Paul Giamatti Would Rather Talk About Bigfoot and UFOs Than Pretty Much Anything Else

Like everyone else during the pandemic, Paul Giamatti found solace on Zoom. The veteran actor caught an online talk presented by Stephen Asma, an author and philosophy professor at Columbia College Chicago. Giamatti liked what Asma had to say about imagination and consciousness, so he did what any well-connected fan would do and reached out.

“We were Zooming when Zoom was a new thing. It was nice to chat with this guy, and we found each other having these longer and longer chats,” says Giamatti during a rare break from his best actor Oscar campaign for his role in Alexander Payne’s The Holdovers. “Stephen jokingly said, ‘We ought to do something with this.’ ” The joke then turned serious. To craft their pitch, they sent one of their chats to visual artist Alex Sokol, who added animation and striking images to represent things they bantered about, like aliens, UFOs and bigfoot. “We sat around thinking, ‘Who do we take it to?’ ” Giamatti says. It didn’t take long for them to zero in on the podcast pros at Treefort Media, which came on board to co-produce with Giamatti’s Touchy Feely Films.

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Treefort — an independent podcast company founded in 2018 by Kelly Garner, Lisa Ammerman, Thom Monahan and Oscar Guido that is home to nearly 50 series — provided a welcoming home for the duo’s freewheeling chats on esoteric subjects, with “a weird bent.” Giamatti and Asma suddenly found themselves as creators and hosts of a weekly podcast called Chinwag. “It kind of came along accidentally,” says Giamatti.

Announced a year ago, Chinwag debuted by recording a special live episode at SXSW about monsters. The first episode dropped in April 2023, and over the course of months, Giamatti and Asma built a loyal audience of fellow weirdos. Giamatti did not want to book fellow celebs to talk about their latest film or TV projects. The Sideways star instead offered his illustrious peers a forum to chop it up for an hour or so about subjects that rarely come up during press junkets. Giamatti and Asma have covered time travel with Tom Hanks, swapped ghost stories with Billy Bob Thornton, talked cults with Kathryn Hahn, investigated the Mandela effect with Patton Oswalt, listened to Amy Sedaris gush about Japanese subways, heard Don Cheadle share how religion helps tame the ego, covered Jungian archetypes with Stephen Colbert, and listened to Natasha Lyonne double down on her belief in extraterrestrials, ghosts and bigfoot.

“I know from being interviewed over the years that I often get most excited when the conversation goes off topic and I get to talk about something other than me,” says Giamatti. “I get bored talking about myself, or a particular project, I gotta be honest.”

Says Treefort founder and CEO Garner: “One of the things that’s so great about working with Paul is how unafraid he is. He is not guarded; he is not worried about handlers. He cares passionately and deeply about UFOs, Bigfoot and aliens and the hollow earth theory. He doesn’t go into anything political. [Chinwag] is just about a genuine curiosity, a thirst for knowledge and turning over rocks that other people don’t to see what’s underneath. For someone of his stature, in an Oscar race for best actor, it’s remarkable how much fun he’s having, and there’s no agenda here.”

Refreshing is a how Treefort’s Ammerman describes it. “So many people in the public eye are so concerned with just talking about the craft or why they were interested in a role, and this allows Paul to talk about all his myriad interests that he’s been cultivating since he was a kid. The people that he brings on are so interested in talking about that stuff too,” she says. “It’s all about intellectual curiosity.”

Actor Paul Giamatti and Professor Stephen Asma
Paul Giamatti and Stephen Asma at a live event during SeriesFest.

The November release of The Holdovers — and the ensuing raves Giamatti received for his role as curmudgeonly boarding school professor — changed Chinwag’s trajectory. Treefort co-founder Guido explains that the show had been growing its audience “at a very steady clip, faster than other shows” but it wasn’t until the awards season bump in December that they noticed the audience for the show — which still drops weekly despite Giamatti’s awards schedule — increased threefold.

“We tapped into a really hungry audience,” Guido says. “It’s gotten the show to [top 25 in Apple podcast rankings] in the shortest amount of time that we’ve seen compared to other shows and talk shows. We’ve had a couple million downloads total  over the life span of the show.” Also impressive, Guido points out that engagement has been pristine with “thousands of five-star reviews” and not one negative review yet, “which is weird.”

“The types of emails and socials that we get are long letters from folks saying not only that they love Paul and Stephen, but then diving into their own experiences of the supernatural. I’m talking like four- or five-page long essays,” Guido adds. “We’ve gotten fan art, we’ve gotten sketches, posters. I mean the engagement on this has really been through the roof.”

The unusual level of fan engagement has the creators looking to expand the Chinwag universe beyond the podcast. Though talks are early, the team is mulling a TV series, a book club and more live events. Plans are expected to take shape in the spring, once awards season wraps after the Oscars on March 10. “It’s been a learning curve for me and for Paul,” shares Dan Carey, Giamatti’s partner at Touchy Feely Films. “Unlike film, you can kind of do it on the fly and make quick choices. It’s very mobile unlike a film production. We’ve really enjoyed it. It was an experiment that could’ve lasted for 10 episodes and that would’ve been fun. The fact that it has continued to be as interesting as it was at the outset gives us an interesting path to follow.”

Giamatti has no intentions of straying from it now just when it’s starting to get interesting. “I’ll be able to fully concentrate on it again soon, because for the past three months, my attention got completely taken away,” says Giamatti. “Hopefully all these things will come to fruition in different ways.”

This story first appeared in the March 6 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.

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