The two first teamed up for 2004's Sideways, a road trip movie about two middle-aged men adrift in wine country. The film was nominated for Best Picture at the 77th Oscars (among five total nominations), and Payne took home the Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar. As Giamatti tells it, the success of that film didn't necessarily guarantee another collaboration. "I didn't expect to ever work with him in the first place," admits the actor, "so I'm amazed I got to do it twice!"
In the years after Sideways, Giamatti and Payne considered doing a few different projects together, but none of them panned out. "We always wanted to work together again," he says, "but whether that was ever going to happen was always an open question." That is, until The Holdovers, which finally reunited the Oscar-nominated actor and the Oscar-winning auteur after 19 years.
Set in the 1970s, the dramedy casts Giamatti as crotchety boarding school teacher Paul Hunham, who is forced to remain on campus over his Christmas break to babysit the students who are not going home for the holiday. Like Sideways, The Holdovers is an occasionally over-the-top but ultimately tender dramedy, and a fitting follow-up for Giamatti and Payne. Still, the duo didn't have an easy time getting the movie made, and Giamatti says, for a few years, it looked like it wasn't going to get made at all — until one day it did.
"It was really touch and go at points. It never seemed to work out schedule-wise, and then it finally did. And it worked out particularly well, because Alexander wanted there to be snow in the film and we shot it in the winter. So, we really got snow," Giamatti tells A.frame. "It was kind of miraculous that it all happened so beautifully for us in the end."
A.frame: When you were together on set again, did you notice ways in which Alexander had changed as a director in the years since Sideways? Or were there any ways you realized you had changed as an actor?
I would like to think that I had more facility as an actor than I did [when we made Sideways]. I'd like to think that. With Alexander, it was interesting, because I don't know if he's necessarily changed as a director, but the movie was a different movie than Sideways. The way he filmed it was obviously different, because it was done with a '70s eye. Even the sound was different; it was more of a '70s recording process, where it was mono sound, which meant that nobody was mic'd up for it. On Sideways, everybody was mic'd up so that we could talk over each other. It was a different feeling movie than this one.
The Holdovers is just a very different film, and Alexander had a very specific sense of what the pace and timing of it was going to be, which I caught onto pretty fast. I realized, 'Okay, this is a little bit more of a pace-y film than Sideways was.' There was less of a loose, improvisatory feel. This is a more precise movie, so I don't know if he's necessarily changed a lot, or if he was just different because this film called for a different style on set.
Alexander has spoken about the lengths he and his crew went to recapture the 1970s on-screen. Was it easy for you, as an actor, to get lost in its period setting?
Yes, because everyone involved was creating the environment of the film with incredible care. My character's room had so much life and texture in it that you're never going to see, or that you might only see quickly. But there was so much there. The drawers were all filled with stuff. If I wanted to get a period-accurate stapler out of the drawer at the bottom of his desk, I could. I could also contribute to it. I asked for there to be a bunch of old, beat-up paperback mystery novels in his room, because I think the one pleasure this guy has in his life is reading mystery novels. So, they were there, but you don’t see them. Then there was all the cigarette and pipe smoke in the rooms and how cold it was, plus the clanking of the radiators. Da'Vine [Joy Randolph] always talks about the clanking radiators. They're not on the soundtrack of the movie, but we were always hearing them in the actual locations we were in. Those were all real places. They weren't sets, and that was important.
Were there period details in any of the locations that you particularly loved?
The fact that the liquor store that [Dominic Sessa, who plays Angus Tully, and I] go to was even there at all was amazing. I don't think we really had to do much at all to that liquor store, or to the guy who worked there. He's in the movie for one brief second, and the detail of using that actual guy is really great. That's a thing Alexander just does. In Sideways, there was a convenience store scene and I remember they suddenly needed a cashier for the scene, and everyone was like, 'We don't have someone to play the cashier!' Alexander looked at the guy who owned the store and said, 'Why don't you do it, sir?' And the guy was like, 'Okay.' That was great. There were so many amazing details in The Holdovers, though. The dining hall we were in was extraordinary, and the kitchen that Mary works in was unbelievable. There were just decades' worth of caked-in grease in that place. The chapel we shot in was amazing, too. It's not a period detail, but what also made the film feel more real was the snow. It was all real snow. Every time it's snowing in the movie, it was really snowing. It makes a difference when that's real and when it's not.
