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Actor Paul Giamatti

Actor Paul Giamatti

Actor Paul Giamatti stars in the Todd Solondz film Storytelling. He plays an aspiring filmmaker who sets out to document the empty life of a New Jersey high school senior and his well-to-do parents. Giamatti's film credits include Planet of the Apes, Big Momma's House, Saving Private Ryan, and The Truman Show, among many others. He has also appeared in numerous TV shows.

26:04

Other segments from the episode on February 5, 2002

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, February 5, 2002: Interview with Todd Solondz; Interview with Paul Giamatti

Transcript

DATE February 5, 2002 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
NETWORK NPR
PROGRAM Fresh Air

Filler: By policy of WHYY, this information is restricted and has
been omitted from this transcript

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Interview: Paul Giamatti discusses his role in a new movie
entitled "Storytelling"
TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

My guest, Paul Giamatti, is one of the stars of "Storytelling," the new movie
written and directed by Todd Solondz, who we heard from in the first half of
the show. Giamatti is best known for his role as an NBC executive in the
Howard Stern movie "Private Parts." He's also been in "Saving Private Ryan,"
"The Negotiator," "Man on the Moon," "The Truman Show," "Mighty Aphrodite" and
the recent remake of "Planet of the Apes." He's the son of the late A.
Bartlett Giamatti, who was a president of Yale University and served as
baseball commissioner.

In the new film "Storytelling," Paul Giamatti plays Toby Oxman, who wants to
make movies and hopes to start by making a documentary about a high school.
We first meet him in this scene. He's sitting on his bed next to his high
school yearbook calling someone from his past.

(Soundbite of "Storytelling")

Mr. PAUL GIAMATTI: (As Toby Oxman) I'm a documentary filmmaker.

Unidentified Woman: Oh? Anything I might have seen?

Mr. GIAMATTI: (As Toby Oxman) Hmm-mm. Not yet. I'm hoping to get a grant
for this one project on teen-agers. Jeez, you remember when we were
teen-agers?

Unidentified Woman: Yeah. You didn't want to take me to the prom.

Mr. GIAMATTI: (As Toby Oxman) Oh, I don't remember that.

Unidentified Woman: I do.

Mr. GIAMATTI: (As Toby Oxman) Well, but it was so long ago. We were so
different back then. Well, anyway, so I'm looking for subjects for this
documentary on teen-age life in suburbia. It's kind of an exploration of the
psyche, of its mythology. I wrote to Darry Dodd(ph) to see if he'd like to do
the narration, but everything's still kind of in development at this point.

Unidentified Woman: Huh.

Mr. GIAMATTI: (As Toby Oxman) I work in a shoe store right now. But it's
cool. I'm not ashamed. I mean, I really have a much stronger sense of self
now. And anyway, it's really very temporary.

Unidentified Woman: That's good.

Mr. GIAMATTI: (As Toby Oxman) Yeah. So anyway, tell me, what about you?
I'd heard through the grapevine that you were producing movies.

Unidentified Woman: Yeah. But not anymore.

Mr. GIAMATTI: (As Toby Oxman) Ah. Tired of life in the fast lane? Yeah.
So you're married?

Unidentified Woman: Yeah.

Mr. GIAMATTI: (As Toby Oxman) Huh. Kids?

Unidentified Woman: Yeah.

GROSS: Paul Giamatti, welcome to FRESH AIR.

Mr. GIAMATTI: Thank you very much.

GROSS: I'd like you to describe in your own words your part in
"Storytelling."

Mr. GIAMATTI: Well, I play a guy named Toby Oxman who is a bit of a failure
at everything he's put his hand to, and he's decided he's going to try and be
a documentary filmmaker. And he decides that he's going to make a film about
a young suburban high-school kid in New Jersey and his family. And that's
basically who he is. And the film doesn't work out necessarily in a great way
for the family.

GROSS: Yeah. You mean well when you start out making the movie.

Mr. GIAMATTI: I think the guy entirely means well. Yeah. Absolutely. I
mean, his intentions are only good.

GROSS: What goes wrong?

Mr. GIAMATTI: Well, pretty much everything. I mean, it goes as
cataclysmically wrong as it possibly could. I mean, he's a guy who probably
doesn't have a whole lot of talent for what he's doing. I mean, he's sort of
deciding to do this because a lot of other things haven't worked out. And I
think he intends to start out just exploring these people's lives and
presenting them just as plainly as he can. And I think he ends up exploiting
these people. And the movie ends up being something that people look at and
laugh at and see sort of comically, and these people--he ends up sort of
condescending to these people and turning them into figures of fun.

