Acclaimed and versatile actor Paul Giamatti takes on the role of Barney Pannofsky, a rich Jewish TV producer in Montreal with three ex-wives and a possible murder in his life credits. Paul takes us behind-the-scenes with insight into the process of realizing a quirky, complex character.
Izumi Hasegawa: To get your character, did you read the book?
Paul Giamatti: No. I looked at the book, but no because it's very different and I figured this is what they changed the book into, so this is what I need to pay more attention to. I looked at it. It's wonderful, but I didn't read it until afterwards. I know myself well enough to know that I couldn't take on... I get too attached to stuff.
IH: Because he's not perfect, is it more to dig your teeth into?
PG: Absolutely. Definitely. The opportunity to go all over the place with this was great. There are so many different world he inhabits and how many different people he's interacting with, and it's easy to lose sight about the whole murder thing and Boogie and all that stuff. And the first wife. There's so much. The father. Work. The kids. There's all of this--life becoming more and more complicated, so it's way more interesting.
IH: In addition to the book, you also have the potential of using Mordecai (Richler) and Florence as models for the characters that you're portraying...
PG: We definitely did. I watched interviews with him. We met Florence. She's an amazing woman. And I actually spent time with one of his sons, who's a very interesting and nice guy and had lots of interesting stuff to tell me and show me. He took me around to his father's place and where he grew up. They were very generous people.
IH: Because Barney is somewhat of a semi-autobiographical character, was there any hesitation on their parts as to how he was going to be portrayed on film?
PG: I don't think so. I don't think we could have made it if in some way I am portraying him. I don't think we could have made him look any worse than he misbehaved in public anyway. He was a pretty colorful, provocative guy. He didn't give a shit what people thought about him. He didn't care. Didn't seem too.
IH: Can you talk about working Dustin Hoffman? Everyone else has said that he was sort of the raunchy clown prince of the set...
PG: He was. He gets in there. There's like an immediate deep intimacy with that guy. He's not interested in there being any barriers between you and him, which is great to work with because you need to be intimate in order to play these scenes out. He's right. He's amazing to work with. I don't know if he's always worked the way he did in some of these things. It takes incredible energy, the way he does it, particularly when he had longer speeches to do. He'd kind of go nuts with it sometimes and rip it apart and throw it away, and eventually put it all back together again. But it was an incredible process to watch him get around this thing. It was intense, the first time we had to do something, and wonderful. But it veered off road really fast, and he started taking it weird places. He was improvising stuff, but he'd always suddenly come back, and it was great. I'd never done anything like this before, so I just went with him. But it can be tricky. I know when we shot the scene with Minnie's family, where he sort of has that monologue about arresting the guys--the woman who played the mother got very thrown by it. She was really just stunned for a while, and she leaned over to me and [whispered], "When am I supposed to talk? Should I say my lines?" And I'd go, "Sure, say them, sweetheart, because they'll keep going. Just throw them in there." She was very thrown by it. But it's intense. He's not meaning to throw you with it--he's just playing.
IH: It seems that your approach in film acting is you asking how you can best serve the story. Can you talk about your approach?
PG: It's almost better doing that one-shot thing. There's something wonderful about it. And often too, your job is literally to just add some color, which can be fun, and you're asked to be more eccentric sometimes in the supporting parts; you're allowed to be exciting.
IH: In an interview you did the other day, you said the character, as you portrayed him, wasn't as nasty as he was in the book. Was that in the script, or was that something you brought to it?
PG: I think it was inevitable if you were not going to make this kind of meta-filmic thing the way the book is, because the book has him losing his mind, and the other people are making comments on his writing, and he repeats things in the wrong way. If you're not going to make that kind of movie, then you're going to take it out and not have narration in it, and he's inevitably going to become an easier person to deal with. Because that voice in the book is relentless. It's a first-person narrative voice, and it's this irascible, cynical voice that doesn't stop, ever. So it's a little claustrophobic, and he's crazy. He's crazier in the book. It's nothing I did. It's an inevitable process of moving him out of the book and making him a more objectified character that we're watching. I think he ends up being easier to take.
IH: It's your natural likability.
PG: I don't know if I'm all that naturally likable. I definitely recognize that you have to make him sympathetic. It's not a story about a guy who's a complete and utter asshole. It's about a guy with a lot of appealing characteristics to him too. He's got lots of good things about him.
IH: I noticed the subtle cues of Alzheimer's in there...
PG: That's also very well-constructed in the writing of the script. There are lots of things you can look back on retrospectively and say, maybe he's calling the guy at 3:00 in the morning because he's losing his mind a little bit, and maybe a lot of those things are because he's losing his mind. That's good construction. It was well-built into the script, which I really liked because it didn't hammer it.
Sony Pictures Classics' 'Barney's Version' is in theaters on January 14, 2011.