Paul Giamatti Breaks Down ‘The Holdovers’ and His Eclectic Career

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Photo Source: “The Holdovers” Credit: Seacia Pavao/Focus Features

In the Envelope: The Actor’s Podcast features in-depth conversations with today’s most noteworthy actors and creators. Join host and senior editor Vinnie Mancuso for this guide to living the creative life from those who are doing it every day.

It’s not often you get to break news to your podcast guest. But Paul Giamatti certainly was surprised to hear that Wikipedia lists “Detective Who Answers Phone Call (uncredited)” in the 1989 slasher film “I, Madman” as his first onscreen role. 

“I have no idea what that is,” the Oscar nominee told us with a laugh. “That’s fantastic, actually. It’s super interesting. It’s just the fascinating world of the internet.” 

A project that Giamatti most definitely does appear in is “The Holdovers,” the 1970s-set dramedy that reunites Giamatti with his “Sideways” director, Alexander Payne. In the film, which opened on October 27, Giamatti plays an uptight classics professor, Paul Hunham, at a New England boarding school. When Christmas rolls around at Barton Academy, Paul is forced to spend the holiday with the handful of people left behind, including troubled student Angus (Dominic Sessa) and the school’s grieving head cook, Mary (Da'Vine Joy Randolph). 

On this episode of In the Envelope: The Actor’s Podcast, Giamatti discusses preparing for “The Holdovers,” working alongside Sessa in the latter’s first onscreen role, and developing his eclectic career over the years. 

Giamatti describes his approach to acting as “skillfully unprepared.”  

“I went to a drama school where I was taught all kinds of techniques, but I don’t know that I rely on them or go back to them particularly anymore. I don’t think I do. … I think it’s just a sense of, ‘It'll come; I’ll figure it out.’ And I’m not alone. I’m going to have other actors there, and when they show up and I start acting with them, that’s when it really starts making sense to me, when I start interacting with the other people. It’s fine and good to sit alone in a room for a while. It’s an interesting thing. I sometimes wonder when you hear about, like, [Robert] De Niro, to play Al Capone, he goes and lives in Italy for seven months. And like: What is he doing? You’re never interacting with anybody else. So what are you doing? I mean, obviously, he’s doing something because it works. But I start learning more about the character by interacting with the other actors, and then the director. But no, I don’t really have a set process.”

The Holdovers

Dominic Sessa, Da’Vine Joy Randolph, and Paul Giamatti in “The Holdovers” Credit: Seacia Pavao/Focus Features 

Acting with Sessa gave Giamatti a fresh perspective on his own work. 

“He [Sessa] really had no problems. People keep saying to me, ‘Were you mentoring him?’ I'm like, ‘No, I didn’t do anything, really, for him.’ He was terrific and comfortable. But there was a really nice way that his newness and his seriousness of purpose [affected me]. He would be very thoughtful and advocate for his character in a way that sometimes I’ve forgotten, in a way, because I’ve gained a lot of professionalism. I’ll come in and do my stuff. But there’s a way in which, over the years, I’ve trained myself to just be a guy that goes, ‘OK, that's what I'm doing. You want to tell me something different, tell me what to do. You want me to go where? You want me to do what?’ And sometimes I don’t let myself stop and think about stuff, and he did. I’d watch him and go, ‘Good for you. You’re letting yourself think; you’re letting yourself advocate for the character in a lot of ways.’ I’ve kind of forgotten to do that, sometimes.… I have a level of skill that might be different from his, but there was a thoughtfulness that was really nice.”

Giamatti’s one disagreement with Payne exemplifies the actor-director relationship. 

“We were rehearsing a scene, and I sat down at a certain point because I had this impulse to sit down. [Payne] came up to me and said, ‘Talk to me about sitting down.’ And I said, ‘Well, I don't know, I just had an impulse.’ And he kind of went, ‘Hmm, I don't know, I think you should stand.’ And I said, ‘No, no, I don't think I should stand.’ We parted ways, and clearly he walked off going, ‘Hmm, sitting down.’ And I walked off going, ‘Huh, standing up.’ And we came back to shoot the scene, and he goes, ‘Sitting down. I got it. I got it. Go ahead, sit down.’ I said ‘No, no, no, no, no. I want to try standing up. One time. Let’s rehearse it one more time.’ We rehearsed it, I stood up, and I said, ‘No, you're right. I should stand up.’ I don't know why it was. I don’t know why he was right. I don’t know why he figured I was right. But we never even really said anything to each other. And that’s about what it is, you know? It’s an openness to being able to go, ‘You know what? Cool. You’re right. Sit down.’”

Listen and subscribe to In the Envelope to hear our full conversation with Giamatti.

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