Paul Giamatti on Cosmopolis and Great Books That Make Terrible Movies: A Q&A

Paul Giamatti in ‘Cosmopolis’/Photo © Caitlin Cronenberg
Paul Giamatti in ‘Cosmopolis’/Photo © Caitlin Cronenberg

"Cosmopolis" traces New York’s pinnacle of financial power to Wall Street titan Eric Packer’s leather throne at the back of a hermetically sealed limousine. As Packer (played with icy reserve by Rob Pattinson) makes his way across town to get a haircut, handlers, advisers, doctors, and lovers appear and vanish from the richly appointed ride, which gradually comes to resemble a leather-upholstered tomb carrying its young king to his final resting place. Or a funeral procession for capitalism itself.

Writer-director David Cronenberg has loaded his adaptation of Don DeLillo's prescient 2003 novel with dialogue articulating big ideas about the systems, financial and otherwise, controlling the world we inhabit. The film is riddled with rhetorical questions and rapid-fire dialogue about the combustible relationship between knowledge and power, technology and money, money and God-like transcendence. The young tycoon begins to lose his grasp on these delusions of grandeur as his yes-men and -women enter his orbit and leave him feeling more lost in space than ever.

It’s not giving too much away to reveal that Paul Giamatti is the only significant character in the film who doesn’t come and go without making a mess. Throughout his career, Giamatti has brought a singular and solemn dignity and aching humanity to some of the most half-cocked lowlifes, losers, and sad sacks ever to shamble across the big screen. And his stunning turn in “Cosmopolis,” as a disgruntled finance industry flunkie out to avenge his former boss, is certainly no exception. From the moment Giamatti makes his concussive entrance about two thirds of the way into the film, he pierces through Packer’s laminated disconnection from anything resembling real life. For all his crude, hygienically challenged vulgarity, Giamatti's gust of raw and recognizable emotion adds a crucial dose of ballast to what is, at heart, a tragic tale of a man whose mastery of the futures market has left him with no place in the present.

Hours before the "Cosmopolis" premiere at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, Signature spoke with Giamatti about cracking the code to his character’s eccentricities, the DeLillo book he's most dying to see adapted for the screen, and why the works of some great authors can make  for terrible movies.

Signature: Your character is an emotionally unhinged finance expert. How did you figure out what this guy was all about?

Paul Giamatti: What I finally realized was that my character is like a fourteen-year-old girl in love with some guy in a poster on the wall -- Rob's character. That’s what cracked it for me: I love him. I’m in love with him and everything that goes along with that: feeling jilted by him, feeling in conflict with him; he doesn’t understand me, I need him to want me and need me. All the things that come out of that love inform my character's actions.

SIG: The film's dialogue is very wordy and esoteric. Was one of the challenges here to find a way to own and make sense of it for the audience?

PG: Yeah, definitely. The nice thing about this character is that he’s crazy, he’s pathological. So it allowed me to take some license with his internal life and provide a real backstory for a lot of this stuff and make sense of all the illogic of what he says. For instance, my character asks Rob’s character for a cigarette twice and then he says, 'I know you don’t smoke.' Of all the crazy dialogue, that was one of the weirdest points to me because I had to make something up and I had to say it and give it some emotional weight.

SIG: Your scene in the movie is the film’s climactic scene. Did you feel a lot of pressure to make sure it worked in order for the film to gel?

 PG: Yes, I felt a lot of pressure. I definitely thought, This needs to work and it’s twenty minutes long. It’s almost a third of the movie. I did feel that pressure, not from anyone else. I felt it for myself.

SIG: What process did you and Rob go through to make it work?

PG: This was the last thing that they shot. This was the end of the movie and the last three days of the shoot. They were really steeped in it. Rob really had possession of that character. So that was a really nice thing to walk into working with someone that ready to go.We didn’t rehearse it at all. I had to do this in the middle of working on another movie so I wasn’t available. I don’t think David likes to rehearse much anyway. David doesn’t even like to do a lot of takes. He’s a great believer in the energy and spontaneity of the first couple of takes.  David did talk sort of jokingly about doing the entire thing in one take, where we would get up and move around the room and it would all happen in one long shot. It would have been pretty cool. I think the two of us could have done it. It would have been demanding to figure it out, but it would have been really interesting.

