When Paul Giamatti talks about books – particularly the pulp fiction of his youth – his entire personality changes. He’s no longer the shy character actor soberly discussing his craft. He becomes a bundle of manic energy. He waves his arms around, his eyes go wide as saucers, and he’s barely able to suppress a giggle. You half-expect him to pounce from his chair and come flying at you, like some lit-geek equivalent of Gollum.
It’s a far cry from the Giamatti we’ve seen in the movies. In films like Sideways and Private Parts, he’s played mostly cantankerous schlubs who could scarcely crack a smile. The closest he’s come to revealing his true spirit was 2003’s American Splendor, where he portrayed comic book icon and literary buff Harvey Pekar. When Giamatti starts talking about cartoon superheroes and sci-fi paperbacks, it’s hard not to wonder if his performance in Splendor wasn’t just good acting but, in fact, a channeling of his inner fanboy.
I met Giamatti at the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, where he was promoting his latest films, The Illusionist and The Hawk Is Dying. We sat in the patio of the Marriott Hotel, because that’s how we roll. When he wasn’t bouncing around excitedly in his chair, Giamatti nibbled on granola bars and picked the crumbs from his belly.
I. FLIP THE CHIMP
THE BELIEVER: Before you got into acting, you considered a career as an animator, isn’t that right?
PAIL GIAMATTI: Yeah. I liked cartoons when I was a kid, and I used to draw constantly. I’d draw little comics on any surface I could find. Even through college, when I was an English major, I’d still draw all the time. I had a vague notion of trying to do animation for a living.
BLVE: Did you have a favorite comic or cartoon when you were growing up?
PG: I was into a little bit of everything. It’s not that I was a huge comic book guy. I mean, when I was a kid, I loved DC comics. Superman, Batman, all of that. I’ve been rereading them with my kid recently. Those old Superman comics from the 60s were just bonkers. They’re so much stranger than most of the mainstream comics being done these days.
BLVR: How so? Were they strange because of the storylines or the artwork?
PG: A little of both. First of all, the drawings were really cool. Everything was very clean and stiff, with lots of sharp angles. It was kind of eerie and anti-realistic in a lot of ways. But the stories made the biggest impression on me. There was one issue where Superman had an army of Supermen robots, and they’re doing his bidding in the Fortress of Solitude. I remember reading that as a kid and thinking, “Why do they have to look like him? Why can’t they just be robots?” But they’re Supermen robots. The plots for some of those 60s-era DC Comics were just trippy.
BLVR: Well, it was the 60s, so there’s a good chance the writers were high as a kite.
PG: It wouldn’t surprise me in the least. DC always had a sort of Midwestern charm, but it was filtered through this tripped-out perspective. They had a lot of stories about time glitches, and the villains were just so random and weird. I’m not sure what the writers were smoking, but it worked.
BLVR: Did you try and reproduce some of that surreal sensibility in your own animation?
PG: I never actually completed an entire cartoon. A friend and I had an idea for a short called Flip the Chimp. We were pretty heavily influenced by animators like Bill Plympton, so we decided to make the dirtiest cartoon ever. It was going to be five minutes of two chimpanzees fucking in a cage. We just wanted to be as grotesque and violent as possible. Monkeys bouncing off the fucking walls, and giant cocks everywhere. It was just filthy and wrong.
BLVR: Did it have anything like a plot?
PG: [Laughs] No, not really. It was about this chimpanzee named Flip, and he walks into a cage and starts fucking another monkey. That’s all it was. It was just (makes obscene monkey fucking noises, throwing his arms around.) We just wanted a lot of crazy movement and bouncing and contorted faces and inflamed monkey asses. Actually, now that I think about it, Flip the Chimp was based on a guy that we knew in college. He was a short, stocky guy who kinda looked like a monkey. For some reason, we were thinking of him when we came up with the idea. We modeled Flip after him down to the last detail.
BLVR: It sounds fantastic. Why didn’t you finish the cartoon?
PG: We just lost interest. We worked on a storyboard for a few months, but that was about it. I think my friend did some cells or whatever the hell they were, but it never got much further than that. I just decided that I didn’t want to do animation anymore. It’s really fucking boring. It seems like it’d be fun, but when you’re actually doing it, it can be laborious.
BLVR: Do you still draw occasionally, just for your own amusement?
PG: No, not really. I reached a point where I said, “I’m either going to do this animation thing or I’m going to try something else.” I flipped a switch in my head, and just decided to give up drawing and never look back. There were a lot of factors involved. To be completely honest, my use of marijuana became a problem.
BLVR: How do you mean? You liked to smoke a lot of pot when you were drawing?
PG: Yeah. I started drawing when I was chemically altered, and then I couldn’t draw when I wasn’t. When I’d tell people, they’d say, “Maybe you only thought you were drawing great stuff.” But I was drawing great stuff when I was smoking pot. And then I lost the knack for it when I wasn’t high. It was really a drag.
