In 'The Holdovers' Paul Giamatti reunites with director Alexander Payne Giamatti says his latest movie, filmed at various prep schools in Massachusetts and directed by Alexander Payne, triggered memories of the time he spent as a day student at a private school.

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

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TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Our guest, Paul Giamatti, stars in the film "The Holdovers," which is on many critics lists of 2023's best movies. His performance just won him a Golden Globe for best actor in a comedy film. Our producer, Sam Briger, spoke with Giamatti before the award ceremony about the movie and his career. Here's Sam.

SAM BRIGER, BYLINE: 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.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE HOLDOVERS")

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.

BRIGER: Yeah.

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 and 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 you worked with Alexander Payne once before, and by all accounts, that was a positive experience all...

GIAMATTI: Yes.

BRIGER: ...Around. So working with this person that you hadn't worked with in about - almost 20 years, did that provide you opportunity to reflect on how you've changed as an actor?

GIAMATTI: Yeah. I hope I have. I've asked Alexander, and he's very cagey about it. He won't give me a straight answer about it. I'm like, am I - was I better? Was I better? Was I even better than I used to be? And he's very cagey about it. And he sort of - he says, you're pretty much the same, and I liked you before, and I like you now. Yeah. I mean, it was interesting. The whole thing has been interesting, this sort of full-circle thing coming back 20 years later. I think that that first experience was different because, I mean, I had never done anything like that before. I had never had this much responsibility before in playing a lead role and stuff and working with somebody I really admired.

And I was very nervous, you know? And that was gone. I mean, I'm old and jaded now. I'm not as nervous now, you know, and that - but - and in some ways, I miss those nerves, you know? Maybe in some ways, those nerves are useful. I definitely - 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 him, I was even more relaxed because I trust him a lot.

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

GIAMATTI: Yes.

BRIGER: You were a day student.

GIAMATTI: Yeah.

BRIGER: 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 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 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.

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 - 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: In some interviews, you've said that a lot of these teachers had shticks. Like, they kind of leaned into these personas. Can you explain that a little bit more?

GIAMATTI: Well, I think it's true. I mean, I think - you know, there's - the schools are a shtick in a lot of ways. They're a shtick. They're a play on the British system of sort of Eton and Harrow and all these sort of - you know, all these things that have been transplanted here, which is weird to begin with. And, you know, it's a shtick people love. You know, it's a really sort of beloved thing. I mean, I think it's one of the people - reasons people love "Harry Potter" so much, is it's basically a British schoolboy story...

BRIGER: Right.

GIAMATTI: ...You know? And so I think that, yeah, there's a lot of kind of playing the role that's expected of you. And as I say, there's a lot of comfort in it, I think, for these guys. There's a lot of comfort in the pipe smoke and the tweed and the sherry and the - you know, and all this sort of stuff.

BRIGER: So it's kind of like armor almost.

GIAMATTI: Yes, I think it is. I mean - and, yes. And it becomes a sort of protective carapace, too. I mean, I think it functions as that, too. It's safe-feeling and protective.

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: 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 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. But I was wondering, like, do you think about that in your character as you're acting them? Like, I assume 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...

BRIGER: Yeah.

GIAMATTI: ...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 for your job (ph). 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: So one of your co-leads in "The Holdovers," Dominic Sessa, this is his first movie. What was it like acting with him, someone who's never been in a movie before?

GIAMATTI: Yeah. I mean, it was very nearly the first acting he'd done. I mean, he'd only done a couple of plays, I think, 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 a year off 'cause he'd injured himself in sports and - or some time off. So he was a little bit older.

He was wonderful. I mean, I thought he was - when I they showed me his audition tape. Alexander - so you say, what do you think of this kid? I'm thinking about this kid. And it might be risky, but - and 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's a lovely guy. And working with him was really easily one of my favorite things I've done in a long time in I think a lot of ways because he was so fresh to it, you know, and his - and he was so thoughtful about it.

And in some ways, you know, I've gotten very proficient with things. I can do stuff fast and easy and, you know, move on and do my thing. And it was wonderful to have this guy who was less acquainted and more questioning and more - in all ways, and to sort of slow down and just take it easy with him was really nice, you know? He was a lovely, lovely guy. I loved acting with him.

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.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "SIDEWAYS")

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

GIAMATTI: (As Miles) Sure.

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

GIAMATTI: (As Miles, 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 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: (Laughter) 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 about.

BRIGER: Right.

