Oscar-nominated actor Paul Giamatti says he likes to push people’s buttons with the characters that he plays. In the dramedy film “Barney’s Version” (based on the Mordecai Richler novel of the same title) he plays the type of character that would test most people’s patience: Barney Panofsky, a hard-drinking, boorish TV producer, who lives under the suspicion that he may have been responsible for the disappearance and possible murder of his best friend nicknamed Boogie (played by Scott Speedman).
The “Barney’s Version” story, which features many flashbacks, takes place over several decades and through Barney’s three marriages to very different women: wild child Clara, Barney’s first wife (played by Rachelle Lefevre); spoiled and materialistic Mrs. P., his second wife (played by Minnie Driver); and kind and gentle Miriam, his third wife (played by Rosamund Pike), whom Barney considers the true love of his life. Throughout his chaotic relationships, Barney maintains a close bond with his eccentric, blunt-speaking father, Izzy (played by Dustin Hoffman), who is largely supportive of Barney, even when they argue and get on each other’s nerves.
“Barney’s Version” had its North American premiere at the 2010 Toronto International Film Festival, where I caught up with Giamatti and Pike the day after the film’s premiere. Sitting down for an interview together, the “Barney’s Version” co-stars theorized on why someone like Barney — who lacks wealth, charm and good looks — could attract so many beautiful women to marry him. Giamatti also spoke a little bit about his films “The Goon” and “Too Big to Fail.”
Looking back on your first Oscar nomination (for the 2004 movie “Sideways”), how do you think that affected you?
Giamatti: It was great. It was totally unexpected. It was a wonderful thing. I suppose it helped my career, in that I got all kinds of stuff offered to me. It’s a wonderful thing, but it’s like a bonus to me. I’m always just happy to be in a good movie that I like. And all that other stuff is wonderful, but I get too wary about stuff.
Paul, a lot of people who have seen “Barney’s Version” have really praised our performance in the film. Do you think you’ll get nominated for any awards for “Barney’s Version”?
Giamatti: I’m too superstitious about it to say. I’m glad people like it. I’m very critical of the performance, so I don’t necessarily see what other people are seeing. I’ll take the flattery of it and the ego boost of it, and I’ll leave it at that.
Barney is very abrasive, he has a drinking problem, and many people would think he’s an unattractive slob. So what do you think his appeal is to women, since all of his wives were very attractive?
Giamatti: I don’t know. Somebody was just asking me about that. [He says to Pike] You might be more qualified to answer that.
Pike: I find that question really perplexing, I have to say. When you meet the average married couple, you don’t say to them …
Giamatti: “What the hell do you guys see in each other?” That’s a good point. It’s true.
Pike: [She laughs.] That would be a good promotion for the film: asking couples on the street.
Giamatti: That’s a good idea. “Why the hell are you two together?”
Pike: [Barney] does woo [Miriam], but Miriam is kind of a curious creature. She’s not an easily wooable woman. The things for which she actually falls for him are not the gestures he made that were to obviously woo her … It’s not the flowers. It’s not the posh lunch. It’s wooing her by taking her to a fancy hotel or flying to New York to meet her.
It’s the little things. It’s seeing him pass out drunk, but knowing that’s because he’s nervous. It’s coming to the room and seeing five ties laid out and 15 shirts, and realizing how this guy was nervous and how much it mattered to him. And seeing the crib notes; he’s got conversation topics.
And I know what it means to write conversation topics. When I was a teenager, and I had to have a conversation with a boy I fancied, I wrote conversations. [She laughs.]
Giamatti: You did? That’s fantastic!
Pike: Who knows? Maybe Miriam did too.
Would you say that Barney has an “eagle eye” for women?
Giamatti: I have an eye. I don’t know if it’s an eagle eye. “Eagle eye” implies I’m going to catch my prey and swoop down and …
Pike: Never miss.
Giamatti: Never miss. Deadly accuracy! I would say that’s not the case at all. I definitely have an eye for the ladies. I enjoy and appreciate a fine-looking woman. But I’m not this guy [Barney]. I’m not able to pursue somebody madly like [Barney does]. I wouldn’t have that kind of chutzpah and the balls to do that.
Paul, you play a lot of characters that can be described as “unlikable” because of their unpleasant personalities. When you play these kinds of characters, do you think about alienating audiences to the point where they have no sympathy for the character that you’re playing?
Giamatti: I’m all for pushing people as far as I can. I kind of like how far I can push people. Fortunately, in this [“Barney’s Version”], it had built-in brakes, so I wasn’t going to do that [alienate people too much] in this, because he does have many moments of not being so horrible and hard-to-take. It’s built into this guy, so I just had to follow what’s going on here.
But it hasn’t been a problem in the past to push people as far as I can. I sort of find that interesting to make people uncomfortable and challenge them to like somebody who’s not terribly likable. In that “John Adams” [miniseries], I pushed that as far as I could to make that guy unpleasant. Any time there was a choice or an opportunity to make him pleasant, I went the other way. I just did not want to make him pleasant. I wanted to make this very hard for people to take. [He laughs.]
