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Paul Giamatti's own high school years came in handy in 'The Holdovers'


This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli. We're counting down to the Academy Awards. The film "Holdovers" is nominated for five Oscars, including best picture, supporting actress, original screenplay and best actor for Paul Giamatti. He's already won a Golden Globe for best actor in a comedy. Our producer Sam Briger spoke with Giamatti last month. Here's Sam.


SAM BRIGER: In "The Holdovers," Paul Giamatti plays a pompous and lonely classics professor named Paul Hunham at a New England boarding school for boys in 1970. He's almost universally disliked by other faculty members and by students because of his impossibly high academic standards and merciless grading. The students also mock him behind his back because he has a lazy eye and bad body odor. The body odor is uncontrollable, the result of a rare disease commonly known as fish odor syndrome. But he doesn't do himself any favors in the way he treats his students, as he does here in this scene, handing out his students' graded final exams.


PAUL GIAMATTI: (As Paul Hunham) I can tell by your faces that many of you are shocked at the outcome. I, on the other hand, am not because I have had the misfortune of teaching you this semester, and even with my ocular limitations, I witnessed firsthand your glazed, uncomprehending expressions.

BRADY HEPNER: (As Teddy Kountze) Sir, I don't understand.

GIAMATTI: (As Paul Hunham) That's glaringly apparent.

HEPNER: (As Teddy Kountze) No, it's - I can't fail this class.

GIAMATTI: (As Paul Hunham) Oh, don't sell yourself short, Mr. Kountze. I truly believe that you can.

HEPNER: (As Teddy Kountze) I'm supposed to go to Cornell.

GIAMATTI: (As Paul Hunham) Unlikely.

BRIGER: Hunham also flunked a former student, the son of a major donor, dashing his chances of going to Princeton and going against the wishes of the school's headmaster. The headmaster decides to punish him. Hunham must babysit students that have nowhere to go over winter vacation. At first, he has a handful of kids under his care, but most are rescued by one of their fathers, who whisks them off in a helicopter for a ski vacation, leaving only one - a smart but surly junior named Angus Tully, played by Dominic Sessa, whose mother and stepfather can't be reached to get permission for him to leave as they're off on an overdue honeymoon. Hunham and Angus make up a trio with the school's head cook, Mary, played by Da'Vine Joy Randolph.

Mary is mourning her son Marcus, who was a scholarship student at the boarding school but was killed in Vietnam. These three broken and lonely people, thrust together haphazardly, find a bond growing between them as they face the loneliest holiday. This is Paul Giamatti's second starring role in a movie by Alexander Payne. The first was the 2004 film "Sideways." Paul Giamatti has also starred in "American Splendor," "Private Life" and "Win Win." He played the title role in the HBO miniseries "John Adams" and starred in the Showtime series "Billions," which ended its run last October after seven seasons.

Paul Giamatti, welcome back to FRESH AIR.

GIAMATTI: Thank you very much. Thanks for having me.

BRIGER: So Alexander Payne has said that he wrote the role of Paul Hunham for you. What was it about the character that interested you?

GIAMATTI: Well, everything about it. I mean, first of all, it was the fact that he was going to direct it that interested me about it. You know, I would sort of do anything he wanted me to do.


GIAMATTI: I think I found the setting interesting. I found the time period interesting. I found the Christmas story aspect of it, the sort of Scrooge-like story of sort of kind of redemption, and change, and rebirth and selflessness interesting. The character was really wonderful. The language is wonderful. I think I found the character quite touching because I thought he's a guy who, as far as he's concerned, is doing absolutely the right thing. He's created this sort of persona for himself that feels very comfortable and safe to him at this place and conveying classical values in this way. And he's created this kind of fantasy world for himself. And it comes apart a little bit as the story goes on. This guy sort of has to let go of a lot of his shtick in some ways.

BRIGER: Right.

GIAMATTI: And I thought that was interesting.

BRIGER: Is it tricky to play a role where, in the movie, the character is disliked by lots of people, but you have to play that person in a way that the audience can empathize with?

GIAMATTI: Yeah. That's always sort of difficult. I mean, I think, you know, he's lived in this strange, rarefied world, in this world of intellect. And, you know, he's hobbled by his own intellect. It's, you know - the thing that makes him feel superior is the thing that keeps separating him, too, and, you know, he just doesn't go about anything the right way. But he's not wrong a lot of the time. So hopefully that comes across as somewhat appealing. But also, I thought, you know, he's somewhat self-aware. He's - he takes pleasure in his own nasty wit in a way that hopefully is funny to people and makes him somewhat appealing.

