Hollywood movies

[Only IN Hollywood] Will Paul Giamatti’s latest grumpy role lead to his 1st Oscar win?

Ruben V. Nepales

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[Only IN Hollywood] Will Paul Giamatti’s latest grumpy role lead to his 1st Oscar win?

PAUL AS PAUL. Paul Giamatti stars as Paul Hunham in director Alexander Payne's 'The Holdovers.'

Seacia Pavao/Focus Features

'I'm not like this (character), thank God,' Paul added about Paul Hunham, the latest of the curmudgeonly characters he has brought to life in film

LOS ANGELES, USA – “I don’t think I’d ever work if I was like this. Nobody would want to employ me,” Paul Giamatti said about his grumpy prep school teacher in The Holdovers for which he is ranked, along with Cillian Murphy in Oppenheimer, as the top two contenders for the best actor Oscar come March 10.

Undoubtedly one of the best films of 2023, The Holdovers is also up for the Academy’s Best Picture, Best Supporting Actress (Da’Vine Joy Randolph, who is considered the frontrunner), Best Original Screenplay (David Hemingson), and Best Editing (Kevin Tent). Paul already won the Golden Globe Award, his third, for his performance in the melancholic yet engrossing film.

Set in the 1970s, the comedy-drama narrates what happens when Paul’s history instructor, Da’Vine’s grieving cook, and a troubled student (Dominic Sessa) are forced to remain on campus during Christmas break.

“I suppose, in a lot of ways, they say and do the things I would never do. I’m not like this (character), thank God,” Paul added about Paul Hunham, the latest of the curmudgeonly characters he has brought to life in film.

“They’re great characters to play. They’re complicated, interesting characters. And they’re often funny, which is good, too.”

While Paul has played his share of good-natured characters – from Joe Gould in Cinderella Man to Ralph in Saving Mr. Banks – he has also gifted us with memorable miscreants, villains, drunks, and plain acerbic guys.

“There’s some weird way in which it allows me to act out on something,” the 56-year-old actor reflected in a virtual global press conference for The Holdovers. “It’s always a question to me of, do I seek these things out unconsciously? Do I attract them? Do I just bring something to these parts? I don’t know.”

“I do think that, especially with lead roles, somebody sees you do something and they want to see you do it again, and so that’s fine. That’s great. They’re great parts. So, I got no complaints about that.”

To his supreme credit, Hunham and Paul’s other irascible characters – including Miles in Sideways, Jerry in Straight Outta Compton, Chief Inspector Walter Uhl in The Illusionist, and King John in Ironclad, to name a few – are always imbued by Paul with humanity and are never cardboard figures.

Asked if playing these crabby men is somehow his unconscious way of exorcising thoughts in the back of his mind, Paul replied, “Probably, yeah. I mean, maybe unconsciously. I’m not so aware of what it is I need to get rid of. But obviously, something about me needs to get some of this out of me.”

“And I used to play, and still do, a lot of rage and anger. I’m always like, am I this angry a person at some level that I need these things to get all this rage out sometimes? I don’t know, maybe so.”

“Because more and more in my own life, I do not feel like an angry, rageful person. So, it must be doing something for me.”

“It’s hard to piss me off,” he declared. “You can but it’s not easy to piss me off. There are guys I play who are ready to be pissed off all the time. They sort of live in a state of like hair-trigger aggressive anger all the time.”

“You never know,” Paul answered on whether he felt his film reunion with director Alexander Payne after almost two decades since Sideways would create another critical and commercial access.

People, Person, Couch
BTS. Director Alexander Payne and actors Paul Giamatti and Da’Vine Joy Randolph on the set of their film ‘The Holdovers.’ Focus Features

“I think because it’s Alexander, you sense that you’re doing something special, at least for each other, and that’s the important thing. You’re making something that you’re all in love with and you’re having a lovely time.”

“And you hope that it gets handed over and people feel the same way about it. So, whatever the experience is, it’s special with him. Then it’s lovely that people embrace it as much as they do.”

“There’s a lot of basic humanity in his movies,” Paul said about the filmmaker behind About SchmidtElectionNebraska, and The Descendants.

“They’re real people and you can relate to them. The message of connection, empathy, sound family, care for each other, and all of those things, all of the warmth and intimacy of those ideas are exemplified in the movie.”