GIAMATTI: 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: Well, let's take another short break here. If you're just joining us, we're speaking with actor Paul Giamatti, who stars in the new movie "The Holdovers." More after a break. I'm Sam Briger, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF ROLFE KENT'S "ASPHALT GROOVIN'")

BRIGER: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Sam Briger. Our guest is actor Paul Giamatti. He stars in the movie "The Holdovers" as a lonely and pompous classics professor at a boys boarding school in 1970. This is the second film he's made with director Alexander Payne. The first was the hit movie "Sideways" from 2004. Paul Giamatti has also starred in "American Splendor," "Private Life" and "Win Win." He played the title role in the HBO miniseries "John Adams." He also was starring in the Showtime series "Billions," which ended its seventh and final season this past October.

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: As I said before, you went to a boarding school, but you were a day student. It sounds like maybe you didn't fit in that well at the school. Did the acting help that?

GIAMATTI: I think so. It felt like it did. And it's interesting, I didn't feel enormously comfortable there. I came from a school that was very kind of - very different. I came from a very kind of progressive private school that was very, sort of gentle, and I went into an environment that was not at all...

BRIGER: Yeah.

GIAMATTI: ...That. And so I felt very, very jarred by it.

BRIGER: There can be a lot of hazing at those schools, I think.

GIAMATTI: In different - very different ways, yes. And not just from the students. You know, that...

BRIGER: Right.

GIAMATTI: ...Sense of hazing as you see in "Holdovers" in a way, too. I mean, that guy is hazing those kids all the time, in a way. So the teachers do it, too.

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 (ph) 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. And I think this was when you were at Yale and you were getting a master's in drama. Is that right?

GIAMATTI: No, I had just graduated from undergraduate.

BRIGER: OK.

GIAMATTI: And a few months after I graduated from undergraduate, he died of a heart attack.

BRIGER: But 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...

GIAMATTI: Sure.

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...

GIAMATTI: He did.

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: Was he particularly supportive of your acting?

GIAMATTI: Well, I mean, he only really ever saw me sort of do it in college as a sort of extracurricular thing. But yes, he was. I mean, he took real pleasure in it, and that was lovely, you know, I mean, he took real pride and pleasure in it, and he enjoyed coming and watching me act. And that was nice. You know, he's never - he never saw me act professionally, but he saw me do that stuff. And there's something lovely about that 'cause I was certainly having a pure experience and so was he, I guess, watching it.

BRIGER: You're in your mid-50s now, is that right?

GIAMATTI: Fifty-six years old.

BRIGER: Fifty-six. Yeah. So, you know, as I said, your dad died at 51. So you've outlived him now by five years. Like, do you reflect upon that, like, the time that you've had in your life that he was not able to have?

GIAMATTI: Absolutely. No, I think about it all the time. Yeah. It's strange to have outlived him, you know, it's - yeah. And it's shocking to me how young he was. I think, you know, when you're 22, 51 seems way, way, way off. You know, and even as you're getting older and, you know, you're 45, and 50 looks like it's still a ways off. And then you hit it, and you're like, oh, my God, he was so young. It's shocking, you know, absolutely shocking and extraordinary how much he did in such a short period of time - I mean, really accomplished an enormous amount, but shocking that he was that young and terrible, you know, just terrible.

BRIGER: Let's take another break here. If you're just joining us, I'm speaking with actor Paul Giamatti, who stars in the new film "The Holdovers." We'll be back after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BRIGER: This is FRESH AIR. Our guest today is Paul Giamatti, who's just won a Golden Globe for his performance in the new movie "The Holdovers." This is his second starring role in a movie by Alexander Payne. The first was the 2004 film "Sideways." Giamatti has also starred in the title role in the HBO miniseries "John Adams" and in the Showtime series "Billions," which ended its run after seven seasons. Giamatti studied acting at Yale and then began his professional acting career in the theater before turning to film and television.

How did you transition to working in TV and movies? And I don't know if there - if "Law & Order" was a thing then, but, like, was there equivalent of, like, playing the corpse in "Law & Order" that you did?

GIAMATTI: I - "Law & Order" - it did exist then, and I'm frequently - I'm quick to point out I've never been on "Law & Order," which I'm probably the only actor in New York City that wasn't on "Law & Order," any iteration of it. There've been, what, 19 iterations of that show, and I never was on it. I auditioned many times.

BRIGER: You did?

GIAMATTI: Oh, yeah, oh, yeah. Many...

BRIGER: For the body or...

GIAMATTI: No, never the body, never the body. But I wonder, did you - God, to think that you'd have to audition for the body. I'd never even thought of that before, that you just had to go in the room and lie on the floor.

