Paul Giamatti stars as Harvey Pekar in American Splendor.

Profile and Interview:
Paul Giamatti

by Carlo Cavagna


When you think of successful Hollywood actors, you might think of Tom Cruise or Julia Roberts—high profile stars who pull in twenty-million-dollar paychecks just for showing up to work, flashing a big grin at the camera, and high-tailing it back to their trailers while the stunt doubles get dirty and sweaty. When you think of talented Hollywood actors, you might think of Robert De Niro or Meryl Streep, people who need to build extensions on their homes just to fit all the awards they receive every year. Most of you probably don't think of short, pudgy guys with receding hairlines and double chins, like Paul Giamatti.

Non-film buffs may not even know who thirty-five year-old Paul Giamatti is. The name might sound vaguely familiar, but that's only because he is the son of the late Commissioner of Major League Baseball, A. Bartlett Giamatti. Yet you can find this actor working alongside virtually every major contemporary star, including Dustin Hoffman, Jim Carrey (twice), Julia Roberts, Gwyneth Paltrow, Rachel Weisz, Helena Bonham Carter, Susan Sarandon, Martin Lawrence, Bill Murray, Tom Hanks, Ed Burns (twice), Matt Damon, Cameron Diaz, Ed Harris, Johnny Depp, Harrison Ford, Al Pacino, Samuel L. Jackson, and Kevin Spacey, and taking direction from such notables as Steven Spielberg, Mike Newell, Peter Weir, Cameron Crowe, Sydney Pollack, James Foley, Tim Robbins, Tim Burton, Milos Forman, and Woody Allen.

Have you placed him yet? Here's a hint. Giamatti is often asked to portray characters with names like Veal Chop and Pig Vomit. That's right, Pig Vomit. If you've seen Howard Stern's Private Parts, you should have him pictured easily by now. Giamatti is Stern's antagonist, the rigid program director at Stern's New York City radio station, who mistakenly thinks he can control the combustible radio personality and earns from him the nickname "Pig Vomit." It was Giamatti's breakthrough film, and many roles followed, with Giamatti often playing the duplicitous weakling or sad-sack eccentric, like a slave dealer in Planet of the Apes, one of Samuel L. Jackson's hostages in The Negotiator, a pathetic documentarian in Storytelling, and Veal Chop, an inept gangster in Safe Men.

With an MFA in Drama from Yale University and a veteran of lead roles in Broadway productions of The Three Sisters and The Iceman Cometh, Giamatti's immense talent was obvious even in smaller supporting film roles. Opportunities to do more than play pathetic losers came quickly after Private Parts, including a major role as Andy Kaufman's alter ego Bob Zmuda in Forman's Man on the Moon. We soon discovered that Giamatti could be likeable, too, as in Duets, where he plays a disillusioned salesman who hits the road and forms an unlikely singing partnership with Andre Braugher. He began to embody stronger individuals, too, like in Confidence, where he appears as one of the members of Ed Burns' team of con artists. Giamatti is the sort of actor who can follow appearances in Man on the Moon and Cradle Will Rock with Big Momma's House and Big Fat Liar and not miss a beat. Is there anything he can't do?

Well, yeah. He can't be Brad Pitt. Genetics won't permit that, and so you might be tempted to conclude that Giamatti will never be a lead actor.
Paul Giamatti is stuck in a grocery check-out line in American Splendor.

You would be wrong.

In Giamatti's latest film, American Splendor, he stars as noted oddity Harvey Pekar. Pekar became something of an underground iconoclast by publishing a series of brutally honest autobiographical comic books (called American Splendor), beginning in the Seventies. These led to a series of infamous appearances on The Late Show with David Letterman in the Eighties and a handful of poorly conceived stage adaptations. However, the obsessive-compulsive, cynical Pekar earned little money from his endeavors, and never was able to give up his day job at the Cleveland VA Hospital. Now, writer/directors Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini have brought Pekar's story to the big screen by combining traditional narrative filmmaking with documentary techniques and even animation. Among other things, the real Pekar appears in the film alongside Giamatti as the fictionalized Pekar. For example, we see Giamatti playing Pekar as he gets ready for a Letterman appearance, but when he gets in front of the television cameras, we see the actual archival footage with the real Pekar. Only Pekar's last Letterman appearance, in which he and Letterman had a nasty falling out, was restaged with Giamatti as Pekar, because Letterman wouldn't release the footage. [Read the review]

Having the real Pekar around made Giamatti's job especially difficult. Not only did he have to deliver a credible and sympathetic performance as a complex and not immediately likeable character, but he had to so while mimicking perfectly all of Pekar's outward mannerisms and distinctive facial expressions—including a whale of a glare. Otherwise, with the contrast of Pekar right there in the same movie, you wouldn't believe Giamatti as the same person. Despite a lack of physical resemblance, Giamatti pulls off a brilliant Pekar impression. Without it, the entire film would fall apart.

