In February 2005 I saw Paul Giamatti, the self confessed “funny looking leading man” and star of Sideways and the upcoming Barney’s Version, waiting at a departure lounge at LAX. It’s not unusual to see a star at Los Angeles’s biggest airport, but it is strange to see one outside the First Class Lounge, reading a tattered science fiction novel with a knapsack shaped suspiciously like a SAG award. (He had won the Outstanding Performance by a Cast in a Motion Picture award the night before along with Sideways cast mates Thomas Haden Church, Virginia Madsen and Sandra Oh.)
“I prefer sitting down by the gate because I‘m afraid I’m going to miss the plane,” he says when I remind him of the day. “I get uncomfortable in those places. It just feels funny. There is no more classist place on earth than in an airport. It makes me uncomfortable.”
The 43-year-old actor is also somewhat uncomfortable with the fame Sideways brought him.
“You can’t avoid [fame] when you are exposed as much as you are in movies,” he says. “It made me uncomfortable at first. Would I prefer to be anonymous all the time? Yeah, I would because I like it and I also feel it is a precious thing as an actor. It goes away and you just have to go with it I suppose. At a certain point I tried to cop an attitude of saying, ‘Well these people come up and talk to me and so it is actually an opportunity. I don’t have the anonymity but I can observe these people now.’”
People watching is an important tool for an actor, but Giamatti admits that his adopted home town of New York—he’s from New Haven, Connecticut originally—while still interesting and diverse, isn’t as rich a source as it once was.
“New York has changed a lot,” he says. “I don’t know what happened to a lot of the people you used to see [in the city] that were absolutely jaws dropping. You would see things that weren’t just fascinating to study; you would see things that you could not believe you were seeing. People in a condition you couldn’t believe you were seeing. People behaving in ways you couldn’t believe. That doesn’t quite happen as much in New York anymore. It’s a little bit less insane than it used to be.”
His latest role takes him far away from New York, all the way to Canada. Montréal to be specific. In Barney’s Version Giamatti brings to life Barney Panofsky, one of the most iconic characters in Canadian literature. When he accepted the role, however, the Oscar nominee didn’t realize how well loved the book is in Canada.
“It was a gradual realization,” he said. “I did an interview in Rome [during the shoot] with Canadian television and somebody said to me, ‘Wow, you must be really nervous,’ and I thought ‘Jesus Christ, I wasn’t until now.’ I think I was mostly feeling that I’m an American guy and I don’t want to screw up something precious to Canadians.”
In his typical humble way Giamatti adds, “Part of me thinks that I don’t want everyone, when they read the book, to only see me,” he says. “I hope people can still see what they want to see in the book and separate the two. Hopefully they exist as two different beasts.”