Pike: Not many actors would do that. In the core of Barney and the core of the way you play it, and for someone’s who’s prepared to look like Miriam is, all the other stuff is kind of external baggage. There’s a core that a very good person. He’s had a rough life.
Giamatti: He’s hiding it like crazy. There’s a lot of good qualities to the man.
Paul, was there anything that surprised you the most about working with Dustin Hoffman in “Barney’s Version”? And were there any scenes or pieces of dialogue that you enjoyed the most that were in the movie but not in the book?
Giamatti: Was there anything that was not in the book particularly? I’m not sure. He [Dustin Hoffman] was popping out with things all the time. Some of it ended up in the movie, I think. But he was constantly playing around with stuff. I knew what he was like as a person, sort of. So I was prepared to be around him and the constant stream of foul humor and dirty jokes, which is great. It’s totally great! And he’s got serious mojo, that guy. He’s got incredible energy.
Pike: And half the time you wonder if it’s because he’s known as a Method actor. I half-wondered about that.
Giamatti: I wondered about that too about him. I don’t know how much of it was that [Method acting]. I have no idea either, because the two times I worked with him, he was playing very rambunctious, vital, outgoing, kind of crazy guys. So I wonder to what extent that might have been true [of Hoffman’s real personality].
A lot of “Barney’s Version” is about marriage. How hard do you think marriage is?
Giamatti: Brutally hard! I think even [with] a good marriage, it’s all hard. It’s a lot of work. I don’t know anybody, even the best marriages I can think of, where it doesn’t require constant, intense maintenance. It’s pretty hard. I think it’s hard all of the time.
How familiar were you with Mordecai Richler’s “Barney’s Version” novel or any of his works in general?
Giamatti: I knew of them, but I have not read [all of] them. I mean, I knew who he was. And I’ve just read [the “Barney’s Version” novel], and I’ve been interested to read the other ones. “Solomon Gursky [Was Here]” sounds like an interesting book to me. But other than that, I always thought of him as a Canadian Philip Roth sort of guy, which he’s not, really. He has those aspects, but culturally, he’s more deeply and widely spread throughout the culture in a way that I don’t think Philip Roth is.
Pike: He’s a brilliant writer. A totally original voice, I think. The other place where we opened the film [“Barney’s Version”] was in Italy. We were at the Venice Film Festival. And it made me think much better of the Italians, because I didn’t know the Italians were so into this political incorrectness. They’ve taken on this book almost more than Canadians have.
Giamatti: There’s kind of a more mania about it there.
Pike: Yeah, and they love the offensiveness and outrageousness of this character.
Giamatti: Yeah, they really do.
Paul, you live in Brooklyn. How is it raising a family in Brooklyn, compared to in Manhattan?
Giamatti: It’s a lot quieter. It’s more mellow, and I think it’s nicer for a kid, in some ways. I lived in a wonderful [Manhattan] neighborhood that’s completely gone now. I used to live in this area they used to call NoHo — the great Bowery and Jones Street — which is all gone. So there’s not much to be nostalgic about or wish my kid was experiencing. It’s funny how much [Brooklyn] feels like a remove … and like you’re going to another city. It’s definitely a different energy and vibe, which is nice.
Paul, what’s going on with “The Goon,” the animated film that you’re working on with producer David Fincher?
Giamatti: I think it’s going to get done at some point. They’ve got a script now. They were really working on something. All they had was that little bit that they made into a three-minute crazy thing [clip] … They definitely want to go with the thing. I got a script the other day for it. It’s good.
What else is next for you?
Giamatti: I’m going to do a thing called “Too Big to Fail,” which a movie is about the Lehman Brothers/Goldman Sachs thing. And I’m going to pay Ben Bernanke in it, which will be really interesting. Have you ever seen him? He’s a bizarrely affectless man. He has absolutely no discernable personality. He’s a completely opaque, blank slate of a human being. It’s fascinating. He controls everything, that guy. And he’s utterly enigmatic and unreadable. It’s fantastic. Curtis Hanson is directing. There’s a script.
So the story will presumably be unflattering to the people involved in that financial crisis?
Giamatti: [He laughs.] Yeah, it’s hard to make those guys look good.
Rosamund, what’s next for you?
Pike: I’m doing a film with Rowan Atkinson. A Working Title comedy called “Johnny English Reborn.”
You’re also in “Made in Dagenham.” Can you talk a little bit about that movie?
Pike: I think I’m hardly in it, so I think it’s lovely that people are responding to it. That’s all you need is one scene that you think, “Oh, I want to say those lines.” I thought [“Made in Dagenham” star] Sally Hawkins is great. I thought we had chemistry, which is unusual. People talk about having chemistry with a fellow. I thought it was really nice. We had a really great scene
Paul, your character in “Barney’s Version” does a lot of heavy drinking. What’s your tolerance to alcohol in real life?
Giamatti: It takes a lot to get me hammered. It’s surprising. It takes a lot to get me drunk like that. And I think I have a tendency to be, if I drink too much, one of those guys who gets a little bit more upright and sober-seeming. It’s weird. It has a funny effect on me. I don’t [become] the slurry, stumbling, puking, falling over laughing too much, kind of drunk.
For more info: “Barney’s Version” website
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