Hi, everyone. "Moriarty" here with some Rumblings From The Lab...
Man, it’s been a long week since my last posting here on AICN. I’m still suffering some debilitating side effects from the various procedures I’ve undergone, and I’m just plain sick of being sick. I’m finally starting to sort out my insanely overstuffed e-mail inbox, though, and the first thing I pulled out this morning was this interview by our own Mr. Beaks.
I gotta say... even on my best day, when I was focused on AICN 100%, I never managed the kind of consistent good work that Mr. Beaks has been responsible for in the last year or so that he’s been in Los Angeles. I don’t say it enough, so I’ll say it now... Beaks is an enormous resource for the site, and his work here is appreciated each and every day.
Why? Well, read this interview, and I think you’ll understand...
Even if AMERICAN SPLENDOR wasn’t one of the best films I’ve seen so far this year, I still would’ve jumped at the opportunity to chat with an actor as brilliantly idiosyncratic as Paul Giamatti. Ever since his first memorable onscreen appearance as the loathsome corporate uber-stooge Pig Vomit in PRIVATE PARTS, he’s been one of the most distinctive character actors around. Now, as the groundbreaking comic book writer, Harvey Pekar, he’s been given the chance to play the lead, and he’s done it to haggard, irascible perfection.
After winning over Sundance audiences way back in January, AMERICAN SPLENDOR has finally made its way to theaters, and will be opening in limited release this Friday in New York and Los Angeles. I’ll be chiming in with two more interviews this week, but let’s start with Mr. Giamatti, who’s been given the daunting task of embodying an already indelible public figure.
Beaks: Pig Vomit, Bob Zmuda, Harvey Pekar. I sense this miserable everyman trend in your work. Some would even, and I do not agree with this, but some would even call them “schlubs”.
Giamatti: I don’t agree with that either, actually!
Well, the definition of “schlub” is pretty unforgiving.
Yeah. I don’t think of the guy in PRIVATE PARTS as a schlub. And I don’t think of Bob Zmuda as a schlub, either.
What about Harvey appealed to you?
The whole thing with him appealed to me. I guess there’s just something about him. He epitomizes this kind of angry outsider thing that sort of appeals to me, and… there’s a certain romance I have about things like that. There’s a great tradition of the angry outsider scourging the world… but there’s a lot more to Harvey than that. But, at the basic level, *that* kind of thing (appeals to me). I mean, there’s a fine line between a genius and a lunatic walking around with an “End is Nigh” sign, and that kind of thing is interesting.
With Harvey, sort of in a vague Ignatius J. Reilly manner maybe.
Well, there’s a little bit of that kind of thing. Yeah, right! That self-educated, willful pariah is… very interesting.
As an actor, what’s a greater challenge: starting from scratch, or working from a pre-existing mold?
I don’t know. It’s interesting, I used to think that working from a pre-existing mold is harder. I don’t know, actually, that it is. It’s hard in its own way; it can feel like a little bit of an acting exercise, and certainly this could have felt like that, but I think the script was so good that it never felt like that. And it enabled me to not get so hung up on simple mimicry, and that was the script. It’s nothing I did; it’s the script.
They both have their challenges. I think in some ways, playing the pre-existing is harder because it can also come with all the baggage of the actual person being there, and the politics of dealing with the actual person can be a whole other level of stuff on top of simply playing the part. So, maybe that’s the tougher thing.
I know that you went to the comic book Harvey for inspiration.
To some extent, that’s true because it’s always a character in these biopic things. The character in this case already existed because he created it; it was in the comic books. Shari and Bob were very good at taking that thing and… transmuting it a little bit, but it’s pretty much the comic book persona that Harvey’s created.
But knowing that you’d be drawing on that, creating this other incarnation, while having to act with the real Harvey onscreen… I assume that you knew from whatever early drafts you read that you’d be doing this.
Yeah, they indicated that it would be there in the original script. And when I first met them, when they first met me and the other guys who were interested in doing the movie, the thing they wanted to say is, “Are you interested and *comfortable* with the fact that you’re going to be juxtaposed with the guy?” I was interested, but I don’t know how comfortable I was.
Scared as hell, maybe?
Yeah, it was a scary thing. I managed to be able to forget about it because… they didn’t shoot any of that stuff until the end of the movie, so I kind of forgot about it. But it was scary, yeah. Good scary, though.
That sense of “If I don’t nail this guy, and look like this guy, then the whole thing will unravel?”
Totally. It could fail spectacularly, which was sort of fun and thrilling in a way. It demanded a certain kind of rigorousness in approaching the thing. You know, they talked about putting eyebrows on me, and dying my hair, and a fake nose, but I thought it would distract from my performance. I hate it when they do that in a movie; when they make the person look the actual person. I actually feel like it makes them look less like the real thing. It takes me out of the movie if they try to make the person look like an actual person.
