In "Win Win" (our review here), Paul Giamatti stars as Mike, a beleaguered lawyer and father who decides to care for an elderly man (Burt Young) in order to receive a lofty commission. What he doesn't count on is Kyle (Alex Shaffer), the man's grandson who comes to live with him. Mike, a part-time high school wrestling coach, soon learns that the chain-smoking, moody Kyle is a world-class grappler, and he brings him onto the team. As you would expect, complications result.
We sat down and talked with Mr. Giamatti about the role, his many diverse performances, and his upcoming work with George Clooney, David Cronenberg, and Don Coscarelli.
What were the difficulties in working with both comedic and dramatic material at the same time? Particularly during the conflict between you and Alex on the lawn?
It was a tricky scene to do. We never got a chance to rehearse that a whole lot, we had very little time. So there was a lot of on-the-fly stuff, particularly the choreography of how that was going to work with him wrestling me, how he was going to knock me on the ground. That stuff aside, the situation is kind of absurd anyway. Bobby [Cannavale] is the guy that provides the humor in it, the way he’s acting is believably idiotic. I was going with just playing it fairly straight because it moves into a serious moment. It comes out of a serious moment, too. Hopefully the humor is ambiguous enough, and it feels real enough that the absurdity of the situation is giving you the humor. I always like that kind of feeling, when people are uncertain as to whether they should laugh. And I think that’s what [director] Tom [McCarthy] really wanted. It could have been an unwatchable scene, because it would have gone too silly. I just figured to play it as straight as possible. Y’know, you hope Tom maintains that balance.
What differentiates working with other directors compared to working with Tom?
I’ve known him for twenty years, maybe even longer. I went to drama school with him, he was in the class behind me. He had a real familiarity with my acting, so there was already a friendship. And he has this incredibly wide experience and command of the medium, not just as an actor. So you have a guy who’s in command of every aspect of the thing. He’s instinctive in the way he knows how to talk to every actor the way they need to be talked to, a talent that you either just have or you don’t. So he understands the anxieties you might feel, where things will get problematic, how to smooth things out.
In my particular case, he knew my tricks, too. He knew how to keep me from going to my bag of tricks. He cast me because he wanted to see me do something different, which is very nice of him. He said, "I want you to play this decent family man and not go to your bag of tricks, darkening it." And I had never dealt with him in any professional way. I never acted with him, I’ve never been in anything with him, I just knew him as a friend.
What was the chemistry like between you, Bobby and Jeffery Tambor?
That stuff is great. It was kind of brilliantly done, because we’re three different physical types, and we’re three different kinds of actors. Bobby’s a great guy. Tambor, I’ve always had a real thing about him. I love him. When Tom told me he was casting him, I kinda couldn’t believe it. There’s very few actors that I get like that about, and I was like, "Oh my god, I get to do something with this guy." It was difficult for me because everything he said was funny, and I don’t break easily. But I used to laugh, anything he did was funny to me. And I felt bad, because he wasn’t trying to be funny.
Do you have any sort of wrestling background?
I did it for one semester in high school, and I was not into it. So I don’t remember much about it. One of the things I thought was really interesting, and it was a great script in so many ways, but I love the opportunity to learn about something odd. Like with “Sideways,” with all the weird stuff about wine making. I love stuff like that. And “Cinderella Man,” the boxing stuff was so interesting. When there’s some strange subculture like that, I love it.
How do you think you’ve managed to keep working with talented people in a variety of different roles? No two Paul Giamatti roles are the same.
I’ve never not been proud of the work I was doing, I have nothing I have any shame about. It’s been great. I remember seeing “Election,” and I never had that feeling, and [Alexander Payne] is the only person I’ve had that feeling with, where I thought, "God, I wish I could just work with a director like that someday." It took me three weeks to get over the fact that I wasn’t gonna get fired, and that I was actually gonna be working with him.
You have upcoming roles in George Clooney’s “The Ides Of March” and David Cronenberg’s “Cosmopolis.” Can you discuss those roles and how they were offered to you?
The Clooney thing I read awhile ago, and he knew he was gonna be doing it now. It’s a really really really really good script and a really nice part. No reason not to do it. “Cosmopolis” was the same thing. I’ve met Cronenberg a couple of times, and I’ve had sort of a number of funny near-misses with movies of his, and I ended up not doing them for various reasons. I think “A History of Violence,” there was something I was going to end up doing in that. I love his movies, and he’s a great guy. It’s a very bizarre part. I’m gonna let it remain a mystery. It’s a really strange character.
Can you talk about your role in “John Dies At The End”? It’s a bit off the beaten path.
We shot that last summer. Do you know Don Coscarelli? “Bubba Ho-Tep?” That’s one of my favorite movies in the world. And I love the “Phantasm” movies. I met him a little while ago, because someone once came to me in an article and asked, what director would you like to work with, and I said Don Coscarelli and they were like, "Who?" And I was like, oh, this guy who did “Bubba Ho-Tep” and they were like, "What?" So I explained it to him and he was like, you’re joking, and I said, I’m not joking, actually, I think that movie’s great and I’d love to do something with that guy.
And he read it, I think it was in Variety or something. And he was like, "That was really nice, I’d love to have lunch with you, because I have an idea." And he wants to do a sequel to “Bubba Ho-Tep” which we tried to do again and again, but people were chicken to do it. It was “Bubba Nosferatu,” a fantastic script. But I love Don, he’s an amazing guy. And he said, "well, this one’s not going anywhere, but I have this other thing." He bought the rights to this online book that was published, it was really culty. It’s nuts, and he did a great adaptation for it. And he said, look, "I can get the money to do this." His maverick shoestring way of doing things. We shot it last summer, and I have a nice little part in it. And I’ve seen scenes from this, and it’s fuckin’ great. I just think the guy’s got a great sensibility. It’s funny and weird, and he found some great completely unknown to play these two leads. And he does this all on his own, he’s editing this in a trailer in his backyard by himself. He’s an amazing guy, it’ll be a great movie.
"Win Win" is currently in limited release and will open wide on April 15th.