In characters like the uncommonly candid Harvey Pekar of "American Splendor," the frank, impudent John Adams of the HBO miniseries, and, now, the self-destructive Barney Parnofsky of "Barney's Version," Paul Giamatti has brought very human, messy lives to movie screens more accustomed to simpler, neater portraits.
More worn and shaggy than the average movie actor, Giamatti sports a tousled appearance that works in tandem with his warts-and-all performances. Think of his wine-enthusiast Miles in "Sideways," a man of refined taste who nevertheless erupts by pouring a vat of wine over his head.
"Maybe I have a propensity to want to mess things up," Giamatti granted in a recent interview over coffee at a restaurant in his New York neighborhood of Brooklyn Heights, where he lives with wife Elizabeth and son Samuel.
"Barney's Version," Richard J. Lewis' adaptation of Mordecai Richler's beloved-in-Canada novel, gives Giamatti wide berth to revel in imperfection in the title role as well as a nomination for best actor in a musical or comedy at Sunday's Golden Globes.
Barney is a boozy, ego-less, cigar-smoking TV producer (he cares little for his schlocky product, naming his Montreal production company Totally Unnecessary Productions), who thinks enough of decorum that he pursues his third wife at the wedding to his second.
Much of the joy of the film -- which is divided into three parts, one for each wife (Rachelle Lefevre, Minnie Driver, Rosamund Pike) -- is seeing Giamatti play Barney across time (he ages some 30 years in the film), sickness, folly and love.
It's another lead performance for the 43-year-old actor, who, after years of smaller character roles, has proven that his acclaimed performances in "American Splendor" and "Sideways" weren't leading-man aberrations after all, but the start of a busy decade that would also include an Oscar nomination for "Cinderella Man," an Emmy for "John Adams" and notable films including "The Illusionist," "Duplicity," "The Last Station" and "Cold Souls."
"I have no idea how I've pulled it off," Giamatti laughed. "The luckiest thing that I've had happen to me is that, yeah, I've gotten to play lead roles in things, but the supporting stuff that I've been offered and gotten the opportunity to do has been so interesting. Lots of times, it's more interesting than the lead roles I get offered."
If there is one word Giamatti frequently uses in discussing his characters, it is "tricky." It's a kind of resistance to seeing any person, any character as anything other than a complicated individual.
"People are tricky, man," he says. "Life is tricky. Everything is a puzzle to figure out, in some way. If you want to get in there, it's tricky."
Giamatti grew up in New Haven, Conn., the son of Bartlett Giamatti, a comparative literature professor at Yale who later became president of the university and commissioner of Major League Baseball. The younger Giamatti studied literature as an undergrad at Yale before getting his masters in acting.
Someone who got an early look at Giamatti's talent was Tom McCarthy, the actor-director whose upcoming film "Win Win" stars Giamatti as a small-town attorney who also coaches high school wrestling. He was a year behind Giamatti at the Yale School of Drama and has remained friends with him.
McCarthy says it was very clear from early on that Giamatti was skilled.
"No one has come out of Yale or any other school that I know of and worked that steadily, that quickly, at such a high level," McCarthy said. "Literally, the guy has not stopped working. He just keeps rolling."