Like the titular actor in “Being John Malkovich,” Paul Giamatti plays a version of himself in “Cold Souls” — “Paul Giamatti,” an ever-so-serious thespian with a thriving stage and screen career who’s so weighed down by the lead role in a theater production of Chekhov’s “Uncle Vanya” that he follows up on an ad offering the lightening of one’s metaphorical load by the removal and storage of the soul. And like “Malkovich,” “Cold Souls” gets a lot of mileage out of its playfulness with an actor’s public persona — in fact, writer/director Sophie Barthes had never met Giamatti when she decided to make him the lead character in her first film. She felt obliged to approach him about the project when they met, fortuitously, at the Nantucket Film Festival, though she admits, “I was mortified. I’m going to go see this man and tell him I wrote a screenplay for him and I’m going to feel like a crazy French stalker.” Obviously, he didn’t share that sentiment.
It sounds intimidating, the thought of someone handing you their impression of you based on what you’ve done publicly.
I didn’t read the script — what I got from [Barthes] at first was just the idea, that she had this character based on me. It was her more than anything that was interesting. When I read it, it was flattering, and… yeah, it was intimidating. I got what it was she was trying to access in the persona that I may have, but I worried: do people actually have that clear an idea about me?
Having now probably been asked variations on that question dozens of times, are you more at peace with the idea of there being a public persona for Paul Giamatti?
[laughs] I guess so. It seems to work for people who get it, so… I guess it must work. Because it is kind of important that there be some idea that people have about me, whatever that persona is.
So how do you go about building a character that is you but not you?
It’s so boring to say, but it was not really that different from anything else. I never felt any added pressure because it was “me.” At one point [Barthes] went through a draft and put some things she knew about me biographically in there. I didn’t want to do that. I don’t actually want to play myself, I want to play a character.
Your character in the film struggles with the lead in “Uncle Vanya.” Have you have ever had that kind of intense Method struggle over a role?
Not to that degree. The times that I have, it’s been more with theater, and that’s not necessarily the role, it’s the repetition that can start to get hard. But I’ve never felt like I couldn’t function in my life or in my performance. I’ve never felt like that.
The film plays with the idea of what is Serious Acting and what is not — say, a Russian soap opera. You’ve taken roles in a variety of films, high and low — do you make those designations?
This is going to sound pompous, but I don’t mean it to… I find some of the sillier roles harder to play than the serious ones. I did this Santa Claus movie, “Fred Claus” — that role was really hard [laughs]. It was as hard as other things I’ve done that were more “serious.” The silly stuff generally falls in the comedy category, which I find a lot harder to do, though it’s not like I find the serious stuff easy to do. I don’t really differentiate — it all feels hard to me.
I particularly enjoyed your soulless rendition of “Vanya” in the film. Was that inspired by anyone in particular?
Everybody thinks it was William Shatner. I wasn’t consciously thinking Shatner, I love Shatner and I wouldn’t make fun of him. What I was thinking was cheesy, ’70s TV… I mean… that’s Shatner, actually. That’s terrible.
You could read the process of soul removal and exchange as a metaphor for acting — is that at all how you saw it?
I didn’t. It was amazing to me how much I didn’t see that until somebody pointed it out to me after the movie was done. I thought, “Jesus, that never occurred to me while I was doing this, but it totally make sense.”
The idea of “soulfulness” in the film isn’t so easy to pin down either.
No, it’s not. [Barthes] wanted to leave it nebulous, and I’m glad she did. It would have become a different movie, if the comedy was such that I have a Russian accent because I have a Russian [soul] in me. It’s more interesting, what she did with it.
Do you consciously seek out variety in the work you do?
I try to — I’ve gotten more of a chance to do varied stuff. I’m worried about getting bored which… I can’t be bored. But a lot of the time it’s the story that interests me more than the character. That often takes precedence.
I have to say, I was totally impressed by the physicality of “Shoot ‘Em Up,” and, for that matter, of “Duplicity” — the fight scene during the opening credits is my favorite of the year.
Isn’t it great? I loved doing that. I love doing stuff like that, stunt stuff, and actually, I’m good at it. I think people, going off of that persona I have, think I’m not going to be into it or I’m going to be afraid. But I loved doing “Shoot ‘Em Up.” Oh my God, I loved that.
“Cold Souls” is now open in limited release.