go with it [laughs]. He didn’t do that all the time but he did it when it was necessary. A lot of the time he had these very monologue-y moments and I think he needed to find his way into them. So, it was really fun.
Q. You age brilliantly… did the make-up help?
Paul Giamatti: Thanks. The make-up was amazing. I really like wearing that stuff and it’s absolutely vital when you do this kind of thing. The guy that we had was French Canadian… a young guy, who’s really good. He was really collaborative, too. I really participated in it more than you normally do. He didn’t just come in and say: “Here’s what I’m going to make you look like…” He’d come in and say: “What do you think you want to look like?” He was amazing and that stuff cues you… it’s so good. And the actual physical weight of it on your face… you feel it and that helps you, so it’s an incredibly important part of it.
I’ve done some ageing stuff in other things and this wasn’t so extreme, so it wasn’t so weird and – again – the guy did a great job of making it look like me. It wasn’t freaky looking, so it didn’t freak me out. What was harder and stranger was playing younger. That was more worrisome to me, and more jarring to see… it was odder because I think we all think we still look like that and then you realise: “Holy shit, I don’t look like that anymore! I look more like the old guy!” So, the younger thing was more jarring.
Q. Did they use pictures of you as a younger man for those sections?
Paul Giamatti: They did and what was interesting was that I did have crazy f**king hair like that at one time. I really, really had a big mane of hair like that. The make-up guy was saying: “This is great… you should have this crazy hair when you’re youngest!” So, we went for it.
Q. The Alzheimer’s aspect of the story is very sensitively handled and treated with humour. Were you drawing on something personal there?
Paul Giamatti: Well, it’s not a movie about Alzheimer’s and I’m glad they didn’t make it that way. But yes, I had relatives who had it, so I had my own experiences of it to draw on. But it’s built into it nicely… I hope not in a heavy handed way. But there’s the erratic behaviour that might be Alzheimer’s and which could account for his behaviour when he’s older, that’s done in a nice way I hope. But yes, I had a grandmother, so I was thinking about her.
Q. Are we meant to think that Barney is an unreliable narrator because of the Alzheimer’s?
Paul Giamatti: Well, that’s much more a feature of the book. It’s interesting. The book is a first person narration, and it’s his memoir that he’s written when he has Alzheimer’s. So, part of the thing of the book, the MacGuffin of the book, is that he repeats a lot of things and it’s different, and he can’t remember things right, and he mis-remembers things and it angers him. But also other people are writing their notes into the book, about what he’s done wrong, So, it’s this kind of meta-fictional thing.
It’s much more important, the Alzheimer’s, to the version of the story. I don’t think that this movie is meant to present anything other than… I mean, it is his version of events, but I don’t think the Alzheimer’s is making a lot of difference. That said, it’s a tricky question, a very tricky question. It’s an objective movie, so how much of it is his version anyway? It’s a weird question, because some of the earlier versions of the script were trying to play with that idea more and I think they just thought it was getting too complicated and it would be too complicated. If it is, he’s pretty brutal and frank about his life, so it doesn’t seem like he’s misremembered things – he’s not casting himself in a better light. I don’t know. I don’t think it’s meant to be taken that way… unlike the book.
Q. What was the hardest scene for you to shoot emotionally?
Paul Giamatti: Most of the time there wasn’t enough time to do stuff. The scene in the massage parlour, for instance, when I find him [Dustin Hoffman] dead… I think we shot that twice. We shot that in a real massage parlour and we had to leave so they could get it open for business. That was a real place, and it was kind of skanky, so they didn’t dress that room at all… We just had to get it done!
Q. At least Dustin’s dead so he couldn’t go off-road…
Paul Giamatti: Yes, Dustin’s dead, so he couldn’t f**k around. Actually, he had a whoopee cushion, and he was going to do this farting thing, but I think he realised we didn’t have much time, so he didn’t use it. He told me afterwards that he had this cushion, so I said: “Thank you for not doing that because it would have been a pain in the ass!”
Q. Your career started relatively late…
Paul Giamatti: It’s almost over my career [laughs].
Q. Does this help you take fame in your stride a bit more perhaps?
Paul Giamatti: Sure, probably. I don’t know what it would have been like to have that kind of success early on. I didn’t ever expect it to happen really particularly at all. So, I think it’s probably a good thing to have it happen to you later on in your life. You probably deal with it better.
Q. Does it enable you to now play the kind of roles you want to play?
Paul Giamatti: You mean having had success later? Yes, that’s definitely true. I never played my age. In a funny way, I think I’m becoming the age of the characters that people wanted me to play that I couldn’t. When I was 25 I couldn’t play the 45-year-old guys. At drama school I did but I’ve finally caught up with that… and it’s funny that it’s coinciding with success. Being older… I’m playing the parts that are right for me.
Q. Can you move around your daily without being hassled or getting too much recognition?
Paul Giamatti: It’s definitely increased a lot more but it’s never been at any uncomfortable level. I can go about my daily life and for the most part people don’t recognise me.
Q. Do you remain attached to your characters after you’ve played them, or is it easy to let them go?
Paul Giamatti: It depends. Sometimes… I got attached to playing this character. I really liked playing this character. Movie-wise, I enjoyed playing the character in American Splendor, he was fun to play. Actually, the role I think that was the most fun to play, the one I was most sorry when it was over, was The Illusionist, where I play a sort of German detective. I loved playing that because I’d always wanted to play a detective. I also loved the whole period thing of that, the costume, the character, I just loved it. The character surprised me by becoming more interesting as it went along. I really liked that.