Skip To Content
JEWISH. INDEPENDENT. NONPROFIT.
The Schmooze

Talking With Golden Globe Winner Paul Giamatti

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.

Any anecdotes?

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.

I hope you appreciated this article. Before you go, I’d like to ask you to please support the Forward’s award-winning, nonprofit journalism during this critical time.

Now more than ever, American Jews need independent news they can trust, with reporting driven by truth, not ideology. We serve you, not any ideological agenda.

At a time when other newsrooms are closing or cutting back, the Forward has removed its paywall and invested additional resources to report on the ground from Israel and around the U.S. on the impact of the war, rising antisemitism and the protests on college campuses.

Readers like you make it all possible. Support our work by becoming a Forward Member and connect with our journalism and your community.

Make a gift of any size and become a Forward member today. You’ll support our mission to tell the American Jewish story fully and fairly. 

— Rachel Fishman Feddersen, Publisher and CEO

Join our mission to tell the Jewish story fully and fairly.

Republish This Story

Please read before republishing

We’re happy to make this story available to republish for free, unless it originated with JTA, Haaretz or another publication (as indicated on the article) and as long as you follow our guidelines. You must credit the Forward, retain our pixel and preserve our canonical link in Google search.  See our full guidelines for more information, and this guide for detail about canonical URLs.

To republish, copy the HTML by clicking on the yellow button to the right; it includes our tracking pixel, all paragraph styles and hyperlinks, the author byline and credit to the Forward. It does not include images; to avoid copyright violations, you must add them manually, following our guidelines. Please email us at [email protected], subject line “republish,” with any questions or to let us know what stories you’re picking up.

We don't support Internet Explorer

Please use Chrome, Safari, Firefox, or Edge to view this site.