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Middle Men’s Giovanni Ribisi on Avatar 2, Rocking With Beck, and Playing a Porno Pioneer

The last time we saw Giovanni Ribisi on the big screen, he was fiending for Unobtainium and ordering the destruction of Hometree as Avatar’s Parker Selfridge. In this week’s Middle Men — the fact-inspired story of the invention of Internet porn, starring Luke Wilson as a straight-laced businessman corrupted by the sex industry — Ribisi plays a jerk again, only this time one with a cocaine habit, an awesome beard, and a penchant for illicit online entrepreneurship. Earlier this week, Vulture caught up with Ribisi.

The movie takes place over more than a decade, during which Gabriel Macht, your onscreen partner in the invention of online pornography, goes through a lot of interesting facial-hair options. Were you happy you got to keep the beard throughout?
I suppose there wasn’t that much thought put into that. It's a Republican mentality that my character had; he’s a Ted Nugent figure in his own mind. He has that conservative, “this is who I am” mentality. Also, sometimes facial hair is a way of hiding from people. Not to get too Freudian or anything … And I don’t know if this is going to sound completely asinine, but the director, his mantra that he kept saying on set was that this movie is about “fuck you, keep up.” We’re just diving in and just going and just sort of being free with whatever we’re trying to do. So that’s just how [the facial hair] ended up.

It’s loosely based on real events, but you’re not playing real people. What kind of research did you do?
The character that Luke Wilson plays is the actual guy that produced and financed the movie, Chris Mallick, so he was just this wealth of information. Our characters were based more or less on an amalgamation of several different people. But the stories that [Mallick] had, from some of the people that he knew, were just unbelievable, and made our interpretation seem really like On Golden Pond or something by comparison. It was really the case that fact was stranger than fiction. If we were really to portray some of that stuff, I don’t think people would have believed it.

Did you see the character that you were playing as villainous?
Our characters really were businessmen. It’s almost as if, it wouldn’t matter if they were selling blenders … people may tend to glom on one idea and characterize the movie as being about pornography. It's kind of like saying Wall Street is about the stock market. This movie is really about the people that are not in front of the camera, the underbelly of America. And it’s about the American dream.

You took part in your brother-in-law Beck’s “Record Club” series, covering The Velvet Underground & Nico. What’s your music background?
My father was in a band in the sixties called People!, and they were one of these one-hit-wonder bands, so I kind of grew up with a guitar in my hand. The “Record Clubs” are so extemporaneous and free form and a lot of them sometimes are done by musicians that come together within an hour. I think they’re incredible. They’re all for me definitely evolutions of the originals, and they’re just incredible. They’re all done in one day, and it's definitely a long day. And it's kind of a slap in the face to people who spend months or years trying to make that perfect record.

With Avatar, you basically played the bad guy in what is now the biggest movie of all time. Has that affected your day-to-day life?
Not really. It’s hard for me to be objective about that. The main thing is that Avatar sort of had an affect on the entire movie making community, as far as stereoscopy and 3-D and the way people experience movies and all that. That’s something I’m really proud of, along with all the people that worked on the movie.

Do you have any information on the sequel you could maybe share?
If I did, I’d have to crawl over the phone line and kill you. I’m kidding. Yeah, who knows.

Photo: Jason Merritt/Getty Images