GROSS: Now Todd Solondz's movies aren't exactly realism. His movies like
"Welcome to the Dollhouse," "Happiness" and now Storytelling"...

Mr. GIAMATTI: Yeah.

GROSS: They're comedies where character flaws, problems, their alienation,
the characters' delusions, is heightened in a very comic and also very
perceptive way.

Mr. GIAMATTI: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: How did he direct you in this role? What kind of direction did he
give?

Mr. GIAMATTI: That's one of the most interesting thing about it is that
they're not realistic. I mean, his characters are types, for the most. But,
you know, they're not caricatures and they're not stereotypes, but they are
sort of recognizable characters so that they're not entirely realistic. And
that is one of the tricky things about doing his stuff. I mean, one of the
tricky things about doing this character was that the guy speaks almost
entirely in very kind of shopworn cliches. I mean, he speaks in very sort of
bland, not particularly deeply thought-out ways. So it's tricky to give it a
title. To ground it in something real is very tricky. How he manages to do
that is mysterious. I mean, he's very specific about how he wants you to play
moments, and I think that that keeps in grounded in some kind of reality.
It's very slippery stuff. One of the things that was enjoyable about doing it
was that it was challenging stuff to do.

GROSS: Now Todd Solondz seems like a pretty eccentric person. What was it
like to work with him?

Mr. GIAMATTI: He seems like an eccentric guy. He's not necessarily a hugely
eccentric guy. He's a lot less so than you think he's going to be from his
stuff. You expect this kind of grotesque, bizarre guy, but he's actually very
soft-spoken, very clear about what he wants to do. He's a very funny guy,
very approachable guy. He keeps the mood on the set very light. So it's
funny because there's definitely a disjunction between his stuff and then who
he is when you meet him. He doesn't seem to be anywhere near as weird as the
stuff that he writes.

GROSS: How did you get the part in "Storytelling"?

Mr. GIAMATTI: Just the sort of normal channels. I mean, you know, my agent
gets a script. And I think he was interested in using me. I'd met him on
"Happiness" and had the worst audition I think I've ever had for somebody. So
I guess he was interested in bringing me in again, which was surprising and
nice. And so I just, you know, went in and met him and I auditioned for him
and got the part.

GROSS: Well...

Mr. GIAMATTI: And he works with you a lot in the auditions, which is--the
most work you do on the character with him is in the auditions.

GROSS: What went wrong in your first audition with him for "Happiness"?

Mr. GIAMATTI: Well, I think it was that thing of--like I said, I find his
stuff slippery. It's tricky. The language is very sedate. It's kind of
colorless, in a way, on the page. And I am an actor for whom restraint is a
challenging thing. So I found it hard to fit myself into his mode, which is
low-key. So I think I was overacting, basically, is what I'm saying, like
crazy in this thing. And it doesn't work. His stuff falls apart if you don't
keep it in that kind of tense, restrained place that he's writing from.

GROSS: What kind of roles do you think you're thought of for? Is there like
a Paul Giamatti role?

Mr. GIAMATTI: Well, I would say, I mean, I seem to play guys who are not--I
never seem to play the out-and-out bad guy and I certainly never play the good
guy. I seem to play sort of the muddled, confused, vaguely pathetic guys. I
mean, it seems like it. I mean, within that, I seem to play a range of guys.
I mean, I can play very aggressive pathetic guys, but, I mean, definitely,
more so it happens to me in movies, I think, that I'm thought of for the same
sorts of things, sort of tense guys, failures--a lot of failures, a lot of
guys who are just missing the brass ring, these guys. They're reaching for
it, but they just miss it constantly, so those kinds of guys, it seems like.

GROSS: Now why do you think you get those roles?

Mr. GIAMATTI: I don't know. I mean, certainly, it's not just because they're
coming to me with them. I mean, I'm definitely interested in them. I mean, I
think I definitely find failure an interesting thing to play out. I mean, I
think I find it's challenging. I mean, playing weak people is interesting to
me. I mean, I don't know whether it's that I just tend to see the weaknesses
in people and that interests me or something. I don't know.

GROSS: My guest is actor Paul Giamatti. We'll talk more after a break. This
is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is actor Paul Giamatti. He's now starring in the new Todd
Solondz movie "Storytelling."

Now I think the role you're probably best known for is your role in the Howard
Stern movie "Private Parts," in which you play the NBC programming executive
who Stern nicknames Pig Vomit.

