PERHAPS THE 21ST CENTURY’S MOST CONSUMMATE CHARACTER ACTOR DISCUSSES HOW HE TACKLES HIS ACERBIC PART IN BILLIONS, AND TAKES US BEHIND THE SCENES OF A NEW AMC SERIES
BY SUSAN HORNIK
Paul Giamatti’s face, as he’ll likely be the first to admit, lacks the sort of chiseled wonder of James Brolin’s or the clean cut jawline and deadly dimple of Henry Cavill. Instead, there’s a friendly but frantic nature to his aspect, as if he’s perpetually surprised by celebrity, gobsmacked at new street stimulus, and so, is ever ready to make wry self deprecations. Though recognizable to us all now after more than 70 TV and movie appearances or starring turns since his breakthrough as the toadying corporatist in 1997’s Private Parts, it’s easy to pass him by in his Brooklyn Heights home turf and only realize it 10 seconds later, when it’s too late (or almost) to shout “I love your work!”
At 51, the actor/executive producer has excelled in numerous Hollywood comedies and dramatic roles, but, he confided to us at the Television Critics Press Tour, occasionally gets wistful for Broadway (and sometimes very off Broadway) days.
Son of the late A. Bartlett Giamatti, who served as Commissioner of Major League Baseball and Yale University president, Paul was active in Yale’s theater scene, in the process working with actors like Edward Norton and Ron Livingston. After earning a bachelor’s degree in English, he attended Yale School of Drama for his Master of Fine Arts, and for a time jumped from academia to the stage for a 1989 to 1992 stint with Seattle’s Annex Theater.
“I like theatre more than anything,” Giamatti said. “But I don’t get to do that as much anymore, I just can’t; it’s not fiscally responsible of me! [laughs].” (The last time he was on Broadway was in 1999 for a run of The Iceman Cometh. He also played Hamlet in 2013 for the Yale Repertory Theatre.)
Smallish TV and movie roles followed formative days on stage, in series like New York News and NYPD Blue and films such as Donnie Brasco and Sabrina, but playing Kenny “Pig Vomit” Ruston in Howard Stern’s biopic Private Parts made him a name, and a Golden Globe nominated role in 2004’s Sideways made him a star.
“I have enjoyed doing television actually, maybe a little more than movies,” he acknowledged. “It grows in an interesting way. You get more chances to try to get the thing right. It’s kinda the best of theatre and movies, so it’s nice.”
Giamatti remains busy on the successful Showtime series Billions, which will be back next year for a fourth season an often darkly comic production that examines the complicated personal stories that result from the collisions of wealth and power. Describing one particularly challenging episode for his character, the oily and conniving Chuck Rhoades, he confided that he got “very nervous” about it, and had to sit down with the writer and producers to forge through plot lines.
“I did have to play two, three…four different things, sometimes at the same time, and we didn’t want to tip it to the audience so much,” he said at the Television Critics Press Tour event. “It was tricky, because I had to walk a fine line and play it all just enough that the audience would be with it, or surprised. But it was great writing.”
While Giamatti can’t reveal what’s coming up for future Billions storylines (“And I prefer not knowing,” he laughed), he hopes to see Rhoades act in an uncharacteristically kind fashion.
“It would be interesting if he did something selfless,” he said. “That would be the one thing he hasn’t really done. But the universe of that show is that there isn’t such a thing as a selfless act, even if somebody seems to be doing one, it never is.”
This character dynamic is certainly not on the table for Giamatti’s new AMC series, Lodge 49, which he is executive producing.
“The characters act selflessly all the time,” he explained of the Big Lebowski style story about an optimistic local ex surfer, Dud, who’s drifting after his father’s death and family business collapse. Dud (Wyatt Russell) finds himself on the doorstep of a rundown fraternal lodge, where a middle aged plumbing salesman and “Luminous Knight” Ernie (Brent Jennings) welcomes him into a quirky new world.
“I read the script and thought it was one of the best things I’d ever read,” said the actor. “I thought, ‘If I could facilitate the screenwriter going out into the world and writing more stuff, that would be the most rewarding thing.’”
In the series, Giamatti’s voice is occasionally heard as an audiobook narrator.
“I felt that my face…you don’t need to see more of my face,” he told TV critics during a panel for Lodge 49. “I thought my voice would be fine….from the get go, when I read it, I wanted to be a viewer of this thing…wanted to have the joy of actually getting to watch this. I wanted that pleasure. I’m [also] contractually restricted by another show that I’m on, and so I couldn’t do it [appear visually].”
Giamatti, who divides him time between Brooklyn and a small home in Venice, CA with wife Elizabeth and their son, Samuel Paul, just completed production on another film, Jungle Cruise, with Dwayne Johnson.
“It’s based on the Disney ride,” he explained. “It’s a pretty wacky script. I have a lot of scenes with Dwayne; I play a slippery, strange crime boss. It’s actually a very difficult movie to describe.”
Giamatti also stars alongside Peter Dinklage and Elle Fanning in the September 21 released film I Think We’re Alone Now, then in the Netflixproduced feature Private Life, which will be released on October 5.
Asked whether he has any bucket list roles, Giamatti, pondered a moment.
“It’s funny, I don’t really have a bucket list,” he said. “Everything feels surprising to me. I would like to go to India!”