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Into the mind of Paul Giamatti

Actor talks about humor, writers and ears of corn

Charles Ealy

Paul Giamatti is funny, in a cranky kind of way. He's built his film career on it.

"I've become a bit of a go-to guy," he says, especially when directors are looking for someone to play such complicated characters as comic-book artist Harvey Pekar in "American Splendor" or the second president of the United States in the critically acclaimed HBO mini-series "John Adams."

"I just guess there's something in my sensibility as an actor, and that's why they keep coming to me."

Giamatti's quirkiness works well in his latest movie, "Barney's Version," where he plays a deeply flawed romantic who keeps failing at personal relationships.

Giamatti thinks that his character, Barney Panofsky, "has a sensibility about romance that makes him feel vulnerable. He has a sense that it's kind of always going to go wrong."

And it does, over and over again.

The 43-year-old actor, who received his bachelor's degree in English from Yale and went on to earn a master's in fine arts from the same Ivy League school, says he thinks he is benefiting from a trend of writers creating characters who don't fit the traditional notions of hero.

"They're interesting characters, that's for sure. And people seem to be writing more parts like that," he says. "It's good for me."

Giamatti says that, before filming began, he had only a vague familiarity with Mordecai Richler, who wrote the novel "Barney's Version" in 1997.

"I knew that he was held in high regard," Giamatti says of the Canadian author, who died in 2001. "But when I read the book after agreeing to take the part, I definitely came to the conclusion that he wouldn't be easier to take in the movie than in the book. The book is a first-person narration, and that voice never stops. That irascible, provocative, angry, cynical voice. It never stops."

Still, Giamatti thinks that Richler's use of humor made Barney somewhat lovable."He has created a guy who's very self-aware and has a wry sense of himself," Giamatti says. "I don't think I'll ever be that self-aware."

So what does Giamatti, an English and drama scholar, think about himself? He is, after all, the son of Bart Giamatti, a professor of renaissance literature at Yale, who went on to become the youngest Yale president before assuming the mantle of baseball commissioner in the late 1980s, during the Pete Rose scandal.

Here's a glimpse:

Austin American-Statesman: Who was your favorite author?

Paul Giamatti: Wow, that's a hard question. I wasn't prepared for that. But if you have to press me, I guess I'd say Edgar Allan Poe.

Poe? I certainly didn't expect that. I appreciate that you picked a Southern writer and all, but I wouldn't have picked him.

What's wrong with Poe?

Well, there's nothing wrong with Poe, per se. But if I were going to pick a Southerner, it wouldn't be Poe. It might be Faulkner or Welty or somebody like that.

Like I said, you caught me off guard. Let me think. Oh, I know! Flannery O'Connor!

Oh, I think that's a much better answer. You're getting in to all that grotesquerie, the notions of Catholic grace, the precision of writing.

And that humor!

Indeed. You were raised a Catholic, weren't you?

Well, if my father had had his way, I would have been. But my mother wouldn't allow it. But somehow, some of that Catholic stuff blended in to my life. And I love O'Connor.

So does Tommy Lee Jones. He did his Harvard thesis on O'Connor.

Really? Then why doesn't he make a movie of one her stories?

I think he's thought about it, but I think her stories are hard to bring to the screen.

I don't know about that. I thought John Huston did a good job with "Wise Blood."

One final question. In an interview with the New Yorker, around the time your movie "Cold Souls" came out, you mentioned that you thought Willie Nelson's soul would look like an ear of roasted corn. What did you mean by that?

What's wrong with roasted corn?

Well, here we go again. There's nothing wrong with an ear of roasted corn. But I'm just asking you to elaborate.

OK. I was sitting down to lunch one day with a New Yorker writer to talk about "Cold Souls." (The 2009 Woody Allen movie deals with a man who has his soul extracted by a company and put into storage for later use. But the extraction finds a soul much smaller than the man had hoped. The soul, in fact, resembles a chick pea.) So the writer threw out the question of what I thought other people's souls would look like, and he gave me a series of names, and I responded. And when he named Willie Nelson, I threw out the idea of an ear of roasted corn. It was a funny interview.

But why roasted corn? Do you think Willie is corny or something?

Oh no! I love corn. I love roasted corn. It's all buttery and warm and satisfying and comforting. And I love Willie Nelson, too. All of his music is wonderful. He just puts me at ease, even when he's singing a heartbreaking song.

Austin, the home of Willie, thanks you for the clarification.

cealy@statesman.com; 445-3931