BRIGER: Just lie really still.

GIAMATTI: Just lie really still.

BRIGER: Oh, he's twitching. He's...

GIAMATTI: Oh, no. No good - I can see you breathing. But it - so, yeah, "Law & Order" - no, I never did it. And I loved "Law & Order," and I still love "Law & Order," so it's a real beef. It's a real chip I have on my shoulder about never being in "Law & Order." But there were certainly plenty of things like that.

BRIGER: The commercials...

GIAMATTI: I never played the corpse, but I did a lot of bit parts. I was doing theater at the time, and I would do a lot of sort of bit parts 'cause I was making money and I was enjoying it. I enjoyed doing them, you know? But then those just started accumulating more, you know, and leading to more substantive things.

BRIGER: Are there any commercials we can find on YouTube of you, like, hawking paper towels?

GIAMATTI: I don't know if there's anything on - I don't know if they're on YouTube. I did some. I did an ad for a - what was the equivalent of sort of Home Depot in the Southeast, but I don't remember what it was called. And then it sort of was maybe snatched up by Home Depot. I don't know. I was in a store with a motorized - I had invented a motor for my shopping cart so I could move really fast through the Home Depot. It was ridiculous. And I did that. I did an ad for the Yellow Pages, which is kind of interesting because those don't exist anymore. I did some...

BRIGER: Were you just looking, like, flipping through the Yellow Pages and...

GIAMATTI: No, I'm - what I remember is that I'm a park ranger. I have, like, a Smokey the Bear hat on. Why that - what that had to do with the Yellow Pages, I don't really remember, but that's what I was doing.

BRIGER: I'd like to ask you some questions about "Billions," which I said just ended this past October after seven seasons. You played Chuck Rhoades, who at the beginning of the show is the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York. The Southern District's jurisdiction includes Manhattan, so it's dealing with a lot of financial institutions and white-collar crimes. When the show starts, you've won, like, 81 insider trading cases. You're a very ambitious guy. You're thinking of running for governor. And so you set your sights on taking down this guy, Bobby Axelrod, played by Damian Lewis, who's a self-made billionaire with a hugely successful hedge fund. And you think he's got to be cheating because he just can't be that successful and honest at the same time. So, you know, this show is all about power and control. There's a lot of alpha male energy in it. What drew you to this show?

GIAMATTI: I think some of that. I mean, I think some of the alpha male energy of it drew me to the show because as we were talking about before, I mean, he's not a sad sack, this guy, you know? I mean, he's a bit of a disaster of a human being in some ways, but he's not a sad sack, and he's this kind of very aggressive guy. And that was interesting to me. You know, I thought, this is interesting. He's in theory doing the right thing. He's going about it in not the greatest way. I liked the kind of cat and mouse of it, you know? I liked - early on, I characterized it as being a little bit like Javert and - what's the other guy's name? I can't remember, the...

BRIGER: "Les Miserables."

GIAMATTI: Yeah, but basically sort of that, that I was sort of Javert to the other guy, this sort of driven guy who's lost a bit of his moral compass in pursuit of moral rectitude. He's kind of just lost himself a little bit.

BRIGER: Well, I think that your character starts off pretty interestingly. You're - in the first scene, for instance, can you describe your first scene?

GIAMATTI: You're going to make me describe that?

BRIGER: Yeah.

GIAMATTI: OK, I'll describe it. It's a scene of alternative sexual engagement. It's - I'm - he has an alternative lifestyle with his wife of bondage and domination...

BRIGER: And that's...

GIAMATTI: ...And stuff like that.

BRIGER: You're...

GIAMATTI: I'm tied - I'm hogtied.

BRIGER: You're tied up...

GIAMATTI: I'll put it like - yes. I'm hogtied.

BRIGER: ...And gagged and in your boxers.

GIAMATTI: I think - did I have a ball gag in my mouth?

BRIGER: Well, some sort of gag. I don't know if I can really - I know enough about gags.

GIAMATTI: I think it was probably a ball gag in my mouth. And yes, that's what I was doing. And I believe that I burned with a cigarette, and other things go on. Yeah.

BRIGER: We won't - we'll stop describing it there.

GIAMATTI: We'll stop there.

BRIGER: But I was just wondering when you - like, is that the first scene you saw? Is that the first thing you read?

GIAMATTI: No it wasn't. And actually that scene was buried a little bit further in the episode...

BRIGER: Yeah.

GIAMATTI: ...And clearly, somebody at Showtime thought you know what I think is really going to grab people? If we open the show with this scene. Because it wasn't the first scene. No, they decided to make it the first scene.

