Paul Giamatti has played a broad range of characters, from a station manager in Howard Stern’s “Private Parts” to John Adams in the award-winning HBO series of the same name. In his latest role (for which he earned a Golden Globe at last night’s award show), he plays the hard-drinking, foul-mouthed Barney Panofsky in “Barney’s Version,” a film based on the Mordecai Richler novel.
The film, which opened in limited release January 14, traces Panofsky’s life through three generations and just as many wives. Giamatti recently spoke with the Forward’s Curt Schleier about the challenges of playing a not-so-politically-correct Jewish man:
Curt Schleier: Were you aware of the book and Richler before you got involved with the film?
Paul Giamatti: I was aware of [the book], but I had not read it. I knew who the author was, but I never read anything by him. I’d always gathered he was like a Philip Roth or a Saul Bellow or something like that.
Barney is not a very nice guy, is he?
No, he’s not a nice guy. He’s very complicated. He’s difficult and unpleasant. He’s blunt. He drinks too much. But he’s also a romantic and very protective of damaged people. I liked everything about him. Plus, I had the chance to play 30 years in his life. With everything that happens to him — there’s maybe a murder — it was absolutely a challenge. But it was a pleasure, as well.
You’ve played a lot of nasty guys in your career. Miles in “Sideways” stole money from his mother.
But I think Barney has more going on in his life than the character in “Sideways.”
But this time, you’re playing a complicated guy who is ethnic.
Harvey (Pekar, creator of the comic book series “American Splendor”) was Jewish, too. I never talked to him about that.
But Pekar’s religion was immaterial to that film. “Barney’s Version” is set in the milieu of Jewish Montreal. Was there ever any concern on your part about possible adverse reaction to you portraying such an unattractive and obviously Jewish man? Did anyone say, “Paul, maybe you shouldn’t do this”?
That’s interesting. Did I ever worry about that? I don’t think I did. I would never have related the fact that he was a bastard being in any way a reflection of his religion. I didn’t worry, either, “Will I seem Jewish?” I’ll tell you, actually, what was of more concern to me is that he was Canadian.… That actually bothered me more than his Jewishness.
An interesting thing happened after Dustin Hoffman [who plays Barney’s father] and I shot a scene at the cemetery at [Barney’s] mother’s grave. The producer [Robert Lantos] suddenly runs out and yells: “Stop! My God. Neither of you are wearing kippahs.” Both Dustin and I said we don’t think Barney would wear one.… So Dustin called two rabbis. The producer called rabbis. It ended up with most of them saying you could go either way. The producer basically gave up. It was too much of a fight.