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Your Truly Average Leading Man

Paul Giamatti's Star Turn in 'Sideways' Is a Boost for the Little Guy

By William Booth
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 28, 2004; Page C01

LOS ANGELES -- Weary of your Brads, your Colins, your Bens? Arise, multiplexers! And hail the schlemiel. Behold, the male cellulite, the weak chin, the ripening paunch. Cast away the beefcake; embrace the beef. For verily, it is now time to celebrate the Median Man as Leading Man.

Witness Paul Giamatti's entrance at the San Fernando Valley cantina. Exactly, unfashionably, on time, there he stands, 5 feet 7 -- tops -- with stooping shoulders and balding pate. His handshake? Vise grip it is not, but bready, slightly moist. He coughs weakly. A cold, an infirmity. He apologizes. His eyes, behind black plastic-framed goggles, have a downcast look, a beta dog edging toward the kibble bowl, and people, isn't he just beautiful? On the inside.

Paul Giamatti (with Sylvia Kauders) in his breakout performance as Harvey Pekar in 2003's "American Splendor." (John Clifford -- Fine Line Features)

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Giamatti, a character actor who has made his career out of playing guys named Pig Vomit and Veal Chop, now appears as the leading man in director Alexander Payne's "Sideways," a dark-chocolate comedy that film critics have begun to shortlist for the Oscars. It opens tomorrow in Washington.

What Giamatti liked about "Sideways," he says, is that "they didn't make me into a gag." Giamatti plays a nebbishy wine snob with more taste than cash, a middle-aged sad sack rebounding from a divorce who goes on one last fling with an old college buddy. "These were just regular guys. I'm just a normal guy. A little bit thicker, okay. I'm losing my hair, okay? But someone was saying to me the other day, maybe there's an evolution happening and maybe more ordinary looking people will be in the leads, just regular dorks."

Maybe. "But I don't think the Colin Farrells of the world are in any danger," he says.

When Payne was casting his movie, he was lobbied by agents to use Hollywood's bigger names -- actors he declines to name but suggests were "impossibly beautiful and famous stars." He was coming off his successes with "Election," starring Reese Witherspoon, and "About Schmidt," with Jack Nicholson. But he didn't want glamour. He wanted normal, size 44 short. "When I saw Paul, I believed him. He's also delightful and the nicest man in the world."

Nice. That's how women describe their ex-boyfriends. But Payne continues:

"Maybe the cultural pendulum is swinging. Maybe there can be a new type of leading man. Maybe we're entering a time when leading men can look like Paul Giamatti."

Payne points to the film leads of the 1970s, when Bruce Dern, Dustin Hoffman and Donald Sutherland were cast. So away gym boys, and bring on Philip Seymour Hoffman and Jack Black and Jason Schwartzman. "I hope the film is a success," Payne says. "Not for me. I'm doing okay. But maybe as an example to other studios. That we'll make money with Paul."

Giamatti takes a seat, orders water and black coffee, a chicken sandwich. He mouths his baguette. The luncheon crowd ignores him. He is recognizable but hard to place. His credits include a string of con men, computer geeks, bellhops and cop chums. He played a talking orangutan in the "Planet of the Apes" remake. He was Kenny "Pig Vomit" Rushton in Howard Stern's "Private Parts," and the unctuous Tony Clifton in the Andy Kaufman biopic, "Man on the Moon." But his breakout performance as the crank cartoonist Harvey Pekar in "American Splendor" last year was the leading role that brought Giamatti into the pages of the glossy magazines and newspapers -- and started getting him meetings and auditions for more substantial parts.

On the surface, the film "Sideways" is about a pair of buddies, Jack and Miles, on the cusp of middle-age surrender who go for one last hurrah to the wine country around Santa Barbara, to drink pinot noir, eat steaks and play bad golf -- but miraculously hook up with two women. Jack (Thomas Haden Church) is a washed-up TV actor and Lothario about to get married. Miles (Giamatti) is a failed novelist who teaches high school English and steals money out of his mother's purse to pay for the trip. They're losers -- "they're pathetic, really, just horrible," Giamatti says, but there is still something alive and vital about them. "They're lost but trying."

Giamatti, 37, says he can relate to feeling lost. He majored in English, acting in plays at Yale. His first collegiate role was as Cain in Arthur Miller's "The Creation of the World and Other Business," a "not very good play," he recalls. "I think it was a comedy. But was it?"

Q: So, you're in college, you're thinking about your future, and so, umm, how do you pick acting, if you're not, ahh, I mean I could understand why a model-slash-actor would commit --

A: Interesting, go on.

Q: You're going into a field that is intensely --

A: Dicey.

Q: Dicey, yes, but also driven by genetics? I mean, Colin Farrell could wake up one day and say --

A: I'm going to be an actor. I could be an actor. Why not? Hey, kiddo, you're cute. Be an actor!

Q: Right. But you're naked in front of the mirror and thinking --

A: Let me get this straight. You're asking, for a guy like me to look in the mirror and say, I'm going to throw my hat in the ring and be an actor? Why would I do that? My, that's an interesting question.

Giamatti emits a nervous cackle. "Yeah, yeah, yeah," he says. Thinking over his response. He munches some fowl, then begins: "The interesting thing: My dad had died young, recently, back then." His late father, A. Bartlett Giamatti, was a Renaissance professor, youngest president ever of Yale, then commissioner of baseball in 1989 when Pete Rose was banned from the game. "I felt a certain pressure to do something. I was floundering a bit. I thought I better put down the bong and get off the couch."

He was in slacker Seattle. Cost of living was cheap. He was acting in a little theater, but making a living as a screen actor, doing industrial films, TV movies.

"It was a living, and I wasn't making a living doing anything else," he says. "And I realized there will always be a place for a guy who looks like me. There will be a niche for a guy who looks like me. I can probably pull it off. I can play bit supporting parts. So I was weirdly at a moment of uncharacteristic confidence."

It's funny, he says. "I discovered being a white male character actor is one of the easiest things to be. There's always something for you to do. The kooky boss. The nutty neighbor. In fact, it's one of the easiest ways to make a living as an actor."

Giamatti will soon begin shooting a new film: "A very small, tiny little movie, first-time director, in Florida," he says. "I have this hawk, an actual hawk, on my arm for the entire movie, and it's probably going to be really heavy. Christ, that's going to be a total nightmare. The hawk will probably rip my face off. They don't have any brains, just these tiny brains, these vicious things. They say, 'Oh, we'll work with the hawk a couple of days. No, they're not dangerous.' But I tell you, they're cutting corners on this and putting my life at risk."

We read Giamatti the description of the movie from its production notes: "Gainesville auto upholsterer attempts to subvert his mundane life by training a wild, red-tailed hawk."

He listens and then guffaws. "Well, that says it all right there, doesn't it? Hmm. Hmmm. An auto upholsterer. That's sexy."

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