In Paul Giamatti‘s new film, All is Bright, desperation meets an imperfect opportunity when his ex-con character winds up in the back of a Christmas tree truck, en route from Canada to New York to sell trees on the street with his former partner and the man who has taken over his family.
In my review of the film, I said that Giamatti’s performance gave him “a chance to channel his patented near comical, sorta quiet, completely annoyed, and secretly explosive persona”, but that “skin” or persona is one of many tools in the bag of an actor who has built a diverse and impressive resume. Paul Giamatti characters always pull the eye, and in our exclusive interview, we talk about whether there is a constant in the kinds of characters that Giamatti likes to play, how he prepares to play real life characters (as he has once again in Parkland, as Abraham Zapruder), his on-screen chemistry with All is Bright co-star Paul Rudd, and what the future holds for a John Dies at the End sequel and The Goon.
What drew you to All is Bright?
Paul Giamatti: A playwright that I know in New York wrote it. And she told me she was writing the movie. She had the idea — she’s Canadian, and she’s interested in these kinda hard luck guys that she would see sometimes on the street selling trees and she would wonder what their lives were actually like. At the same time, she wanted to write a kinda heist movie, so she thought she would try and combine the two things and see if she could do that. And I thought that sounded like a great idea. And then, I saw it over time as she wrote it and I really enjoyed it. I liked the idea of doing something with (Paul) Rudd and this director, Phil Morrison. So, there was no reason not to do it.
You’re working really close with Paul Rudd in this, how did you two find your rhythm, was there a rehearsal process?
Giamatti: Yeah, we rehearsed a lot of stuff. The script is pretty filled out, you know? But, we rehearsed. He’s a much more inventive guy than me. He’s a much more…
His powers of improvising — his ability as an actor in the first place is great and then he’s just a more fun and inventive human being than me. So I kinda followed him. But the guy that I play, he doesn’t follow his lead so much, but I just had to do a lot of reacting off of him. It was just a pleasure to watch this guy, he’s so good at what he does. Just enjoying himself. I mean, he’s playing a guy who enjoys himself, for the most part, until he stops enjoying himself, but, you know, he’s a guy… you’re just lucky to be working with him.
Were you always supposed to play the part of Dennis, or was there a chance that you might play Rene instead?
Giamatti: I think actually there was some thinking of, like, maybe I would play Rene. And then I think once Rudd was interested in doing it, well, it seemed clear. I mean, it would have been interesting if we had switched it around. I think we did talk about that at some point, I don’t know why it didn’t go that way. It would have been interesting, but I think it fell along the lines it did.
I hate to ask this question because a lot of times, people don’t take the character further after then the script, but in your mind, does Dennis go back to crime? Does he stay with his stealing ways after that moment at the end?
Giamatti: I think he probably is goona maybe not do a whole lot of theft, I think he’s goona keep trying to go straight, I don’t know if he’s really goona manage too. That’s what’s interesting about the movie: he’s not hugely different at the end of the movie but he does something that’s more true to himself than anything else that he’s done, but then whether he can actually keep doing that, I don’t know. But he’s done something that’s revealed to himself something about himself that he’ll take with him.
I think he’s goona have a hard time going straight. I think he’s going to try, but I don’t know that he’s going to succeed at it. You know, it’s sad to think that, but I think that he’s leaving, in the end of that movie, with some sense of himself that’s kind of extraordinary. I think he does something that the other guy would never be able to do. You know, and that’s what’s interesting: you’d think the other guy would be the one to do the kind of thing that happens at the end of the movie, but the guy’s got something in him that’s strong. So, I don’t know. Maybe… I think he’s going to have a hard time.
That was actually my favorite part of the movie; that there was no Cinderella story, there was no storybook transformation. It was very real, very honest.
Giamatti: I think a lot of people might have a problem with that. Because he’s not… he doesn’t change, but he finds something in himself that’s hugely who he is. Somewhere, deep down in there. But it doesn’t transform him. You know?
Your resume is so diverse, is there a through-line, is there something that every project has to have?
Giamatti: I don’t know that there is much of a through-line, I mean, I suppose I’m… yeah, no, there’s definitely not much of a plan. I definitely sort of, somehow in some weird way, personally feel like my job is to throw myself into different things. For my own good and that’s kinda what I think an actor’s kinda supposed to do, in some weird way.
There’s no particular through-line. I’m definitely more drawn to something that has… I don’t know, I’m not hugely drawn to just, kind of, straight domestic drama. You know what I mean? It’s like something, it’s gotta have something. I don’t know, any number of things. I like period stuff, I like comedic stuff, I like surreal stuff. I’m not so much the guy who goes for your kind of straight drama.
Let me ask, Parkland, you’re playing Abraham Zapruder — what can you tell me about that and is your process any different when you’re playing a real person like Zapruder, Harvey Pekar, Bob Zmuda?
Giamatti: Well, it depends. I mean, it’s always a character, so, it doesn’t really… I mean, it’s interesting playing a real person, but it depends. Sometimes I play people that… I’ve played, for the most part, people that are not particularly well known, so I don’t feel hugely tied to have to be like them.
Do you study video of interviews with Abraham Zapruder?
Giamatti: Well, with him I did. While I saw him in actual fact on tape, I thought he was such an interesting person and there were things that were very interesting about him. And I knew nothing about him. I mean, I know about the film, I know about the conspiracy theories, I know about all that. But that flattens out the human being — the conspiracy theories. But I was amazed when I found out all the biographical detail about him and then I saw him. And so, in this instance, that was interesting stuff and I did want to draw on him. And so I did.
That can help, [but] it can be tricky. You know, you don’t want to end up overloading yourself or just doing something that feels like an imitation. You have to remember to give yourself latitude to play a character because it is a character. So, it’s an interesting thing. I’ve had to do it a lot, but I have no hard and fast rules on how to approach it.
Is there any hope for a John Dies at the End sequel, or is that dependent on the response to David Wong’s follow-up novel (This Book is Full of Spiders)?
Giamatti: That movie went over nicely with people. Yeah, I don’t know, I mean suppose. I suppose, I don’t know — it’s certainly possible. I don’t know that Don (Coscarelli) had any particular thinking about it, though. It’s certainly possible.
I re-watched it last night, it’s the third time I’ve seen it, and I still…
Giamatti: You like that movie.
I have no idea what it is and I still love it very much.
Giamatti: (Laughs) Good, I like that movie too. I’m glad you like it.
Any update on The Goon film?
Giamatti: The Goon… you know it’s funny, somebody just sent me something. I have no idea. I don’t know. I have no idea what’s going on on that movie. I will ask, you reminded me to inquire about it. They made those sort of short little pieces, it’s sort of been come and go, and I don’t know. I wish I could tell you something more substantive.
All is Bright is in theaters now and also on VOD.