Directed by Phil Morrison (Junebug), the indie dramedy All is Bright follows ex-con Dennis (Paul Giamatti), who is released at the holidays and tries to get a legit business going, selling Christmas trees in New York with his old friend and partner-in-crime, Rene (Paul Rudd). For Rene, it’s a chance to make some quick and easy cash, so that he can marry Dennis’ ex-wife, which is certainly a cause of tension between the two men.
During this recently exclusive phone interview with Collider, the always great actor and genuinely nice guy, Paul Giamatti, talked about why he got involved with All is Bright, what he enjoyed most about bringing this character to life, what his own relationship with the holidays is, how great it was to have someone like Paul Rudd to play off of, and what gets him excited about a project. He also talked about his work on partially animated movie The Congress (due out in Spring 2014), playing an over-the-top villain in The Amazing Spider-Man 2, tackling Shakespeare for the most recent reimagining of Romeo & Juliet (from screenwriter Julian Fellowes), and how great it was to be a part of Downton Abbey for Season 4. Check out what he had to say after the jump.
PAUL GIAMATTI: I actually am a producer on it. I have a very small company. We’ve done a couple of things. We’re gonna do some TV stuff now. And I actually knew this writer, Melissa Gibson, who’s an Obie Award-winning playwright. She writes very, very interesting, almost surreal, quirky plays. She writes for the show The Americans now, too. So, she had wanted to do a screenplay. She’s Canadian and she’s fascinated by these hard-luck guys she’d seen selling trees on the street. She said, one day, that she had two ideas. One was about Christmas tree salesmen, and one was a heist movie, and she thought, “Why don’t I try to make them the same movie?” So, I was interested to see what she would come up with, and we encouraged her to do it. I wasn’t even intending to be in it, and then I read it and liked it and thought that I would like to be in it, too. And then, we got Phil Morrison interested as the director.
Did it stand out to you because it was such an unusual story?
GIAMATTI: Yeah, and it was even more unusual before we reworked it to make it a little bit more commercial. It was more surreal and bizarre, and we made it a little bit more grounded. Melissa wondered who those people selling Christmas trees are, and what their deal was. It’s a rough existence for some of them.
What did you enjoy most about embodying this man, and what did you feel the biggest challenges were, in bringing him to life?
GIAMATTI: Well, I actually liked the fact that he doesn’t actually talk a lot. That was fun. He actually doesn’t say a lot, and I liked that idea. There was a deadpan quality to the guy that I liked. The challenge of it is that somewhere inside of him, he finds the ability to be his real self and act incredibly selfless, even though he’s the last person in the world who you think would do that. You’d think the other guy would be the selfless one. The guy who appears to be the selfless one is less so. So, the challenge was to actually make it believable that this guy could do that. Hopefully, I succeeded. There’s something about him that makes him not a bad guy. He makes a real big sacrifice at the end because he realizes that everybody will be better off that way.
Did you have to think about making him likeable enough for audiences to want to stick with him, or do you not worry about that, at all?
GIAMATTI: I didn’t really think about it that much. There’s likeable, and then there’s sympathetic, which seem like different things to me. I like the guy. I don’t have a problem with him. But, my definition of likeable may be different from other people’s. He’s not traditional likeable. But, I actually don’t think about it that much. Sympathy is a different thing. To feel for or with somebody is different than liking them. I don’t think he does anything all that bad. He punches the dude, but the dude’s a jerk. I actually went to jail for the guy, and he took my wife. Just because he’s charming and funny, everybody forgives him. Why is he more likeable? He shouldn’t actually be.
The holidays are obviously a bad time for a lot of people, especially for this guy, who’s an ex-con, his best friend is with his wife now, and his daughter thinks he’s dead. What is your relationship with the holidays? Can you understand why it’s such a hard time for so many people?
GIAMATTI: Sure. I have a whole different holiday situation now. I have a son who’s been raised Jewish because his mom is Jewish. I have a whole different set of holidays to celebrate. I suppose everybody’s energy is up. Everybody is thrown together with their family in such an intense way, opening all of that stuff again. You’re cooped up with everybody and forced to exist with them, and you’re forced to try to relate to them in this way that’s more open. I guess that just doesn’t work for a lot of people. I didn’t particularly ever feel like that was my experience of the holidays, but I can totally understand why it would go sour for a lot of people. You’re cooped up with your family, and all of that history gets shoved in your face. I don’t know. It’s tricky. Especially in the city, I’ve always like the whole atmosphere of the holidays.
Personally, I’m much more of a Halloween fan.
GIAMATTI: I like Halloween, too. I’m not a big Christmas guy. I love Halloween. My kid is still into it, which is good. I’m dreading the day when he’s no longer into it.
Why do you think Dennis and Rene (Paul Rudd) ever really ended up as friends, in the first place?
