Heights actor Paul Giamatti stars in best picture contender

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Given the types of offbeat, sad-sack underdogs he often portrays on the big screen, it seems just his luck that Paul Giamatti would be left off the ballot for a Best Actor Oscar, following months of critical praise for his depiction of a schlubby, down-trodden wine connoisseur in the buddy comedy "Sideways."

Best-known for his supporting roles in "Man on the Moon," "Planet of the Apes" and "Private Parts," and for his lead roles in "Duets" and "American Splendor," the 37-year-old character actor earned Screen Actors Guild and Golden Globe award nominations for his portrayal of Miles, a failed novelist on a tour through California wine country with his best pal Jack (Thomas Haden Church). Giamatti lost out to Jamie Foxx, the star of the Ray Charles biopic, "Ray," not once but twice. (However, Giamatti is sharing in the glory of a Best Cast SAG Award and an Oscar nomination for Best Picture for "Sideways.")

Talking to reporters in Manhattan recently, Giamatti, who lives with his wife and son in Brooklyn Heights, explained what appeals to him about representing the defeated and the depressed in films.

"I find it interesting to play unlikable people," Giamatti declared. "There are many unlikable people in the world, and so it’s a more realistic portrait of humanity to have a lot of unlikable people [in movies]. I find it more interesting. I’m happy to play a likable person, too, but it’s harder sometimes to play a likable, happy person."

Adapted by "Election" and "About Schmidt" scribes Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor from Rex Pickett’s novel, "Sideways" follows Miles and Jack as they bicker and drink their way through countless wine tastings, finding companionship with two hooch-savvy locals (Virginia Madsen and Sandra Oh). Although the film is a comedy, Jack’s constant quest for instant gratification despite the consequences and Miles’ dark moods could have become grating or pushed the film into drama had it not been so deftly written and finely acted.

"It was a fine line in this thing where it could really just become annoying and irritating," Giamatti agreed, pointing out that he was drawn to the film in part because it seemed to be as much about the breakdown of a friendship as it is about two men trying to find themselves.

"It’s supposed to, in some ways, be annoying and irritating, so it is kind of a fine line. Both of the characters are really unlikable. Whether they’re depressed or not, they’re not particularly likable guys and that’s the more tricky thing: to keep people liking them somehow."

For the happily married (to wife Elizabeth Cohen) father (to 3-year-old son, Sam), playing a divorced guy, who uses his encyclopedic knowledge of the grape to transcend his dreary life, was anything but a grind.

"There’s something fun about it, actually," argued the veteran of 40 films. "Perversely. Getting to pop into something that’s so extreme, in a way, that it’s funny. What’s sort of nice about the whole movie is that someone is so grotesque and extreme that it’s funny. The guy’s so depressed, it’s pathetic. It’s really kind of fun, actually, to be that depressed."

To prepare for the role, Giamatti and Church spent time visiting vineyards and tasting wine in California’s Central Valley a couple of weeks before shooting began. The Yale University graduate said he was eager to get inside his character’s head, but recalled concentrating more on how the connoisseurs talked and acted, than trying to learn a lot about the wine itself.

"The wine knowledge, I don’t have any, and I didn’t pick up any. Not a bit. I’m like a wall for that information. It was all written down, so I could fake it. What was more interesting to me was how those people are; their sort of behavior and the whole sort of persona those people adopt, those obsessive wine people," said Giamatti. "I really should be creating more of a mystique about the craft of acting, but I didn’t feel like it was that important that I know all that stuff about different wines. I really did feel it was important to know what those people were like."

Although wine played a major role in the film, Giamatti said he and his fellow actors used stunt spirits most of the time.

"We had this non-alcoholic wine, which we were drinking, which was just horrible, and it gave me and Tom headaches because we had to be banging this stuff down at 7 o’clock in the morning," said Giamatti. "There were a couple of scenes where we drank a fair amount of real wine."

Next up for Giamatti is a supporting role as manager Joe Gould in Ron Howard’s Depression-era boxing movie "Cinderella Man," starring Renee Zellweger and Russell Crowe. Due out this summer, the part marks a departure for Giamatti.

"I play a fun character and a different kind of guy," he said. "Not a depressed guy, a very sort of optimistic guy. It was a good time, but a long shoot - five or six months."

Asked how he is handling all this attention after years of smaller parts, the son of actress Toni Smith and former Yale University President and National Baseball Commissioner A. Bartlett Giamatti said, surprisingly, that life hasn’t changed that much for him recently.

"I’ve kind of had a steady thing for years. It’s just kind of gone up, down, up, down. It’s been such a long thing. Definitely, I get recognized by more people in an airport than I used to. Definitely. Whether it actually affects my career, that remains to be seen," said Giamatti. "Having a family helps. Having to actually pay bills. I think that probably helps a lot."


"Sideways" is now playing at the BAM Rose Cinemas (30 Lafayette Ave. at Ashland Place in Fort Greene). Tickets are $10. For screening days and times, visit the Web site at or call (718) 636-4100.

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