Paul Giamatti is one of the most consistently courageous and inherently fascinating actors of the past 10 years, traversing roles that have seen him transform into highly lauded Trotsky-ites, comic book writers, boxing managers, presidents and pawns. In his latest effort, Fox Searchlight’s Win Win, Giamatti portrays a suburban lawyer and high school wrestling coach dealing with a cash-flow problem in his own way. His character, Mike Flaherty, is a regular guy who may have just made a bad decision, or two.
While the time is right for Giamatti, the same is true for his close friends and co-stars, Win Win writer/director Tom McCarthy ( The Station Agent, The Visitor ), and the ever-interesting Amy Ryan ( Gone Baby Gone, The Wire, The Office ). We caught up with Giamatti at Austin’s SxSW festival, days before the release of the film, for a casual chat about the film appetite of three generations of Giamattis.
Movies.com: The film has a contemporary, real-life honesty to it. Do you have a preference – films that attempt to capture slice of life vs. fantastical or period pieces?
Giamatti: I like those with an element of fantasy a lot, and it’s the kind of thing that made me want to be an actor – I like genre stuff. That said, this kind of thing is great, too. The wrestling thing in this was really interesting to me because it’s a weird subculture I don’t know much about. I think I always need some element that makes it a little bit off-center.
Movies.com: Did you watch wrestling videotape?
Giamatti: I watched some tape, and went to a lot of matches in New Jersey with Bobby [Cannavale] and Tom [McCarthy], and this guy Joe Tiboni who wrote the script with Tom. I actually did it for about half a season in high school, and I remember being really into it until I realized that the difference between me and the other guys is that I was doing it for fun, and the other guys just wanted to kill me. I just remember one guy just throwing me so hard that I could feel every tooth in my head vibrating after hitting the mat. So, that’s when I thought I didn’t want to do that anymore.
Movies.com: So what sport did you take up?
Giamatti: Swimming. [Laughs] Much safer.
Movies.com: Alex Shaffer, who plays Kyle, is a champion wrestler but a first timer to the acting world, I’ve seen you and Bobby and Amy give him some gentle hazing; was that your way to make him feel at home?
Giamatti: He kind of started it. I remember the kid came in to a table reading, and he was really relaxed and I found it kind of funny, and so it pretty much started right away. And I think it’s because he’s a really good kid, and you can sort of make fun of him and he gets it. He’s smart, he jokes; he’s a fun kid to be around. It was great to work with a kid who had no baggage about acting. For him it was just kind of a cool thing to do.
Amy [Ryan] just asked him what he’s thinking about all this. She said that he said, “It’s cool that everyone likes the movie. I just like talking to people.” And that’s what’s great about that kid, he just likes to sort of hang out and talk. If that’s what he’s getting from this experience, that’s great.
Movies.com: Right, because press can be tough, repeating your thoughts, stories…
Giamatti: It’s a necessary evil. [Laughs] But I think I’ve found a way to enjoy it. Listen, it’s better than f***in’ working at a sewage plant or something.
Movies.com: That was never an option was it?
Giamatti: I dunno. With me, it certainly could have been an option. I worked as a janitor at a gym, washed dishes at a restaurant, sold juice machines at a weird place in Seattle once. I did some of that stuff, but I was lucky, I made a living as an actor pretty early on. I managed to make money as an actor, probably because I didn’t have any needs, I had a shitty apartment and I survived.
Movies.com: Were you a pop culture guy growing up?
Giamatti: I guess I was, in a way. My dad was a big movie guy – my mom, too, but my dad more so – he loved Westerns, my grandfather, too.
Movies.com: Spaghetti or American?
Giamatti: Any type of Western, but they loved spaghetti Westerns and kung fu movies and shit. My grandfather, who was this old Italian dude from Naples, used to love to watch kung fu movies. I would just sit with him and watch them.
Movies.com: Are you still able to relax and watch a film, or do you dissect them too much?
Giamatti: I’m more able to go and see genre movies, old movies and foreign movies. A lot of the time it’s easier for me if I don’t know the actors. It’s gotten a lot harder for me to enjoy watching movies, which is a bummer.
Movies.com: When’s the last time you got to a movie theater?
Giamatti: I haven’t done it a whole lot for a long time now. Mostly I take my son, who’s about 10. I think the last thing we saw was that movie The Eagle.
Movies.com: Sword and sandal epic?
Giamatti: Yeah. Romans. ’Cause he’s really into war and stuff like that. I really wanted to see it, too! I love shit like that. I had a good time. That, I could just totally forget about and watch the movie.
Movies.com: Are there old films that you find yourself wanting to share with him?
Giamatti: Definitely. He’s getting to that age now. I showed him The Man Who Would Be King. F***ing brilliant film. He loved it.
Movies.com: I’m never sure if Woody Allen was screwing with me, telling me he tried to show his small kids Gone With the Wind and The Miracle Worker …
Giamatti: [Laughs] Dude, I’m telling you though, I actually had parents who would take us to shit. I remember them taking us to [Stanley Kubrick’s] Barry Lyndon. I was probably about six. My mother used to take us to insanely inappropriate movies, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, and shit like that. Now, I think about that, and part of me thinks that was crazy, and part of me thinks it was kind of cool. She wanted to go see them, and my dad was working, and so we would go see completely f***ing inappropriate shit. I’m really glad we did, actually.
Movies.com: It must have been great filming in writer Tom’s hometown [New Providence].
Giamatti: It was! I’d never been to his house where his parents still live, I’d never met his sisters who all still live there, and I’ve known Tom for 20 years. We went to his high school, and stuff like that, it was hilarious. We went to some crazy-ass sandwich place. They made some crazy f***in’ sandwiches with coleslaw and Russian dressing. We would buy those and then would go eat them watching the wrestling matches.
Did you keep a souvenir from the film?
Giamatti: I didn’t. I used to do that, and then I just ended up with a bunch of shit in a box, thinking, I gotta stop doing this.
MDC at SXSW 2011:
2011 SXSW Film Festival - Photo Gallery
Dialogue: SXSW Interview with Rainn Wilson and James Gunn
Dialogue: SXSW - Morgan Spurlock Delivers The Greatest Movie
Dialogue: SXSW - Paul Giamatti Grapples with Win Win
Dialogue: SXSW Interview with Apart Star Joey Lauren Adams
Dialogue: SXSW Interview with A Year in Mooring's Josh Lucas
Day Five - Film Ends, >Conan Heads to the Big Screen and Anchor Bay Makes the Biggest Buy in Conference History
Day Four - Tuneful Documentaries and Concert Films
Day Three - Simon Pegg in Paul, Kristen Wiig in Bridesmaids, and Interactive in Everything
Day Two - Josh Lucas' A Year in Mooring, Apart and the Not-So-Super
Day One - Source Code, Insidious, Shiner Bock and Smartphones