Paul Giamatti Explains Why He Loves Working With Alexander Payne

“The Holdovers” history professor Paul Hunham needed an actor like Paul Giamatti to play him — a performer who knows his way around playing a sad sack as well as he does a formidable intellect. 

Paul, a brilliant, bullish teacher whose Harvard education ended after false accusations of plagiarism, returned to the elite boys boarding school that raised him to resentfully mold the minds of tomorrow. He’s an old-school educator with yesteryear principles that consistently come up against the politics of a New England prep school determined to keep its rich donors happy. 

The Christmas-season drama from writer and director Alexander Payne and cowriter David Hemingson opens, for instance, with Paul whistling gleefully while doling out failing grades on the latest exam — a practice that gets him in hot water after he flunks a student whose family bankrolls the institution. But the business of keeping the doors open appear of little interest to Paul when someone’s education is at stake.

“The thing about Paul is, no, I don’t think he’s wrong, actually,” Giamatti told TheWrap.“He’s not wrong about a lot of what he’s saying. He’s just going too far.”

The Focus Features film gets its name from the “holdover” students Paul is tasked with watching over through the holiday break — boys who for one reason or another don’t have a place to go. Those long, wintry days see Paul slowly soften to troubled teen Angus Tully, played by newcomer Dominic Sessa, and we get to see the emotional depths of a man, alone and mildly alcoholic, peeling back the “schtick.” 

Payne told TheWrap that the character of Paul was written with Giamatti in mind, marking a 20-year-in-the-making reunion from their collaboration on the Oscar-winning “Sideways,” in which the actor plays a depressive, struggling writer who gets in over his head on a road trip through California’s wine country.

“I’ve had a bunch of good actors in my career, but I have a special place in my heart for Paul Giamatti, because we really got on great 20 years ago,” Payne said. “I’ve been looking for the time to work with him again — and it finally happened.”

Giamatti’s ability to pull from his own life experience — he was famously raised in a house of Yale University academics and attended Connecticut’s Choate Rosemary Hall private school — combined with his everyman affability and penchant for acting out a hot temper with heart made “The Holdovers” especially appealing. The actor was also drawn to Payne, a director whose approach Giamatti finds particularly complementary. 

“There’s a general sensibility that really matches up,” Giamatti said. “I mean, we just seem to see people and environments and things the same way. He’s smarter than me. He’s such a smart guy, he’s such a deeply insightful guy.

“He always says he likes to bring people who bring funny to the sad, the sad to the funny,” Giamatti continued. “I think I’m like that. I think he finds other actors like that.”

He was particularly effusive about Payne’s ability to create “a very level playing field” on set. “There’s not a lot of hierarchy,” he said. “He cares about every extra. He knows their names. He’s interested in what they’re doing. I feel the same way.”

Payne echoed Giamatti, praising the actor for taking Sessa under his wing as co-lead. “I’ve got to say, it was more going to be Paul’s responsibility and pleasure to help Dominic along in his first film role — and a big role,” Payne said. “And Paul knew that was his charge.” 

“I’m interested in the story more than I am in myself,” Giamatti said. “That sounds like I’m patting myself on the back. I’m not. I just feel like the story is ultimately what’s going to last in the movie, rather than my ‘great’ performance, necessarily. 

Da'Vine Joy Randolph

“I appreciate actors the way he does,” he added of Payne. 

So while “The Holdovers” is looking well positioned to earn Giamatti the Best Actor nomination that eluded him for “Sideways” (he was later nominated for his supporting turn in 2005’s “Cinderella Man”), one can’t help but wonder what he and Payne may drum up together next.

“He’s amazing,” Giamatti concluded. “I didn’t think I’d ever work with him once, and I can’t believe I’ve worked with him twice. I hope I get to work with him again.”

This story first appeared in the Awards Preview issue of TheWrap’s awards magazine. Read more from the Awards Preview issue here.

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