BLVR: Have you actually looked at the drawings since then and thought, “Yeah, they were pretty damn good?”
PG: Oh yeah, they were really cool. When I was in college, I did this comic that was kinda a gothic western. It was about this character named Mr. Blake who was always dressed in black. I tried not to do any actual frames, it was all over the page. Then I saw Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man a few years later, and the character’s name is Blake and it was kinda the exact thing I was trying to do with my comic.
BLVR: Do you feel like you were ripped off, or just ahead of your time?
PG: Neither. A gothic western is not the most original concept. It’s not like I came up with it. But when I saw Dead Man, I was like, “That’s what I was trying to draw.” But I didn’t. I couldn’t, really. That’s what was in my head, but I couldn’t get it on the page.
BLVR: You’ve done a lot of voice-over work for cartoons over the past few years, from Robots to The Amazing Screw-On Head to Asterix. Do you ever wish you could be on the other end of it, doing the drawings rather than providing the voices?
PG: Yeah, sometimes. But it’s not the sort of animation that I ever wanted to do. Cartoons these days put so much emphasis on capturing the reality. But what’s the point? They’re trying to make the object look as real as possible. The bottle of water will really look like a bottle of water. Which is cool, and I’m sure it’s fascinating for the animators who are trying to get the right light effect on the bottle. But, for me, it’s just not as interesting.
BLVR: It goes back to what you were saying about the Superman comics during the 60s, which tried to go against realism.
PG: Yeah. I mean, sometimes it’s great. I liked the Tintin comics. Do you know those?
BLVR: They seem vaguely familiar.
PG: They were Belgian comics by this guy Georges Remi, and they’re very beautifully drawn and super-realistic. He could draw the ocean in such a way that you’d really believe it. You felt like you could almost walk into it. But I find myself more attracted to things like those old Hannah-Barbara cartoons. I’ve been watching The Flintstones again with my kid, and the art is just incredible. If you focus in on the leg of his sofa, it’s like this crazy abstract thing. I could spend hours just staring at the texture of a stone in a Flintstones cartoon. [Laughs.] I suppose that sounds kinda nutty.
BLVR: A little bit. Are you sure you’re not stoned right now?
PG: [Laughs] And that is why I don’t draw anymore.
II. “I REMEMBER LYING ON MY BED WITH A COPY OF CALL OF CTHULHU AND FEELING LIKE I WANTED TO RAPE THE BOOK.”
BLVR: While at Yale, you did your senior thesis on Herman Melville.
PG: That’s right.
BLVR: What is it about Melville’s books that made you want to devote your academic career to studying him?
PG: I don’t know. I liked the idea of being able to sit and read his books again, but when it came to writing about him, it got a little dull. I had a hard time with that thesis. But I’ve always loved Melville. I guess part of it came from growing up in New England, and being surrounded by so much of the same scenery from Melville’s books. I was also into Hawthorne for the same reasons. But with Melville, I don’t know, it just had such a powerful impact on me. When I was a kid, my grandfather gave me a picture book of Moby Dick, which had these really lurid, bloody drawings of the whale being killed. I was just fascinated by the white whale.
BLVR: I’m assuming in the literal sense and not the metaphorical “white whale”?
PG: [Laughs] No, the metaphorical parts of that book probably went over my head. I just liked the idea of hunting a whale on the polar seas. Once I finished Moby Dick, I wanted to read everything Melville ever wrote. Billy Budd, obviously. And Omoo and Mardi. Have you read much of Melville?
BLVR: I tried to crack open Pierre recently.
PG: That’s my favorite! That book is just batty! It’s nuts. It’s also really bleak and disturbing. It’s peculiar because of the way he wrote it and why he wrote it. I think he started writing Pierre before Moby Dick was even published. It’s interesting, because so much of it is analogous to Melville’s own life. It’s basically about a failed writer. Melville never had much success after Moby Dick. So he just gave up and went to work as a custom’s inspector at the docks in New York City. It’s such a radical departure from what we expect from authors. Guys like Poe fed into the romantic myth of authors doing themselves in. They become obsessive about their work and eventually drink themselves to death. But Melville went the other way. He became this bureaucratic nobody who sat behind a desk.
BLVR: I wasn’t expecting Pierre to be quite so wacky.
PG: But that’s what’s great about it. It’s filled with these crazy, almost psychedelic visuals. Did you get to the part where he goes to Greenwich Village?
BLVR: Not yet.
PG: Oh, man, you’re gonna love it! He meets this crazy guy with blue glasses. And he keeps seeing this weird spectral figure, and there are all these creepy Eastern-European bohemian intellectuals with huge beards. It’s really, really weird. It would make a great cartoon.
BLVR: How did you discover Melville? Your dad was a professor of Renaissance Literature at Yale. I assume he had something to do with it.