SIG: Did you talk to David much about the ideas that he most responded to in the book?

PG: We had one conversation beforehand where he said, 'Don’t read the book.' And I think he was right to leave it to me to come up with my own narrative for the character.  The towel over my head. That was left up to me. It’s in the book and in the script but never explained. Because I had a towel on my head, I had to come up with something and I came up with something that was very meaningful in the scene.

SIG: Can you tell me what it is?

PG: No. This is one of the times where I thought it’s important not to explain anything. I think he’s enigmatic and it should remain that way. It’s like running into someone on the street who has a plastic bag around their foot. It means something to them and it makes total sense.

SIG: Did working on this change your perspective on our financial system?

PG: I don’t think my perspective on that could get changed very much as I have a pretty grim perspective anyway. I don’t understand a lot of the economics Ben Bernanke is dealing with and talking about. I understand it probably as well as most average Americans do. But my perspective on that stuff didn’t get brightened. What was interesting about the character in "Cosmopolis" was that it has a lot to do with the ninety-nine-percent population that’s disenfranchised. But it’s more about this guy who has a dilemma that’s kind of timeless, which is general existential feeling of ‘I don’t belong. Why don’t I belong? I feel so lonely. Why do I feel so alienated?’ Everybody can feel that at any time in any place.

SIG: But we rarely feel it so collectively.

PG: That’s true of the character and true of the movie. This is a unique moment to feel collectively alienated and powerless.

SIG: Have you read a lot of the books about the global financial crisis, like Too Big to Fail or Liar's Poker or any of the more out-there conspiracy theories about a bigger imminent collapse?

PG: I did read Too Big to Fail and I read this other book called Animal Spirits. That was a handbook for guys like Bernanke. It’s hard to explain but it offers a whole perspective on economics that opens it out as a discipline and science. It was interesting but I didn’t understand a lot of it. I don’t read a lot of books relevant to our financial state.

SIG: I understand you’re attached to star in a new adaptation of Madame Bovary. Do you like reading classics?

PG: I’ll definitely read stuff like that.

SIG: Did you go back and read the Don DeLillo book after you finished "Cosmopolis"?

PG: I did and I liked it a lot. It was funny to see how the characters were explained in the book and where it ended up. That was what I loved about doing this; I really like Don DeLillo’s books a lot. I’ve read a lot of them but I had never read this one. So I was happy he was going to have a movie made out of one of his books, and it seemed like a good idea that Cronenberg was going to direct it. Usually if I’m working on a piece based on a book I wait to read it afterward. But with Madame Bovary, I might read it beforehand. I don’t know much about the period so I would be interested to read that book before. It’s a case-by-case thing.

SIG: What's the trick to making a successful adaptation?

PG: It’s a very difficult thing to do. I like reading Kurt Vonnegut books, but they make terrible movies for some reason.  I really like P.G. Wodehouse and I think it’s terrible when people try to dramatize him. The narrative voice is constantly going in the books and you take it out of that and it’s just irrelevant what the characters are doing. You can't really translate books that are so dependent upon a narrative voice. They make terrible movies I think.

SIG: I’d say the same is true of Philip Roth.

PG: Absolutely true. If you remove that narrative voice, everything else that’s going on doesn’t matter. With DeLillo it works because the voice is so deliberately deadpan. It is almost like the people move around like it is a film already, so it works.

SIG: Is there a DeLillo book you’d particularly like to see get made?

PG: There’s one I really like called Running Dog. The whole thing is about a film and it’s about these very sketchy, weird, sleazy characters who are obsessed with finding footage that supposedly exists of an orgy in Hitler’s bunker near the end of the war. It’s really weird and it’s all about this illicit film. And it’s really creepy and skeevy and kind of funny. In the end a guy finds it and actually watches the footage that he finds. I always thought it might make a good film. It’s a good book. I really recommend it.