Last night, a bitter, thwarted, hot-tempered Classics teacher won Paul Giamatti a Best Actor award at both the Golden Globes and Critics’ Choice Awards. In gis Golden Globes speech he dedicated his victory to teachers, and has a view on why audiences warm to the curmudgeon he plays in The Holdovers. Paul Hunham is a stickler, harsh to the point of vindictiveness, who dismisses the entitled boys in his class at Barton Academy, an elite New England boarding school, as “lazy, vulgar, rancid little Philistines”.
“He’s not wrong,” says Giamatti.
In Alexander Payne’s latest comedy, set in 1970, Hunham resists pressure from the principal to wave through the sons of wealthy donors on their way to Ivy League universities, and insists on failing anyone who produces substandard work – so he’s punished by being made to supervise the pupils who have nowhere else to go at Christmas: the holdovers. He is an alcoholic whom no one likes, with a wonky eye, sweaty palms and a body odour problem. Giamatti grins when I ask how he felt when Payne offered him the part. “I can’t imagine he didn’t come to me thinking, ‘He’ll like this…’,” he says. “I’m not vain about stuff like that.”
Hunham’s apparent shortcomings appealed to him, he adds, “because those are things that marginalise a person and put them outside the circle of acceptance. Why that interests me, I don’t know. But it does. And it always has.”
The Holdovers reunites Giamatti with Payne, who directed Reese Witherspoon in Election (1999), Jack Nicholson in About Schmidt (2002) and gave Giamatti his breakthrough role in Sideways (2004), as Miles, a failing writer and amateur oenologist taking his soon-to-be-married buddy on a road trip through Californian wine country. Miles’s furious reaction to the possibility that a double date might involve compromising his discerning palate – “If anybody orders merlot I’m leaving. I am not drinking any f---ing merlot” – has entered the culture. For years afterwards, wherever Giamatti went, strangers would quote the line back at him. “I got it a lot,” he says. “I’d get people sending me wine. And I didn’t drink wine, particularly. I still don’t. So I always feel a little bad at sommeliers sending me the wine list. I’m always like, ‘Sorry, man, I don’t know what to tell you. I don’t know anything about it.’”
Professionally, the film changed everything for Giamatti. “I’ve never had to audition again in 20 years, which is a huge shift,” he says. “And the supporting roles that I got offered were suddenly way more interesting. I guess people’s attitude towards me changed. I seemed viable as somebody who could be more than just goofy support guy.”
Giamatti studied at the Yale School of Drama, alma mater of Paul Newman, Meryl Streep and Frances McDormand. His range and a willingness to experiment mark him out as one of the most talented character actors of his generation. He made his debut on Broadway in Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia in 1995, played the underground comic-book writer Harvey Pekar in the 2003 film American Splendor, the second president of the United States John Adams in a 2008 HBO miniseries, and slave trader Theophilus Freeman in 12 Years a Slave (2013).
He was Oscar-nominated for his role as boxing manager Joe Gould in Cinderella Man (2005) before achieving wider fame playing ruthless attorney Chuck Rhoades in Billions, which ended last year. After seven seasons, that final goodbye was “psychically freeing”, he says, since Chuck “was not a lot of fun to play. He was kind of a b------. It was a tricky part – a great job, but the part I won’t be sorry not to play.”
In person, Giamatti is nothing like Rhoades. “I’m not terribly assertive,” he says. “I play people like that.” On a December afternoon, over tea in a London hotel, he is, rather, warm, funny and urbane, with an easy way about him that may just bespeak his own education at an elite New England boarding school. Giamatti went to Choate Rosemary Hall in Connecticut which, along with nearby Massachusetts rival Deerfield Academy, where parts of The Holdovers were filmed, is considered among the best boarding schools in America – though, he suggests, “I don’t think any of those schools are as posh as Eton. I mean, the whole thing is a knockoff of Eton and places like that… kind of fake in some ways.”
Nevertheless, says Giamatti, there remains “a class-driven aspect of those schools, which gives you a big leg up. And that’s not necessarily the education, it’s the cultural currency of those places that is important in a society that’s supposed to be democratic and not class-based… They’re weird institutions, those places, and they’re very distinctly American, too.”
Education in general, he notes, “seems to be becoming less and less important. You look around and think, ‘Well, all I really need is to go do a startup, and try to become some sort of internet entrepreneur. Why the hell do I need to go to school?’”
In his Golden Globes acceptance speech, Giamatti took a stand against this tendency. “My whole family, they are teachers; all of them, going back generations,” he said. “Teachers are good people. We’ve got to respect them. They do a good thing. It’s a tough job.”
His father, Bart Giamatti, who was president of Yale University in the 1970s and ’80s, “would have been filled with despair”, he says, at the death of the humanities in universities on both sides of the Atlantic, where the current imperative is to focus on “market-driven majors” – fuelled by the increasing precariousness of the middle classes and rising tuition fees that leave an arts degree looking more like an extravagant luxury than a passport to a lucrative career. “I was at Yale University recently,” says Giamatti, “and they’re expanding the engineering school to take over this huge part of the campus”. A musical instruments museum and “eccentric” anthropology department are to be sacrificed. “It’s a drag.”