American Splendor won't be Giamatti's only shot at a cinematic leading role, either. He's got starring roles in the works for both John Waters and Alexander Payne, as well as a more traditional supporting role in John Woo's upcoming Paycheck, with Ben Affleck. He will also be heard as one of the voices in the animated film Robots, which will feature Ewan McGregor and Halle Berry.

In August 2003, Paul Giamatti talked with reporters prior to American Splendor's release, chatting about Pekar, working with Hope Davis (who plays Joyce, Pekar's wife), and his stage background. He does not regard what he does as an art, but as a job. Remarkably, he thinks of himself as "pretty lazy," even though he has approximately thirty film credits since 1995, and it seems he does not yet feel he has the luxury of turning down work. Despite all Giamatti's success, he has not lost the working actor's mentality.

Question: So what was it like to do a cartoon character-slash-real human? It must be a little different for you.

Giamatti: Yeah, I guess it was. You know, I never thought of him so much as a comic book character, you know what I mean? I was just thinking of him as a real guy. The comic book part of it didn't get weird, or anything like that. I just thought of him as a guy, a real person.

Question: From the time that you first became involved, was Harvey always going to be involved in the movie? How did Berman and Pulcini first present it to you?

Giamatti: I think that the idea was that they wanted him in it. I think they [always] thought, "We want him to be in the thing." When I got the script, it was indicated that there would be documentary sequences and stuff like that, so it was always there. Whether or not they had thought it the whole way through— You know, if didn't work, I don't know what they were going to do, because they might have taken it out if it had sucked or something like that, but it didn't.

Question: What do you think of the structure? How do you think it works?

Giamatti: I think it works really well. I mean, it could have sort of blown up. I think the fact they're in it is what makes it most interesting. Otherwise it would be more the standard bio-pic thing. I actually think it becomes the most interesting thing about the movie, that they're actually in it.

Question: It seems to add a whole new level of pressure to have the guy that you're performing be there watching you do it.
Paul Giamatti in BIG FAT LIAR
Paul Giamatti is the big fat liar in Big Fat Liar.

Giamatti: Yeah, it does.

Question: Did that hit you at all?

Giamatti: Yeah, at first it did. When I first met [Pulcini and Berman], they wanted to feel out how interesting that was, or how comfortable we would be doing that. It was definitely intimidating, but in some ways it actually made it easier, because it was a clear-cut task. "This is what you have to do, and this is what we want you to be like." It was pretty clear where you were supposed to go.

Question: Did you pick up things as you watched him over the course of the film?

Giamatti: Yeah, you know, I tried not to watch him too much, 'cause he's really different now. In a lot of ways he is. But yeah, there were definitely things I would notice and think, something he did physically was interesting and I wanted to actually use that, or the way he said something. There were definitely phrases that he would use that I wish I'd used in the movie, and I just forgot to use them, and stuff like that. He's got a lot of very funny phrases.

Question: Was some of the dialogue improvised?

Giamatti: No, no. I mean, there were things I wish I had actually brought in. I remembered thinking, "Oh, maybe I can find somewhere to put that in." None of it was improv, really, except for, obviously, the documentary things. They're not improvised; they're just documentary. They're real.

Question: How much did you know about American Splendor before this?

Giamatti: I had read a couple of the comic books when I was in college. I really remember [Pekar] most from the Letterman thing.

AboutFilm Question: Had you seen the last Letterman episode, when they fight?

Giamatti: I saw all of them, because, you know, I didn't do anything in college but watch Letterman. So, I saw all of them. I remember saying, every time he was on, "Oh, it's this guy again." The last one is interesting. I mean, it's explosive and stuff like that, but he's actually laughing through most of it—Harvey, he's laughing. I think he's having a really good time. It's ugly, [but] I suppose it's a lot uglier for Letterman than it was for Harvey. He didn't really care at that point. He was just sort of over the whole thing.

AboutFilm Question: And because Letterman wouldn't release that one, you had to do it yourself.

