Paul Giamatti on “Win Win,” more “Sideways” and his role in the “Hangover” sequel

By Sean O’Connell Fresh off his Golden Globe-winning performance as beleaguered Barney Panofsky in “Barney’s Version,” Paul Giamatti takes the high road – or, at least, a higher road than Panofsky – to play a wrestling coach struggling to hold several lives in orbit for “Win Win.”

A small but emotionally effective ensemble drama, “Win Win” comes from Tom McCarthy, who helmed such well-received titles as “The Station Agent” and “The Visitor.” But collaborating with McCarthy wasn’t Giamatti’s sole reason for signing up with “Win Win,” which recently screened as a Headliner at the South By Southwest film festival in Austin.

“It was the money, frankly,” Giamatti told a room of reporters, filling the space with laughter. “I would have been fiscally irresponsible not to do it.”

We were doing a roundtable interview with Giamatti, asking him about his character, Mike Flaherty, a New Jersey lawyer who spends his after hours coaching high school wrestling. In all seriousness, Giamatti said it was the chance to collaborate with his old friend, McCarthy, that lured him to the project.

“More than anything, it was just Tom telling me he had a script that he wanted me to look at. I told him I didn’t even need to look at it,” Giamatti explained. “I’ve known him for 20 years. I went to drama school with him. I’ve never done anything with him. Anything. For me, he was a guy that I went out and got drunk with. That’s who Tom was to me! He was just this guy who then suddenly started making these wonderful movies. Which didn’t surprise me at all, but I don’t know. I saw these movies that he had made and thought, ‘I’d love to do something with him because he’s such a good guy, it would be really interesting to have him as my boss.’

“He also knew me really well,” Giamatti continued, “as a person and as an actor. He knew my tricks, which he kept making me avoid. But that was great. He was tough on me a lot of times, but that was OK, because he is my buddy, so it was alright.

“I really liked the world of it,” he added. “I liked that it was portraying middle-class suburban life. The character is a guy with conflicts, but he’s a good guy, and I don’t play many sorts of good guys like that, so that was sort of interesting. He’s a decent guy, happily married. I don’t do that very much.”

He also doesn’t work with too many non-actors, but shared several scenes with a relative amateur in Alex Shaffer. Cast as Kyle, a troubled teen with a gift for wrestling but a checkered past, Shaffer joined the cast as a newbie but fit right in.

“He’s not an actor,” Giamatti said. “He’s one of the top high school wrestlers in the country. About two weeks before the movie started, he became New Jersey’s high school state champion, which in New Jersey is a very big deal.

“And they had a real debate about whether they wanted to cast an actor and make him look like a wrestler, or get a wrestler and hope that he can act. … I just think he was great. He had no baggage, at all, about acting. It wasn’t a lark for the kid, really. But he wasn’t intimidated. Tom would say that he was really easy to direct, probably, because he was such a good actor. He’s told what to do all of the time, so he was so open to whatever [we needed].”

Working with Shaffer actually had a strange effect on Giamatti.

“I almost feel like it focused me a little bit more, acting with him,” Giamatti admitted. “He was so focused. It wasn’t wariness or anything. I just felt like it really kind of pulled me in. Something about him made me a little more focused. I don’t know what it was. It made me feel like I wasn’t acting with him. It was fascinating. It was so interesting to watch him.”

We’re also interested in watching Giamatti in this summer’s “Hangover” sequel, though he was mum on details.

“I’m in it. I’m one of those people that, the next day, I appear mysteriously and I’m psychotic, but [the main guys] don’t know why,” he said. “And then it unfolds. But it has a sort of twisty thing that I’m not supposed to say.”

We also asked him if he has picked up “Vertical,” the sequel that author Rex Pickett wrote to “Sideways.” He hadn’t read the book yet, but asked us to refresh his memory on the novel’s title. When I told him it was “Vertical,” he laughed loudly.

“Really? That’s what it’s called? Boy, that guy has gone back to the well, huh? Why not call it ‘Straight Up’ or ‘On the Rocks?’”

“Win Win” opened in limited release on March 18, and will continue to expand theaters through the spring.

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