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Actor Paul Giamatti discusses his Oscar-nominated performance in 'The Holdovers'


Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

William Brangham: In whatever role he appears, in films or TV, as lead or as a character Actor, Paul Giamatti makes an impression.

Last month, he won a Golden Globe Award for his performance in the film "The Holdovers." And the role has now brought him his first best Actor Oscar nomination.

He recently spoke with Jeffrey Brown for our arts and culture series, Canvas.

Paul Giamatti, Actor: I can tell by your faces that many of you are shocked at the outcome.

Jeffrey Brown : In "The Holdovers," Paul Giamatti plays Paul Hunham, a crusty 1970s-era New England prep schoolteacher ever ready to quote Marcus Aurelius and take down his pampered charges.

Actor: I can't fail this class.

Paul Giamatti: Oh, don't tell yourself short, Mr. Kountze. I truly believe that you can.

Actor: I'm supposed to go to Cornell.

Paul Giamatti: Unlikely.

Jeffrey Brown : The setting was well-known to Giamatti, who had himself attended such a prep school as a teenager and comes from a family of educators, including his father, Bartlett Giamatti, who served as president of Yale University. but familiarity also presented an unfamiliar acting challenge.

Paul Giamatti: It's one of the first times I have ever felt that sort of close to something, where there was that much available to me, consciously and unconsciously, which was a good thing.

I mean, and I was drawing on lots of — on a deep well of things. But, yes, it was sometimes kind of uncomfortable. I was like, wow, I'm not acting enough.

Jeffrey Brown : What does that mean, "I'm not acting enough"?

Paul Giamatti: This feels so familiar to me that I wonder if I'm doing — am I doing enough? Am I doing the job well? I have never had the experience before of this. It was a really peculiar, peculiar thing.

Jeffrey Brown : So, how did you deal with it? How did you overcome it?

Paul Giamatti: I just kept doing it.


Paul Giamatti: The Germans have been reinforcing two regiments all day.

Jeffrey Brown : Giamatti has made his mark in small parts, "Saving Private Ryan" in 1998…

Paul Giamatti: When someone talks to you as though you are no consequence, you have two choices.

Jeffrey Brown : … and large, the showtime series "Billions."

He's been a primate in "Planet of the Apes" and a founding father in the HBO series "John Adams," for which he won an Emmy.

Paul Giamatti: Now, either you are stark-raving mad, or I am! Good day, sir.

Jeffrey Brown : A breakthrough star turn came in 2004 with "Sideways," directed by Alexander Payne, with whom he's reunited for "The Holdovers."

Paul Giamatti: Need I remind you that it is not my fault that you are stuck here?

Jeffrey Brown : In which three wounded souls find themselves left behind during the Christmas break.

Giamatti's Hunham, a troubled student played by Dominic Sessa, and the school's cafeteria manager, a grieving mother whose son died in Vietnam, played by Da'vine Joy Randolph, herself a Golden Globe winner and best supporting actress nominee.

Da'vine Joy Randolph, Actress: Can we say its his birthday?

Dominic Sessa, Actor: It's my birthday.

Jeffrey Brown : Its brilliant ensemble acting and, for Giamatti, the very essence of his profession.

Paul Giamatti: It's interesting, the whole idea of sort of chemistry, because people often ask Actors, like, how is it that you find this chemistry? And I actually just think it's — at bottom, it's my job. It's my job to get along with other people. It's my job to engage.

Jeffrey Brown : You mean in a staged or a theatrical — yes.

Paul Giamatti: Yes. Yes, but it's my job to find something that I connect with these people and then can do it. It really seems, at bottom, mostly what I do is to try to find chemistry.

And, sometimes, you have to fake it. And it'll still — if you're good at it, it'll still look like it works. But then, most of the time, you have something like this, where we all just melded, and it was really nice, and we had that magical thing just happening anyway.

Jeffrey Brown : He knows, your character, that everybody can't stand him.

Paul Giamatti: He kind of likes it that people can't stand him, to some extent.

Jeffrey Brown : He also knows, though — and this is where I think you — you struck me as doing something very interesting — he knows the holes in himself, that, somehow, you have to show us that.

Paul Giamatti: Yes. Well, he has a self-awareness. He's a self-aware man, which is probably — only makes life harder for him. Probably, if he was more oblivious, he would be better off.

And, hopefully, yes, you see these kinds of holes in him and his awareness of them, and that gives you some sympathy for him.

That blue-blooded prick's family had allies on the faculty. I mean, their last name was on a library, for Christ's sake. So he accused me in order to sanitize his treachery, and they threw me out.

Jeffrey Brown : But how do you do that as an Actor? How do you bring that out?

I'm thinking of roles where you're talking a lot more and where you're emoting a lot more. This character is a little calmer, a little quieter, for the most part.

Paul Giamatti: Yes, for the most part. Yes, that's interesting.

I start from the script. I mean, I really do. That's the basis and the foundation of the thing, and I'll discover more about the character the more I sort of investigate the script. And the interesting thing with film is, so much of film really, really lives in the inarticulate moments, the wordless moments.

Jeffrey Brown : Do you like those moments?

Paul Giamatti: I actually like those the most in things, where film acting, where it flowers, because you're expressing everything just through — it's all just bodily expression. And that's amazing, because it is the kind of exploration of consciousness and unconsciousness and things like that that makes film different from stage.

Jeffrey Brown : Always, though, his decision to take a role begins with the script itself, a close reading to see if he wants to keep turning the pages.

Paul Giamatti: I'm not being facetious when I say this, but to actually just keep reading the script, if that's what I get, is the script at first, which is usually what I want to see first even before I'll meet the director or something. I want to see what the story is.

If the story compels me to keep reading it, that's the most important thing. Then it'll be maybe the character and the director and who else is doing it. I'm lucky to be able to choose like that.

Jeffrey Brown : Wasn't always like that, I assume.

Paul Giamatti: No. No.


Paul Giamatti: It's not for most Actors, no.

Jeffrey Brown : Or even for you at some point, right?

Paul Giamatti: Oh, no, definitely, for a long time.

Jeffrey Brown : Did you have doubts about whether it would all work?

Paul Giamatti: Sure. I don't think there's an Actor alive who doesn't have doubts, who hasn't sort of encountered doubt at some point, if not all the time, sure. You just don't know. It's such a crazy gamble of a thing to do with yourself.

Jeffrey Brown : You have any sense why it worked out?


Jeffrey Brown : What do you tell yourself?


Paul Giamatti: I don't know. I — you know, at the same time, I had a funny sort of sense that I'd manage. I would manage to find work. I had this — a funny kind of low-level confidence that I'd find stuff to do.

Jeffrey Brown : Low level.

Paul Giamatti: Yes, low level of confidence. I wasn't going to go too far. I didn't want to jinx things. but I had a sense that doing, as you say, the kind of character Actor work, I'd find stuff, I'd be OK.

But you go through rough patches where you're not sure. And then I don't know. I just kept enjoying it, I kept loving it, so that kept me going.

Jeffrey Brown : In the meantime, congratulations.

Paul Giamatti, thanks for talking to us.

Paul Giamatti: Yes, my pleasure, man. Thank you.

William Brangham: Online, hear more from Paul Giamatti, including what's his favorite holiday and why. That's on our YouTube page.

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