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Paul Giamatti got his stardom the old-fashioned way: he earned it. After years of appearing in smaller roles in high-profile films (Donnie Brasco, The Truman Show, My Best Friend's Wedding) — the Yale graduate (whose famous father, A. Bartlett Giamatti, was once president of that university and Commissioner of baseball) graduated to more visible roles after gaining acclaim for his portrayal of Howard Stern's nemesis in the autobiographical comedy Private Parts. It's fascinating to think that "Pig Vomit" (as he was known in that film) is today one of the country's most respected actors; an Academy Award campaign spearheaded by Stern on his radio show certainly helped. But what really did the trick were Giamatti's award-nominated lead performances in the indie hits American Splendor and Sideways, where he displayed a remarkable ability to convey both his characters' neurotic quirks and their everyman appeal. Studio heads and executives may gripe that Giamatti doesn't have leading-man looks; but they forget that neither do average viewers. Perhaps that's why M. Night Shyamalan fought to get Giamatti as the lead for his 2006 film Lady in the Water — a performance which, despite the film's negative reviews, helped to raise the actor's profile even further. His most recent film is Julian Golderger's ethereal adaptation of Harry Crews's novel The Hawk is Dying, an understated, tense drama in which Giamatti portrays a depressed Gainesville, Florida, auto upholsterer who tries to break free of his mundane reality by training the titular bird. It's a further refinement of his search to find new ways to convey the troubled inner lives of these tortured, and all too real, characters. — Bilge Ebiri
Were you familiar with Harry Crews's novel before you did the film?
No, I'd never heard of it. I read the script and liked it. Then I met Julian, and I thought he was great. I was impressed with the fact that he'd been working on it for so many years. He had a lot of especially interesting visual ideas, to get at the dreamlike aspects of the story, and to also connect to the environment of the location, to the glades and the darkness. I was really interested by this idea of trying to combine the naturalistic with these hallucinatory sequences.
Have you taken a look at the novel since?
Not at all. I still haven't read it, I'm afraid to admit. It's tough to find. Julian did say that the film was very different from the novel, so I don't know what I'd think of the novel.
Do you do a lot of research for your parts?
I didn't really have much time, for this part. I wound up doing the film at the last minute. I think honestly that being in Gainesville alone probably added a lot to all our performances. It's a strange place. They're tough people over there.
Was it difficult having so many scenes where you had to work with hawks?
Believe it or not, it was fine. They were very well trained, and not that hard to work to work with at all. Ironically, it was a bit too easy. The thing that was difficult for me was that I had to sort of agitate them and torture them, and get them worked up. The trickiest thing was for them to not be well behaved. It turns out that they're very sweet animals.
Did you have to spend much time training to work with the birds?
No. That's what I thought was going to happen — that I'd need weeks and weeks of training. But I didn't have much time to do that, and I was nervous about it. But [animal trainer] Tony Suffredini is one of the best bird guys in the world. He did the movie pretty much for nothing, just cause he loves hawks so much.
Your performance here is so internalized. You're just building and building for so much of the film. I'm curious as to how you go about turning something so inner into something we can see onscreen.
I don't really know how I do it. This character is completely shut down. He sort of goes off the deep end. In fact, that's what I really liked about the script — that you didn't really know what was wrong with the guy. He has a mysterious relationship with the mother. There are some oblique references to his emotional life. But that's it. We know so little about him.
Did you have to come up with your own take on what's wrong with him?
No, but Julian did. Julian's very interesting, because he was always ready to talk about it. He always had a ready answer for any question, and he knew more than any of us were going to about the characters. The process was largely intuitive for me, so I didn't find myself talking that much about the character with him. I think other people did it, though. Michelle [Williams]'s character was also very enigmatic, but they talked a lot about backstory. It was a great and very diverse set in that way.
There seems to be a continuity between an internalized role like this and the ones you did in Sideways and Lady in the Water.
Yeah. For starters, of course, I seem to get offered a lot of parts like that. I also think that those were all interesting scripts. So it's not so much that the leads were similar as that they avoided narrative clichés: they avoided creating very typical emotional lives for the character. I like that. They were very non-linear in that sense; they didn't spell everything out for you.
But you do seem drawn to portraying characters who are broken in some way.
I don't know if I am, particularly. I do find that kind of conflict interesting. But I'd say that most central characters in good drama — not just contemporary, but all drama — are wounded in some ways. It's hard to avoid, if you're trying to write an interesting central character. So I don't think it's just the parts I'm drawn to in particular. A good dramatic part requires it. And to be honest with you, it'd be a lot harder to play someone who was just happy and fulfilled. I'm not sure what I'd do with that.
Your performance is pretty much at the heart of The Hawk is Dying. Did you wind up having any input into the script?
I didn't, but I didn't want any. I wouldn't change anything. It was so carefully wrought. Julian really knew where he wanted to go with the film — I wouldn't want to fuck with that.
[thinks] I guess though that I had some input in terms of improvising. He did ask us to improvise a couple of times. I had one monologue, where he basically told me the structure of it, and then I took it from there. It was amazing to do. I loved it. But I don't think of it as changing the script. It was still quite controlled and structured.
You're known for being a fairly private, low-key guy. As you appear in bigger and bigger films, and get more and more acclaim, is that becoming harder to maintain?
I suppose it is, to some extent. But it's not that hard, believe it or not. This kind of success is certainly more than I ever expected, and I'm really happy being able to do the parts I do. Some things change obviously when people are recognizing you, but I've found that it hasn't been too difficult for me to both do the things I do and to play the roles I want.
Let's talk about Lady in the Water. I actually thought your performance in that film was one of your best, and that the film was quite good. But was that a new experience for you? Starring in a big studio film, with a high-profile director, and constantly being subjected to so much scrutiny, and, eventually, so much vitriol?
Y'know, I really liked that movie, too. It's a very cool film, and it was a very interesting direction for that director [M. Night Shyamalan] to take. It's flawed, maybe, but it's really an odd and wonderful little artifact.
And yeah, that was a different experience for me. For example, the book that was written about the film [Michael Bamberger's The Man Who Heard Voices] was something pretty new. Strictly speaking, the book didn't have anything to do with me, so I was fine. But for Night to have the magnifying glass on him like that, and to open himself up like that. . . I suppose he may have enjoyed it to some extent, but it still must have been very difficult.
And, unfortunately for him, people totally misunderstood that book. Most people ignored the fact that two-thirds of that book was a very well written look at how a movie is made. Michael captured a lot of great details about working in that kind of environment. It was not a smart-ass cynical take on the movie. And it was a really balanced and observant account. But people just focused on the small part about Night's rift with Disney and all that. I don't think people really read it.
For many years you did a lot of smaller parts in a number of films, before you became a lead. Are there any titles from that period, any particular roles, that you wish people were more familiar with?
Well, I had an exceptional performance in the movie Singles! [laughs] I had only one word to say. I guess from that time, I always liked a small film I did called Safe Men. It wasn't a hit, but people seem to really like that movie now when they see it. I enjoyed that.
©2007 Bilge Ebiri & Nerve.com