You’d rather they just forego any makeup?
Yeah, just try and do it. That’s actually better in a weird way. The Chevy Chase/Gerald Ford thing. I always loved it that he made no effort to look like him. And he really captured the essence of the guy completely. (Laughs.)
But he was still playing Chevy Chase.
It’s a more extreme example, yes, but I always loved that he never made any effort to look like him. But I’ve always felt like if you can do it, just do it with what you have. Don’t try to make yourself look like the guy; you’ll end up looking like a Klingon.
Or like Anthony Hopkins in NIXON.
But he didn’t do a whole lot, I don’t think. Did he do a whole lot to his appearance?
They did his nose, didn’t they?
They did? He did a nose, and stuff like that?
I seem to recall that they did more than they indicated they would. Maybe my memory is failing me. (Beaks’s note: it was.)
I was thinking more of Jack Nicholson in HOFFA. You know, all I’m doing is looking at the nose the whole time. And as good as he is… there’s that nose.
But that idea of relying on mannerisms is more theatrical.
Yeah, I guess so.
With your background in theater—
Yeah, it’s a nice thing. It felt more theatrical. In theater, people can see your whole body all the time, and you’re acting with your body, and that was more appealing to me.
I wondering about your process as an actor: do you start from the inside and work out, or vise-versa?
I think I probably, if I have any process, it would be from the outside-in, which I always tend to think is the more superficial, less mature approach to acting.
That’s the British approach, isn’t it?
Maybe it is.
Yeah, yeah… I mean, the physical stuff tends to interest me more in people: the way they talk and the way they move… things like that. Something about it just cues me more to the inside of people. I admire the people who can find something on the inside and eventually it kind of comes out what they’re doing. Sometimes I approach things like that if I don’t really have any physical cue, but I look for those physical cues.
Getting into that character, then, did shooting on location in Cleveland help? I don’t know what time of year you shot it, but—
Well, they shot it in winter; it was the early part of winter. It’s funny because the whole idea of shooting in winter was that they wanted everything blanketed in snow. Some of the best stories Harvey has are about dealing with the weather in Cleveland, so they wanted this blank white void of a city. And, of course, it was the warmest winter in Cleveland’s history, so it didn’t snow. It never snowed. But, actually, it did have this great fall-like thing going on. But the location was key to the whole thing. The atmosphere in Cleveland was essential to the whole thing; it wouldn’t have been the same thing if we hadn’t shot it there.
You really get that city in your bones.
Totally. I actually really liked it. Maybe I wouldn’t like it if I wasn’t there playing Harvey Pekar, but… it does; it really gets under your skin, that place.
Had you ever read AMERICAN SPLENDOR prior to this?
A little bit. I read it in college a little. I have a friend who’s into comic books; he would tip me off about things over the years, and that was something that I read. And I knew who he was from the Letterman things, watching him in college. I definitely remember that.
I was young when I watched those, but I do remember one or two of them.
I remember him well because I was in college. How old are you?
I was in Junior High when those earliest appearances aired.
I was nineteen, or something, when I watched them. I remember being so struck by it at the time… someone who’s so deliberately flouting all of the television etiquette.
But they wouldn’t release the big dust-up.
Yeah, they didn’t release that one. In some ways, it worked out that they didn’t, but I think maybe David Letterman was sensitive about it. But it’s not as ugly as people say it was. It was a little unpleasant, but it was not that ugly. He’s laughing through a lot of it. If you ever see the actual thing, he’s laughing, and just trying to push it as far as he can.
You obviously had a tape of it from which you could work.
Yes, I did. I saw the actual thing. And they sort of cleaned it up and pared it down to make it a little neater. I kind of like the fact that it switches from the real thing to our thing; I think it works okay.
It’s tricky, but you don’t question it.
Yeah, which is nice.
There’s an interesting parallel between your role in this, and your role in Todd Solondz’s STORYTELLING, which kind of presages the difficulties here of portraying real life.
It’s true. I never thought of that, the documentary thing.
Where you don’t want to dabble in exploitation, inadvertently or no.
And it could’ve easily happened here.
Were you worried about being disrespectful?
I wasn’t, only because I felt like the script… I think that, over the years that they’ve been trying to make this movie, different people were attached to it. I can’t remember the name of one guy they had who was going to do it, and talked with them about it. It fell apart because there wasn’t any money. But I remember talking to Joyce about it, and she was like, “His attitude was that it was a freak show, and that he was going to make fun of us a little bit.” And they weren’t comfortable about that. So, it’s definitely a danger. But the danger also exists that you would sanctify these people, too, in some way. It never felt like a danger, though, because I felt that Bob and Shari were so good at maintaining that tone and respect, and not falling into that other stuff. It was never anything I did; it was just not in the script. They never had it in there, so it was never a danger. They managed to keep it off of the page completely.