Giamatti: Yeah, that was the one thing he wouldn't release. For whatever reasons, they didn't want to release it. I think at first Bob [Pulcini] and Sheri [Berman] kind of panicked about that, because they were counting on having it. And then I think they liked the way the way it ended up. I think they liked the fact that it kept you off-balance. You were going to expect to see [the real Pekar] again, but you saw a recreation of that thing, which was somewhat unexpected. I think they suddenly decided it was more interesting to keep the through-line of the fictional Harvey going at that point. So I think they actually liked the way it ended up better than if they had used the other one.

Question: Harvey Pekar doesn't seem to come across as somebody who seems comfortable with himself, or his depiction of himself on screen.

Giamatti: I would actually say the opposite is true. He's incredibly comfortable with seeing himself. You wouldn't think he is.

Question: But he seemed uncomfortable about the stage adaptation. He seemed like, "I don't know about that."

Giamatti: Well, yeah. I would think he probably thought, "I don't know about that," because [he thought], "What's in it for me? Am I going to make any money off this?" I think that's probably why. But I mean, he's definitely been drawn a bunch of different ways, and a lot of the time he wasn't drawn in the most flattering ways. He looks like a pig in a lot of things, and he's all right with that. For all his neuroses and anxieties, he's a really secure guy in a lot of ways, about himself. He's a secure guy in regard to what he does, so he's able to separate from it. And he has respect for what other people are doing. He had a lot of respect for their script, and what they were going to do. He just doesn't see it as his job to interfere.

Question: So now that you've gotten to know him, is this the real him? Or is he a character? Is Harvey different off screen?

Giamatti: Yeah, he's got a schtick, definitely. It's like a performer. He definitely has a persona that he created and he put in those things, and he's put it on enough in his public life, too. So he does have a schtick to some extent. He knows how people expect him to behave sometimes. But he's older now. He's a lot more mellowed out than he used to be.

Question: How much did you relate to the role?

Giamatti: You know… [laughs] … I don't know how much I related to it necessarily as I admired him. I kind of idealized that kind of guy who willfully made himself into a pariah. I find that kind of thing sort of attractive in a weird way. That guy who stands outside of things, sort of scourging everything is sort of interesting to me. I don't know that I necessarily thought there was anything about myself that I identified in him. But certainly there's something that I would like to fancy myself being.

Question: If they made a cartoon book about you, what would the point of view be?

Giamatti: Boring. I don't think there'd be any point. What would it be?

Question: Well, his books are boring, technically. They're about boring things.

Giamatti: Right, it's technically boring, but he's not boring. That's the whole point. It's filtered through him; now it's not boring. Filtered through me, it would be boring. It's just not that interesting. I'm not that interesting. That's why I play other people, I guess.

Question: I'm assuming you tried to analyze his impact, the impact of the comic books. What explanation did you arrive at?

Giamatti: Why they have any of the popularity that they have? They don't have huge popularity. He's never made very much money off of them. It's extremely limited. Part of the appeal with that underground stuff is just that it's underground. I think a lot of the time for people, that's enough to make it appealing. But, I don't know. At the time he started doing them, they were innovative in comic book terms. The autobiographical thing and the self-revelatory thing I guess was somewhat innovative for comic books, [though] it seems like a lot of that kind of stuff was going on in other parts of the art world. You had the Living Theater and stuff like that, with everybody running around naked and screwing on stage and talking about having sex with their mother on stage. There was a lot of that stuff going on in the art world in general. And then some of [Pekar's] earlier stuff was much more ugly and dark—a lot more kind of twisted sexual stuff. A lot of the early ones he never even published. He was part of the cultural moment, but then I guess he was kind of out of his time, too.

AboutFilm Question: Since you knew who he was and had seen him on Letterman, what was your first reaction upon hearing of this project?

Giamatti: I thought it sounded great, but it was when I read the script that it was the most interesting. I felt the way they were going to try to tell the story was really interesting. Aside from the documentary thing and the cartoon stuff, which is great, it just seemed like they were avoiding making it a bio-pic at all. It just seemed to be a good movie about an artist, a convincing movie about an artist that wasn't cheezy or sentimentalizing or boring or anything like that. But I remembered him from Letterman and thought, "That would be a pretty interesting guy to play," because he was quite a character.

Paul Giamatti in PLANET OF THE APES
Paul Giamatti as a slave trader in The Planet of the Apes.

Question: Your roles are so different. This is almost like a dark comedy. Is there anything that you prefer to do?

Giamatti: No, I like all these things. I find strictly comedic things—broad comedic things—the hardest thing to do, actually. I do it a lot, and it's fun, but I find it really hard. I don't find it so rewarding because I find it so hard. So I do it, but I prefer to try to do other things. I feel more comfortable playing something like this. While you're doing it, while I was acting it, you can forget that it's supposed to be funny. It makes it easier in some ways to do. The broad comedy thing is really hard to do on film.