“It’s a nice thing to feel in a really profound way like that. The world is nutty right now, in so many ways. And to have something that’s about this simple drama of these three small people alone in this vast place, and they discover each other, is really beautiful.”

Paul was effusive about working with Alexander again. “The best working relationship I’ve ever had. I’m friends with him, too. We have a friendship that grew over the years, too.”

“He’s the best director I’ve ever worked with. I think he’s the best director around. It’s very fun, intimate and friendly. It’s like we just happen to be making a movie. We don’t talk a lot about it.”

“If an actor needs to talk a lot about stuff, he can do that but we don’t talk a lot about stuff. And it’s very simple things, simple direction, simple ideas. It’s all very simple. And it’s just fun.”

“As a director with actors, he was the same – just better,” Paul said about how Alexander has evolved since their 2004 collaboration. “It was like he was even more at ease. He likes actors, which is really great. And he likes connecting with them.”

As for any link between Sideways and The Holdovers, and between the eighth-grade English teacher and oenophile in the former and the Jim Beam-drinking Roman history instructor in the latter, Paul remarked, “It’s interesting – the whole relationship between the two movies.”

“It’s a funny subject that Alexander and I tiptoed around without really ever directly addressing it. It’s a good, in some ways a better question for him, how much he was thinking of the other movie.”

“It’s a similar guy 20 years on, who is sort of changed in certain ways. There’s a lot of similarities. There’s a lot of dialogue between the two of them. It’s very interesting.”

“I can only say that I found this character different. He’s a similar guy. I liked this character more. I think this guy’s got more backbone and he’s got more going on. He’s tougher than the other guy.”

“He’s not self-pitying the way the other guy is. There’s something I like about him more. Could the other guy have ended up this way? I don’t know. It’s different times.”

“I think the other guy, a 20-year change could be different because there’s psychotherapy and things like that. Then there are antidepressants and things.”

“It’s a very interesting question how the two movies relate. I think they do in a lot of ways but I would love to hear Alexander talk about it sometime.”

Reminded about the two characters’ shared fondness for alcohol, Paul agreed: “That’s true. They both have drinking issues. So does Da’Vine’s character, too. She has a little bit of an issue with drinking. And for different reasons.”

Adult, Female, Person
BOOZE. Da’Vine Joy Randolph stars as Mary Lamb, Dominic Sessa as Angus Tully, and Paul Giamatti as Paul Hunham in director Alexander Payne’s ‘The Holdovers.’ Focus Features

“It’s a fun thing to do,” Paul quipped about playing sloshed guys. “It’s an interesting thing to play, physically and emotionally. And everything about it is interesting. It’s like, you’re changed, and things change and the physical aspect of it is fun.”

“I don’t know why I’ve done it a lot. I did it on stage a lot. When I did plays, I would frequently play the guy who drinks too much on stage and I’ve done it in other movies, too.”

“It’s not just Alexander’s (movies). I did a movie called Barney’s Version where I play a character worse than these two guys. It really blows his life apart by drinking too much.”

“I don’t know why it comes to me but I definitely find it an interesting thing to play. It’s fun in its perverse way to play it.”

Paul told Backstage in a 2019 interview: “At drama school, if there was a drunk – especially a drunk old guy – I was absolutely a shoo-in for that part.”

But he clarified, “No, I can only say that I’m not a big drinker off-screen. Not that I haven’t been inebriated in my life. But I’m not a big drinker, no.”

The Hunham character is set apart from Paul’s previous portrayals because the teacher has a lazy eye, one of the reasons why the students mock him behind his back. Not only that – the professor suffers from trimethylaminuria, defined by NHS, UK’s popular website, as “an uncommon condition that causes an unpleasant, fishy smell. It’s also called ‘fish odor syndrome.’”

Not surprisingly, Paul is the type who would not mind being snowbound like his Hunham in The Holdovers. “Blessing to me,” he stressed. “It sounds fantastic to me. It sounds like heaven to me. Yeah, I would love it. I would have no problem with that.”

“I’d love nothing more than to be snowed in. I love nothing more than a blizzard and a snowstorm that shuts everything down.”

