Paul Giamatti interview: on starring in Barney’s Version, and working alongside Dustin Hoffman

As his latest film, Barney’s Version, arrives on UK screens, we caught up with actor Paul Giamatti to discuss his starring role and working with Dustin Hoffman...

Please note: slight spoilers for the film lie ahead.

Adapted from Mordecai Richler’s novel of the same name, Canadian drama Barney’s Version has already received considerable citical praise, and has already earned Paul Giamatti a Golden Globe for his performance as alcoholic, 65-year-old Barney Panofsky.

As the film prepares to make its debut in UK cinemas, we sat down with the ridiculously talented Giamatti to talk make-up, Dustin Hoffman and the pleasures of playing a bastard…

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It’s not always easy to like Barney. Did you consciously try to keep him as likeable as you could?

I like him a lot. I mean recognising that he’s a bastard in a lot of ways, but I definitely liked the character. Certainly, playing him was a lot of fun!

I just think he’s not terribly tolerant of bullshit. I think part of it is that he’s sort of vulnerable and sensitive, and he wants to cover that up. If there are likeable things about him, like the relationship that he has with his father, and the way he is towards his first wife – she’s crazy and he marries her to take care of her – they’re there because the writers got it right. So, it’s not me bringing it out necessarily.

Subjectively, he’s a dick, but that’s fun to do!

Barney’s vitality gives way to a sensitively handled portrayal of Alzheimer’s. Does that makes him an unreliable narrator?

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That’s a tricky question! Part of the Macguffin of the book is that he repeats a lot of the same stories and they’re different each time. He misremembers things and it angers him. But also, other people are writing their notes into the book about what he’s gotten wrong, so it’s this kind of meta-fictional thing, and the Alzheimer’s is much more important to the version of the story.

I think some of the earlier examples of the script were trying to play with that a bit more, and I think they just thought that it was getting too complicated. But, it’s an objective movie. How much of it is really his version, anyway? If it is, it’s pretty brutal and frank about himself, so it doesn’t seem like he’s misremembering things. He’s not casting himself in a better light, so I don’t think it’s meant to be taken like that.

The Alzheimer’s is built into the movie nicely and I hope not in a heavy handed way. His erratic behaviour that can all be explained by the Alzheimer’s when he’s older, is done in a nice way, I hope.

The relationship between Barney and his father is definitely the heart of the movie, and a realistic and rarely seen one, at that.

When I first read the script, that was one of the things I liked the most. The fact that his relationship with his father wasn’t a fraught or tense relationship. It was incredibly sort of complicit.

They’re almost like little boys together, and what Barney loves about the guy is his authenticity. The guy doesn’t give a shit, in a way that Barney can’t, but is trying to do. He’s just is who he is, and Barney loves that about him.

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Dustin Hoffman is legendarily fun to work with. Did you enjoy playing opposite him?

He’s great! He’s got a lot of vitality. He doesn’t shut down ever. He’s amazing.

Those scenes were really exceptionally fun things to do. You gotta keep up with him, you know? Not always, but sometimes in scenes, if he doesn’t feel comfortable, if he doesn’t like the way it’s going, he’ll just go really offroad, and you’ll just go with him! It’ll always come back, but it’ll land in a different place than you thought it was going to.

It was challenging sometimes, for some people who hadn’t been there with him a lot, to pop in for a day and just be like, “What the fuck is he doing?” It was like, “Just go with it!”

He didn’t do that all the time, but he did when it was necessary. A lot of the time he would have these very monologue-y moments and I think he just needed to find his way into them. It was fun.

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During the scene in the massage parlour – Dustin was playing dead so he couldn’t fuck around – and he told me afterwards that he had a whoopee cushion and he was going to do a farting thing for me! Then he realised that we didn’t have the time, and didn’t. I was like, “Thank you for not doing that. It would have been a pain in the ass!”

The movie covers a large time span, meaning you have to age up and down. How do you get on with the make-up?

I really like wearing that stuff, and it’s absolutely vital too, for doing this kind of thing. That stuff cues you, and the actual physical weight of it on your face helps you. So, it’s an incredibly important part of it.

They had a young French Canadian guy creating the make-up. He’s really good, and also really collaborative. I really participated in it more than you do oftentimes with that. He came in and was like, “What do you think you want to look like?” It was very different, and he was amazing.

They had me give them pictures of a younger me, and it’s funny, ‘cos I did have, at one time, crazy fucking hair like that! A really, really big mane of hair, which I can’t believe I had! The make-up guy was like, “This looks great. You should have this crazy hair when you’re young.” So, we went for it!

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You’ve aged up before. Do you ever get used to seeing that in the mirror?

This was less extreme than some of ageing stuff I’ve done in other things, so it wasn’t so weird. Again, the guy really did a great job of making it look like me. It was convincing enough that it wasn’t freaky looking when I would see it.

What was actually harder and stranger was the younger thing. It was actually much more worrisome to me, and was more jarring to see. We all think we still look like that, and then you’re like, “Holy shit! I don’t look like that anymore! I look like the old guy!”

Paul Giamatti, thank you very much!

Barney’s Version appears in UK cinemas on 28 January.

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