Paul Giamatti is happy to play the losers of the world, but he would just prefer it if you didn’t refer to his characters as such.
The 46-year-old actor has traveled an unconventional path to stardom since his graduation from Yale 23 years ago, ascending to leading man status on the strength of a decade’s worth of complicated, cranky, and occasionally sad-sack roles. He was the bitter, wine-snob writer in Sideways; depressed, workingman comic book writer Harvey Pekar in American Splendor; the maritally-challenged title character of Barney’s Version; and the financially strapped and morally-murky lawyer in Win Win.
Despite critical praise and several awards (including a Golden Globe), moviegoers greeted those films with varying degrees of enthusiasm, in part, Giamatti surmises, because American audiences are accustomed to films that reward the country’s obsession with success.
“I can remember doing American Splendor, and how interesting it was because I hadn’t done a lot of press stuff at all for anything before,” Giamatti told BuzzFeed in an interview in New York. “I was so interested in how, when I was here, everyone talked about [Pekar] as a loser. But when I was in Europe, nobody talked about him as a loser. They just talked about who he was and what he did. But over here it was like, Oh my god, what a loser. He wasn’t a loser to Europeans. He was a weird guy and he’s eccentric, but he wasn’t a loser.”
Giamatti said he encountered a similar reaction stateside to his character in Win Win, with myopic comments from domestic audiences who obsessed over small points. For example, some American viewers didn’t realize that his character Mike Flaherty’s inability to afford fixing his office’s busted boiler was a symbol of the lean times that marked the U.S. post-financial meltdown in 2011 when the film was set.
The same inevitable Horatio Alger-inspired criticism is happening again around Giamatti’s character in the new indie dramedy All is Bright. The actor plays Dennis, an ornery, semi-homeless ex-con who emerges fresh from four years in jail to find that his wife Therese (Amy Landecker) has shacked up with his old parter-in-crime, Rene (Paul Rudd), a violation of vows that is especially agitating given that Dennis took the fall that kept Rene from being put behind bars as well. Adding insult to injury, instead of corrupting their young daughter with the reality of her father’s crimes, Therese opts to explain Dennis’ absence by simply telling her that he died.
With the local economy sapped of any jobs that might accept a thief newly out of the clink, Dennis is forced to go into business desperately hustling Christmas trees on the street alongside Rene, who is charming enough to win the audience’s sympathy from the guy whose life he helped dismantle. As you might imagine, Dennis is bitter about his lot in life, scowling and snapping at Rene’s absent-minded fumbling of their tiny profits.
“Some people say, ‘Boy, he’s really misanthropic.’ And I’m like, ‘No he’s not. What does he do that’s misanthropic?’” Giamatti argues of Dennis. “‘He punches the guy that took his wife away and that he went to jail for. That’s the only thing he does in the movie that’s misanthropic. He’s trying to do a good job at selling Christmas trees. He’s pissed off and I don’t blame him for being pissed off… It’s not his fault. What are you expecting? He’s not going to be happy about it.’”
Decades of smash hit mobster movies and the rise of the cable television anti-hero make it clear that Americans don’t mind rooting for criminals and sociopaths, so long as the protagonists are really good and successful in their horrible endeavors. That’s how guys like Tony Montana and Walter White become beloved icons, despite their prolific murder rates and drug pushing.
What audiences usually cannot accept, though, is when their on-screen guide is a failure, when they do not better themselves materially or through some profound emotional awakening, or when they lack self-awareness to the point that they are the punchline of the piece.
Save for the Oscar-winning brothers Joel and Ethan Coen, few directors have been able to translate often-bleak fates for their protagonists into anything resembling box office success. So, why are they producing so many movies about losers? “Because all the success stories have all been done,” Joel explained at a New York Film Festival-hosted press conference for the Coen brothers’ new movie Inside Llewyn Davis.
Occasionally, of course, a new success story emerges, as is the case with director Steve McQueen’s slave drama 12 Years a Slave — a movie in which Giamatti has a small part. The long, grinding, and horrific tale of a free black man named Solomon Northrup who is kidnapped and sold into slavery has a happy ending so unlikely that even Hollywood couldn’t script it. In fact, the only reason the triumph of his eventual rescue and freedom is believable is because 12 Years a Slave is based on an actual memoir.
In the film, Giamatti plays Theophilus Freeman, a vicious, hate-spewing slave trader, and at least for once, his character is successful.
“I mea, it was funny because I recognize it was deplorable,” Giamatti reflected. “Somebody said to me, ‘It must have been so hard to do that stuff,’ and I was like, ‘That guy’s having a really good time doing what he’s doing,’ and that’s how I had to buy into it. What was sick and disturbing was how much he was enjoying it. As far as he’s concerned, he’s not doing anything evil.”
Playing the assholes and the losers in Hollywood hasn’t really had much of an effect on Giamatti. “I don’t even think about it,” he said. “It’s funny. Only over time has it occurred to me that I was doing that, when I had more people say to me, ‘Why don’t you play nice people?’ I hadn’t thought of it as any kind of challenge.”