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Paul Giamatti: ‘I like interesting supporting parts. I have no strict rule I need to play the lead’

The Holdovers star, whose performance has just won him a Golden Globe, always liked the idea of the ‘character actor’, even though he’s not exactly sure what it means

“I think I just started … being an actor,” Paul Giamatti says. “I always liked what you would call character actors. I was particularly drawn to people like Alec Guinness and Peter Lorre. Imaginatively, I was attracted to stuff like that. But I didn’t have any conscious idea what I was going to be. People talk about character actors now. And I’m not exactly sure what it means.”

Fair point. The definition has been under review for at least 50 years. Surely, Gene Hackman is a character actor who happens to play leading roles. The same could be said of Dustin Hoffman. But, if the term is still worth using, then it’s worth using about the indomitable Giamatti. A graduate of Yale school of drama, the Connecticuter, between acclaimed theatre work, took supporting roles in films such as Saving Private Ryan and Man in the Moon during the 1990s before breaking through as the schlubby lead in Alexander Payne’s film Sideways, from 2004. He has been exhaustingly busy ever since. Oscar-nominated for Cinderella Man. Fast-talking in Straight Outta Compton. At the front of the busy TV series Billions. A bulky man with a playful, choked voice, he brings, well, character to everything he does.

We touch on that definition as I wonder why it has taken him so long to work again with Payne. That director’s delightful The Holdovers, set to gather a hatful of Oscar nominations to go with the pair of Golden Globes it won last weekend, including for Giamatti, stars the actor as a cynical teacher minding a neglected private-school student over a snowy Christmas in the early 1970s.

“We talked about doing something. Umm, he had some book, and I can’t remember what it was called and neither can he. A sort of detective thing. He talked about doing a western, which he still talks about. That movie Downsizing he did – the last thing he did – he wanted me to be in it. And it changed to such a degree that it became financially irresponsible to put me in it. Which I totally understand.”


Look, I don’t want the responsibility of carrying some gigantic movie. I am totally fine with that. I like interesting supporting parts. I have no strict rule that I need to play the lead

Ah, irony upon irony. Downsizing, a bizarre science-fiction satire, ended up starring Matt Damon. It received iffy reviews and indifferent box office. In contrast, The Holdovers has, just a few months after its US release, become established as a potential Christmas classic. How does he feel about the fact that, after decades as a highly respected actor, he is, unlike Damon or Chris Pine or whomever, not the sort of person who can generate funding for a blockbuster?

“How do I feel about it?” Giamatti asks, slightly surprised. “It’s okay with me. Ha ha! Look, I don’t want the responsibility of carrying some gigantic movie. I am totally fine with that. I like interesting supporting parts. I have no strict rule that I need to play the lead.”

It is a bit of a shame that The Holdovers has reached us in January. On the one hand, a touching, ultimately hopeful comedy enlivens the year’s most sombre month. Nothing bad about that. But, for all its indie grit, this is a Christmas movie in the classical mode. That is to say the central character goes through the Scrooge arc. Paul Hunham, grumpy, unyielding teacher of classics at a New England boarding school, is stranded in the snowy academy with Angus, an unloved teenager, and Mary, the head cook, whose son has just been killed in Vietnam. Dominic Sessa is charming as the boy. Da’Vine Joy Randolph, winner of the film’s second Golden Globe, is already a runaway Oscar favourite as the still-reeling chef. It is giving little away to confirm that Hunham eventually allows a bit of seasonal warmth into his hitherto-frozen psyche.

“I think all three of the people are a little bit Scrooge,” he says. “All three of them take a little step forward. They don’t get a complete transformation. But there’s a little step forwards.”

Does he believe in that kind of transformation? That’s a movie-movie thing. Right? It’s Dickens at his more sentimental.

“I think I buy the idea that you can change incrementally,” Giamatti says. “I don’t know that I buy you can have, like, a complete overnight transformation. I’ve never encountered that. Although I suppose people talk about going through traumatic events – accidents and things like that – and being completely changed. I think people can change.”

He buys the fact they’ve made a formal Christmas movie?

“I love It’s a Wonderful Life. I love A Christmas Carol. I’m a real sucker for all that. It’s an amazing story. I do like the whole Christmas genre. The idea of being selfless and things like that. That was definitely an appealing aspect of this.”

Giamatti was raised in New Haven as the son of a professor dad and a teacher mum. His father, Bart, was also a distinguished and respected commissioner of Major League Baseball during a period of controversy (too complex to summarise here) in the late 1980s.

“I was not a big baseball fan, so I wasn’t paying that much attention to it,” Giamatti says. “He didn’t do it for very long. He was only in baseball for about a year. So I wasn’t really aware of it. I was in college, and I was kind of doing my own thing.”

Did he know what he wanted to do with his life at that stage?

“I acted as an extracurricular thing in college,” he says. “I maybe had notions of doing other things. And then I ended up always drifting back to acting – because it’s clearly what I really actually wanted to do. Eventually, I just said: ‘Well, this is ridiculous. I should just pursue it.’”

He spent some time acting in Seattle, because “it was as far in the continental United States as I could get from New Haven, Connecticut,” and it felt exotic to him. There were periods washing dishes and selling juicer machines. He eventually ended up at Yale, where he worked with future luminaries such as Ed Norton and Ron Livingston. He found when he got out of university that he no longer had to work second jobs. I imagine Yale as being awfully bohemian. Future Tony winners walking around in leotards. Reading Byron beneath leafy trees come spring. All that stuff.

“I don’t remember being exactly like that,” he says, laughing. “It was a good school. It was a pretty rigorous school. It was not easy. It was a lot. They worked you really hard. But I think it was good training. I did a lot of stuff that I’ve never done again – Shakespeare and stuff like that.”

Giamatti now finds himself running the gauntlet that is awards season. He has been here before. He was nominated – and was seen as a strong contender – for the best-supporting-actor Oscar for Ron Howard’s Cinderella Man, in 2005, but George Clooney passed him on the inside rail for Syriana. We are getting into the period when he has to press flesh and charm on red carpets. Giamatti is the most agreeable of fellows, happy to chortle and self-deprecate, but I can’t quite see him as the air-kissy sort. This comes after a period away from publicity during the Hollywood actors’ strike. Quite a stark plunge back into the steamy water.

“Well, it’s more like a turbo version of what this stuff is normally like,” he says. “It’s a more amped-up version of it, really. In some ways, having the strike was interesting. The strike was necessary. But I like this movie. So I actually was happy and kind of eager to talk about it. The whole awards thing? It’s crazy. It’s like a weird political campaign. It’s very strange and intense, but I feel okay with it because I think it’s a really good movie.”

He seems content with the world. Resident in the picturesque Brooklyn Heights corner of New York, he has never seen any great urge to lunge for “the Coast”, as they used to call California. “I had a kid and I was raising him in Brooklyn and it was a good place to do that,” he says. And Giamatti seems content rarely having his name at the top of the credits. He is happy being a character actor – even if we still don’t know what that means.

“I think I used to know what it meant,” he says. “It means the guy who’s not the lead. It means the guy who can go bald and have funny teeth. It means the guy who can look like a normal person.”

The Holdovers is in cinemas from Friday, January 19th