- The Washington Times - Friday, August 21, 2009

“The character was interesting,” Paul Giamatti says of his latest role, the central performance in “Cold Souls.”

One would hope he’d think so — the character is named Paul Giamatti and is also an actor equally comfortable onstage and on the big screen. The surreal dark comedy’s Paul is having difficulty perfecting the part of Uncle Vanya in Anton Chekov’s play of the same title, so he decides to unburden himself by putting his soul in storage. He finds his portrayal of Vanya is even worse, so he returns for his soul — only to find it’s been stolen for a Russian gangster’s girlfriend, who uses it to get a part on a Russian soap.

Filmmaker Sophie Barthes wrote the role for Mr. Giamatti, but that’s not why the choosy actor took the part.

“It’s funny, that part of it didn’t even really strike me that much until later,” he says by telephone from New York, where the film is set. “It was much more the idea and the tone of the thing. I liked the whole Russian part of it, the mundane, naturalistic fantasy world of it.”

Although the inspiration for a character that bears his name, Mr. Giamatti isn’t simply playing himself. He must portray a man rather like himself, but then also one without a soul and then one with the soul of a Russian poet — he borrows that one after discovering his has been stolen.

Ms. Barthes “didn’t want to make it too jokey or schematic, which took some of the burden off it,” he says. “Her idea seems to be more that the guy is self-involved, and then you take the soul away and you lose some kind of self-regulating device that allows you to become empathetic to people, so he becomes more narcissistic,” Mr. Giamatti explains. “The idea there was to be so overly confident that you’re just blinded to what an idiot you’re being.”

A soulless actor means a very funny portrayal of Chekov’s character — and Mr. Giamatti says he rather enjoyed giving such a bad performance. The actor, who was Oscar-nominated for his role in “Cinderella Man,” has never played Vanya onstage, although he’d like to.

“I’ve done other Chekov plays,” he says. “That was one of the things that was appealing to me — I really like Chekov. This whole movie feels like one of his short stories. Even the low-key fantasy of it, some of his stories are like that. There’s a ghost, but nobody really cares about the ghost.”

Mr. Giamatti is best known for his role in “Sideways,” in which he played a merlot-bashing wine lover. The surprise independent hit actually affected wine sales here and in Britain — merlot went down, pinot noir went up — but Mr. Giamatti despairs of getting such quirky fare made now.

“It’s harder now to get an independent movie made,” he says. “Right now, if we tried to make ‘Cold Souls,’ it wouldn’t happen. Not in the economy right now.”

Such films don’t cost much to make — but they don’t often make much, either. “The weird thing is, it’s much more economically viable for them to make a $200-million movie than a $10-million movie,” he laments. “The $200-million thing will make billions of dollars. The $10-million movie will make $15 million. Maybe. Or maybe [$30 million]. But that’s not enough. $20 million profit is not enough.”

Mr. Giamatti speaks not just as an actor; “Cold Souls” is the second film he has helped produce. “Fortunately, there’s other people who do the actual producing. It’s nice to be able to try and find things and try to get them made,” he says, noting that he always has his eye out for “interesting” scripts.

One to which his name has been attached — both as producer and actor — for a while also showcases the thoughtful actor’s love of another kind of literature. The rumor mill has been swirling for some time that Mr. Giamatti is set to play the late science-fiction master Philip K. Dick.

“They’re trying to figure out what’s the best way to do something about him. I don’t like biopics, really,” says the man who won both an Emmy and a Golden Globe for his portrayal of the title character in HBO’s miniseries “John Adams.” “He’s really not worth wasting the time on doing a straight biopic about him. Somebody said what we should try to do is a biopic of his mind.”

The actor recently lent his distinctive voice, which has a slight cartoon quality, to the audiobook version of Mr. Dick’s “A Scanner Darkly.” “I read him a lot as a teenager, and I’ve gone back to [his books] a lot and reread them over the years and liked them more and more,” he says. “I think I get them more now in middle age — because they’re a lot about people just getting older, middle-aged and stuck, things like that.”

It’s hard to believe Mr. Giamatti could relate to such themes — the 42-year-old actor gets better known every year. And he’s about to play an icon — he just replaced Sean Penn as Larry in the upcoming Three Stooges movie.

Kelly Jane Torrance

Tarantino film school

B.J. Novak — best known as Ryan, the temp-turned-exec-turned-temp in “The Office” and as a writer on NBC’s hit sitcom — has a small but important role in Quentin Tarantino’s new World War II epic, “Inglourious Basterds.” He plays Pfc. Smithson Utivich, one of the Jewish soldiers under the command of Lt. Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt), and sits in during the climactic scene between Aldo and SS officer Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz).

Still, Mr. Novak has just a half-dozen or so lines in the picture: Why leave the country during the few spare months he has while “The Office” is in hiatus?

“It was like going to Tarantino film school,” Mr. Novak said in a phone interview. “I really wanted to learn how this writer writes his stuff and how the directing is really a form of writing for him, to see how he takes his ideas and makes them happen.”

Such is the appeal of Mr. Tarantino: Even talented and established writers like Mr. Novak are willing to travel around the world to see him do his thing.

Of course, Hollywood stalwarts aren’t the only ones who love his work; while in Germany, Mr. Novak and Mr. Tarantino (and some of the other Basterds) took a trip to Tarantino’s, a bar whose theme is, well, Tarantinoesque.

“He seemed a little shy about suggesting that as one of our drinking spots,” Mr. Novak said, but “he was clearly dying to check it out. We got there, and it was literally that, Tarantino posters on the wall, soundtracks from Tarantino movies playing.”

This is a large part of what Tarantino film school is all about: going to quirky gin joints and picking the brain of the master himself and figuring out what makes him and his creations tick.

“We were up until two and three some nights,” Mr. Novak said, laughing that “I have to be up at seven in the morning to be one of those movie characters!”

Sonny Bunch

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