In the new film Barney’s Version (based on the celebrated novel by Mordecai Richler), Paul Giamatti has plenty to sink his teeth into: He gets to age four decades as the oft-married Barney Panofsky, act opposite Dustin Hoffman, and play a romantic leading man to a trio of gorgeous actresses, including Rachelle Lefevre, Minnie Driver, and a memorable Rosamund Pike. Vulture recently met up with Giamatti to discuss how he pulled it off and what he’s got in store for his intriguing future projects, which include Too Big to Fail, The Hangover 2, and (if he has his way) The Three Stooges.
Why do you think Italians often play Jewish characters onscreen?
Do they a lot? I guess they do. I’ve never played an Italian onscreen, so I don’t know. I was told once in an audition that I didn’t “seem Italian.” I was like, “Really?”
Were you going by a different stage name at the time? “Paul Smith,” perhaps?
No! I was sitting there auditioning for an Italian role, and this woman said to me, “You just don’t seem Italian.” That’s unbelievable, that she said that to me. But I don’t know, I suppose there’s some sort of cliché ethnic resemblance [with Italians] … are we swarthy types? Is it the neuroses? I don’t know. Al Pacino is doing Shylock right now [on Broadway], so there you go, I guess.
Was it daunting to premiere this film in Toronto? It’s such an important book to Canadians.
Yeah, it was. Actually, Italy, too ̵ we took it to Venice, and it’s a huge thing in Italy, this book.
And part of the plot had been moved to Rome, right?
Yes, because the Italians love this book so much that they were willing to put money into it. So Italy and Canada were the two places to win over with this movie.
And you feel like you did?
I don’t feel like we angered anybody.
What happens when you piss off Canadians? Are they a vengeful people?
[Laughs.] I don’t know! That might be interesting to see. It might be really hard to piss off Canadians.
You play much younger than your years in the Rome sequence of the movie.
That was the thing I was most worried about, playing the younger thing. For someone who’s physically like me, it’s harder to age me down — I don’t have much hair and I’m overweight and all that stuff, so it’s harder to go backwards than forwards. So I was worried that physically it might not be convincing, and the character is not as much fun as he is when he gets older. He’s a bit more passive, he doesn’t become fun until he meets this other woman during his second marriage. But I don’t know, I suppose a lot of the work was done for me by the crazy wig and makeup. And good costumes and good lighting!
I have to say that I loved Rosamund Pike in An Education — like, thought-she-should-have-been-nominated loved — and yet, I had no idea this was her as Miriam until the movie was over.
That’s great. Wow, she’s an amazing actress. You didn’t know it was her?
I’ve never seen her like this before. She’s often cast as this icy, daffy blonde …
And here she’s very warm. She’s a very warm person. I first saw her in that James Bond movie [Die Another Day] — I love going to James Bond movies — and this woman came on and I thought, This woman’s beautiful, and she’s actually a really good actress. What a bizarre thing that in a Bond movie, the babe is actually good — usually, they don’t even care if they’re any good or not! So then I saw her in plays and other movies, and I always wanted to work with her, and when they told me they were looking at her for the part in this, I said, “I don’t know why you’re even bothering to see anybody else. You guys are crazy if you don’t cast her.”
Dustin Hoffman plays your father in the movie, and he’s known for having both a very serious involvement in his work and a completely insane sense of humor. How does he reconcile both of those?
He does have both of those things going on. I think the insane-sense-of-humor thing is the key, because it energizes everyone around him. He keeps you involved and laughing the whole time, and it worked fine for this part, because the character has an insane sense of humor, too. He keeps your mind off getting too intense about the work, and he will mix up the work while you’re doing it, but it’s very playful at the same time.
How does he mix it up?
It depends. He’ll throw out weird shit. He’s always using the script, but he’ll pull the thing apart, he’ll repeat stuff, he’ll go back … it’s pretty random. Eventually, it always comes back to the script, and you just kind of go with it.
It’s been rumored from time to time that you’re attached to the Farrelly Brothers’ take on The Three Stooges.
I have no idea. That whole thing … I didn’t even know it was a real thing, and then this guy at Sundance asked me about it. He said, “Would you replace Sean Penn as Larry?” I just thought it was some weird question! So I went, “Sure.” I didn’t know what he was talking about, and then the next thing I knew, it was all over the Internet. Then [the filmmakers] said, “Do you want to read the script?” And I said, “Sure,” and I read it and said, “This is really nice. I want to do it.” But it’s taken on a life of its own that has nothing to do with me. I have no idea! [Laughs.]
You just booked The Hangover 2. Is it a cameo or a significant role?
What’s the difference between a cameo and a significant role?
More than one scene, I’d wager.
Oh, it’s more than one scene, so I guess it’s a significant role.
You and Zach Galifianakis are both shaved bald right now. Coincidence?
Hopefully I’ll have more hair at that point when I shoot it, because I don’t need to be head-shaven for it.
Did you just shave your head for a role?
I did, I just did a movie called Too Big to Fail for HBO, and I played Ben Bernanke in it.
We’re very curious about that movie — what kind of approach does it take to economic collapse? Is it wonky? Comedic?
I suppose it’s inevitably comical because it’s such a series of disastrous farces. It has a kind of comedic tone just with the speed with which all this stuff happens, and the grotesquely, scarily farcical nature of it. But I would say that it’s wonky, actually. It’s incredibly detailed and it’s not shirking on anything. I don’t know if it’s intentionally comedic, but it has a certain humor to it at times, because it’s so fucking out of control.
What’s your take on Bernanke?
What’s my take on him? As a person or as an actor?
As a character.
Well, my take on him is from the book that it’s based on. He really became gradually pulled into it, because the Fed was supposed to be staying out of these things. The take on it is that he’s very cautious and wary and trying to be rational about it, trying to maintain [Alan] Greenspan’s ideas about things and not get too wild and improvisatory about things — which they then had to, because they had no choice. More than anything, the movie is really about [Henry] Paulson, so he’s really kind of ballast for Paulson. Paulson was much more aggressive, and Bernanke was trying to be reasonable about stuff. Until being reasonable didn’t help! [Laughs.]