While it’s well-known that Paul went to prep schools and Yale in real life, earning his BA in 1989, not many people are aware that his late father, A. Bartlett Giamatti, an English Renaissance literature professor, went on to become president of Yale from 1978 to 1986, the youngest in the university’s history. His mom, Toni Marilyn Giamatti, is an English teacher.

Paul received an honorary Doctor of Fine Arts degree from Yale in 2023. In awarding Paul an honorary degree, Yale also cited his work in television, including John Adams (title role), Downton Abbey, and Billions.

“Sure,” Paul quickly replied when asked if filming The Holdovers took him back to his prep school days “Again, probably unconsciously, I did a lot. Or days when I went to a prep school like that.”

But a scene outside the prep campus was his favorite – just watching Dominic skate which was a turning point in the teacher-student’s dynamics. “The thing I enjoyed the most was the whole day we shot around the skating rink and stuff like that. It was all a day at that place doing stuff.”

“I think it was the same day we shot the liquor store stuff but I really enjoyed shooting the ice skating stuff. Just watching him (Dominic’s Angus) ice skate was a thing in the script that I really liked and was a thing that I really loved shooting.”

Clothing, Coat, Jacket
ODD COUPLE. Dominic Sessa stars as Angus Tully and Paul Giamatti as Paul Hunham in director Alexander Payne’s ‘The Holdovers.’ Focus Features

“And no words or anything like that. It was just him (Hunham, his character) beginning to see the kid (Angus) in a different way and the kid beginning to see him in a different way. There’s something really lovely about that scene.”

Recalling his student days, Paul shared memories of having a teacher who reminded him a bit of his Hunham character. “There was a teacher. I wouldn’t call him a mentor but those schools are rough and the teachers are rough.”

“He was one of the only teachers who wasn’t like that. I don’t want to call him a mentor but he was a nice guy.”

“If I was interested in the subject, I was good. If I wasn’t interested, I didn’t work very hard.”

“I was hopeless in math and still am. I still have nightmares about math class. Yeah, because I can’t add. I can’t do anything. I have to count on my fingers. And even that’s difficult for me.”

As for teachers who made a difference in his life, someone perhaps like Hunham, Paul said, “There are people who inspired the role. I don’t know if they changed my life. As much as that librarian was in the thing, I was consciously thinking of a teacher. I wouldn’t say he changed my life but he seemed very similar.”

“The first time I read the script, I thought of this biology teacher of mine in 10th grade, who was a very similar kind of guy. I do think what was important in that was, he was a difficult, sarcastic, not very nice guy.”

“He was a good teacher. And I had flashes, even as a kid, of realizing he was actually a good guy. Alexander makes an interesting distinction between nice and kind. And this guy wasn’t nice but he was kind. And that felt like the character.”

On whether Da’Vine being a Yale alumna was a point of connection with her, Paul confirmed, “It was, definitely. It’s a little bit of a shared boot camp experience.”

“It’s a bit the same thing of having gone to one of those prep schools. It’s a very specific thing that you understand that somebody went through.”

“So, yeah, there was that. And, to some extent, although she had different teachers, it’s somewhat the pedagogy, somewhat the same. So, I do think this may have been the school or not.”

“She and I felt akin in the way we worked and stuff like that, too. That was a person I also never had to talk to about anything because we just sort of understood.”

“We knew how to work with each other. And that may be Yale, or that might just be who she is, and who I am.”

Dominic, the film’s breakout star, makes his feature acting debut in The Holdovers. And yes, just like his Angus Tully, he went to a boarding school in real life.

“The first time I met Dominic was on Zoom,” Paul recounted. “They had shown me his audition tape and there was another kid they were considering. But this was the person (Dominic) they were leaning towards.”

Clothing, Coat, Overcoat
DOMINIC AND PAUL. Dominic Sessa stars as Angus Tully and Paul Giamatti as Paul Hunham in director Alexander Payne’s ‘The Holdoverse.’ Focus Features

“So they showed him to me and I thought he seemed amazing in so many ways. So, I said, can I meet this guy? And so, we did it on Zoom and I just loved him immediately.”

“He’s a really smart, lovely guy and very soft-spoken, very intelligent, very emotionally engaged. And I thought there was nobody else who could play this part. In some ways, he sort of is the guy. It was really lovely to watch him work.”

“He was pretty steady on his legs already,” Paul added about Dominic who originally aspired to play hockey but an injury led him to try plays at the Deerfield Academy (in Massachusetts) instead.