AboutFilm Question: It seems like you work a lot. You certainly do a lot of projects. How much time off do you give yourself?

Giamatti: I'd like to have permanent time off, really. The goal is financial security and permanent time off, basically. But, you know, I get a fair amount of time between projects, which is great. It takes me awhile to start getting nervous about getting another job again. I don't mind having a lot of down time. I'm pretty lazy. So I really don't mind it. But I'm lucky; I work fairly steadily. I'm lucky that I've managed to do that.

Question: How important is the stage to you?

Giamatti: For a long time it was all I basically did. I regret not doing it as much these days, and I feel like in a lot of ways I've gotten kind of soft as an actor, not doing stage stuff. In terms of being a better actor, it's really important.

Question: Was Iceman Cometh the last play you did?

Giamatti: No. That was for awhile, but then last fall I did—Al Pacino played Arturo Ui in a production of the [Bertolt] Brecht play [The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui], so I was in that. It was a good experience, but it wasn't what Iceman Cometh was, which kind of spoiled me for plays.

Question: How grueling is doing a four-hour play?

Giamatti: That was four and a half, almost five.

Question: Eight performances a week?

Giamatti: It was seven, because you just couldn't ask someone to do eight. You couldn't ask the guy playing Hickey in that to do eight performances. It's just crazy. It was amazingly grueling. We had one two-show day where you just had a half hour between shows. It was physically demanding. There was one guy who basically had to [pretend to] be asleep all the time, and by the end of the run of it, he was just a basket case. It was just horrible; everybody was wrecked by the end of it.

Question: How did you come down from it?

Giamatti: It took awhile! Everybody really missed it a lot, [even though] everybody fell apart after it. There were a couple guys got divorced after it, and I had awful acid reflux after it. It took a long time to recover.

Question: You didn't do London.

Giamatti: No, I didn't. And some of those guys did. They came right from London right to here, and there was one guy, Patrick Godfrey, who had to be seventy-five years old, who was amazing. In fact, I thought he'd died on stage one night because he fell asleep on stage, and I couldn't wake him up. He and I were supposed to have lines coming up, and I thought he was dead. I thought he'd died of a heart attack, which wouldn't have surprised me in that play. He did it for a year or something, that play. Amazing stamina.

Question: When Newsweek magazine does a big spread celebrating your art like they're doing this week, how do you respond?

Giamatti: Well, I don't know. I feel a little bit silly about it. I don't know. It's just— You know, it's nice. It's a very nice, flattering thing… About my art? I don't know. It's a great job in a lot of ways. I don't know that I think of it as an art. It's a really nice article. It's a great thing.
Paul Giamatti sings in DUETS
Paul Giamatti sings in Duets.

Question: Have you gotten it framed yet?

Giamatti: [laughs] No, I haven't gotten it framed. I don't know if I will. My mother will probably want the plaque version of it. My mother will want some kind of thing. It's great for [American Splendor], too. It got a great review.

Question: There's been a lot of good buzz about the movie so far, starting at Sundance. What are the expectations at this point?

Giamatti: I don't know. They've exceeded any expectations I had of it. I mean, it was a TV movie. It was a cable TV movie, but it was a TV movie. So, I figured, maybe it would make it to TV someday. Everything has been sort of gravy. How much better it could get for this thing, I don't know. Even if it doesn't, it went so much further than I ever thought it would.

Question: Do you think it will change your prominence within the industry?

Giamatti: I don't know. Maybe. That remains to be seen.

Question: Do you feel this was as emotionally involving as some of the theater stuff you've done?

Giamatti: Yeah, it was. It was more like a theater thing in a lot of ways, too. It was a performance about physical things—physical demands and physical acting, at least—which I get to do more in theater, so it did feel a little bit more like a theater role. It had that kind of feeling. Yeah, it was a very emotionally involving thing, because it's a nice story, and the people are very nice people, and you became very invested in their lives. They're great. It was a very nice experience.

Question: Was it hard to shake off any of the misanthropy of the character after you got done?

Giamatti: It was more liberating than anything else. It wasn't so much a drag as it was actually fun to play. I don't think of him as a misanthrope, really. I don't think that he doesn't like people. I think he actually really likes people. I think that's why he hasn't cut his wrists. I think that's why he hasn't killed himself, because he's actually really interested in everything. He's really curious about everything. He could sit in here and probably become obsessed with one of you guys, and write a comic about you. He'll suddenly focus on somebody and become fascinated. The publicist, he became fascinated by her life story. Honestly, that's why he doesn't kill himself. Because he's not a misanthropist. Is that right—misanthropist?

