15 Surprising Facts About Paul Giamatti

Showtime Networks
Showtime Networks

Over the course of nearly 30 years and approximately 100 film and television roles, Paul Giamatti has worked his way up from blink-and-you’ll-miss-him roles like “Heckler #2” to become an Oscar-nominated leading man. While he continues to build a diverse resume of film roles with projects like American Splendor, Sideways, Cinderella Man, 12 Years a Slave, and Straight Outta Compton, he’s also bringing his singular brand of wit and talent to the small screen on Showtime’s Billions. To celebrate the venerable actor’s 50th birthday, here are 15 things you might not know about Paul Giamatti.


Growing up in a family surrounded by academics, Paul Giamatti considered following his father’s career path and becoming a professor. In 1978, at the age of 40, Giamatti’s father—Bart—was appointed president of Yale University (the youngest person to ever hold the position). “I was never the class clown, or put on shows at home,” Giamatti told The Scotsman about his roundabout road to becoming an actor. “I never thought of acting as something I could do with my life. When I was a kid, I used to run around wrapped in toilet paper so I could be the Mummy. But that wasn’t a sign that I was dreaming of being an actor. I was just an odd child."


Growing up, Giamatti was oddly fascinated with baseball umpires. “I don’t think it had anything to do with their authority,” he told The Believer. “It was more a fascination with the appearance of the home-plate umps. They wear those old-school chest protectors and the mask and they’re always dressed in black … There’s something weirdly sinister about those cats. And of course I’ve always been drawn to the ancillary supporting players in drama. If you look at a game of baseball as a narrative of some kind, the umps are the bit players. They’re the character actors. In almost any situation, I’m invariably interested in the people that nobody pays much attention to."


Giamatti’s obsession with baseball’s supporting players might make more sense when you consider that, after leaving his position at Yale in 1986, Bart Giamatti became the president of the National League and, in 1989, was appointed MLB Commissioner. Though he only held the position for five months (the elder Giamatti passed away on September 1, 1989), he managed to make one memorable move during his tenure when he banned Pete Rose from the game amid allegations that he was betting on baseball games.


Though he emerged as more of a leading man in the early 2000s with movies like American Splendor and Sideways, Giamatti is content to play a supporting role. "I think you're given more license to have fun, in a way,” he told The Guardian of being a supporting player. “You're supposed to be more vivid, your job is to be more eccentric. I think I just like it better. There's something about working in a smaller space that I'm more temperamentally suited to."


M. Night Shyamalan, who directed Giamatti in 2006’s Lady in the Water, doesn’t see Giamatti as a bit player. “He is very much a leading man," Shyamalan told The New York Times. "For me, he is like Tom Hanks—he can carry a movie. Paul's eyes are very beautiful in a puppy-dog way. The audience is compelled to want what that person wants and that is a sign of a real star."


When asked about the biggest challenge he has faced as an actor, the ever-self-deprecating Giamatti said it was one of his earliest roles. “I believe the character was called ‘Man in Sleeping Bag,’” he said. “A homeless guy. It may have just been ‘man.’ Who knows. It was an episode of NYPD Blue. We were in a squatters village below the Manhattan Bridge. I was lying in real human feces. A real lunatic who lived there in a huge drainage pipe of some kind would crawl out occasionally and pelt me with debris … They had to pay him a lot to stay in his pipe. Good for him. I had one line. Something like, ‘I don’t know nothin’ man.’ I screwed it up. I sat around all day. At one point I got thrown off the set by a P.A. who thought I was a real ‘Man in Sleeping Bag.’ I was nervous; disoriented."

When asked about the most fun he’s had playing a part, Giamatti responded: “Man in sleeping bag."


Though Sideways may be one of the best known, and most beloved, films on Giamatti’s resume, the actor himself wasn’t so sure about it. He told The Scotsman that when he was offered the part, his first thought was: “No one will want to make this movie—and who the hell is going to want to watch a movie about wine?" For the record, Giamatti freely admits that he knows nothing about wine, and he’s fine with that.


In the DVD commentary for Sideways, Giamatti and his co-star, Thomas Haden Church, discussed how they both got food poisoning after filming the dinner scene with Giamatti’s on-screen mom. On another occasion, Giamatti got very, very drunk.