BRIGER: So this movie takes place at a boarding school in 1970. You actually were a student at a boarding school in the '80s.


BRIGER: You were a day student.


BRIGER: ...So a decade later, although I bet these places don't change that quickly. So a decade later, although I bet these places don't change that quickly. And you said that in preparation for the role, you thought a lot about your past and the people in it, I'm assuming the sort of people that went to your school. What did you take from those memories?

GIAMATTI: I did go to a school like that 10 years on from when the movie's set, and it wasn't, I don't think, very different. There were girls there, and...

BRIGER: Well, that's a big difference.

GIAMATTI: Big, big difference. Yes, I'll say that. But a lot of those men were still there. And for the most part, those - there were men like this and these old-school guys. Yeah. I mean, it wasn't just the school. My whole life, I grew up around teachers and academia. My father was a professor. My mother was a teacher. My grandparents were all teachers and professors. So teaching - teachers and teaching were around me a lot.

But for sure, being a day student at one of those places is different than living there. I think in some ways, it could probably give me an anthropological perspective on it that maybe you don't have if you lived there. So I had some distance on it to be able to observe it, in some ways. But absolutely. I mean, it was an interesting part to play, and it's an interesting movie for me to watch because I think there was a ton of unconscious memories affecting my system, and I was ending up calling up all kinds of people I wasn't even aware of.

I was watching it and thinking, oh, my God, I just reminded myself of this colleague of my father's. I didn't even realize I was doing that. I had a friend who wrote to me and said - I went to high school with him, and he said, oh, you were clearly doing the head librarian in this whole thing. And I thought, I didn't even think about the head librarian. But he's right. I do seem like the head librarian.

So, I mean, there was a ton - there was a deep well of people I was drawing on for this thing, even unconsciously. Some of it was conscious. I had a biology teacher who was very much like this guy. And I thought about him a lot. And I thought about these men a lot, you know? And they're interesting characters. They're complicated, interesting guys.

BRIGER: Your character has a lazy eye, and you've sworn not to say how that was created, which is fine. I won't ask you about that.

GIAMATTI: (Laughter) OK.

BRIGER: But you also - you have this rare disorder, whose name I'm not going to try to pronounce, but it's commonly known as fish odor syndrome, where your - the character's body is unable to break down this chemical and has just a really unfortunate body odor issue. So, you know, as an audience, we only have so many senses to experience the movie, but - and fortunately, I guess, in this case.

GIAMATTI: (Laughter).

BRIGER: But I was wondering, like, do you think about that in your character as you're acting them? Like, I'm assuming you didn't spray yourself with some sort of foul odor.

GIAMATTI: Now, listen. There would be people who would wear - who would have, like codfish cakes in their pockets and stuff like that. I thought about doing that just to sort of mess with Dom in particular. But I didn't do that. I mean, there's ways in which, yes - the body odor thing is - I keep - there's a kind of - you know, a saying in theater, particularly when you do Shakespeare, that if you're playing the king, you don't have to play the king. Everyone around you plays that you're the king. And so I don't need to play that I smell like fish. Everybody around me needs to play that I smell like fish. He's used to smelling like fish, you know? So to a certain extent, they need to do it. There was actually some thinking in this movie - it was interesting - with the hair and makeup people. They said to me in particular, you know - I can't believe it - bathe as little as possible if you can. And I said, OK. So - and I think it probably helps, you know, to give me an appearance of sort of - you know, there's a tactile sense probably about the guy that comes...

BRIGER: Right.

GIAMATTI: ...Across because of that.

BRIGER: Sort of unkempt.

GIAMATTI: Yes. And sort of, you know, and so that helps, too.

BRIGER: Well, let's take a short break here. If you're just joining us, we're speaking with Paul Giamatti, who stars in the new film "The Holdovers." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


BRIGER: This is FRESH AIR. If you're just joining us, we're speaking with Paul Giamatti. He stars in the new movie "The Holdovers." It's the second time he's worked with director Alexander Payne. The first time was the 2004 hit movie "Sideways."

