Arguably the biggest surprise of the 2011 Golden Globe Awards on Jan. 16 – aside from host Ricky Gervais’ acerbic wit and Natalie Portman’s maniacal cackle – came courtesy of a schlubby, balding, bespectacled actor. Paul Giamatti stunned the crowd with his upset win for Best Actor in a Motion Picture – Comedy or Musical, for his performance as foulmouthed screw-up Barney Panofsky in BARNEY’S VERSION.
Giamatti is no stranger to the Golden Globes, having won in 2008 for the HBO television miniseries, “John Adams.” However, his win at the 2011 Globes – over more ballyhooed stars like Johnny Depp and Kevin Spacey – was poetic justice given his shunning by the Academy. Yes, Giamatti received his first – and only – Oscar nod for Best Supporting Actor in 2005 as Russell Crowe’s dedicated trainer, Joe Gould, in “Cinderella Man,” but it was a empty gesture considering his snub the previous year in the Best Actor category for arguably his best performance to date as troubled oenophile Miles Raymond in Alexander Payne’s brilliant road comedy, “Sideways.”
It remains to be seen if the Academy will follow in the Globes’ footsteps and recognize Giamatti’s performance in Barney’s Version, but there’s no denying it’s one helluva acting job. Adapted from Mordecai Richler’s novel of the same name and marking the directorial debut of “C.S.I.” director-producer Richard J. Lewis, Giamatti stars at Barney Panofsky, a crude, 65-year-old alcoholic who reflects on his life’s hits and misses, including meeting the love of his life, Miriam Grant (Rosamund Pike) at the wedding reception to his 2nd wife, played by Minnie Driver. Dustin Hoffman also stars as Barney’s eccentric father, Izzy.
MMM sat down with Paul Giamatti and Rosamund Pike (“Pride & Prejudice,” “Die Another Day”) to chat about Barney’s Version, and the rules of attraction.
MANHATTAN MOVIE MAGAZINE: Paul, do you really know how to make a girl cry?
PAUL GIAMATTI: Yeah, that’s me man. I know how to make women cry, that’s for sure. Now I’ve just got to make them smile and laugh.
MMM: How does it feel being a stud?
GIAMATTI: It suits me. Am I a stud in this movie? I guess the guy does alright.
MMM: Even though he does some horrible things he’s such a lovable character. How did you make it a lovable character?
GIAMATTI: I think it’s just sort of built into the character, I think it’s just there; it’s the idea in a lot of ways. If he wasn’t likeable or lovable he would be unbearable. It’s kind of there and there are so many wonderful relationships; the relationship I have with her and the father and the fact that he has this sort of…
MMM: The character’s only really there by what someone does usually. He does lots of nice things.
GIAMATTI: Yeah, there’s a kind of care he takes with these sort of wounded people. With his friend Boogie and that French-Canadian actress and his father in a sense is this kind of vulnerable figure that he’s very protective of. He’s got a decent side to him. I just tried to not screw up the screenplay, which sort of laid out all these characteristics.
MMM: Did you both read the book? Talk about research you did.
ROSAMUND PIKE: It depends who we’re talking to. Sometimes we tell people we’ve read it.
GIAMATTI: I know. You’ve noticed that haven’t you? You amazingly called me out on that. I sort of read the book. I read it afterwards, really read it, but sort of. I stayed away from it.
PIKE: The script is pretty different. The script is brilliant in its own right.
GIAMATTI: The script is really good is the thing.
PIKE: Often when you the resource to a novel you go there because you’re looking for the things that the script leaves out. This script has deviated from the book and somehow remained incredibly faithful to the spirit of it.
GIAMATTI: It’s really well written.
PIKE: You start talking about one aspect of the film and you start thinking that’s what the film’s about and then you realize you’ve forgotten a whole other aspect, like there’s a sort of murder mystery at the center of it all.
MMM: How do you walk a fine line between making your character sympathetic and also a villain?