It feels honest to me, especially where they leave it at the end. I asked Harvey if they didn’t sap it up too much for him, and he seemed happy.
Yeah, they don’t sap it up too much for you. But what I love about the end of the movie is that you feel kind of happy, but… not really. You’re like, “Well, this is kind of nice, but I still feel bummed out for some reason.” It’s a nice melancholy tone to it.
It’s *almost* inspiring.
*Almost*, but not quite.
I did find it inspiring, though, because we rarely see that honest depiction of working class drudgery. And in being so honest, they find the value of living that life.
You make a really good point. It’s an interesting thing to see. I didn’t go to Cannes, but someone told me that… the French and English critics… I mean, you’re saying it, and to them this is a movie all about class. And (Harvey and Joyce) are all about it. Their stuff is all about class, in a way. And that working class, leftist, self-educated intellectual thing is a voice you don’t see very often. It’s a very Jewish thing, too. It’s a very kind of Jewish tradition of that kind of liberal, intellectual, working class spirit.
Did you have any idea AMERICAN SPLENDOR was going to catch on like it did at Sundance?
No, I was amazed it was even going to Sundance. I saw it in a screening room with Hope a week before Sundance, because we both figured we should see it before we go, and we were both like, “It was great, but who the hell is going to be interested in this?” So, it was a shock at Sundance. I’m really glad people liked it, but I was shocked at Sundance. I have never been so nervous watching something, either. I had to leave the first screening of it. I was nervous because (Harvey) was there, and I thought, “How horrible this is going to be!” People are going to be so bewildered by this movie, and he’s sitting right there. But people went nuts for the thing, and that was nice.
Your chemistry with Hope was pretty natural.
It was great. I knew her a little bit beforehand as a person, and I always thought she was a great actress, but I was more intimidated working with her than anybody else I’ve ever worked with. I just think she’s so good, and I was like, “Oh, my god, I’m never going to be able to match this woman. I can’t fuck around at all.” She’s so good. It’s nice to work with somebody like that. It grounds me working with somebody that good. I think she just makes the movie, frankly. It was fun playing a completely unromantic thing with her. We just took any sentiment and romance out of that thing. Just not an ounce of romance in it.
But oddly romantic!
But oddly romantic! I mean, completely convincing that these people are in love; they just don’t have the time to *act* like they’re in love.
What about making room in your schedule for theater?
I’d like to do more. I haven’t done as much in the past three or four years as I had done before. I did a play last year, finally, after about three years. I got a little spoiled; I did THE ICEMAN COMETH with Kevin Spacey. I’d done a lot of theater before, but that was the best experience I’ve ever had. And I tried to recreate it last year; I did (THE RESISTABLE RISE OF ARTURO UI) with Al Pacino. It was fun, but it just wasn’t that good, so, in a way, I feel like I’ve been spoiled for theater because THE ICEMAN COMETH thing was an amazing experience on every count.
But working with Pacino couldn’t have been that bad.
Oh, it was great, but it just wasn’t the same thing. I was really hoping it would be like THE ICEMAN COMETH – a big cast and a great play – but it just wasn’t. Of course, it couldn’t be.
I’ve never seen a four hour play enchant an audience like that.
THE ICEMAN COMETH?
I know. It was such an amazing experience doing that thing, and the play itself is so great. Everything about it was such a pleasure; it was ridiculous. It really did spoil me.
You were wonderful in it, by the way.
One of my favorite New York memories.
Well, as far as theater goes.
(Laughing.) You have other kinds of pleasant New York memories. Sure! Sure!
Absolutely. (Laughs.) We won’t get into those now. Maybe some other time for the site. I’m sure our readers would be fascinated.
There you go!
I’ve got to ask about the John Waters movie because I heard him talking about it on NPR, and it just sounds insane.
I’m not doing it, actually.
No, I’m not doing it. I’m doing this Alexander Payne movie called SIDEWAYS, which is great. But I will say that, indeed, the John Waters thing is *insane*. I mean, it was so insane that there was a part of me that was like… it was very funny, but at a certain point and everything, I was just like “This has gone to a point where I can’t imagine how people are going to react to it.” It’s very funny, but very bizarre.
I was talking to Harry, and he talked to Selma Blair about it, and she was over the moon for the thing.
I know. I was really… it was all sort of tentative anyway. Had it been more solidified, it would’ve been something I’d done, but then this other thing came along.
Yeah. It’s a great script, and I’m really looking forward to doing it.
That’s it for Mr. Giamatti. Coming tomorrow and Thursday will be, respectively, Joyce Brabner and the man himself, Harvey Pekar.
Thanks, Beaks. Giamatti’s one of the best character actors out there now, and I can’t wait to finally check out AMERICAN SPLENDOR for myself.