So, you know, I rewatched "Sideways" in preparation for this interview, and I was thinking there was probably going to be some similarities between the character Paul Hunham and Miles from "Sideways," but rewatching there's actually a lot of similarities. Like, both are misanthropes who feel superior to a lot of people they encounter. Both are would-be writers, although they're teaching to kids, and not necessarily always happy about that. Both have a pretty severe drinking problem. And in some ways, you know, you could see the character from "The Holdovers" at what might happen to Miles from "Sideways" if he doesn't end up with his love interest at the end of that movie.

GIAMATTI: It is interesting. And, you know, it's a subject that both Alexander and I kind of danced around and didn't really talk about. And it's very funny that we didn't because, certainly, you could see some - I could see all these similarities, too. It'd be better asked to him how much he was consciously doing that, how much he meant to do that, that in some sense you really are seeing a similar guy at a different stage of his life. It certainly - I could - you're absolutely right. There's lots of similarities.

There's ways in which it didn't feel the same to me, though, too. He doesn't feel like the same guy to me. He feels like a more - I like this guy better than the other guy. I feel like he's got more kind of backbone, sort of. He's less self-pitying. He's more sort of - I think he's funnier. I think he's kind of - I just think he's got more going on than the other guy. I liked him better as a person and a presence. I found him more fun to play. I liked it. Maybe that could be the same guy 20 years on that I'm enjoying. I don't know. But I could definitely see it. And in some ways I remembered thinking at a certain point, it's - a funny way - maybe it is, like, sort of the sequel to "Sideways" that would never get made as technically a sequel to "Sideways." I don't know.

BRIGER: Right.

GIAMATTI: But Alexander would be a good guy to ask about it. But in a funny way, we kind of avoided ever talking about it.

BRIGER: I can't imagine a Sideways 2, but...

GIAMATTI: Yeah, exactly. No, no. You can't. You really can't. So maybe this is some sort of extension of it. Yeah.

BRIGER: Well, your character Miles is a lover of wine, particularly pinot noir. In fact, that movie probably increased the cost of pinot noir across the country. But I wanted to play a clip where your love interest, Maya, played by Virginia Madsen, asks you why you love that wine so much. And, you know, your character Miles is talking about wine, but he's also really talking about himself. So let's hear that.


VIRGINIA MADSEN: (As Maya Randall) You know, can I ask you a personal question, Miles?

GIAMATTI: (As Miles Raymond) Sure.

MADSEN: (As Maya Randall) Why are you so into pinot? I mean, it's like a thing with you.

GIAMATTI: (As Miles Raymond, laughter) I don't know. I don't know. It's a hard grape to grow, as you know, right? It's thin-skinned, temperamental, ripens early. It's - you know, it's not a survivor like cabernet, which can just grow anywhere and thrive even when it's neglected. No, pinot needs constant care and attention, you know? And, in fact, it can only grow in these really specific little tucked-away corners of the world. And only the most patient and nurturing of growers can do it, really. Only somebody who really takes the time to understand pinot's potential can then coax it into its fullest expression. And then, I mean, oh, its flavors. They're just the most haunting and brilliant and thrilling and subtle and ancient on the planet.

BRIGER: That's a scene from "Sideways" with our guest, Paul Giamatti and Virginia Madsen. First of all, I just love how Virginia Madsen prefaces that question with, can I ask you a personal question?

GIAMATTI: I was just thinking the same thing, how funny that is that that's the deeply personal question...


GIAMATTI: ...Is very funny.

BRIGER: So do you remember doing that scene?

GIAMATTI: Yes, very much so. I remember it vividly. Yeah.

BRIGER: So can you talk about - I mean, I'm sure that - I'm sure when you saw the script you were like, oh, this is a really good speech.

GIAMATTI: Yeah. I thought it was a really good scene, you know, and I thought it was a nice speech. Yeah. And, you know, it's - he's not aware so much as she is of what they're really talking...

BRIGER: Right.

GIAMATTI: ...About. You know, she's the one who's much more aware than him. And so she sort of picks it up and really brings it home with a beautiful speech that kind of freaks him out 'cause then he realizes what they're actually talking about. And it sort of - it hits him and, you know, he's really fallen for this woman. But I remember shooting it, absolutely. I mean, it was a wonderful - I remember every second of making that movie, probably because I was very nervous, but also because it was a really special experience. I mean, it just felt - I'd never done anything like it before. And until "Holdovers," I'd never really done anything quite like it again because of the sort of intimate atmosphere that he creates. And that was a very lovely, quiet, intimate evening that the whole crew was having, you know? And it was - I remember it vividly. And she was wonderful in it and just absolutely entrancing in it. And I remember it very well.