GIAMATTI: That’s what I mean. I don’t know that it was so much me. I mean maybe I bring something to it, I don’t know. I don’t think he was a villain exactly. He can be a bad guy but I don’t think he’s a bad guy.
MMM: Is it necessarily a bad thing if a man feels like he hasn’t found true love but gives it a shot a few times before he really does?
GIAMATTI: I don’t necessarily think it is. I don’t know that this guy thinks he has found it the first two times. I don’t think he’s in any way thinking he found true love with those two wackos. The first woman, certainly not. It’s unfortunate, there’s much more to that whole relationship in the book that I wish could have been in there because it’s a fantastic character in the book, Clara and the crazy relationship that they have. He’s marrying her for all the wrong reasons. I don’t think he loves her, truly loves her. And the second woman he’s making a big mistake and he knows it, which is why the second he sees the person strikes him blind with love like that he goes after her, because he knows he’s making a mistake with the other woman. This is the woman he truly loves and the one time he actually finds it.
MMM: What I got from your reaction in that situation was that he never thought that existed until he saw her?
GIAMATTI: No, I think you’re absolutely right. He didn’t. And that’s why it’s absolutely the impulse to grab it while its there is so powerful that he can’t stop himself.
PIKE: And it’s very powerful to be told that. For someone to sit on a train and say, “Look, I really thought this thing never happens and it does, it really is happening to me now right here.”
GIAMATTI: It’s utterly sincere, and it’s not just about getting tail or something. He actually truly, truly realizes, “Oh my god; that just happened, and I can’t let it pass by.”
MMM: Is that your version of love? What is your version of love?
GIAMATTI: A bit of comedy, some laughs.
PIKE: A few tears.
GIAMATTI: Yeah, a few tears. The idea of being struck by love like that, I think it’s certainly possible. I don’t know how many people actually pursue it. I’ve been struck with lust. Frequently, many times a day. I don’t know about love, per se. I’ve felt that kind of unbelievably impelling power, but whether it was something immediate I don’t know. I don’t know if that’s a real thing.
MMM: Well Miriam’s interesting too because she doesn’t work and she’s not happy about the fact that he’s sending flowers because he’s married.
PIKE: I know, I think she behaves very respectably early on. There was a journalist next door, we just had a big fight because he said that Miriam screwed the whole relationship up by setting Barney up. Because I think she knows him so well at that point that she goes to New York, and knowing she’s going to see Blair. But I really don’t think she went to see Blair. I think she genuinely went to see the son and Blair happened to be there, because Blair is pursuing her like a kind of madman.
GIAMATTI: There’s clearly an attraction between her and Blair.
PIKE: I don’t think she fancies Blair. I couldn’t fancy Bruce Greenwood over him.
MMM: What was so attractive about a man like Barney?
PIKE: The previous one about her being non-flirtatious, it was very interesting actually to play the love interest in a film and not be flirtatious. Because in every romantic comedy or every big romance we see that first scene where there’s definite flirtation going on and it was sort of interesting to hold back and not do all the things that you’re told the romantic lead in a film has to do, sort of do everything against that. I kind of enjoyed that.
MMM: And it’s her being grounded I think.
GIAMATTI: It is, it totally is.
PIKE: And surprisingly men seem to respond to it.
GIAMATTI: Very attractive. Actually, it is.
MMM: We want what we cannot have, that’s why.
GIAMATTI: Well there’s that. But there is something actually very attractive about it, this kind of no bullshit thing.
MMM: When you have the scene after the first lunch meeting, after all that time and you’re with a man who gets so drunk that he vomits and then he passes out and you have to sit there and wait for him to come to, to finally get a slice of pizza because you’re starving. In playing that scene where do you find the motivation for what is keeping her there and what it is about this man who has just done these things that are pretty much all the wrong things to do on a date that keeps her there?
