Likely no star working today has perfectly captured such consistent depths of misery as Paul Giamatti. From his celebrated role as the failed author/wine-drunk alcoholic in "Sideways" to his portrayal of tormented cartoonist Harvey Pekar in "American Splendor" to his heights of grandiose misery in the lead role in the HBO miniseries "John Adams," Giamatti has made despair approachable and even funny.
His latest role in the just released "All is Bright" takes another stab at the condition. Giamatti plays a French Canadian ex-con who teams up with a chipper but hapless cohort played by Paul Rudd to spend the Christmas season sitting in an abandoned lot in Brooklyn trying – with little success – to sell illegally imported Christmas trees.
We spoke by phone to Giamatti on the craft of spending so much time in the shoes of the terminally down.
1. What was it like spending weeks in an abandoned lot in Brooklyn while you made this?
Paul Giamatti: It was nice. I live in Brooklyn Heights and so they found this lot ... it’s right between Greenpoint and Williamsburg and it’s a pretty anonymous place, but it’s weirdly very New York feeling and we spent a lot of time there. It was a very pleasant movie to shoot. It’s a small movie. We didn’t have a whole lot of time or a whole lot of money and so that’s always flying by the seat of your pants in a nice way for the most part. It was hot while we shot the movie. And we were in leather jackets and sweaters and it was actually a little toasty so we had to do a lot of, “Boy, isn’t it cold?” type thing when we were actually hot.
2. Does working in a bleak setting put you into the mindset of these bleak characters you play?
PG: Yeah. Oh definitely. And I’ve strangely ended up having to shoot in lots of bleak places. It’s the movies I get or the characters I play but I’ve been in Russia and kind of weird places…Cleveland, Detroit, weird parts of California, and I always think to actually be in a place like that you do definitely absorb it. It makes all the difference in the world. If you were actually in LA and shooting this movie it would be weird, but to actually be on this kind of sketchy lot in the middle of Brooklyn like that, it does an enormous amount for you.
3. You’re best known for these characters that embody these pits of sadness. Why do you think you do so well in those roles?
PG: I think part of it is that it’s something that people saw me do so they come to me for it after a while. I don’t even know that it’s that I do so great with it. It’s that movies are funny, and people begin to identify you with something and they want to see you do it again. I also guess I find that kind of extreme emotions like that interesting in people. People who are extremely depressed or extremely evil or extremely happy or stuff like that, that’s interesting.
4. What is it like as an actor, going into those places of extreme sadness and extreme emotions?
PG: Well, that can be sort of trying. That’s not the most fun thing in the world to do. It’s more fun to be evil. That’s fun. An evil person doesn’t think they’re evil. They’re just having a great time killing people and stuff. That’s fun. And the sadness, the kind of despair like that, is not the most pleasant thing in the world to have to play, but it’s all pretend. At the end of the day I don’t have to actually carry it around. And I think as I’ve gotten older I’ve gotten better at not letting it be something I carry around.
5. When you’re shooting, when they say, “Cut,” are you able to just be cheery?
PG: I think an actor gets good at clicking in and out of stuff. You can go there and leave it and go back into it. But some characters, it’s funny … like the guy in "American Splendor," he kind of enjoyed being unhappy. I think it was something that was important to him. It was like that was fun because he’s living in a kind of a state of ecstatic despair. And it’s just fantastic being this goddamn unhappy about it. It’s like a Dostoevsky character … it’s sometimes like he’s becoming a saint he’s so f***ing depressed. So that was fun. A lot of the time it’s comic, the despair I play. Do you know what I mean? It’s funny. The guy in "Sideways," it’s funny what he’s going through.
6. Your characters, in this film, "American Splendor," "Sideways," and John Adams, these people are all people who have tremendous aspirations. They’re not complacent. But what they strive for makes them miserable.
PG: You know, it’s true. I’ve never even really thought of the fact that’s really true. It’s particularly true of Adams. The guy in "American Splendor" was actually achieving something that gave him enormous pleasure. He’d created a character of himself that was so miserable. The guy in "Sideways" is a real actual failure. But you know, what’s interesting with somebody like John Adams is he achieves the highest possible things he could and he’s still miserable so that’s character logical. I don’t know. That guy just is never going to be happy, which is why he was such an effective … not politician but effective at being the impetus behind so much of the stuff that he did. Because if he was a complacent, happy guy he wouldn’t have been able to push the revolution along the way he did.
7. You’re often cast against these happy-go-lucky guys like Thomas Hayden Church in "Sideways" or Paul Rudd in this film. Do you feel your characters's resentment towards those people or their characters?
PG: What’s interesting in both of those instances is that in fact those guys … Tom’s character actually isn’t happy inside. In the weirdest way my character ends up being happier than his character probably will be. I think frighteningly enough my character will be better off than his will be because inside he’s actually kind of a miserable guy, which is actually challenging and tricky and why those guys are so good.
8. This is one of the sadder Christmas film’s I’ve seen. Do you find the Christmas season sad?
PG: People can get sad around the holidays, don’t they? People can get that way. You know, it’s funny … if you really think about Christmas, the actual narrative and story of it, and it goes into Easter and all that stuff ... it’s a story of uplift through incredible cosmic tragedy, so it’s a myth. It’s not about kicking up your heels and being joyful really. You are, but it comes out of incredible pain and tragedy, I suppose, so there is something dark about Christmas, I suppose, if you really think about it.
Watch the trailer for "All is Bright" starring Paul Giamatti: