Paul Giamatti’s on the lookout for amputees. We’re walking around Roosevelt Island, where part of his new, fairly low-budget film, Cold Souls, was shot. In it, he plays a troubled actor named Paul Giamatti who, in an effort to feel less self-encumbered, has his soul professionally removed and stored here. The location “always makes New York audiences laugh,” says Giamatti. Though he and his wife live in Brooklyn, he hadn’t ever been here before filming—and hasn’t returned since. However, “I picked up a lot of lore,” he says, slouching along the sidewalk under the weight of his backpack. Giamatti is singularly unflashy and undergroomed for an actor. “That must be the amputee hospital. That’s where the amputees are,” he says, as we meander south. While they were shooting, “there were a lot of them around. Someone said to me that you will see lots of amputees because of this hospital, and there were in fact a lot of them.”
Originally, the part he played under his own name was written (by Sophie Barthes, who also directed it) with Woody Allen in mind, but Giamatti says he was an easy substitution. “It’s supposed to be kind of a type,” he says: overworried, a bit blinkered. The sort of character he usually plays. “I’m not really married to Emily Watson,” either, he says, unlike in the film. “I actually had a guy ask me that—a journalist, one of your brothers. I did give kind of a smug-ass answer, how we had an affair during filming. But I was kind of amazed and encouraged by the childlike sense of wonder this guy had.”
The movie envisions an easy solution to the burden of thinking and feeling too much. Soul removed, Giamatti is a (happy) buffoon—and the movie becomes a caper to get his soul back. So is he concerned about soullessness in himself or others? “I suppose more so in others. I don’t know.
“Someone said to me that it seemed like in the movie, that somehow the soul seemed in some way analogous to superego, a sort of regulating device. So in a way the soul helps you interact with other people … and if you take that away, you are filled with a blind confident swagger, self-involvement. That was sort of where the director wanted me to go with it. There was one thing that they talked about doing but didn’t end up happening. I was sitting in this recovery room or something … somebody who knew somebody knew Henry Kissinger, and they wanted to have him in there. Ha-ha—Henry Kissinger has no soul.”
We keep walking. He’s sweaty. “There are a lot of guys in wheelchairs,” he observes, “but there aren’t a lot of amputees.”