Paul Hunham, the cantankerous boarding school teacher that Paul Giamatti plays in The Holdovers, is introduced on the second page of David Hemingson's screenplay as "a heap of rumpled corduroy." Suffice it to say, the line made an immediate impression on Giamatti.

"That was very funny," the actor remembers with a laugh. "There's also a mention early on of him smoking a pipe, and I'll do anything if I can smoke a pipe. I'm happy as a clam when I can do that, and I've only ever done that once before onscreen!"

Giamatti's character is one of three central figures in The Holdovers. Over the course of a snowy Christmas break in 1970, Paul develops an unexpected connection with the school's grieving cafeteria manager (Best Actress in a Supporting Role nominee Da'Vine Joy Randolph) and a struggling student (newcomer Dominic Sessa) who finds himself taken under the wings of his two adult compatriots. The dramedy served as a reunion between Giamatti and director Alexander Payne nearly 20 years after 2004's Sideways.

"We think we know who Paul is when we see him, but one thing I think Alexander does — and I mean this in a good way — is he messes with archetypes," Giamatti says. "You know the people in his films, and then he messes with them until you suddenly feel like you don't actually know them."

At the 96th Oscars, The Holdovers is up for a total of five awards, including Giamatti's nomination for Best Actor in a Leading Role. It marks his second career Oscar nomination and first in the category. (He was previously nominated in 2006 for his supporting role in Ron Howard's boxing drama, Cinderella Man.)

"It's the best possible affirmation you can get. It's flabbergasted me a little bit," Giamatti tells A.frame of his nomination. "I'm such a pessimist in my life, so to actually reach this point? It shakes me to my very foundation. It's disrupted my whole worldview! I'm like, 'This isn't supposed to happen!'"

Paul Giamatti and Da'Vine Joy Randolph with director Alexander Payne on the set of 'The Holdovers.'

A.frame: When you read the script for The Holdovers for the first time, what was it about Paul that made him seem like a great character to you?

I think it was the fact that he's this sort of marginal character who's created this elaborate persona to defend himself against the world. He's this misfit guy who is functioning in this elaborate, elite environment, but he's still such an outsider. I love the way that the characters in the film connect together and form this kind of found family, and I love the gradual reveal of his decency. He's not nice, but he's decent and kind underneath it all. I liked him. I thought he was funny and I appreciated that he's got some real balls. He's got real guts in a funny way, and I liked that about him. Underneath everything, he's at least got some spine, and I actually liked him. That's important.

I know you're a cinephile, and when I was rewatching The Holdovers recently, I was struck by how much you look like Art Carney in Harry and Tonto in it. Was that film a reference for you at all?

Nicely done! You're the first person who's actually put their finger on that. Yeah, I did have Harry and Tonto in mind. I don't really know why exactly, but I did. There was something about the '70s nature of it. I look a little bit like Jack Albertson in the film, but I do also look sort of like Art Carney in Harry and Tonto. Again, I don't know why that was a reference for me. I hadn't seen that movie in ages, but I loved it when I saw it, and there's something very iconic about the way Art Carney looks in it. He has the hat and the glasses and the coat and that very '70s mustache.


As an actor, when you're preparing to play a role, do you always find the same way into a character? Or does it change depending on the role?

It always changes depending on what it is. Any number of things can help me find my way into a character. The script is, hopefully, always the best resource. That's not always the case, but some really well-written scripts will do that. But I never know. A lot of it's just instinctual and finding what seems to be right. Sometimes, I'll really study something. Sometimes, I know not to do that too much because I know that I can overload myself and get a little paralyzed by having put too much stuff into it. Sometimes, I get to do an accent and that makes a big difference. That's a great way into things. I never really know what it's going to be. I wish I had some singular method that I can apply every time, but I don't really.

With Paul, in some ways, he's an identifiable type. We think we know who he is when we see him. Alexander presents you with something that makes you go, "Oh yeah, I know this Jack Nicholson, middle-aged type of Rotarian guy," and then that goes away, because he does something with the character. For The Holdovers, what also helped was that I grew up in the film's world. I grew up around people like Paul, so there were a lot of things that I could draw on from my own past. And that was the first time I've ever really consciously done that.

When we last spoke, you mentioned how difficult it was to get The Holdovers made. With that in mind, how has it been for you to see the movie be received so positively?

I knew it was a good movie — Alexander always makes good movies — but I've been really amazed at how it's been embraced. The welcome it's received is amazing, and to me, the most incredible thing is to hear that people are seeing it multiple times, which I'm really blown away and pleased by. I'm also really pleased by the age range of the people I hear who like it. People tell me their 13-year-old, 18-year-old and 25-year-old kids are really into the movie, and then their 85-year-old mother-in-law is really into the movie. I did not expect that. I had no idea that was going to happen, and it's fantastic!

The fact that younger kids like it is really cool to me. Maybe they like the '70s feel of it or something, the kind of other-time vibe that it has. Maybe that's it. I don't know for sure, but hearing that makes me happier than anything.

Paul Giamatti with fellow Best Actor nominees Colman Domingo and Jeffrey Wright at the 96th Oscars Nominees Luncheon.

What was your reaction to being nominated, and how does it feel to be recognized by your peers this year?

It's fantastic. It feels really good! It's the best possible affirmation you can get. It's flabbergasted me a little bit. I'm such a pessimist in my life, so to actually reach this point? It shakes me to my very foundation. It's disrupted my whole worldview! [Laughs] I'm like, "This isn't supposed to happen!" I can tell you an odd thing that happened, though. For some reason, I must have seen him in something recently, but this recurring thought keeps crossing my mind, which is that I keep thinking, "William Powell got nominated for Best Actor, and I've also gotten nominated for Best Actor now." I feel like I'm in this continuum of history. I don't know why William Powell specifically keeps coming to my mind, but I love William Powell. Art Carney got nominated for Best Actor, too! And he won! I'm like, "Those guys did this, and now I did this." That is, for some reason, the most pleasing thing to me about all of this, is getting to be part of this continuum of actors and tradition. That's really cool to me.

You've done so much throughout your career, and in so many different mediums. Is there anything you still want to do, whether it be work in a particular genre or with a specific filmmaker?

Well, I had a chance to work with David Lynch that didn't work out, so he's always been the big fish to me. I don't know if I'll ever get to work with him, but I've met him and he's a lovely guy. In terms of genres, I always want to do more sci-fi and horror, but I've also never been in a Western. It's not like people make a hell of a lot of them these days, and I don't know what I'd even play in a Western, but I'd like to do that. I say this a lot, but I would really love to do a private detective thing as well. Whatever it is, I'd love to do it.

Again, talking about Art Carney, I just recently rewatched The Late Show, which is really good. Art Carney is so fantastic in it. I hadn't seen that movie in I don't know how long. I might have even seen it in the theater when it came out and maybe not since then, but it's always stuck with me. I thought, "Well, I'm an older guy, so if I play a private eye, maybe I should look at The Late Show and see what a movie about a retired, over-the-hill PI can be." Because honestly, there's really nothing better than Art Carney in that late-career '70s period.

By Alex Welch

A.frame, the digital magazine of the Academy, is excited to celebrate and honor the nominees of the 96th Oscars across several branches by spotlighting their nominated films, craftsmanship, and personal stories. For more on this year's nominees, take a look at our Oscars hub.

Editor's Note: For parity, A.frame reached out to every nominee in the Best Actor in a Leading Role category for an interview.


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