Paul Giamatti On Becoming A Meme, Being Recognized In Public, And His Latest Role In ‘Gunpowder Milkshake’

It’s hard to think of another actor with a more unique skill set than Paul Giamatti.

Early in his career, he played a lot of voluble screamers, often villains — Pig Vomit in Private Parts, the bad guy in Big Fat Liar — perfect roles for an operatic shouter with a deft uvula like Giamatti. Of course, he’s equally good playing the put-upon everyman, a guy who’s maybe a little too persnickety for his own good. Not likeable, precisely, but certainly relatable, to the part of all of us that occasionally struggles with impostor syndrome.

The one-two punch of American Splendor in 2003 and Sideways in 2004 forever put away the notion that a character actor like Giamatti couldn’t carry a whole movie. He became, for a time, the face of quiet desperation. He’s more than that now, of course, but also still that.

In short, Giamatti is the kind of actor who seems like he can kind of do everything, barring physical limitations. I always like to ask character actors who they get confused for or what lines people shout at them, but Giamatti is that rare breed: the character actor who even your mom’s brunch friends mostly know by name. He’s Paul Giamatti! The guy from ‘Billions!’

Part of the reason it maybe seems like he can do everything is that he actually tries to. Ironically for a guy who so often plays the reticent and the meek, Giamatti’s inherent “gameness” is central to his persona. There isn’t a type of movie Paul Giamatti hasn’t been in.

This week he’s in Gunpowder Milkshake on Netflix, playing a shadowy (but square) functionary in an international crime syndicate. A hyper-stylized, graphic novel sort of movie, from Israeli director Navot Papushado, Gunpowder Milkshake feels a bit like a female Baby Driver meets John Wick, with a heavy dose of Shoot ‘Em Up — which Giamatti was also in. The role isn’t a huge departure for Giamatti (which, let’s be honest, would be hard to do at this point), but as he tells it, it’s the script itself more than the character he’ll play in it that draws him to a project these days. So, what was it that appealed to him about Gunpowder Milkshake?

“It was weird,” Giamatti told me. “I thought it had a weird sense of humor and I liked that about it.”

You get a lot of answers like this from Giamatti. Perfectly adequate responses to questions that nonetheless lack the usual soliloquizing you expect from actors at these things. They bolster his self-effacing, everyman quality.

It’s a quality that’s both undeniable and a curious thing for a guy like Giamatti to have, given his elite background. Giamatti’s father was the president of Yale, and later, briefly, the commissioner of Major League Baseball. His grandfather was the chairman of the Italian department at Mount Holyoke. Giamatti and his older brother, Marcus, both graduated from Yale’s drama school. Yet there he is, taking life as it comes and greeting compliments with a bemused shrug. Paul Giamatti contains multitudes. He speaks to the part of all of us that greets good news with a bit of suspicion.

Do you still audition these days or do people have a good idea of what you can do already?

No, I haven’t. I haven’t auditioned, fortunately, for a long time.

What is the meeting process of you agreeing to be in a movie like this? Do you get a full script?

Sure. I’ll get the script. I’ll get something offered to me or, somebody who’s interested in me, they’ll give me the script. Sometimes I’ll talk to the director, sometimes I won’t. It’s different all the time. In this instance, I did end up talking to the director. I guess I just was interested to hear what he had to say. He was an interesting guy. I would have done it without even talking to him, but he wanted to talk to me I guess to make sure I was interested, but that’s generally how it goes. I got the script and I get an offer and I decide on a case-by-case thing.

What was it about this one that intrigued you?

I thought it was weird! I thought it had a weird sense of humor and I liked that about it. It reminded me of another action movie I did a long time ago, called Shoot ‘Em Up. Which was also really strange. I like action movies, but I like oddball ones like this. I mean, I like the John Wick movies, which are sort of odd too, but I think this is even more strange. I liked it.

That’s funny, I was just about to ask you about the Shoot ‘Em Up similarity. When you’ve been acting for this long and you’ve done so many different characters, is there a tendency to play a character as a version of something you’ve done before?

Yeah, sure. I suppose so. I mean, you just end up getting similar things.

Do you try to avoid that or does it matter to you at all?

I try to avoid it. It doesn’t super matter to me. A lot of the time it’s the story that interests me more than the character. Like what the guy’s going to do with it. I’ve gotten a pretty big variety of things over the years, so it’s okay with me. I’m a character actor. It’s inevitable that I’m going to end up playing similar kinds of things. But oftentimes, like with this, I just was like, I think the story is so interesting, I just want to be a part of the world. I almost didn’t care what I played.

When you talk about being a character actor, you’re super recognizable, but not necessarily pinned to a specific role. When people come up to you on the street, do you get a lot of like, “Hey, you’re that guy from that thing that I know”?

Oh yeah. I’ve gotten more and more people actually knowing who I am over the years, but that’s definitely been the case. People have more of an idea though now. I think doing the TV stuff I’ve done, people have more certainty about who I am, but for sure. I get a wide variety of things and I still definitely get people who are like, “Why do I know you? What have you been in?”

Have you ever tried to make amends with the Merlot industry?

I think many years ago they wanted me and Tom Church to do some kind of advertising campaign for them, but we chose not to do it. Apparently, I think the sales are back up. I don’t think they need my help anymore.

Have you noticed that you have become a reaction meme online?

I think I’ve heard about this. My son occasionally sends me things, but I’m a reaction meme in terms of how? Explain it. Because my son sends me things all the time, but I wouldn’t have known that I was a reaction meme necessarily.

