Paul Giamatti is a man of many talents, able to traverse a variety of characters from his compassionate wine companion in “Sideways”, his sublime performance in “The Iceman Cometh” on Broadway and his more visceral performances in films like “Shoot ‘Em Up” and “The Hangover, Part II”. After sitting on a panel with his fellow actors as well as the showrunners discussing their 3rd season of Showtime’s “Billions” at the 2018 Showtime TCA Winter Press Day, Giamatti spoke to The Inside Reel about modulation of energy, likability and the quandary that is. U.S. Attorney Chuck Rhodes.
Can you talk about the modulation of energy within the performance because you have to go to such highs, such lows, and then the quiet moments versus the more intense ones?
PG: Yeah. [Rhodes is] kind of a manic-depressive personality. He’s kind of bipolar. I don’t know. I mean it’s good writing that helps you modulate that. I hope it modulates. I try to modulate it, but I don’t know. That’s just the character.
I mean it is a physical thing that it comes out emotionally?
PG: Sure. You’re just adjusting your energy. You’ve kind of got a map that tells you where you’re supposed to go and you just follow that plan.
Have your feelings about your character changed since you started playing him?
PG: There are actually [things] I like more about him as it’s gone along even as reprehensible as he’s gotten. I liked how clever he was last season, and he continues to be, although he’s very menaced by a lot of things going on. I actually have come to like him a lot more. I just find him more — he’s more fun to play. I mean, in my personal opinion, he’s a psychopath. They all are though on this show. Nobody particularly comes off very well. And this is actually interesting in this season because stuff that happens with the Clancy Brown character elicits some of the residual good stuff that’s still in there about [Rhodes] that reminds him of, “Oh, right. I do love the law and I do love administering justice properly when it needs to be administered.” That begins to come out of him a little bit too.
What was the biggest challenge prepping for the big collision scene at the end of Season Two?
PG: We didn’t have a whole lot of time. It is funny that that happens to me when — it’s very hard. Actors will always tell you laughing is very hard to do on camera. I actually am okay at it. The bigger problem I have is that once I start, I can’t stop (laughing). So that actually became the trickier thing in shooting that was getting me to stop laughing eventually so we could shoot anything. But we probably did two or three takes of it.
Can you talk about the idea of ambition within? Because you were saying it’s not about the money with this character, it’s almost more about the power. Can you talk about that?
PG: Yeah. I mean it is. It’s more about subtler things about power and stuff with him than even the money. He doesn’t care about the money, you know? And he is deeply ambitious. He’s hugely ambitious. This governor thing, but that becomes complicated in this season too, about what does he really want to do. And again, it comes to that [idea] where he starts thinking about, “Well, wait a minute. I actually have a pretty good job, and I actually can do good things here.”
Does it have to do with playing the heart of the matter? You have to play him as human, obviously.
PG: Yeah. He has a conscience. He’s got more of a conscience than you normally would think he has. These guys play at — it’s always ping-ponging back and forth. I will get the script and be like, “Wow. This is genuinely horrible. This guy’s horrible again,” and then like the next script I’ll be like, “Oh. Actually, he’s not so bad again.” So I never really know where the hell he is. He has more of a conscience, and his father really has none. There’s a huge conflict between the two of them.
And within the zeigeist there is that whole father/son aspect playing at the top echelon of US Government right now. Can you talk about the perception about what expectation means? It can be Greek. It can be mythic. Can you talk about that with those greater themes as it reflects in today’s society?
PG: Yeah. That’s true. Well, for sure. All of those things are a part of it. All those kinds of massive themes are [there] — but also dominance, and all that kind of stuff. It’s weirdly being acted out on the world stage.
But is there stuff that you sort of cling onto about him? Is it just that the wants of the father including into the wants of the son?
PG: For sure. The more interesting stuff is stuff about the father. It’s what’s being said and what’s not said, and also the way in which they’re wrestling and the father’s holding him down. All of that gets very shifty and interesting.
By Tim Wassberg
Diversity of content and of character has always been of paramount importance with the Showtime structure which is definitively reflected in their highlights for their Winter TCA presentations.