Bart Giamatti died suddenly of a heart attack in 1989, and never saw his son’s acting success. “It’s always made me sad,” Giamatti tells me, noting how strange it feels now that “I’m older than he was when he died. He didn’t see my son. He didn’t see so many things.”
Giamatti the younger studied English at Yale, before turning to drama. He had briefly flirted with a future in academia but, he says, “when it came to the actual decision, I was like, ‘Absolutely not. I can’t do that.’” The idea of “spending the rest of my life studying one thin-slice area, mediaeval literature or something” seemed impossible. “I think I am in constant need of novelty. I get bored and restless very fast.”
The Holdovers involved an additional novelty. Giamatti’s character has one eye that is not straight – a condition known as exotropia or “walleye”. The effect is achieved on screen with a custom-made prosthetic and, Giamatti admits, “I was a little bit wary about it. I’m not squeamish about much, but things in my eye… they freak me out. But it went very well, you know. There’s the woman who makes it – it’s an incredible piece of work in itself – and then there’s a guy who takes it in and out. They won’t trust you to take those things in and out yourself, they’re pretty big, and you’re blinded by them.”
The implications of race in America are evident in The Holdovers, from the presence on the overwhelmingly white school staff of a black cook and black janitor, to the death of a beloved son in Vietnam. To what extent does Giamatti think things have changed in the US since the era in which the film is set? “I don’t think it’s changed in the really profound ways it needs to,” he says. “It’s still a huge problem.”
As someone who has made more than a hundred films, Giamatti has worked with an awful lot of actors. He’s been in Woody Allen films, acted on stage with Kevin Spacey, shared the “forget about it” scene in Donnie Brasco with Johnny Depp. I wonder how it feels when someone he has worked with is suddenly “cancelled”?
“God, was Johnny Depp cancelled?” he says. “I’m not aware of a lot of this stuff. I mean, it’s crazy and intense. And a lot of these guys have done things that I suppose deserve censure.” They’re not always people he knows well and hangs out with, he adds, so “it’s not like I feel some aggrieved sense because a friend of mine has been unfairly treated right now.”
What of Russell Brand – subject of an exposé last year that led to a Metropolitan police investigation – with whom he worked on the 2012 film Rock of Ages: was his behaviour ever a problem on set? “Not that I ever saw. I wasn’t around him very much, and in fact, he seemed like he was in a very sort of ‘I’m working on myself’ phase.”
Over the years, Giamatti has given several brilliant performances as Jewish characters, from music mogul Jerry Heller in Straight Outta Compton (2015) to Abraham Zapruder, who shot the famous 8mm footage of the assassination of President Kennedy, in Parkland (2013). Does he have a view on the “Jewface” controversy, which came to prominence when American comedian Sarah Silverman criticised the casting of gentile actors in Jewish roles.
“It’s interesting to me,” he says. “For a long time, people thought I was Jewish, and that all the characters I played were Jews. I was like, ‘No, I specifically only played Jews a few times.’ In my own life, you know, my ex-wife is Jewish” – he was married for many years to film producer Elizabeth Cohen, with whom he has a 22-year-old son, Sam – “and my son is Jewish. So to some extent, I don’t feel totally like I’ve culturally appropriated if I have to play those things. It’s a tricky subject. I can see both sides of it. But it seems like the logical end of this stuff becomes so limiting.”
Post-divorce, Giamatti has been in a relationship with Billions actress Clara Wong “for, like, five years” – and despite turning away from academia, he remains a voracious reader. When I remind him that he once described himself as “a recovering bookaholic”, he protests. “I’m not recovering. I’m off the wagon, again. I just spent the day going into bookstores and bought way too many books.”
I mention another literary aside that came up in a previous interview and tell him I couldn’t tell if he was joking or not. “That’s really common with me,” he confesses. It was when he was asked by an interviewer to complete a sentence beginning, “I believe…” and responded with “I believe there’s no way Shakespeare wrote those f---ing plays, no way in hell.” He giggles. “Do I actually think that? No. It was on that movie Lady in the Water,” he says, referring to the 2006 fantasy directed by M Night Shyamalan. “There was a journalist writing a book about the process of making the movie, so he was going around everybody. And I knew they were all going to say, ‘I believe in people’ or something. So I thought, I’m just gonna say something really sarcastic and weird.”
At this point, though, Giamatti admits that he would happily dedicate a whole episode of Chinwag – a podcast series which he started last year with friend and philosopher Stephen Asma, to take what they describe as deep dives “into the wilderness of the mind” – to the authorship of the plays. He laughs. “Do you really want me to get into it? I find the whole phenomenon interesting, and why people believe stuff like that. Shakespeare is a strange, shadowy figure. It’s weird that he’s the greatest master of English and the greatest dramatist poet of all time, yet we know virtually nothing about him.”
Giamatti is fascinated by the weird. “I’ve had encounters with ghosts,” he tells me, proudly. “I’ve never seen UFOs, but I completely believe in the possibility of them.” He attracts weirdness, too. I can’t resist asking how he feels about the Wax Paul Now campaign, which demands that a waxwork of him should be installed in Madame Tussauds’ around the world.
“I was very excited about it,” he says, and I think he’s serious. “I don’t think that will ever happen. But the idea of having a wax statue is really very pleasing.”
The Holdovers is in UK cinemas from January 19