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

Paul Giamatti stars as Paul Hunham in Alexander Payne's new film, <em>The Holdovers.</em>
Seacia Pavao
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Focus Features
Paul Giamatti stars as Paul Hunham in Alexander Payne's new film, The Holdovers.

In The Holdovers, Paul Giamatti plays a pompous and lonely teacher at a boys boarding school in the 1970s who's assigned to supervise a student who has nowhere to go over winter break.

Filmed at various prep schools in Massachusetts, the setting triggered memories from Giamatti's youth, as a day student at a private school. After the movie was released, a high school friend wrote to him, pointing out the similarities between his character and the school's head librarian.

"And I thought, 'I didn't even think about the head librarian, but he's right! I do seem like the head librarian,'" Giamatti says. "So, I mean, there was a deep well of people I was drawing on for this thing, even unconsciously."

Giamatti recently won a Golden Globe for his performance in The Holdovers. The film is Giamatti's second collaboration with director Alexander Payne — the first was the 2004 hit Sideways. Giamatti says when he asked Payne how his acting had changed over the past two decades, the director was "cagey."

"I'm like, 'Was I better? Better than I used to be?' Giamatti says. "And he sort of says, 'You're pretty much the same. I liked you before, and I liked you now.' ... He won't give me a straight answer about it."

The star of the Showtime series Billionsand the HBO miniseries John Adams acknowledges that he's in a much different place in his career with The Holdovers than he was with Sideways. "I'm old and jaded now," Giamatti says. But it's more than that: "I think I have more command of things. Am I better or anything like that? I don't know. But I was more relaxed, that's for sure. And with [Payne], I was even more relaxed, because I trust him a lot."


Interview highlights

On channeling his experience as a private school day student

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 teachers and teaching were around me a lot.

Being a day student at one of those places is different than living there. I think in some ways it probably gave me an anthropological perspective on it that maybe you don't have if you live there. So I had some distance on it to be able to observe it in some ways. It was an interesting part to play. It's an interesting movie for me to watch, because I think there were 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.

On his role in The Holdovers

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. ... 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 ... He's lived in this strange, rarified world and this world of intellect and he's hobbled by his own intellect. The thing that makes him feel superior is the thing that keeps separating him, too and he just doesn't go about anything the right way. But he's not wrong a lot of the time. ... He's somewhat self-aware. He takes pleasure in his own nasty wit in a way that hopefully is funny to people, and makes him somewhat appealing.

Giamatti says co-starring with Dominic Sessa was "really easily one of my favorite things I've done in a long time."
/ Focus Features
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Focus Features
Giamatti says co-starring with Dominic Sessa was "really easily one of my favorite things I've done in a long time."

On co-starring with Dominic Sessa, who had never acted professionally before

It was very nearly the first acting he'd done. I mean, he had only done a couple of plays in high school. He was a student at one of the schools we shot at, Deerfield Academy, and he was still a student. He turned 19 just before we started shooting the movie. And he'd taken [some time] off because he had injured himself in sports. ... So he was a little bit older. He was wonderful. ... I thought he was extraordinary looking. He's magnetic to just look at. I thought he seemed so intelligent, too, which was important in the character.

So I met with him to just work with him and loved him. He was a lovely guy, and working with him was really easily one of my favorite things I've done in a long time ... because he was so fresh to it, and he was so thoughtful about it. And in some ways, I've gotten very proficient with things. I can do stuff fast and easy and move on and do my thing. And it was wonderful to have this guy who was less acquainted and more questioning in all ways, and to sort of slow down and just take it easy with him was really nice.

There's 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 are the king. And so I don't need to play that I smell like fish. Everybody around me needs to play that.

On his character's disorder that makes him smell like fish

There's 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 are the king. And so I don't need to play that I smell like fish. Everybody around me needs to play that. ... The hair and makeup people, they said to me in particular, "Bathe as little as possible." And I said, OK. I think it probably helps, to give me an appearance. ... There's a tactile sense probably about the guy that comes across [unkempt].

On what inspired him to become an actor

It's hard to articulate. ... I enjoyed always the school plays and stuff, but I think when I did it in high school, there was a kind of sense of connection and communication that was almost shockingly joyous that I felt. ... I felt connected to people, to the other actors, 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.

Lauren Krenzel and Seth Kelley produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Beth Novey adapted it for the web.

Copyright 2024 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

Sam Briger