PG: Well, I kinda discovered Melville on my own, but he was very into the fact that I was reading Melville for the first time. He loved Moby Dick and reread it often, though I think it might’ve been the only Melville he actually liked.
BLVR: Did you and your dad share a lot of similar tastes in books?
PG: Oh, sure. We both had a thing for crappy spy novels. Not just the crappy ones, but the good ones, too. He was really into pulp fiction and westerns and things like that. We used to read a lot of Eric Ambler books, like The Mask of Dimitros, Uncommon Danger, Epitaph For a Spy, all those great spy thrillers in wartime Europe.
BLVR: Was he the biggest influence on what you read, or did you ever pick up books that he didn’t care for?
PG: When I was 14, I went off on my own and started reading Sax Rohmer’s Fu Manchu books. I think my dad actually thought that stuff was crap. He used to look at me and say, “Why are you reading that shit?” But the Fu Manchu books were just extraordinary. Horrible racist claptrap, of course, but also surprisingly well written. I’m a great lover of intrinsic weirdness. At around the same time, I got into HP Lovecraft and Robert E. Howard. Have you read any Lovecraft?
BLVR: Oh god yes. There’s something about a Lovecraft story that just makes you want to curl up under the covers with a flashlight and read it all night.
PG:[Laughs]You really do, you really do! That’s exactly it, man! Cause I can literally remember lying on my bed with a copy of Call of Cthulhu, and just hiding under the covers with it and feeling like I wanted to rape the book.
BLVR: You’re not going to find a better story about voodoo cults and a winged octopus.
PG: You’re really not. And I sometimes think I was into authors like Rohmer and Lovecraft just because my father wasn’t into them. They became my own. I remember when I was a kid and I went to a bookstore with $10. There was a single volume of Sherlock Holmes stories for sale for nine dollars, and I was like, “I can buy this for myself!” It was a mind-blowing experience. I can buy this! I can take it home, and it’s mine. I made the decision. It was a life-changing moment for me.
BLVR: When your father passed away, you spent the next year in your Seattle apartment reading most of your dad’s books. Was that your way of maintaining a relationship with him?
PG: Yeah, I guess it was. It helped me have a connection with him even after he was gone.
BLVR: Did you read mostly books that you had already read and discussed with him, or did you pick up something new, something that might give you a fresh insight into who he was and what kind of literature he enjoyed?
PG: [Long pause.] That’s a good question. I tried to read a little bit of everything. I spent most of my time reading heavy literature, but it wasn’t necessarily the kinds of books that he devoted his life to. I didn’t really put much thought into picking specific books that would remind me of him. It was mostly about the fetishistic thing that comes with collecting and loving books. It was just having these books from his library, the objects themselves, that made me feel connected to him. What was actually inside the books was secondary.
BLVR: So you were reading “heavy” literature? Does that mean you gave up on the pulpy science fiction from your childhood?
PG: Just temporarily. There was a time when I was into a lot of highbrow stuff, like Kafka and Pynchon and The Crying of Lot 49 and all that. But lately I’ve gone into this weird regression where I’m rereading all the pulp and sci-fi books again. Maybe it’s because I have a son now and I want to share this stuff with him. These days, I read more Lovecraft than anything else. It’s funny how your tastes in books changes over the years. I can remember reading Robert Ludlum books when I was a kid, like The Holcroft Covenant and The Chancellor Manuscript, all those great conspiracies about the Fourth Reich and J. Edgar Hoover, and just being enamored by it. I tried to read one of his books again recently. The Matarese Circle, I think it was. Some crazy shit with Sicilian secret societies. I was like, “Holy Christ, it’s 500 pages long.” I just couldn’t get through it. But when I was 12, it was the greatest thing I’d ever read.
III. JUDGING A BOOK BY ITS COVER
BLVR: I heard that as a kid you were obsessed with baseball umpires. What does that mean, exactly? Did you want to be one? Were you fascinated by umpires as authority figures?
PG: The umpire thing is interesting. I don’t think it had anything to do with their authority. It was more a fascination with the appearance of the home plate umps. They wear those old school chest protectors and the mask and they’re always dressed in black.
BLVR: It almost sounds like the costume of a DC comic super-villain.
PG: [Laughs] Yeah, exactly. There’s something weirdly sinister about those cats. And of course I’ve always been drawn to the ancillary supporting players in drama. If you look at a game of baseball as a narrative of some kind, the umps are the bit players. They’re the character actors. In almost any situation, I’m invariably interested in the people that nobody pays much attention to.
BLVR: So you were less intrigued by baseball as a sport than as a study in dramatic archetypes?
PG: Yeah, I guess. I can’t say I’ve ever been much of a sports guy. I was a perfectly fine athlete as a kid. Not great but not terrible. I was an okay baseball player. And because of my dad, I’m genetically a Boston Red Sox fan. When they won the pennant, it was just amazing.