“There was one dinner scene where I had to drink a sh*tload and by the end of the night I was completely hammered,” Giamatti recounted. “Fortunately I didn’t have to do that much talking but I got really f*cked up, it was great. You can tell that I’m kind of messed up. Maybe that’s why the Academy didn’t nominate me for that movie, because I’m clearly drunk."


Speaking of the Oscars: While much of the movie-watching world was taken aback when both Thomas Haden Church and Virginia Madsen received Academy Award nominations for their work on Sideways, while Giamatti got nothing, the actor wasn’t at all fazed or disappointed. “That was an odd dilemma to be in,” he told the Independent. “I didn't expect to get nominated so it was like everybody else was way more disappointed than I was, so that was really weird, talking to these people and not knowing what to say to them to take their disappointment away that I didn't get nominated."


In 2006, The New York Times reported that when adapting Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant’s The Office for American television, Paul Giamatti as Michael Scott was on the top of at least one NBC executive’s dream casting list. Giamatti declined the part.


Six years after playing the title role in HBO’s John Adams miniseries (a part that earned him a Golden Globe Award), Giamatti took on the role of another POTUS when he voiced Teddy Roosevelt for Ken Burns’s The Roosevelts: An Intimate History.


When asked about how he goes about choosing his roles, Giamatti told The A.V. Club that he doesn’t have any sort of calculated plan. “I just don’t want to be bored,” he said. “That’s the only criteria I have. I like it if the script is good and the director seems like he’s gonna be good. But if I can find a variety of things to do, which I feel like I manage to do, as far as the actual performing goes and the character, that’s huge for me. To be able to feel like I can do a fairly diverse array of things. I’ve been lucky in that way. I don’t mind being stereotyped in some way and playing certain kinds of guys, but if I can find something to occasionally get a break from that, that would be nice. And I feel like I manage to. But there’s no grand scheme other than that."


Because he chooses his roles on what is most interesting to him personally, Giamatti often ends up playing oddballs. “I think I'm typecast. But that is fine with me,” he told the Independent. “I remember an actor called Bud Cort, I met him once and he said, 'Go ahead and happily be typecast, I resisted it and didn't get cast again, I would happily go back and be typecast.' Within the type I play, it's interesting to play, ambivalent, spiky, weird, unpleasant people."


Like so many other artists, Giamatti has a habit of picking apart his performances. “I definitely have a tendency to only see the blemishes of things, and see lots of things about my acting that I don’t like,” he told The A.V. Club. “I think I’ve gotten a little easier on myself, or at least a little more usefully critical of myself. I think before, I just couldn’t take looking at myself at all. I don’t know. I’m happy people see something I don’t see. I’ve very critical of myself, and film has been an adjustment for me. I’m glad; it’s a challenge in some ways. Certainly not boring. But it’s always been hard for me to feel like I get it, get how to act on film. I feel like I’m gradually getting it."


At the moment, much of Giamatti’s time is devoted to Billions, the Showtime series he stars in that was recently renewed for a third season. In the series, Giamatti plays U.S. Attorney Chuck Rhoades, a complicated character who will seemingly stop at nothing to take down his wife’s employer, hedge fund manager Bobby Axelrod (Damian Lewis). While Rhoades doesn’t always make the best choices, Giamatti believes that he’s essentially a good guy.

“I admire those guys who do what my character does,” Giamatti told the Los Angeles Daily News. “They are ambitious, driven guys with human needs and desires, but they do believe in the law as a kind of instrument for doing good.” He acknowledges that Rhoades is “definitely a flawed person, but essentially I think my character is doing a good thing.”

21 Fun Facts About Elf

Warner Home Video
Warner Home Video

Everyone knows the best way to spread Christmas cheer is singing loud for all to hear! But the second best way is to enjoy Elf. Revel in the giddy glow of this modern holiday classic with a slew of secrets from behind the scenes.

1. Jim Carrey was initially eyed to play Buddy the elf.

When David Berenbaum's spec script first emerged in 1993, Carrey was pre-Ace Ventura: Pet Detective and attached to front the Christmas film. However, it took another 10 years to get the project in motion, at which time Saturday Night Live star Will Ferrell was signed to star. Carrey would go on to headline his own Christmas offerings—the live-action How The Grinch Stole Christmas and the CGI animated A Christmas Carol.

2. Will Ferrell worked as a mall Santa.

Warner Bros.

