Paul Giamatti Talks Oscar Noms, Sideways Snub, and Text From Al Roker

“Paul Giamatti is our real-life Brad Pitt,” declares actress Da’Vine Joy Randolph, Giamatti’s Oscar-nominated co-star from “The Holdovers.” And she’s not joking. After all, as Randolph points out, “We can’t all be Brad Pitt, and I mean that in the most positive way.” The actor argues that Giamatti, in roles ranging from Revolutionary War heroes and Depression era boxing coaches to, in “The Holdovers,” a cranky New England boarding schoolteacher, has displayed a talent for always seeming natural on screen. Just as Pitt blazes on screen, Giamatti draws audiences in.

“Paul is a man of a certain age that men can relate to,” Randolph says. “That’s why I think Paul is our real-life Brad Pitt — [he’s] a champion of reality. What is real? An everyday man.”

The unassuming actor, who normally lives a paparazzi free existence in Brooklyn, eschewed a glitzy celebratory bash following his Golden Globe triumph in Alexander Payne’s poignant dramedy. Instead, he opted for the simple pleasures of an In-n-Out Burger in Los Angeles — and a photo of him dining there in his tux, with his trophy and burgers on the table, went viral on social media. “I’m on the edge of my seat for that endorsement deal,” he quips. “That’s when things are really going to explode.”

Weeks later, the 56-year-old Giamatti received his first lead actor Oscar nomination. He chose to stay up late in Brooklyn the night before, preferring the embrace of sleep over the suspense of the Academy’s early morning reveal “I would rather be asleep and not want to know,” he muses. “I figured I’d hear from people no matter what.”

Dan Doperalski for Variety

The sting of Oscar nomination mornings past, when anticipation was met with silence, is not foreign to Giamatti. In 2004, “Sideways” — a hilarious odyssey of a failed writer’s vinous escapades directed by Payne — garnered critical acclaim, yet Giamatti’s tour-de-force performance was conspicuously absent from the roll call of lead actor nominees. The film scored a trophy for adapted screenplay and was nominated for best picture, while Giamatti’s co-stars Thomas Haden Church and Virginia Madsen were also recognized by Academy voters.

“The harder thing for me to deal with was other people’s disappointment,” Giamatti says now. “My agents were heartbroken, and their sorrow weighed heavily on me. I grapple with disappointing people all the time. It’s a thing that I’ve tried to grow out of. Here’s the thing: I never expected it. I didn’t think I deserved it either.”

It didn’t take him long to receive his first Oscar nomination after the “Sideways” snub — that came a year later, for his supporting turn in “Cinderella Man” — but it ended up being nearly two decades, and countless acclaimed performances, before his name was called out as a lead actor nominee for an Academy Award. Besides Giamatti, the Focus Features’ film is nominated for best picture, supporting actress (Randolph), original screenplay (David Hemingson) and editing (Kevin Tent).

The recognition, three decades into his career, feels like “an affirmation” for Giamatti, whose earliest credits include a role as Heckler No. 2 on a 1990 TV movie starring Linda Evans. “Personally, it feels great and I’m happy for everybody. I’m sad some people didn’t get it, but you know, it still feels great.”

So who greeted him with the news? Giamatti’s girlfriend, Clara Wong, a co-star on the Showtime drama series “Billions,” set him straight after he told reporters that his longtime manager was the first person to congratulate him Oscar nomination morning. In truth, she reminded him, he first got a text from none other than Al Roker, the “Today” show weatherman, who made a cameo appearance opposite David Costabile during the final season of the series. “Why I had Al Roker’s number at all, I don’t know. I’ve talked to Al on the ‘Today’ show, but I’ve never really interacted with him other than that, but there you go, surprise!”

In Hollywood, Giamatti is hailed for his versatility. And in “The Holdovers,” his range is on full display, effortless in its execution, yet profound in its impact. His approach to embodying a crusty character with a peculiar physical trait — a lazy eye — brings depth to an already compelling portrayal of a demanding teacher.

However, he’s been a bit cagey about “the eye” in interviews.

He jokingly begins by explaining: “I wanted to tell people that ‘I trained with a contortionist from Cirque du Soleil to be able to do it, but I can’t do it anymore; it’s dangerous.’

Growing more serious, he continues, “I’ve been sworn to secrecy but if you look in the credits, you’ll see how we did it. It was a special effect, a makeup thing. It’s not CGI. It’s physical. It’s a thing on my eye and I’ve never done anything like that.

“I was a little wary of it,” he adds. “But it turned out to be interesting. It was useful to make the guy even more of an outsider. I’ve never acted with something like that before.”

Throughout his career, Giamatti has shown an uncanny ability to disappear into roles, regardless of genre or historical period, in roles ranging from America’s second president in HBO’s miniseries “John Adams” — a performance that garnered him an Emmy — to the melancholic comic book artist of Shari Springer-Berman and Robert Pulcini’s “American Splendor.”

