Paul Giamatti's latest role: the eyes of the audience

The stunning Lena Olin once said she found men most attractive when they didn't think they were attractive. She was speaking of Oliver Platt in Casanova, but she might have been talking about Paul Giamatti.

He earned a cult following by bringing gusto to roles such as the officious, tyrannical radio programmer called Pig Vomit in Private Parts. He won widespread acclaim as the cantankerous cartoonist Harvey Pekar in American Splendor. But he found a whole new following as the depressed, divorced novelist and wine expert in Sideways who stumbles into love with that knockout Virginia Madsen.


At least one film critic said that the movie won raves because reviewers could identify with Giamatti's sedentary, self-loathing character. That juvenile comment ignores Giamatti's rich and changeable voice, the range of emotion brimming through his face, and the appetite for life that even his character's depression can't entirely submerge. Beneath his thinned-out pate are glowing eyes - riveting when they're alert, alarming when they turn inward, uproarious when they pop out of his skull. You could believe Madsen fell for him when he explained that with proper coaxing, Pinot grapes yielded the "most haunting" flavors on the planet.

In one of Oscar's recent scandals, Giamatti failed to win a best actor nomination for Sideways, but the outrage kept his name in the papers, and he did get nominated for best supporting actor for playing Russell Crowe's manager in Cinderella Man. He next landed the lead in a big studio movie, M. Night Shyamalan's fantasy, The Lady in the Water, then went on The Daily Show to promote it - at which point Stewart officially declared the onset of "Giamania!"


Alas, Giamania! didn't strike with The Lady in the Water, a supernatural farrago that disappeared into the vapors. But Giamania! may get a boost with Friday's release of the romantic adventure The Illusionist. Giamatti steals the film as Viennese Chief Inspector Uhl, who investigates the title character, a turn-of-the-century magician named Eisenheim (Edward Norton), at the behest of an evil crown prince (Rufus Sewell) who wants to marry Eisenheim's aristocratic beloved (Jessica Biel).

Over the phone from Brooklyn, Giamatti says, with humor in his voice, "I play the Gestapo agent with a heart of gold. As the writer-director, Neil Burger, told me in a sort of apologetic shorthand, he's like Claude Rains in Casablanca, who works for the Vichy French but turns out to be an OK guy. He's compromised, but part of him wants to get out of the dirty world he's in."

The eyes have it

Giamatti calls Uhl "the audience proxy," feeling his way through the tale so that we can understand it. The magician Eisenheim keeps his secrets buttoned up. Thanks to Giamatti's alert, expressive eyes - "well," the actor says modestly, "I have to be the audience's eyes" - Uhl involves us in his attempt to uncover the mysteries of Eisenheim and his contentious relation with the crown.

Giamatti's instinctive feel for immediate, accessible complexity turns Uhl into a figure with whom nearly every adult can relate. In the film's juiciest interchange, Norton's Eisenheim asks Giamatti's Uhl, "Are you completely corrupt?" And Giamatti answers, with a terrific lack of embarrassment, "Not completely."

Burger later tells me that Giamatti's ability to convey moral ambiguity was only one of the reasons he cast the actor. "I could see he had this quiet power, this real corporeal strength. He matched my sense of the inspector's appetite for life. If Eisenheim needs to be a spiritual character, Uhl needs to be a material character who likes his fine food, his tailored suits, the good things. Paul's great at playing eccentrics or neurotics, but I wanted to see him in a position of power, as a man who can twist an arm or break it or have someone disappear. Paul does have this commanding presence: His humanity pours out through his eyes."

Burger adds: "Ed Norton and Paul are both intensely smart and really trained, but Ed is all in the head; Paul is in the gut."

Weakness revealed


When the director gave Giamatti the back story to Uhl in The Illusionist, it jibed with the actor's temperament. Burger told him that the Inspector loves life yet is unhappy at his core. That's because he married above himself to a wife who's dissatisfied with everything, and is constantly driving Uhl to get, for example, a newer, bigger house. "I tend to zero in on my characters' Achilles' heels," says Giamatti. "I always like to play their weaknesses, not their strengths."