And his A Night at the Roxbury co-star Chris Kattan was his elf. This was back when the pair were pre-Saturday Night Live, and part of the comedy troupe The Groundlings. Ferrell recollected to Spliced Wire, "I have some experience playing Santa Claus … Chris Kattan was my elf at this outdoor mall in Pasadena for five weeks, passing out candy canes. It was hilarious because little kids could care less about the elf. They just come right to Santa Claus. So by the second weekend, Kattan had dropped the whole affectation he was doing and was like (Ferrell makes a face of bitter boredom), 'Santa's over there, kid.'"

3. Director Jon Favreau favored practical effects.

Inspired by the Christmas specials he grew up with, Favreau explained in the film's commentary track that he employed “old techniques” instead of CGI whenever possible. This included stop-motion animation, and using forced perspective to make Buddy look like a giant among his elf peers. For North Pole scenes, two sets were built—one larger scale for the actors playing elves, the other smaller to make Buddy and Santa look big. These elements where then carefully overlaid in camera, using lighting to blend the seams.

4. Snow was often computer-generated.

Warner Home Video

Some effects just couldn't be practical. These included the snowflakes that drift over the opening credits, and many of the snowballs in Buddy's pivotal fight scene. It's probably not much of a shocker that much of these were added in post, considering Buddy's perfect aim. But to further underscore the drama that is a snowball fight in frosty New York, Favreau asked composer John Debney to give this section a Western vibe that would recall The Magnificent Seven.

5. Elf's production design was heavily influenced by Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer.

The classic stop-motion Christmas special from 1964 gave a memorable presentation of Santa's winter wonderland to which Favreau wanted to pay tribute. The elves' costumes in Elf were inspired by those worn by Hermey and his peers in the animated film. And Elf's workshops were modeled after the Rankin/Bass designs, as were the stop-motion animals of the area. The production did secure permission for these allusions, and was even granted the privilege of using the company's signature snowman.

6. There's a Christmas Story cameo.

Peter Billingsley, who memorably played the Red Ryder-wanting Ralphie in the 1983 holiday classic, popped in to play Ming the elf. It's an uncredited role, but between the glasses and those bright baby blue eyes, Billingsley stands out as an A Christmas Story Easter egg. This marks just one of many Billingsley and Favreau's collaborations. Billingsley has been a producer on several of Favreau's film and television projects.

7. Jon Favreau played multiple parts in Elf.

Jon Favreau directs Will Ferrell in 'Elf' (2003)
Alan Markfield, New Line Productions

As a writer/director/actor, Favreau has often appeared in his own films. He fronted Made with friend Vince Vaughn, and later found a sweet supporting role for himself in Iron Man. You may have picked him out as the doctor in Elf, but on the DVD commentary, Favreau revealed he also tapped in to his inner narwhal and provided the voices for some of the stop-animation critters who see Buddy off from the North Pole. He also voiced the rabid raccoon Buddy encounters.

8. Baby buddy was fired.

To play the bubbly baby version of the titular elf, Favreau had initially cast twin boys whose blonde curly hair made them great little doubles for the mop-topped Ferrell. However, the production ran into a problem when the boys couldn't perform. Instead of smiling and crawling as needed, they cried relentlessly. To replace them, brunette triplet girls were brought in, who were far perkier and more playful, and thereby ready for their close-ups.

9. Buddy was bullied in an early version.

In first drafts of Berenbaum's Elf script, Buddy's decision to seek out his dad was in part because he was being hassled by the actual elves for being different. Favreau pushed to take out this element. He preferred to keep the North Pole characters warm, even when Buddy bugs them. In the DVD commentary, Favreau offers, “It explained why Buddy was doing all these good things in New York if he grew up in a world where everybody was so sweet even when he’s obviously screwing everything up and doesn’t fit in at all.”

10. Elf hockey hit the cutting room floor.

Poor Buddy accidentally wreaks all kinds of havoc on his elf community because of his ungainly size. One such scene of his well-meaning mayhem featured Buddy playing hockey on a frozen pond. The friendly game becomes unintentionally violent when the too-big Buddy takes to the ice. Though it was shot, it ended up being chopped from the finished film.

11. Elf was shot on location in New York when it counted.

Like many productions, this one took advantage of the financial benefits of filming in Canada, and much of Elf was shot in sound stages in Vancouver. However, when Buddy comes to New York, it was important to Favreau to shoot on location whenever possible. This includes all the Manhattan exteriors, as well as scenes shot at Rockefeller Center, Central Park, and Central Park West, where Buddy's dad lives.