PIKE: She could be about to walk. I think it is really disrespectful to turn up drunk to a date. But then I think it’s when she goes into the room and she sort of sees you have a total new insight into somebody. You have an insight into the fact that he brought however many suits and shirts and ties that he laid out and obviously really thought about this. And then this sort of absurd thing of this Champagne and roses came, which is on one level terribly insulting, and on another level so inappropriately endearing that it’s kind of charming. And then she finds these crib notes of conversation topics and I think whereas she could have thought, “Is this guy just an arrogant asshole?” I think she sees that this is someone who’s so desperate for this meeting to go well that he blows it, and I think that makes her stay. And then that they walk all the way from Central Park to Queens when they actually kiss, like when is this guy going to get on with it?
MMM: Could you talk about the collaboration of working with Dustin? He plays such a funny father.
GIAMATTI: He’s fantastic. He establishes immediate intense intimacy with you as a person and as an actor. But he’s a lot of fun. He’s a fun guy and the process of working with him is kind of nuts. He’ll dig right down into the thing. There were several times when he turned to the director while the camera was rolling and said, “Can we go back to the beginning of this and throw the script out completely? Paul and I will just do this scene in our own words and make it up as we go along,” which we did a couple of times, and then he would suddenly click back in. You had to chase after the guy and keep up with him, but then he’d suddenly click back into the dialog. It was fantastic. It was great. I’ve never worked with somebody doing this kind of mad thing that he was doing but it was highly effective because it just breaks down. He’s getting everything out on camera, he doesn’t believe about doing any rehearsal off camera. You’re going to do it all on camera. You’re going to get your nerves out, you’re going to get all the kinks out, you’re going to work it out all on camera because something great might happen while the cameras are rolling. That’s the way he is.
MMM: How hard was it for him to play the scene when he couldn’t move at the end when he’s dead? Did he keep popping up?
GIAMATTI: He had a fart machine with him, first of all. He had a farting thing with him, which was really hilarious. Very funny. Big laughs as he would hit the fart machine while I was trying to do my big serious scene. For a 75-year-old man he stayed remarkably still. He was pretty amazing because he did have to lie there that whole time and not breathe. He did well actually; he did very well. It was shot really fast because we had to get out because it was a real massage parlor and they had to open for the night so they were like, “Get out, because we’ve got to open.” So the whole thing actually had to go very fast so he didn’t have to lie there too long.
MMM: How would you describe the love story between your two characters? Beautiful, tragic, true?
GIAMATTI: True is a good word for it I think.
PIKE: And I think it’s a really nicely matched relationship. I really admire Miriam because guys like Barney are incredibly fun to be around. The selfish narcissists are also the people who live in such an exciting way. You have to be the kind of woman who can tolerate it, and Miriam is, so she gets the benefit of it and she’s able to nurture him and be totally selfless herself. I think they’re perfectly balanced.
MMM: How is the experience of working with Richard? He has a TV background from “CSI,” so I was wondering if there were any spontaneous things on set?
PIKE: There was a scene where he wanted like at the moment of Barney seeing Miriam he wanted to go right inside his heart and do this whole intravenous journey into Barney’s heart to see it kind of pulse.
GIAMATTI: That’s very funny. That’s very good. That would have been great. What’s great about I think the TV thing is there wasn’t a whole lot of screwing around. He really knew what he wanted to do. He was great.
PIKE: He loved the story. I don’t think his TV background had any bearing on it. He had been passionate about this book for years, like 12 years, and hounded the producer to let him direct it. I think he knew a lot of how he wanted to shoot it. I think he’d had these scenes living in his head.
GIAMATTI: Yeah, he definitely did. When we rehearsed he knew down the line how he was going to shoot something and he would tell us, which was good. It was nice to be able to know that when he got to a scene.
MMM: What’s next for the two of you?
PIKE: Children. No I’m just kidding.
GIAMATTI: I’m doing a movie that George Clooney is directing called “The Ides of March,” which is about a political campaign, a very dirty political campaign. I play a dirty political campaign manager, and that starts in February. Mid-February.
BARNEY’S VERSION is now playing in select theaters nationwide.