Mr. GIAMATTI: Yeah.

GROSS: And your most famous scene is the scene where you first meet Howard
Stern, in which you're trying to explain something, that it's really important
to say the call letters the right way.

Mr. GIAMATTI: Yeah.

GROSS: So let me play that scene. This is your first meeting with Howard
Stern at the NBC studios in New York.

(Soundbite of "Private Parts")

Mr. GIAMATTI: Oh, Howard, Howard, Howard, Howard, Howard, Howard! Howard,
the way we work here in NBC is a more professional manner than you're probably
used to. Now, see, I don't care about what you did down in Washington because
that's chicken (censored) radio. Here at NBC, this is real radio, and the
first thing you've got to do is say the call letters properly, OK? Now I'm
going to teach you how to say them. All right? And, you know, I hope you can
get them because, see, you don't have a real good voice like Imus or Captain
Frank or nothing, so we're going to have to practice it.

Mr. HOWARD STERN: Well, do you mean practice it here now?

Mr. GIAMATTI: You're not going to get bashful on me now, are you, Howard?
OK. You ready. The way it's said properly is WNBC. This is key. Come on.

Mr. STERN: WNBC.

Mr. GIAMATTI: No, no. It's got to be more like this. Listen up. WNBC. You
hear that, kind of lift the NBC.

Mr. STERN: WNBC.

Mr. GIAMATTI and Mr. STERN: (In unison) WNBC.

Mr. GIAMATTI: Wider, kind of...

Mr. GIAMATTI and Mr. STERN: (In unison) WNBC.

Mr. GIAMATTI: One more. D...

Mr. STERN: In my mind, it sounds like I'm saying exactly what you're saying.

Mr. GIAMATTI: No, no. Actually...

Mr. STERN: WNBC.

Mr. GIAMATTI: You know what? You've got to listen to Imus. Imus does it
perfectly. I'll tell you what. I'm going to take you down to Imus' office
right now, and you're going to hear how he does it. Come on, boy.

GROSS: OK. Did your way of saying NBC get repeated back at you forever and
ever by Howard Stern fans after this movie?

Mr. GIAMATTI: Yes. It happens a lot that people say that to me and people
want me to say it. I'm always having people in airports come up to me and
wanting me to say that, yeah. Yeah. And...

GROSS: And what do you do? Do you oblige them? Are you a nice guy about it
or what?

Mr. GIAMATTI: Well, yeah, you know, I try to be a nice guy about it. I've
gotten nicer about it. At first, I didn't want to do it. I felt put upon by
people. I (technical difficulties) most put upon if I had to do an interview
and somebody asked me to do it. I always felt sort of--I mean, I didn't mind
it so much, you know, somebody on the bus saying, you know, `Could you say
that for me?' I would do it. I felt like, you know, somebody asking me to do
it in an interview, it felt--I don't know--kind of silly and I was being asked
to be a little bit of a performing seal. But actually, I don't know why
lately, I haven't minded doing it so much. Yeah. But it does happen a lot.

GROSS: Now this is the role of somebody who thinks he's really smart, who
thinks he's got a lot of power...

Mr. GIAMATTI: Yes.

GROSS: ...but he's just being made fun of and made to look weak all the time
by Howard Stern.

Mr. GIAMATTI: Yes. Yeah.

GROSS: So can you talk a little bit about playing that part?

Mr. GIAMATTI: I mean, like you say, what was fun about that was this guy has
this sense of enormous power, that, you know, he's going to break Howard Stern
and that was fun. I remember in playing that part--the key thing with that
part I remember was I really wanted to have a big old chunky college ring on,
like one of those with the--you know, the big chunky bronze-colored thing with
the big blue gem in the middle. Because I thought this was the kind of guy
who was--you know, he could never be on the football team, but he hung out
with the jocks, and this was the kind of guy, he hung out in the big jockey
frat, but he was a knucklehead. And he was never the guy that he thought he
was. You know, he always styled himself--you know, and he ran the college
radio station and he was very--you know, for some reason, that ring was, like,
really key to a guy who kind of--he imagined himself being such a kind of
bigger, much more kind of macho guy than he actually was. So that ring became
really essential to me, and I had to hunt one down, and that really was
important for me, that ring. It's all I remember about it.

GROSS: Where'd you get the ring?