“I do feel like, yes, I could watch him relax more as the movie went on. I could watch him enjoying and letting himself play with things more and just letting it breathe more.”

“But everybody’s like that when you start a movie. Everybody’s nervous and needs to relax as the thing goes on. So, it wasn’t like he was that different.”

“He comes already pretty professional and pretty ready to go. He’s really smart and that’s a huge bonus in working with him.”

On his approach to making a misanthrope like Hunham relatable, and how the script helps, Paul said, “A lot of it (script) does but also, a lot of it comes from my experience with people like this. And there is a lot of charisma to these guys if they’re good at what they do.”

“I actually think he’s right a lot of times in what he’s saying. He’s just going about it the wrong way. So that from a starting point, I was saying to myself, I like this guy, he’s not wrong.”

“He’s not wrong to want to take these elitist little jerks to task – racists too, a lot of them. And I feel sympathy for him. He’s not of the same socioeconomic class either. He comes from what’s probably a working-class blue-collar background.”

“It’s only very briefly alluded to. But it’s like he’s not from that world. Also, I think he’s funny. And I think he likes being funny. It’s brutal the way he’s being funny. But he’s taking pleasure in it.”

“And I remember saying to Alexander early on, this guy’s a prick but he enjoys being a prick. In some of his hitting back at some of this stuff that’s annoying, maybe it is relatable.”

“A lot of people would like to tell these people to go fuck themselves, these kids. So, I think that there’s a certain pleasure taken in this guy not really caring about being liked either. He’s okay with not being liked.”

“And there’s something great about a person like that. I have a weird affection for somebody like that. And again, he’s kind. Underneath it all, he’s a good person who does care.”

“He cares about the kid and he cares about teaching. I think it breaks his heart in the end to say goodbye to this kid he’s never going to see again. I think he’s a good person underneath.”

On the perennial is-he-a-Method-Actor question, Paul was quick to assert, “I don’t really consider myself a method actor. Sometimes I have done more what I understand that to be.”

“When I did the John Adams thing, that ended up almost by default being a method thing because I was there all day, every day, in costume, saying those words, and in this weird way, I just began to be the thing all the time.”

“But it’s a different approach every time. I have no set way. Like Alexander said, every movie is different. Every character, the approach to it is going to be different.”

“Sometimes it is more internal work and drawing on things that I’m familiar with and know. And sometimes it’s not. Sometimes it’s learning an accent or it’s learning how to do some physical thing.”

“I played a boxing manager (Cinderella Man). I learned all about how to wrap the hands right. how to do all the stuff with ice, and all the things to do to take care of a fighter, which was all very important to learn.”

“I guess it’s sort of method-y, in a way. It’s like I needed to know that stuff and sometimes I don’t feel like that. Sometimes I feel like I want to read the kinds of books the person might read.”

Book, Publication, Indoors
JUST BROWSING. Paul Giamatti stars as Paul Hunham and Dominic Sessa as Angus Tully in director Alexander Payne’s ‘The Holdovers.’ Focus Features

“I read a lot of mystery novels playing this guy because, for some reason, I was like, that’s his porn, it’s mysteries. It’s his relaxation. His secret vice is crappy mystery novels.”

“So, I was reading a lot of crappy mystery, which was fun, which was great. But there was something about it that felt right for the guy. Maybe that’s method-y, I don’t know, but I find a lot of physical things help me.”

“If I find the right shoes and stuff like that, if I have the right thing on, sometimes if I have a mustache, it makes me feel different. It’s different every time.”

“I don’t know what I’m going to do every time, which is very cool. I wish I had a method every time because it’s harrowing and scary every time to not know exactly what I’m going to do.”

We can’t wait to see all the next performances of Paul, fueled by his feeling of being scared not knowing exactly what he’s going to do. Paul eventually knows what to do. We are all fortunate to meet his characters. – Rappler.com

The Holdovers, a Universal Pictures International release, will open exclusively at the Ayala Malls Cinemas on February 21.

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Ruben V. Nepales

Based in Los Angeles, Ruben V. Nepales is an award-winning journalist whose honors include prizes from the National Arts & Entertainment Journalism Awards, a US-wide competition, and the Southern California Journalism Awards, presented by the Los Angeles Press Club.