His work has been so varied, under the guidance of directors such as Miloš Forman (“Man on the Moon”), Tom McCarthy (“Win Win”), and Steven Spielberg (“Saving Private Ryan”), and with actors such as Julia Roberts (“My Best Friend’s Wedding”), Tom Cruise (“Rock of Ages”) and Edward Norton (“The Illusionist”), that they should consider renaming the movie game “Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon” in his honor.

Dan Doperalski for Variety

There have been projects that slipped through his fingers — a planned biopic of novelist Philip K. Dick failed to materialize, while he missed out on joining David Lynch’s “Twin Peaks” recent revival. “It just logistically couldn’t work out,” says Giamatti. “Now I look at it and go I should have just figured it out.”

He has frequently been described as a character actor, a label he has grown to accept, if not fully embrace. “When people ask, I would say ‘No,’ and after a while, I thought the question implied that I should mind, but I don’t.”

My initiation into Giamatti’s cinematic world was through Peter Weir’s 1998 drama “The Truman Show,” in which his portrayal of Simeon, a control room director, left a permanent mark with such a brief character. Observing Ed Harris’ hypnotic energy as Christof, the architect of Truman’s world, was a masterclass in acting for Giamatti, who aspired to emulate the performer throughout his career. “Ed Harris had two days to prepare for that role. He’s a guy that I can remember doing that movie, watching him, and thinking ‘I hope I’m going to be that good someday,’” he reflects.

As far as Payne is concerned, he is that good. The director likens Giamatti to the titans of the silver screen — Edward G. Robinson, Robert De Niro, Meryl Streep — actors with whom directors form a profound and understanding bond. “There’s something about Paul that I think I really get,” Payne says. “He’s the finest actor, and as much as from time to time, I get raised eyebrows when I say, ‘I want him as the lead of my film.’

When they respond, “‘Well, he’s not a big, huge, famous movie star,’ I say, ‘he is!’ He just doesn’t have any comps. He’s that unique. He’s like a basketball player, who as much as being a great shooter, he’s also a great passer,” Payne asserts.

Paul Giamatti in ‘The Holdovers’
©Focus Features/Courtesy Everett Collection

Giamatti, whose late father, Bart Giamatti, was president of Yale and later Major League Baseball commissioner, takes the responsibility of working with burgeoning talents like co-star Dominic Sessa, seriously. Sessa went out for the role of Angus Tully, a troubled high school student with behaviors that overshadow his potential, after seeing a flier posted in his Massachusetts boarding school. The young star was chosen from 800 boys who auditioned for the part. “Every role is a chance to uncover something new, something real,” Giamatti reflects. “The scenes in the audition he did were great, but it was more when they sat him down and started talking about his family, and I was like, ‘Look at this kid’s face. He looks like he’s from 1972.’”

Giamatti is impressed by Sessa’s abilities, seeing a bright future for the newcomer, especially following a vital scene in which Angus delivers a monologue about his father in a restaurant. “I was astonished,” he says. “He did that in one take. We did a second one for the hell of it. I know many seasoned veteran actors who could not have done what he did.”

Sessa highlights how Giamatti belongs to all generations. Depending on your age, you’ll cite a different performance by the actor as a favorite. Sessa calls out Giamatti’s Marty Wolf, the arrogant and unscrupulous Hollywood producer from Shawn Levy’s 2002 teen comedy, “Big Fat Liar.”

“I learned so much from Paul,” Sessa says. “One thing that would always stick with me is when I would get nervous [on set], he would say, ‘We’re just having a conversation.’”

If anything, Giamatti has gotten even busier on the awards circuit since he was nominated for an Academy Award. He will receive a Cinema Vanguard tribute at the Santa Barbara Film Festival on Feb. 14 and is up for a BAFTA award Feb. 18. After this awards season, Giamatti says he’s looking forward to “taking it easy for a while.” But the man still has plans. “We’ve been talking about doing a private eye movie that I want to make. I also really want to do a Western.”

Dan Doperalski for Variety

Giamatti is quick to pay tribute to the titans of acting and directing he’s had the honor to collaborate with, such as David Cronenberg, George Clooney and Weir. Yet, when the conversation turns introspective, exploring his own storied journey through Hollywood and the laurels he’s gathered over 35 years, he grows more reflective.

“There are extraordinary film actors who take to the camera in ways that are absolutely mind-boggling to me,” he says. “It’s still a bit of a mystery. I’m still figuring out how to act on film.”

If Giamatti wasn’t acting, he would have dreamed of being an animator or cartoonist, which he still does for his own amusement. But he’ll always remember seeing the 1967 war drama “The Dirty Dozen” when he was 11, as the movie that made him “want to get up and start acting,” especially when Telly Savalas’ Archer J. Maggot (No. 8) was on screen.

With his unassuming brilliance and dedication, Giamatti remains not just a fixture in our current cinematic landscape but a vibrant, evolving presence, continually reshaping our understanding of what it means to truly inhabit a character. Even if he doesn’t recognize that’s what he’s doing.

“I don’t think there’s an actor that doesn’t have imposter syndrome,” he says. “It’s a love affair that goes through stages. Sometimes, you can’t stand it and want to go away, but then you can’t live without it. It’s good to love something and be loved in return.”

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