Mr. GIAMATTI: Oh, I don't know, some weird little costume jewelry place down
on the Lower East Side somewhere. You know, it was just a fake one. But,
yeah, that was a key thing. And also, I remember that was interesting because
it was the first time I'd done a part that big, and it was the first time I'd
done something that comical on film, and it was fun doing that, because I
thought, `Oh, this is going to be tricky. There's no audience. I won't have
a laugh coming.' But what became great about that was I forgot it was
supposed to be funny, and I just played it actually as straight as I could in
a way. So it became fun just not having to worry about being funny and just
totally investing in this guy's sense of his own self and power. It was fun.

GROSS: Had you listened to Howard Stern on the radio before doing the movie
with him?

Mr. GIAMATTI: Not that much. Occasionally, I had, but I was not like a big
fan or anything like that. I mean, I liked it when I heard it, but I had not
really listened to him much.

GROSS: I mean, of course, everyone who's heard the show would want to know,
is he as obnoxious in person as he could be on the radio?

Mr. GIAMATTI: He's not at all obnoxious. It was amazing. He was almost
weirdly friendly and sort of low key and very polite, and he was actually a
real pleasure to work with, one of the most pleasurable experiences I've had.
No, he's not obnoxious at all. He's a very, very friendly guy, very
hardworking, playful guy.

GROSS: Were you ever a guest on his show?

Mr. GIAMATTI: I think I did a phone-in one time when I was out in Los
Angeles. You know, it was 4:00 in the morning where I was, and I called in,
but I was very wary about doing his show, and I still am because, you know, I
don't know what he's going to do.

GROSS: Right. Exactly.

Mr. GIAMATTI: You know, so it...

GROSS: Wasn't it like a different person on the radio than he was in person?

Mr. GIAMATTI: Yeah. He does seem like a different person in some ways. I
mean, you know, he changes in some way, and I don't think I could handle, you
know, having weird curve balls thrown at me. I don't think I'd be very good
at it.

GROSS: My guest is actor Paul Giamatti. We'll talk more after a break. This
is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is actor Paul Giamatti. He's one of the stars of the new
Todd Solondz movie "Storytelling." He was also in "Private Parts," "The
Negotiator," "The Truman Show" and the recent remake of "Planet of the Apes."

Let me ask you about another part. You were in "Saving Private Ryan."
Describe your role in that.

Mr. GIAMATTI: I played a guy--well, I don't think I even remember the name of
the guy I played. I think he had a name. I played a paratrooper sergeant. I
don't know if he had a name. I think that was kind of a part where there
wasn't much of a part there. I mean, I've had to do that a couple of times
where, you know, I've gone in on something and they've said, `Well, gee, you
know, you're not really right for anything, but we'd like you to be in this
movie.' That's what happened with that. And they were like, `Well, we kind
of want to have this character in this scene who guides Tom Hanks around, and
he's a paratrooper sergeant, and we don't really know what we want him to do.'
So I play a guy, I play a paratrooper sergeant, who has to take Tom Hanks to
the wrong Private Ryan, and it developed as we did it, but I was a little
inept. I fell over a lot, and I sort of fell through a brick wall and I was
really kind of not the most competent member of the US armed forces.

GROSS: Is that something that you put into the story or that was written in
for you?

Mr. GIAMATTI: It started to develop that way, is what happened. I mean, I
just kept falling over. I kept stumbling all the time because I was
wearing--all that equipment was real stuff and it was heavy, and I'm not a
very well-coordinated guy, and I wouldn't make much of a soldier, and I was
slipping and falling all over the place. So this became--and the director
thought, `This is interesting. This is good.' So they sort of threw in stuff
where I was sort of bitching about my ankles were killing me and my back is
killing me, and I just became a kind of sad-sack loser soldier. So it was fun
the way that developed because there really wasn't a part there, as I
remember. There really wasn't much to do.

GROSS: So you were the kvetch of "Saving Private Ryan."

Mr. GIAMATTI: I was the kvetch of "Saving Private Ryan," exactly. Very proud
moment for me. It was a fun movie to do.

GROSS: Now you were in "Planet of the Apes." Which ape were you?

Mr. GIAMATTI: I was the kvetch of "Planet of the Apes." I was the borscht
belt orangutan. I was Limbo.

GROSS: What costume did you have to wear?

Mr. GIAMATTI: I had to wear an orangutan costume. I had to wear...

GROSS: I mean, describe it. What was it like to be in it?