It’s hard to describe. It’s sort of like they use your face at different premieres and whatever your facial expression is as a sort of bemused reaction.

So, I’ll look dismissive of something or I’ll look pissed off about something or I’ll look like… Like that kind of thing?

I think most often it’s like casually pleased for whatever reason.

Okay. I didn’t know. I wasn’t aware of that. My son has sent me enough. I mean, my son, what is he? He’s 20 now. But he’s sent me enough weird memes over the years, but I wasn’t aware of that specifically. Is that a good thing? Is that something I should be happy about?

It’s definitely not an insult. I would say for a character actor, it’s a compliment. It’s saying you have an expressive face, I think.

That’s true. Yes, I do. I definitely have an expressive face. All right. I’ll take it as a compliment.

On that note, you do have another Alexander Payne project coming up, don’t you?

Yes, I am. That’s correct. I’m shooting at the beginning of next year. I play a prep school history teacher in 1970. It’s a period thing in 1970, which actually has significance in the movie. It’s about him and the kid that he teaches. It’s a very nice script.

Do you have any prep school experience yourself?

Oh yeah. I went to one of those places. I wasn’t a boarding school student, but I went to one of them as a day student, so I have some familiarity.

What was that like? Was that where you got into acting?

I did sort of, kind of by accident I did. It was okay. I mean, those places are interesting. I don’t know what it’s like to actually live at those places. I can imagine that would be not necessarily very pleasant.

Were there people there that were boarders that you went to school with?

Oh sure. I knew tons of people who were boarding school students there. They’re intense. It’s like college for kids who aren’t supposed to be in college yet. I mean, I was meeting kids from New York City and stuff like that. They were all very sophisticated. They’re very intense environments.

Your father was a baseball commissioner and then you and your brother both went into acting. How did that happen?

Well, my father was only the baseball commissioner for a very short period of time. He only did that for about six months, but he was a teacher other than that. He taught at Yale University. I don’t know how we both got into it. My brother always wanted to be an actor all his life. Probably having my brother doing it got me more interested in it as I got older.

You guys went to Yale Drama School. Was that a familial tradition at all or was it just spur of the moment?

No, I think it was just a good school, so we ended up going there.

Are there roles that you wish that you’d gotten or that you turned down that you still kick yourself over?

No, I don’t think so. I don’t feel like I ever spend a whole lot of time worrying about or regretting something I couldn’t do. Well, now that I say that I did… It wasn’t that I turned it down. I got offered the opportunity to be in that David Lynch Twin Peaks, the one that he just did a few years ago. That I would’ve really wanted to do. He’s a director I would have really wanted to work with, but I couldn’t do it, so that was a disappointment.

You do some TV now in addition to your movies, do you think there’s a difference in doing TV versus movies these days?

Well, it’s a longer form thing, so it just takes a lot more focus and it takes a different kind of concentration. It’s trickier to do in some ways because it just goes on a lot longer. The limited series stuff feels like a movie. It’s pretty similar, but doing six years of a show is a different experience, definitely.

Does it still excite you in the same way? Playing the same character for so long, do you have to find ways to make it new in some way?

You do, but they also are pretty good at varying up these guys. On this particular show that I’m on [Billions], they’re pretty good at varying it, actually. I mean, I do definitely see some things on TV and wonder, how does somebody play like the police captain guy over and over again for seven, eight years on a Law and Order show? I don’t know how somebody does that. It must drive you crazy. This character I play on Billions has a lot of variety to him.

This movie, you likened it to Shoot ‘Em Up. Shoot ‘Em Up seemed more like a straight-up parody, where this isn’t. What do you think about the sense of realism in Gunpowder Milkshake?

I like how heightened it is. Even better than Shoot ‘Em Up did it though, you feel like you’re in this world that should be familiar to you from having read about it in a book or a comic book or something, but it’s not. The way he pulls that off is really cool. You’re put in this world where he’s not explaining to you all the backstory of this stuff, but you kind of feel like you know it. I like it a lot. It’s heightened, but the characters don’t feel thin and the story doesn’t feel thin. It feels really filled out somehow. That’s hard to do.

Is part of this you wanting Shoot ‘Em Up to have done better?

Ha, no, I just liked this too.

Do you think that that was in any way an influence on movies like John Wick that we’re seeing now?

I don’t know. You might be better placed to say that than I would. Somebody else I just had to do another interview with said the same thing and I was like, “Huh. I don’t know if it had that much of an influence. Maybe it did.” It certainly felt slightly different than a lot of other things at that time, so maybe it did have some lasting influence. It’s an odd movie. But you’re right, it’s much more of a direct, deliberate parody than this is.

I know your director in this is Israeli. Do you think that American directors are more married to realism in some way than non-American ones?

I suppose so. A lot of them seem to be. That may be true. Although the guy who did Shoot ‘Em Up is American, but he definitely wanted to just mock everything. He’s a strange guy. I suppose Americans traditionally have been a little bit more married to naturalism and realism.

Do other actors look at you for experience or as a mentor in any way now that you know you’ve been doing it for so long?

Not as far as I can tell, no. I don’t think so.

Shouldn’t they?

I don’t know. Should they? Just because I’m old and because I’m getting old and because I’ve been around? I don’t know.

No, I mean you’ve had a good career.

I don’t know what I would tell anybody. I don’t know what I’d have to say. I don’t think anybody’s looking to me for wisdom.

‘Gunpowder Milkshake’ hits Netflix July 14th. Vince Mancini is on Twitter. You can access his archive of reviews here.