BRIGER: Well, you get a lot of fun dialogue in the show, and I thought we should hear a clip. This is from the first season. You're walking your dog along the river, and you notice that there's this other guy who hasn't picked up after his dog.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "BILLIONS")

GIAMATTI: (As Chuck Rhoades) Excuse me, sir?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) What?

GIAMATTI: (As Chuck Rhoades) You didn't clean up after your dog.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Yeah. I forgot the bag today.

GIAMATTI: (As Chuck Rhoades) Oh, I don't think so because, you know, it's not just the statutory law. It's the law of civility, man. And I've seen you before. You come out of that building, your dog craps and you just leave it where it falls.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Why don't you mind your business?

GIAMATTI: (As Chuck Rhoades) This is my business.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Oh, you're that guy.

GIAMATTI: (As Chuck Rhoades) I am that guy.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Well, do you have an extra bag?

GIAMATTI: (As Chuck Rhoades) No. No. See, I used mine.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Well, I'll get it next time.

GIAMATTI: (As Chuck Rhoades) No. I think you need to get it this time.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Why don't you let it slide?

GIAMATTI: (As Chuck Rhoades) Let it slide. That sounds simple. Easy. Sure, let it slide. It's just some dog [expletive]. But those are three devious, little words. You know, if I let your dog [expletive] slide, then I have to be OK with this whole plaza filling up with it, which it would before we know it. Oh, then it would be on our pant legs and our shoes, and we would track it into our homes. It'd be easy to let it slide. You know, why don't we let petty larceny slide, too? Some kid steals five bucks from a newsstand? Who cares? Well, maybe next time he decides to steal your TV or break into your brownstone and steal your life. But what difference does it make? Because by then, we're all living in [expletive] anyway.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Oh, come on, man, I don't have a bag.

GIAMATTI: (As Chuck Rhoades) You have hands.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) What?

GIAMATTI: (As Chuck Rhoades) Use your hands.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Or?

GIAMATTI: Jesus. Holy cow. I'd forgotten about that. Holy cow.

BRIGER: That's my guest, Paul Giamatti, in his role in the "Billions." So that sounds like that was a lot of fun to do.

GIAMATTI: Yes. The language was fun. I mean, it was very, very baroque and sort of - yeah. It was fun language to do. And I'd never - I've - not having done any other TV shows, I was assured by a lot of people that we were lucky to have the kind of fun language that we had all the time.

BRIGER: Well, I mean that scene is clearly something else other than just, like, your broken window speech. Like, you just want to dominate this guy.

GIAMATTI: Oh, totally. Yeah. No, the guy is just - yeah, no, he's really kind of out of control. The guy that I play is very out of - I mean, it's just, I forgot I make the guy pick it up with his bare hands. I mean, it's just - it's demented.

BRIGER: Twice, actually. That goes on. He has to pick up someone else's dog's movements, as well.

GIAMATTI: That's right. It's just demented. Yeah.

BRIGER: Well, let's take another break here.

GIAMATTI: Sure.

BRIGER: If you're just joining us, I'm speaking with actor Paul Giamatti. His new movie is "The Holdovers." We'll be back after break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF JAMES HUNTER BAND SONG, "I WANNA GET OLD WITH YOU")

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," directed by Alexander Payne. When we left off, we were talking about his starring role as Chuck Rhoades, the ambitious U.S. attorney in the Showtime series "Billions," which recently ended its seven-season run this past October.

So I think this must have been, like, your longest job, right? I mean, this - well, you were on the miniseries and you've been on TV shows, but this was...

GIAMATTI: No.

BRIGER: ...Seven seasons. Like...

GIAMATTI: Yes.

BRIGER: ...What was it like to develop a character over that amount of time?

GIAMATTI: It was interesting. I mean, I - no, I'd never done anything for that long. It was - it's a lot, you know, and - but it was - I knew the guys who wrote the show, so that was nice. And, you know, I - we all kind of let them take the lead, you know? I mean, I trusted them to take the guy interesting places. And it was fun to do. It was - but it was a lot, you know? It - that character, after a while, I have to say, was a very lonely character to play 'cause he's very - talk about a disliked guy who doesn't like himself, either, and sort of, you know, he was a very isolated character. And as much sort of wonderful varieties - like, God, there was something very, very - after a while that got kind of difficult about playing that part. I have to admit.

BRIGER: So, like, you'd feel residual feelings after...

GIAMATTI: Yeah.

BRIGER: ..It's the end of the day?