AboutFilm Question: Misanthrope.

Giamatti: Misanthrope, yeah. Misanthropist? Does that word exist? Philanthropist, that's a word. Philanthropist, but misanthropist, that's not the word.

Question: How much time did you guys spend together on the set? After the shooting was done, did you all eat dinner together? Did you—

Giamatti: [laughs] No, not much. No, I mean, they showed up. He showed up, basically, for the free food, honest to god. He showed up for the service, basically. And he was very fascinated by the process of making a movie, and he was very interested to talk to the grips and the electricians and stuff like that. So he was around a fair amount. It was actually really nice to have him around, because he's a character, you know. He'd fall asleep, and nap, and stuff, and wander around, and chat with everybody. He was great to have around.

Question: How long was the shoot?

Giamatti: Twenty-four days? Something like that. I can't remember. Twenty-four, I think. It was quick.

Question: How many cues did you take from the interaction between Harvey and his wife, in terms of your interaction with Hope Davis?

Giamatti: It's a little different, their relationship in the movie, for comic effect. The one thing he ever said to me that he sort of didn't like— We shot some scene where I was yelling at [Hope Davis]. He said, "Yeah, you know, that was really good, but you know what? I never would have had the balls to yell at my wife like that." He's like, "I'm too fucking scared of my wife, man. She'd take me apart." So, they changed the dynamic a little bit for more comic effect. But, you know, they have a very interesting relationship. I think the way they met and stuff, is fairly accurately shown in the movie. They're people who don't have time for romance and sentiment and acting like you're in love and all that crap. You just gotta cut to the chase.

Question: They got married in what? A week?

Giamatti: Something like that.

Question: In real life?

Giamatti: Yeah, in real life. Yeah, they really did. Joyce said that when she first met him, literally first met him, she was like, "I liked what he was selling, he liked what I was selling, so we figured, what the hell." But you know, it's a perfect match. That's exactly why they're perfectly matched, because she was like, "Whatever." They're beyond romance and sentiment and all that kind of stuff.

Question: How did you and Hope develop the relationship for the film? Did you rehearse beforehand? Did you hang out?

Giamatti: No, she doesn't like to rehearse. I could go either way. I don't really care. I knew her a little bit beforehand anyway. But, you know, she's a really good actress. You can establish a rapport with somebody who's that good. I just followed her lead, the way Harvey kind of follows Joyce's lead. She's so smart that I let her be the good actor and it made me look better. She's really good.

Question: Did you have to work at perfecting Harvey's scowl and so forth?

Giamatti: Yeah, you know, I did, to get it right. It's important, that glare. The glare's important. He glares. He looks at you, you know. But it's not a malevolent glare, it's just the way he is. He's a skeptical guy, and it comes through to some extent.

Question: Did you have to go to the chiropractor after this role?

Giamatti: For all the slouching and all that stuff? No, I slouch a fair amount anyway. No, I didn't. I should have, probably. He's weird, because he's slouchy and all that stuff, but he was actually kind of weirdly athletic, too, and weirdly graceful when he was younger. It's strange. It's a weird combination of this kind of schlubby slouching thing, but he's incredibly comfortable in his body. It's a very weird combination.

Question: What have you worked on since doing this film?

Giamatti: I did a TV movie called The Pentagon Papers [with James Spader], which I never saw, and I did a movie called Confidence.

AboutFilm Question: You didn't come for the press day for that, though.

Giamatti: I don't think I did, because I must have been doing something else. I think I was making this movie Paycheck. I think. For some reason I couldn't, and I don't remember why I couldn't.

Question: Who do you play in Paycheck?

Giamatti: I play the goofy sidekick. [laughter] You know, to put it in a nutshell. I play the goofy sidekick. I play Ben Affleck's kooky buddy.

Feature and Interview © August 2003 by AboutFilm.Com and the author.
American Splendor images © 2003 New Line Productions, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Big Fat Liar image © 2002 Universal Pictures. All Rights Reserved.
Planet of the Apes images © 2001 20th Century Fox. All Rights Reserved.
Duets image © 2000 Buena Vista Pictures Distribution. All Rights Reserved.

Related Materials:  

  Talk about Paul Giamatti on the boards
  Official site for American Splendor
  IMDB page for Paul Giamatti
  Rotten Tomatoes page for American Splendor