GIAMATTI: It’s said a couple of times in the movie that I used to be a lot more fun, before I went to jail. You do see us drunk at the end, and I’m having a good time and joking around. I don’t think he was always this way. He went to jail for four years, for another guy, and that can’t have been easy. And his wife is gone, and all this crappy stuff is happening to this guy. The suggested is that he wasn’t always quite like this. Hopefully, there’s a little bit of somebody who might have been an easy-going guy, at some point in his life, but they’ve both changed. And there’s the opposites attract thing. They’re both good at something that they were really good at together. The time you see them get along the best is when they’re stealing together, at the end. They do a great job together because they’re good at it together. They click together, and they do this well together.
Was it fun to have someone like Paul Rudd to play off of?
GIAMATTI: Oh, yeah! He’s great! He’s a lot more fun than I am. It’s totally great to be around a guy like that. He’s light on his feet. He’s so fast. I’m not like that. It’s really nice to be with a guy like that. He’s really, really fun. He’s genuinely, truly hilarious, so it’s just a pleasure to be around. I’m always vaguely in awe of guys like that, who are so effortlessly funny.
You’re an actor who works a lot. What is it that gets you excited about a role versus what makes you turn down a role?
GIAMATTI: Well, I work so much that you can see that I don’t turn down a hell of a lot. I like to work. But, I get all kinds of interesting things that come to me. I don’t know. It depends. It’s not even necessarily the part, all the time. It’s the story that needs to be interesting to me. I did this movie that comes out next spring, that I haven’t even seen yet, called The Congress. It’s bananas. It’s the craziest thing I’ve ever seen in my life. Half the movie is a cartoon. They animated it. It’s this crazy movie by this Israeli director (Ari Folman). They came to me with a part that was like other things that I’ve done, but I was so interested in the movie that I said, “Well, how about I play not the part that you’re offering me, but the nice guy doctor in it?” I just wanted to be in it. I liked the movie, but I thought there was an opportunity to be in something without playing the bad guy again. I wanted to play the nice guy in it. I didn’t even care, in a way, what I did in it. The movie was so interesting that I just wanted to be a part of it. So, it just depends. The part should definitely be interesting, but movies are about the movie. That’s what lasts. You can have a great performance that helps it be a great movie, but a crappy movie with a great performance, who cares? It doesn’t matter. A great performance in a great movie is great. It all contributes to making it a great movie. But, it’s the movie itself that needs to be good. Everything around the actors needs to be good.
How much fun was it to get to be a villain in a superhero movie, with The Amazing Spider-Man 2, get to wear a suit, and know that there’s ultimately a bigger universe there?
GIAMATTI: It was totally awesome! That’s so crazy to me! It’s crazy to me that those are the big-budget movies now. There was a time when those would have been the low-budget piece-of-crap movies. But now, it’s amazing! I totally wanted to play a villain in a comic book movie. I’ve been waiting my whole life to be a villain in a comic book movie. When I was a kid, I didn’t even know I wanted to be an actor, but I knew that I wanted to be like The Wolfman, or some bad guy in something. That’s what I wanted to do. I wanted to be those guys. For Halloween, that’s what I would do. I wanted to be The Mummy. So, it’s great. I get to do that. It’s awesome!
How hammy of a villain is Aleksei Sytsevich, aka The Rhino? Did you get to go as big as you wanted to with it?
GIAMATTI: I went completely over-the-top with it. We’ll see. I seemed to have carte blanche to just go and ham it. He’s an animal. I took it literally. In some ways, he’s literally a rhinoceros inside. He’s just a big, dumb animal. I’m not a big, huge guy, but I thought that I could be a big, stupid animal. That’s what he is, so that’s why I thought it would be fun. He’s just a brute. He’s a beast. I’d rather be the villain. To me, they’re always more colorful and bizarre. I’m wearing a weird thing in it, too. It’s really fun!
What was it like to do this most recent reimagining of Romeo & Juliet?
GIAMATTI: The adapted language was interesting. I’m curious to see how it works. In some ways, it was just as hard as doing the actual Shakespeare, and yet I think it’s clearer to the ear, for people to hear it. But, it was just as tricky, in some weird way.
What was it like to get to be a part of Downton Abbey for this season, and get to work with that amazing cast?
GIAMATTI: That was great! That was one of the funnest things I’ve done, in a long time. I haven’t seen the show that much, but what I’ve seen of it, I just thought was great. I love period things, and it was an interesting character. It was a different type of character than I generally get to play. The cast was great, and it was great to shoot in London. I love working with British actors. It was really fun. And Shirley MacLaine was great. It was me and her, and everybody else is British. It was funny. We had this great sense of being the Americans, in every possible way. That was actually really interesting and fun.
All is Bright is now playing in theaters.