12. Some of Elf’s sets were built in a horror factory.

Okay, technically it was an abandoned mental hospital, where the production team constructed the interior sets for Walter's Central Park West apartment, Gimbels's lavish toy department, and that grim prison cell. The facility is called Riverview Hospital, and it has played host to a long list of film and television productions, including The X-Files, Final Destination 2, Jennifer's Body, and See No Evil 2.

13. Macy's stood in for Gimbels.

The sprawling department store that takes up a whole block in Manhattan was digitally altered to transform into Elf's Gimbels. A bit awkward: Gimbels was once a real department store, and a noted rival of Macy's. Though immortalized here and in the 1947 classic Miracle on 34th Street, the department store closed its doors in 1987, its 100th year of operation.

14. Will Ferrell broke James Caan.

Warner Home Video

The Academy Award-nominated star of The Godfather was hired to play Walter in part because Favreau wanted a stern persona to play against Ferrell's giddy Buddy, and Caan took the comedy of Elf seriously. He knew it was crucial for Walter to be annoyed—never amused—by his supposed son's antics. But when it came to the blood test scene where Buddy bellows when pricked by a needle, Caan cracked. Watch closely and you'll see he turns away from the camera so as not to ruin the take.

15. The studio didn't get a joke from the mailroom sequence.

This was the last set piece shot for Elf, and one that filmmakers were wavering on from its conception late in production. Grizzled Mark Acheson's casting as Buddy's drinking buddy concerned execs because of the line, "I'm 26 years old." The studio noted the actor does not look 26, to which Favreau—who had previously cast Acheson in a small role that had been cut before production—responded that this disconnect was part of the joke.

16. Will Ferrell went method with those jack-in-the-boxes.

In the scene where Buddy suffers as a toy tester, he's subjected to popping open an endless stream of menacing jack-in-the-boxes. The anxiety etched on Ferrell's face in these scenes is real. Rather than standard jack-in-the-boxes that would pop at the song's end, these were remote controlled by Favreau, who purposely manipulated their timing to toy with his star and get authentic reactions.

17. Will Ferrell frolicked all over New York City in character.

The final day of Elf's New York shooting was pared down from a massive crew to just three people: its star, its director, and one cameraman. Together, this trio traveled around the city, looking for mischief for Buddy to get into with random passersby turned background extras. This included him leapfrogging across a pedestrian walk, happily accepting flyers, and getting his shoes shined, all of which made it into the movie's cheerful montage.

18. That epic burp was real, but overdubbed.

Though uncredited, that lengthy belch came not from Ferrell, but from noted voice actor Maurice LaMarche, who might be best known for Brain of Pinky and the Brain. LaMarche shared his secret to such an impressive burp with The A.V. Club, saying, "I’ve always been able to do this weird effect, where I turn my tongue, not inside out, but almost. I create a huge echo chamber with my tongue and my cheeks, and by doing a deep, almost Tuvan rasp in my throat, and bouncing it around off this echo chamber, I create something that sounds very much like a sustained deep burp."

19. Elf made its star stick.

In the movie, Buddy is happy to gobble down an endless supply of sweets, including maple syrup-coated spaghetti and cotton balls made of cotton candy. But this sugary diet played havoc on Ferrell, who told About Entertainment, "That was tough. I ingested a lot of sugar in this movie and I didn't get a lot of sleep. I constantly stayed up. But anything for the movie, I'm there. If it takes eating a lot of maple syrup, then I will—if that's what the job calls for."

20. Will Ferrell refuses to make Elf 2.

Though the comedian reprised the role of Ron Burgundy for Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues and returned as Mugatu in Zoolander 2, he flat out rejected the possibility of bringing back Buddy, even after being offered a reported $29 million. In December of 2013, he told USA TODAY, "I just think it would look slightly pathetic if I tried to squeeze back in the elf tights: Buddy the middle-aged elf."

21. Elf became a hit Broadway musical.

From November 2010 to January 2011, Elf the musical ran on Broadway, boasting songs like "World's Greatest Dad," "Nobody Cares About Santa," and "The Story of Buddy The Elf." This run was a huge success, taking in more than $1.4 million in one week, a record for the Al Hirschfield Theater where it debuted. Plus, The New York Times called it, "A splashy, peppy, sugar-sprinkled holiday entertainment." A revival hit in time for Christmas 2012, and national tours have been recurring.

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