What sealed my affection for Sideways was the moment near the beginning when Giamatti's character steals cash from his own mother. "Yes, I love that!" he says, with delight. "A lot of people feel the exact opposite way. For me it was such a pathetic, human thing to do - to become the little boy sneaking in his mother's room and grabbing some money. Some producers suggested we should cut that! But with all the betrayal and bad behavior in that movie, is that really the worst thing that happens in Sideways? Maybe it's the most pathetic, but everyone in life behaves pathetically, because everyone is basically afraid of death. I just feel like people are constantly hiding their weaknesses."

Giamatti grew upset over the Oscar slight for Sideways only when some pundit said he should "stop whining" about it. What set Giamatti off is that he never complained about the oversight. Giamatti neither wants to get overexcited about awards nor put them down. "Why should they be such a big deal?" he asks. "And isn't discretion sometimes a good thing? I thought it was OK not to comment."

The actor found it equally confusing when he did get the nomination for Cinderella Man. Did he feel vindicated? Detached? Abashed? "A combination of all three," he answers. "It was tricky. There's definitely a way in which I've cultivated the status of being the outsider. So there was this feeling of being brought into the fold, and also this feeling of maybe I wasn't supposed to be there." But Giamatti has a renewable capacity for amusement, even at his own quandaries. He seals the Oscar talk with the Valley Girl's key word, "Whatever" - but gives it an existential ring.

Although he's definitely an actor any director would want on his team - he enjoys the process of moviemaking, he waves the flag for his filmmakers - he doesn't feel put out when you question his choices. He knows that director Ron Howard and screenwriter Akiva Goldsman demonized the boxer Max Baer (Craig Bierko) in order to further heroize Crowe's Jim Braddock in Cinderella Man. But he says they "consciously set out to make a melodrama, and I like melodrama, I liked playing a type." At the same time, he and Bierko wanted to put in some things the script left out - such as the fact that in this hyper-ethnic period of boxing, Giamatti's character, Joe Gould, was Jewish, and Baer part-Jewish - so he and Bierko sprinkled Yiddish words into their arguments, such as "shaygitz" (a non-Jewish man) and "shande" (a disgrace).

Married and the father of a 5-year-old boy, Giamatti says that parenthood does give one the sense "that there is this steady stream of humanity, and if I'll be dead, my son will still be here."


But he still feels that what dominates life is "the need for sex and the fear of death." That's why he was particularly high on doing Lady in the Water. "Shyamalan deals with those things in a naked way. I'd work with him again in a second. He's a dream to act for and to act with; he's precise but collaborative. It was one of the most pleasant sets I've ever been on."

At one point, Shyamalan urged him to consider leading-man parts only from now on. But Giamatti says, "Something I like about my profession is that to some extent it's beyond my control." The day Sideways opened to rave reviews, he told Burger that The Illusionist, hardly a candidate for blockbuster, was the only script he'd read that he was interested in making.

Imminent releases

Currently a voice in the cartoon The Ant Bully, Giamatti has a smorgasbord of projects waiting for release, including "an interesting spin on the chick flick," The Nanny Diaries, from the American Splendor team (Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini), co-starring Laura Linney and Scarlett Johansson; Rob Zombie's The Haunted World of El Superbeasto, an R-rated feature cartoon Giamatti says falls solidly in the dirty-joke tradition of Ralph Bakshi (the animated Fritz the Cat); and a "very bizarre action movie" called Shoot-Em-Up that he shot in Canada with Clive Owen. In the fall he starts filming Joe Claus. Vince Vaughn plays Santa Claus' screw-up brother and Giamatti plays Mr. Claus himself. Will he be Vince Vaughn's straight man? "Well, as straight as I can be, wearing an enormous fat suit and playing Santa as a neurotic, stressed-out CEO."

Illusionist director Burger sees Giamatti's delight in variety and the basic act of acting as part of his strength - "he's simple, in a pure way" - and says "Paul is always funny and fun and game." Out to dinner with the company for The Illusionist on location in the Czech Republic, Burger says, "Someone would talk about this wonderful restaurant in Prague, Davini's, and Paul would respond, 'Hey, I saw this restaurant right across the street from my apartment, they make a great lasagna - it's all covered in cheese.' "

Burger sees all of Giamatti's humors and appetites working together to bring him a legendary career. Maybe Giamatti shouldn't fear death so much, after all. "Is Gene Hackman a leading man?" asks Burger. "Maybe he is, but he's also an incredible actor. And that's how I feel about Paul. I think Paul Giamatti will work forever."