Mr. GIAMATTI: I had to wear a very elaborate full prosthetic, covering my
entire head, rubber--well, some kind of foam, very light foam latex, and I had
to wear rubber gloves and enormous rubber feet, and I had a large belly, like
orangutans do. They have these kind of big, pendulous bellies. And so I wore
a very beautiful, elaborate rubber mask, basically.

GROSS: Is it any fun to be in a costume movie like that?

Mr. GIAMATTI: Yeah. It's the kind of thing that I've always wanted to do. I
mean, it's the kind of thing when I was a kid--I mean, for me, the things that
really excited me about acting when I was a kid is sort of pretending and the
things that really got me going when I was a kid were all the sort of old
universal horror movies, all the sort of "Wolf Man" and, you know,
"Frankenstein," the "Creature from the Black Lagoon" and all that kind of
stuff. So this was my opportunity, you know, to do that kind of thing, and I
enjoyed the heck out of it. It was really fun. And it was fun to completely
disappear. Something where you really can't see who it is is really fun, too.

GROSS: Where did you see those horror movies? When I was growing up, they
were on TV all the time. But that was in the '50s and '60s, and you're
younger than that. And I think by the time...

Mr. GIAMATTI: Yeah.

GROSS: ...you were growing up, they weren't on TV all the time.

Mr. GIAMATTI: No, they were still on TV. They were still--I mean, in the
early '70s, they were still on TV. They still had the sort of creature
feature. You know, there was creature features on WNEW in New York, and there
was a thing called Chiller where they would show things.

GROSS: Chiller Theatre?

Mr. GIAMATTI: Yeah, Chiller Theatre, and it was on Channel 11 in New York.
So they definitely showed them. They showed all of those, those old Lon
Chaney Jr. things. "The Indestructible Man" was a big one that made a big
impression on me as a kid where they try to electrocute--they put him in the
electric chair and it only energizes him more, you know, and he goes on a
rampage. You know, so I loved those things. But they definitely showed them
when I was a kid still.

GROSS: So is there a kind of role or a kind of movie that you haven't done
yet that you really want to do?

Mr. GIAMATTI: I'd like to play a really calm person. I'd like to play a
really sort of calm person. I think that would be nice. I've been lucky in
that I've gotten to play lots of different things. I mean, I don't know if
there's any specific role that I can think of off the top of my head. You
know, I haven't in my life gotten as much of a chance to do things like
Shakespeare and stuff like that, and I would like to do something like that
more on stage, I guess. But I really would, actually. I mean, I'm sort of
joking, but not entirely. I mean, it would be interesting and it would be
challenging for me to play something more low key. I don't know what that is,
but, I mean, something that required my energy to be not so outward would be
challenging for me.

GROSS: You know how you were kidding before that you play the Jewish role in
things, like you were the borscht belt guy in "Planet of the Apes" and the
kvetchy guy in...

Mr. GIAMATTI: Yeah.

GROSS: ..."Saving Private Ryan." I mean, you're Italian, right?

Mr. GIAMATTI: Yes, this is true.

GROSS: Right.

Mr. GIAMATTI: But I don't think I've ever played an Italian. In fact, I can
remember going in--I auditioned for something once and the role was of an
Italian policeman, and he was very sort of, you know, kind of smacking his kid
in the back of the head, and it was very sort of, `You know, hey, shut up.
Eh, Joey, sit down,' that kind of thing. And I was doing a lot of this stuff,
and the guy kept stopping me and going, `OK, that's great. Try it this way,
try it this way,' and then he would go, `And don't forget you're Italian.'
And then he would sit back and I would do it again, and he would say, `OK,
great, do it like this, and don't forget you're Italian,' and he'd sit back,
and I finally said to him, `What do you mean, don't forget I'm Italian?'
Basically the idea was that I wasn't being enough, sort of like, `Eh, Joey,
shut up.' I wasn't doing enough of that for this guy, and I said to the guy,
`I am Italian.' And he went, `Well, I know, but you're not being Italian.'

So, I mean, there's a lot of that kind of thing. I've never played an
Italian, and I don't look Italian. In other words, I don't have dark hair
and, you know, dark complexion. So I don't fit the idea of an Italian, I
guess. I have played a lot of Jews, actually. I've played lots of Jewish
characters.

GROSS: And why, do you think?

Mr. GIAMATTI: I don't know. I have no idea.

GROSS: Well, Paul Giamatti, thank you so much for talking with us.

Mr. GIAMATTI: Absolutely. Thank you.

GROSS: Paul Giamatti is one of the stars of the new movie "Storytelling."

(Soundbite of music; credits)

GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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