BRIGER: So do you recall what it was about acting that first appealed to you?

GIAMATTI: Yeah. I mean, it's hard to articulate. I mean, I had always loved play acting. I mean, from the time I was a very little kid dressing up and being a character and particularly as a kid, sort of monstrous and grotesque things. I was very drawn to, sort of like werewolves and mummies and things like that, and sort of strange characters - Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and I enjoyed sort of always the school plays and stuff.

But I think when I did it in high school, there was a kind of sense of connection that - and communication that was almost shockingly joyous that I felt. I, you know, it was not the easiest place in the world, that place, and they're rough environments. And I felt a kind of, you know, for lack of a better word, not that I felt seen or something, but I felt connected to people, to the other actors and to the - and I felt a sense of communal effort that was really, really exciting to me. And as much as playing the character and getting laughs and doing all those things was great, when I think about it now, I think it was genuinely this feeling of connection, and I can't articulate it much better than that.

BRIGER: Was there a point when you were thinking, well, this is something I should maybe consider pursuing?

GIAMATTI: Well, later, yeah. I mean, I went to Yale University, I went to college and then did it a lot extracurricularly and sort of fell into that. I wasn't a major or anything there. And - but I loved it, and it became obsessive to me. And I left, and yeah, it was shortly after that that I think I started realizing it was something that I should - I wanted to do very badly and I should.

BRIGER: Your dad died at the age of 51 from a heart attack. You've said that it was because of your father's sudden death that you decided to become an actor. That before that, you were thinking maybe becoming an academic.

GIAMATTI: Well, you know, it's a little hard for me to sort of be entirely clear about it. I mean, like I say, it was the thing I loved doing the most. I think I thought, well, I should do something else because, you know, being an actor, I just didn't, you know, but I loved it. And his dying was a very profoundly destabilizing thing for everybody in my family. He was a very solid, grounded figure in the world. And for him to disappear in an instant at that young an age freaked me out, obviously. And I think it did impel me to go I'm going to pursue it and do the thing that I love to do.

BRIGER: Because possibly your time is short...


BRIGER: ...You should really just go for it.

GIAMATTI: You know, and also, my father had instilled that in me, you know, and so all of a sudden, his absence made that - his urging me always to do that throughout my life somehow even more present in my mind. And I thought, I'm going to do the thing I love to do. It's what he would have said to me to do. And so I did.

BRIGER: So your dad left academia and became the commissioner for Major League Baseball, and it sounds like he loved baseball...


BRIGER: ...A lot of his life. Did that also make you feel like that you should pursue the things that you really love?

GIAMATTI: Yes. I think so. I think that was also a part of it. I can remember my dad when he left the presidency of Yale, and he sort of took kind of a year off, you know, he wasn't really doing much. And I was in college, and I think the baseball thing sort of came through.

And I can remember him in this very kind of giddy way - funny, giddy way saying to me, well, I'm thinking about going back to teaching, but they've asked me to go and, you know, they asked me if I'm interested in going to baseball. What do you think? And I was like, geez. I don't know. And I was a little bit like, ah, geez, I don't know, do the safe thing and go back to teaching. And he was like, no, no, no, I think I got to do baseball. And I was like, yeah, OK. Do baseball. And he did. And it was very much him doing a thing. And I remembered thinking, oh, yes, of course he couldn't have done anything but go into baseball. The guy was out of his mind with joy knowing - he was out of his mind that he could go to baseball games anytime. And, you know, I mean, it was pure oxygen to the guy. So I don't know how I ever could have thought, like, don't do that.

BRIGER: Well, Paul Giamatti, I want to thank you so much for coming on the show.

GIAMATTI: Thank you very much for having me.

BIANCULLI: Paul Giamatti is nominated for best actor for his starring role in the film "The Holdovers." He spoke with our producer Sam Briger. After a break, we remember comic Richard Lewis, who died of a heart attack Tuesday at the age of 76, and Justin Chang reviews "Dune: Part Two." I'm David Bianculli, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF ROLFE KENT'S "ASPHALT GROOVIN'") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Sam Briger

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