Don’t Look Now

Photo: Mike McGregor

Paul Giamatti and I are sitting on a stoop near Washington Square Park when two sweet little girls ask him for an autograph, having recognized the actor from his appearance in Big Fat Liar.

“Yes, ma’am!” says Giamatti. “You got something to write on?”

The girls run to their mother and return with a makeshift autograph book—a lurid-looking softcover titled Vampirates. “Wow, look at that,” Giamatti says, laughing with approval, scribbling his name on the bottom of a page. “That’ll screw you up—that’s good.”

Suddenly, a bicycle swerves into our face—not another fan, it turns out, just a wild-eyed dude asking for change.

“I got nothing for you, man,” says Giamatti.

“Far out!” replies the bicycle guy in a friendly tone, and he wheels away.

“See there?” announces Giamatti as the little group disperses. “You just saw my demographic: strung-out guys and kids.”

There are a few basic points everyone hits when talking about Paul Giamatti. The first is that he is not conventionally handsome—the sort of actor whom writers feel free to describe as resembling, say, a manatee. The second is that he is very, very good at playing miserable men. Giamatti is best known for his two astonishing character turns, as the self-loathing, yearning autodidact Miles in Sideways and as the self-loathing, cranky autodidact Harvey Pekar in American Splendor. In each film, Giamatti managed a subtle trick: He was fantastically charismatic while also seeming utterly uncomfortable in his own skin.

He knows that a lot of people confuse him with his bookish characters, and even setting aside his bespectacled looks, it’s understandable. He comes from a fancy academic background: His father was A. Bartlett Giamatti, the beloved president of Yale and then commissioner of baseball, who died suddenly in 1989. Paul attended Choate Rosemary Hall and Yale Drama School, and he always planned to go into the theater, which is part of what drew him to New York—and Brooklyn, where he now lives—rather than Los Angeles. “I didn’t figure myself having much of a film or television career,” he says with a shrug. “So I came here. This is just what I was more comfortable with.”

In person, Giamatti is presentable and not at all manatee-ish. His hair is orange and he slumps a bit and his manner is affable; he’s even sexy, in the Brooklyn sense of the word, which is to say he seems comfortable in his own skin. He’s mild-mannered, too, about movie promotion, this time for Lady in the Water—the latest movie directed by M. Night Shyamalan, and the first without a twist ending. It’s the start of a flurry of upcoming Giamatti films: He gives voice to an exterminator in the animated The Ant Bully, and plays an inspector general in The Illusionist, an amazing screw-on head in a comic-book TV movie called Amazing Screw-On Head, and a distant dad in The Nanny Diaries. For any fan, it’s surprising and satisfying that he seems to have transformed from character actor to leading man without ever losing his independent-oddball options.

Giamatti’s son takes after his mother, who isn’t much into the horror movies. “He just flat-out doesn’t like it. I’ve got to back off on the scary books.”

The previews forLady in the Water make it look like some amalgam of The Ring and Splash, and they are almost criminally misleading. Instead of being a slasher flick about a mermaid who will strangle you in your sleep, Lady is a moody fairy tale, a meditation on storytelling based on bedtime stories that Shyamalan told his own children. It may be slightly too creepy to show to an actual child, but Giamatti’s performance is crucial, lending a human center to an intensely stylized experience. “Strange children will probably like it,” Giamatti suggests. “I mean, it’s a movie about children—in that sense, it’s a ‘children’s movie.’ ”

Giamatti has read a few bedtime stories himself, since he has a 5-year-old son, Sam, with his wife, Elizabeth, a writer and producer. “Do you ever make up stories for your son?” I ask him. “Yeah, yeah—he gets kind of tired of them. I get more into them than he is. He always wants me to use Superman and Aquaman and, you know, Tintin. And I have a hard time with that! I can’t come up with anything good.”

Growing up, Giamatti had tastes a bit more ghoulish than Sam’s—more in the Vampirates camp. He ticks off his favorites: “Anything creepy—the old Universal horror movies, Creepy and Eerie magazines, Tales From the Crypt.

He waves his arms in excitement describing the famous Twilight Zone episode in which Burgess Meredith, a bookish loner, delights in being the last man on Earth until he breaks his glasses. “I was probably 5 when I saw that. That’s such a brutal thing. There’s no reason why this man has to be so brutally punished. And it was just seared into my brain.”

Giamatti’s brother, Marcus, had a ventriloquist dummy in his room, hanging on the wall. “I could see it from the head of my bed into his room, a thing hanging on the wall, and it was completely terrifying. But I loved it, too, at the same time—I loved to be scared.” His son takes after his mother, who isn’t much into horror movies. “He just flat-out doesn’t like it. So I’ve got to back off on the scary books. He’s definitely not interested in it the way I was.” Which is? “The more exploitative, the better it is. If it’s just some crappy actor, some bad actor, you feel like that person is actually getting eaten, getting their head cut off. The cheaper it is, the more dirty and satisfying it is.”

I point out that Giamatti’s fans might be surprised that he’s into Saw II rather than, say, Pinot Noir. “I know. Yes, higher-brow stuff. But what I love is what people were doing when movies started, Westerns and horror movies and melodramas. Science fiction. My favorite thing, and it’s hard to come across—The Shining has this—is the combination of horrifying and funny,” he explains. “There’s nothing better to me than that. If you can really hit that thing—that kind of hysterical …” He breaks off and giggles in a truly chilling heh-heh-heh way, widening his eyes, and suddenly making the sunny day seem a little darker—“It’s my favorite thing in the world.”

Lady in the Water
David Edelstein’s Review

Don’t Look Now