Our Cartoon President This animated romp from Stephen Colbert balances from his main gig on “The Late Show” but he speaks to the inherent challenges of both endeavors. The first has to do with the constantly changing aspects of the Trump administration: “Many a day [at The Late Show] at 5:15…no shit…we have to throw out 10 minutes of monologue.” But that said he says the approach for the animation is an interesting one: “[It is] the relationships you imagine they have animated. I think Michael Wolff [in his book] stole all 10 of our episodes…and we just guessed. We treat this series like a documentary crew came into The White House.” The irony of the current political climate shows how fluid the changes can be. Colbert explains: “In a pinch, tomorrow’s show could have a cold open on how Trump is a very stable genius.” (laughing) But he is quick to point out that Trump’s behavior shouldn’t be considered normal: “I don’t think we are complimenting him by making a cartoon out of him. I don’t think there is anything normal about his behavior. While we are doing comedy, we remind [the audience] that this is the kind of behavior you don’t want in The White House.” Despite this, Colbert realizes the comic potential: “The great benefit comedically is how uncontrolled his communication with the world is. However I love my country more than I love a good joke. He does it so often that you always have fresh material. I don’t want to hang out with him but he is the President of the United States. I go out to ‘The Late Show’ audience every night and we have this shared catharsis to laugh at. It is not jokes about what he did. It is character comedy.” Colbert also speaks to the difference in tone with his former home: “The Colbert Report”: “It is totally different vibe. ‘The Late Show’ is easier than the old gig. This guy is very different. We give our opinion on what they have heard today. But it is important that I don’t break news to my audience. It is about sharing the audience’s experiences back to them with my ideas. I am their buddy. My job is to talk about the policy the audience is already worried about.”
Billions This show continues to be a Machiavellian mediation on the notion of power but also the ambition and overuse of its influence. Brian Koppelman, co-creator of the show with David Levien with whom he also wrote “Ocean’s 13” & Rounders speaks on the elements of power and control: “It is about privlidge, It is about people that don’t have to. It is simply [dictated by] the societal region. [The other aspect] is about kings who want even more. We have long been fascinated about ambition which sometimes stands in for true character.” Damian Lewis, who plays eccentric billionaire Bobby Axelrod, speaks to the characters’ focal point: “A dramatic device that is being used here is about [the accumulation] of desire and want. We enjoy watching the desperation and ambiguity in these lives. In terms of these guys [in perspective of] the real world, they do good things and they do bad things. I think trajectory of any kind for an actor is interesting. People go down in this show but they come back up pretty quick. I think that buoyancy is why it is so fun to watch.”
The Chi The aspect of ambition from humble beginnings resonates in Lena Waite’s tale of Chicago’s urban neighborhoods but for her it is about maintaining authenticity: “Our big thing is that I want to make [sure] people can trust us. We are making sure the actors get the lingo and the swag [right]. [Whether it is] rollerskating, block parties…there are very complex [aspects] about the city…very layered. I started with the characters first and I named them with people from my life so you always have people that you care about.” Common, who exec produces the show and is also a Chicago native, talks about the texture of hope but also reality: “Joy is finding a bright place even when it is tough. Our city is unique but it resembles other inner cities in America. As Lena says, Chicago’s roots come from the South. Our history is thick. [And] the fact that Lena wrote this is valuable. She doesn’t have to talk about anybody about what is like to be a black person. The dynamic and depth of those things has to be told by us. We have to show people of color as colorful. I like it because it is fresh. We are not fitting into any stereotype. When we talk about black life, we just part of this pie too. And part of that is having relationships with other nationalities.” Waite adds to this point describes the intricacies of the details and the relationships between the characters: “My whole house looked like ‘True Detective’ when I was figuring it out. That way I had a road map to where I wanted to go.”
Patrick Melrose The essence of addiction and excess plays into the texture of this character within a privileged world but also the effect of mental illness. Made popular by a series of novels by Edward St. Aubyn, Benedict Cumberbatch takes on the title character in a 5-part limited series. Cumberbatch, speaking via satellite from Atlanta, comments on the texture of the character: “Relevance is always won by the universal truth in a story. If told, any story that is as mammoth in its spokes as this, goes beyond beyond analysis of class critique. We need to reminded about the damage that can be done to innocence.” Cumberbatch then speaks on the different layers within the character: “Paranoid schizophrenia rears its head and this is when [Patrick] is in the throws of drug addiction. These voices don’t just emulate from inside of him. Patrick is someone who has a great deal of tenderness but is a damaged human being. It is very different to play a character whose chaos is manifested all the time. The real goal is achieving truth but not to heighten yet still keep true to character. I’d always go home at the end of the day thinking ‘Did I do enough or too much.’ But then the very definition of externalizing emotions is role playing them inside a hotel on your own.”
By Tim Wassberg