BLVR: I know some Boston fans that suffer from post-pennant depression. Once you’ve beaten the curse, you’ll never have that feeling again of overcoming the odds. You can always go for another pennant, but it’s just a sequel. Nothing will be as thrilling as the first time. Do you feel the same way?
PG: The Red Sox winning required a disturbing paradigm shift that I was barely able to make. I’m such an idiotic lover of the underdog. Now that they’re winners, I kinda don’t like the Red Sox as much anymore.
BLVR: Well, if you’re looking for an underdog, there’ll always be the Chicago Cubs.
PG: Yeah, I’m probably switching to the Cubs. You can count on them to be beautiful losers.
BLVR: As long as we’re on the subject of your extracurricular interests, I understand you’re an avid reader of the Fortean Times, the conspiracy-theory magazine.
PG: You mean “strange phenomenon” magazine.
BLVR: So it has more stories about Bigfoot and the Loch Ness Monster than the JFK assassination and government cover-ups?
PG: It’s got all of that. It didn’t used to be about conspiracies. The word “Fortean” has a pretty elastic definition now. It covers a lot of topics. But I think originally, it meant flying saucers and yetis and that kinda thing.
BLVR: Do you actually believe in any of this, or are you just drawn to conspiracies as a different type of fantasy?
PG: It’s almost a logical extension of reality. It may not be true, but it’s the way things are. You know what I mean? It’s not literally true that AIDS is a government conspiracy to wipe out the black man, but it’s the way it is. They’re good metaphors.
BVLR: So it’s like good science fiction?
PG: Exactly. There’s an imaginative dimension to it that’s as satisfying as reading a really great science fiction novel. It’s like with HP Lovecraft or Philip K. Dick. You know that it’s all meant as fiction, but on some level, it’s also based on truth.
BLVR: Since your dad was so opposed to authors like Lovecraft, how did you discover their books in the first place? Did you just wander into a bookstore and scan the shelves until you found something that caught your eye?
PG: Yeah, that was pretty much it. That’s the way I’ve done it my entire life. More often than not, I’ll judge a book by its cover. That’s how I got into Philip K. Dick. His books have some amazingly cool covers. When I was a kid, I didn’t know anything about him. I just pulled one of his books off the shelf – it was Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said – and the cover looked really druggy and weird. And the story more than lived up to the cover. The whole idea of a futuristic police state where you can lose your identity really appealed to my inherent paranoia.
BLVR: Speaking of Philip Dick, didn’t you just narrate one of his audio books?
PG: I did. I read Scanner Darkly. It was a difficult experience, but I really enjoyed it.
BLVR: How was it difficult?
PG: Well, I discovered that these books are not really meant to be read aloud. Scanner Darkly has that constant shifting of consciousness. I kinda fucked myself by trying to pick certain voices for each character. It became more and more difficult to figure out when a certain character was thinking or saying something, and when it was an omniscient narrator. It got very confusing. But on a personal level, it made realize again just how fucking amazing Philip Dick was as an author. He clearly wrote the thing in a white heat, just slamming it out on the typewriter. There are sections of Scanner Darkly that make no sense whatsoever, and it becomes especially apparent when you’re trying to read it out loud. Clearly he was just not stopping. You start to see how the book was a map of his consciousness as he’s writing it.
BLVR: Did you prepare for it by going back and rereading the book again?
PG: I tried to reread some of it, but it didn’t really help. In fact, it kind of hindered what I was trying to do. When it comes to Philip Dick’s books, overthinking it can only get in the way.
BLVR: Are there any modern science fiction authors who appeal to you as much as Dick and Lovecraft? Or do you prefer to stick to the classics?
PG: I try to read as much new stuff as I can. I’ve been into Samuel Delany lately, but I haven’t read his big one yet. What’s it called again?
PG: Yeah, Dahlgren. Science fiction is a weird thing. I don’t know if this is true of Dahlgren, but sometimes in science fiction, certain books are celebrated as masterpieces, and then you read them and they’re terrible. James Blish wrote this book called A Case of Conscience, and people were like, “This is proof that science fiction is great literature.” I read it and thought, “This is awful.” I could barely get through it. It’s a funny thing with genre stuff like science fiction. Everybody is trying to write the next Great American Novel. They should just write a good science fiction story.
BVLR: Yeah, just give us some robots and spaceships and we’ll be fine.
PG: Yeah! That’s cool. Give me some robots who want to destroy the planet. That’ll be great. I’ll buy that. That’s why Philip K. Dick was such a master. He could take highbrow ideas and write them in a crappy B-movie way. It’s an easy read. It’s a fun read. And in the end, that’s all I really want from a book.
(This story originally appeared, in a slightly different form, in the April 2006 issue of the Believer magazine.)