Your character has a lot of specific quirks — from his pipe to his eye condition and his endless drinking. As an actor, what do you do to make sure that the external aspects of a character don't overwhelm his humanity?
It's a funny thing with this character, because I went to a school like the one in the film about 10 years after it takes place, and a lot of guys like him were still there at that time. They all had a schtick, and in a lot of ways, my character has built up a schticky persona. In a way, he knows he's the pipe-smoking, corduroy guy with a tie. It's his schtick. It's his persona, and we get to watch it break away in the movie. But in some ways, I'm okay if you look at him at first and go, 'What a bunch of schtick,' because it's like, 'Yeah, these guys are like this!' He's come up with this whole persona, and he just lives in it. He's living this ridiculous fantasy where he's this erudite academic genius regarding the ancient world, and it's all a schtick. But he loves it. He gets off on it. It's a lot of fun for him.
Your character has a lot of empathy for both Da'Vine and Dominic's characters and is simultaneously also very uncomfortable with emotional intimacy. What was your approach to threading the needle in playing those two sides of him?
I really wanted that to be part of the character. I didn't ever want you to just suddenly be like, 'Oh, what a sweet guy!' He's really not good at any of it. He has to give a toast at one point in the movie, and he doesn't really know how to do it. He's not a guy who does those kinds of things. I didn't want it to suddenly seem like he's a different person in those moments. You're right that he has it in him, but he doesn't quite know how to handle those things. Like in the scene where he tries to comfort Mary while they're watching "The Newlywed Game," he's really thinking, 'Oh, God. I do not know what to say to this woman right now. I don't want to talk about any of this… but I also do! I don't want her to just feel bad or alone.'
You have a lot of very, very wordy dialogue in this film. When you’re reading a script, do you find that purely exciting, or is the thought of having to sell certain lines a little daunting, too?
It was very exciting, because I understood its purpose. There are people like my character, and I feel like he enjoys and really relishes the sound of his own voice when he's delivering his insults. I think he's got all of them sitting in the back of his head at all times, because he really enjoys the art of language. He enjoys the cut-and-thrust act of taking out all the kids around him with his words, so it was fun to do. It's a big part of his character. It's always challenging to get that stuff right and make sure that it sounds real. Hopefully, it does, but again, it's also all just part of his schtick.
Alexander has been characterized over the years as a 'humanist filmmaker.' Do you view his films that way, as someone who has now starred in two of them?
Yes. I definitely think about him as someone who is interested in people and human beings. But he also has a great ability to make everything in his films heightened. That's the thing I can't explain about what he does. He knows how to pick the right actors who can do it, I suppose, like Da'Vine and Dominic and Carrie Preston. All these people he casts can do it how he wants, so the film themselves can be a little bit too big then come down and then go a little bit too big again. I don’t know how he does that, but the humor in his films always makes the pathos more meaningful, and the pathos makes the humor more meaningful. He always puts the characters first, because the characters are what are ultimately going to determine what's funny and what's pathetic about what you see.
Your character really takes Dominic's character under his wing. As someone who has as much experience making movies as you do, did you find that your relationship with Dominic, who hadn't ever worked on a film before, mirrored the one between your characters at all?
Dominic's amazing, first of all. When I saw his audition tape, the scenes he did were great. But it was when I got to watch him just talk about his father and his family life that I realized, 'This guy's incredible, and if we can just take what he's doing here as a person and let him do it in the movie, we'll be fine.' Did I take him under my wing? I suppose there were some ways in which I felt protective of him and wanted to make sure that he felt okay and comfortable. I didn't need to teach him anything, though. What I really wanted to do was make sure that he never got too lost in his own head in any way. I was always happy to point out to him how good he was all the time. I don't even think he necessarily needed me to do that, but I felt great affection for him, and that just grew as the movie went along. So, yeah, it mimicked our characters' relationship to an extent. But that guy knows what he's doing. It's very impressive what he can do.
Last question: What's the secret to the perfect bad football throw?
I'd like to point out that I can throw a football. I just want people to know that! [Laughs] We did that scene a bunch of different ways and sometimes Alexander was like, 'It's gotta be worse.' And I would think, 'Am I not doing this badly enough?' We probably did it three times, and the trick really was not to fall over while I was doing it, because it was incredibly slippery in that one area where we shot it. I really threw it more like a shot put. That's what I thought the character would do. He doesn't know how to do it. He just thinks you push it forward! How do you do it like that? I don't know. Just let 'er rip, I guess.
By Alex Welch