GIAMATTI: Just - yeah. I mean, you know, you do the - you do a show like that and it's every day, all day long, a lot. And there would be times when I was like, oh, I was happy to let him go at the weekend and stuff, you know, 'cause it just was a very - you know, he's a very deeply driven guy and he's - kind of joyless guy. And - as you can hear in that - I mean, he takes some joy in being a bastard...

BRIGER: Right.

GIAMATTI: ...But it's - but, you know, it's - it just was a - it was a tough part.

BRIGER: From what I understand, acting can be a hard job socially because, like, you work intensely with these people for a couple of months in a movie, you develop relationships and friendships with these people...

GIAMATTI: Yeah.

BRIGER: ...And then because everyone goes on to work on some other project, like, you - it doesn't sound like you see them very much after that.

GIAMATTI: Yeah.

BRIGER: Like for instance, Alexander Payne, you had a great experience with him and then you didn't get to work with him again for 19 years.

GIAMATTI: Yeah.

BRIGER: So what was it like to work with the same people for seven years?

GIAMATTI: That's - no, it's an interesting point you make because that was different. And I think the sense of bonding and the sense of presence in each other's lives is stronger. And, in fact, I - contrary to, as you say, most plays or other movies, I have kept up with these people. The bonding is stronger in some way. I mean, you really do. You're with these people all the time, you know? And you go through life changes. I mean, there were lots of life changes people were experiencing on that thing over years, you know? My God, my hair went gray during that thing.

BRIGER: Yeah.

GIAMATTI: You know, I mean, it's like the changes in people are big. And so I do think that the bonding sense was different because I do - I came out of that with some very good friends and, you know - and that's lovely. I like it, you know? It hadn't happened really before much, no.

BRIGER: So what do you want to do next? Are there particular kinds of roles that you're looking out for?

GIAMATTI: Again, I never really have much of a plan, no. And so I don't know. I say this and I don't really know what I mean, but it's - but I sometimes think it would be interesting - this is just a general statement - to play a less verbal character. I'd like to play somebody that talks less and is less articulate. I'd like to see - because I feel like frequently I'm given the part that's hyper-articulate, which is great, but I would love to see what it's like to really do more with less verbiage. I don't know what that means exactly in terms of what kind of part I'd play or anything like that, but I know there's some feeling of, like, jeez, I'd love to do more just with my body and my face and not so much with my mouth.

BRIGER: So people must really like writing you dialogue.

GIAMATTI: I think they do, yes, which is great, and it's very flattering. And I get great dialogue written for me. But sometimes, you know, it's a visual medium and, you know, sometimes the face and the eyes and the body and the things like that are - you know, it's a realm for expression with those elements that are sometimes more satisfying than words.

BRIGER: You're a very good radio guest because you have this very rich and lovely voice.

GIAMATTI: (Laughter).

BRIGER: I was wondering, like, when did you realize you had such a great voice?

GIAMATTI: (Laughter) I don't love my own voice. I got to be...

BRIGER: You don't?

GIAMATTI: No, I don't. I don't love the sound of my own voice. I'm not sure what it is that people enjoy so much. I don't - I mean, certainly in film, you can play with your - you know, you can talk more quietly and stuff like that. I think a lot of the reason I have this voice is from cigarette damage and things like that because I smoked very heavily for a long time. I don't anymore - and things like that. I think I damaged my voice. That is part of the reason I maybe have a voice that people like. I think - certainly with "Billions," there was something that I enjoyed, and I made a very conscious choice to lean into something about my voice, a kind of quietness and that kind of thing 'cause I sort of thought of the guy as a bit of a sort of Prince of Shadows guy a little bit, you know what I mean? Guy - and they did have me often sort of in the shadows, you know, watching people from the shadows and stuff. So there was a little bit of that going on, I guess.

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

GIAMATTI: Thank you very much for having me.

GROSS: Paul Giamatti stars in the new film "The Holdovers." He spoke with our producer Sam Briger. Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, Washington Post reporter Julian Mark will talk about the resignation of Harvard's first Black president, Claudine Gay, and how it signifies a pivotal moment in the movement against diversity, equity and inclusion in every sector, from academia to corporate America. I hope you'll join us. To keep up with what's on the show and get highlights of our interviews, follow us on Instagram at @nprfreshair.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE CHICK COREA NEW TRIO'S "JITTERBUG WALTZ")

GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Ann Marie Baldonado, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley and Susan Nyakundi. Our digital media producer is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. Our co-host is Tonya Mosley. I'm Terry Gross.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE CHICK COREA NEW TRIO'S "JITTERBUG WALTZ")

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