Paul Giamatti

Wigs, quill pens and the White House. Our favorite character actor gets all presidential on our asses.

Illustration: Rob Kelly

His role as the wine-swilling protagonist of Sideways notwithstanding, Paul Giamatti seems to shine brightest when he’s pretending to be a real person. The 40-year-old actor got his big break in 1997’s Private Parts as Howard Stern’s nemesis Pig Vomit; he later stole scenes from Jim Carrey as Andy Kaufman’s partner, Bob Zmuda, in Man on the Moon; and morphed into sad-sack graphic-novelist Harvey Pekar in 2003’s American Splendor. But nowhere has he captured the essence of being someone else as adeptly as in John Adams, a seven-part HBO miniseries about our nation’s second President. Looking surprisingly dapper in a black suit, black-frame glasses and a beard, Giamatti recently granted an audience with us at the HBO offices.

Time Out New York: John Adams seems to have gotten the shaft in American history. He doesn’t even have his own bill.
Paul Giamatti: I know. He doesn’t have anything. Well, now he has a coin. There’s a dollar coin with his face on it. It came out while we were shooting this. And I thought, Did HBO actually get a dollar coin printed up?

TONY: With your face!
Paul Giamatti: With my face—that would have been good. No, he doesn’t have money, he doesn’t have statues, if you go to the national gallery, there’s a bigger painting of Buchanan on the wall than there is of Adams. It’s ridiculous.

TONY: True or false: This miniseries is just a preamble to the role of a lifetime—James K. Polk.
Paul Giamatti: Ah, fantastic! I always thought I’d be playing, like, Chet Arthur or Grover Cleveland. That’s where I’ve gotta go. Or what about William Taft? I’ll do Bill Taft next. Boy, it would be great if somebody made something about one of those guys. The Martin Van Buren Story. Why not?

TONY: Bizarrely, Adams and Jefferson died on the same day. If you had to die on the same day as another actor, whom would you choose?
Paul Giamatti: What actor would I like to go when I go? I want Tony Hopkins to die when I die, so we’ll be associated forever. Yeah, Anthony Hopkins.

TONY: I read that your first film role was Heckler No. 2.
Paul Giamatti: See, but I can’t remember if that’s what I did first or if I played the retarded stable boy first.

TONY: Retarded stable boy?
Paul Giamatti: Yeah. One of those two came first, and I can’t remember which. I guess it must have been Heckler No. 2. It was in a TV movie called She’ll Take Romance, starring that woman from Dynasty. It was a Linda Evans picture.

TONY: Were you really excited to get that role?
Paul Giamatti: I was amused more than anything. I was like, This is kind of hilarious to do this. I didn’t have much idea that I was going to do a lot of film, so to me all that stuff was kinda funny. Which was probably not a great attitude to have about it.

TONY: Well, at least you can always say your first role was Heckler No. 2.
Paul Giamatti: But the retarded stable boy was a great one. It was a Rutger Hauer movie when he was on his way down. I had one scene, in a stable, and I was supposed to be retarded, and I think my father was also supposed to be my brother—I was a product of incest.

TONY: Awesome. You went to college with Edward Norton, right?
Paul Giamatti: Yeah. He’s younger than me, though. We were in a play together but I don’t remember it that well.

TONY: I’m just wondering: Did you ever give him a wedgie?
Paul Giamatti: [Laughs] Who? Norton? I didn’t know him well enough to give him a wedgie, no. Well, that depends—do you have to know somebody well to do that? Or is it better to not know them at all? I gotta say that I barely remember. Do you think he got wedgies?

TONY: I don’t know. I could see it happening.
Paul Giamatti: I could totally see it happening. But I did not give him a wedgie. I had no inclination of giving him a wedgie—as far as I remember. I don’t think I ever had any inclination to give anybody a wedgie.

TONY: Well, that’s something you can put on your gravestone when you die on the same day as Anthony Hopkins!
Paul Giamatti: NO INCLINATION TO GIVE ANYBODY A WEDGIE. Yeah.

John Adams premieres Sun 16 at 8pm on HBO.

See previous The Hot Seat