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Connecticut to Canada

Barney's Version star Paul Giamatti on standing in the shoes of literary icon Mordecai Richler

“I like that he’s a bastard a lot of the time, and I like that he’s so unpleasant,” says Paul Giamatti about the character he plays in Barney’s Version, now showing at the Amherst Theater.

Certainly those are qualities that always appeal to a character actor—everyone knows that it’s more fun to play the bad guy than the hero. And Giamatti is the great character actor of our time, as adept at portraying tortured neurotics (Sideways) and historical heroes (the HBO miniseries John Adams) as florid villains. But in this case, Barney Panofsky isn’t a supporting role. He’s the protagonist in this adaptation of the last novel by Mordecai Richler, the Montreal writer who was one of the most beloved and reviled (often by the same people) figures in Canadian literature

The producer of an endless TV soap opera, Barney may be abrasive but he has a romantic soul, and the film is structured around his three marriages. And that’s the side that made the character full says Giamatti, speaking to the press on the occasion of the movie’s premiere at the Toronto Film Festival.

“There was nothing I didn’t like about the character. I guess the thing that was the most fun for me to do was to actually live this kind of impulsive, romantic man’s life out. Because I’m not like that at all. I’m a wimp. So, the fact that he has this incredibly buried romantic nature that he’s struggling to let come out was wonderful.

“It was a gift for me. I got to do everything in this movie. I even got to get older. It was great.”

The book was a huge success in Canada, and attempts to film it go back to before Richler’s death in 2001. In fact, Richler himself worked on early versions of the screenplay. Expectations for the film were high, as Giamatti was more than aware.

“I think I felt more pressure doing this than pretty much anything else I’ve ever done because of [Richer’s] iconic nature,” he says. “He’s a figure who’s so deeply embedded in the culture, and it’s such a Canadian story. And I’m, like, ‘And you hired a guy from Connecticut to come up and blow the whole thing, potentially!’ So, I’m very happy that [Canadians] feel it makes sense and that I’m not doing violence to the book.”

Although he was somewhat familiar with Richler, Giamatti hadn’t read the novel before he was offered the part. “I read the script first, so that was what I felt I needed to stick to. I did eventually lightly read the book, because I’m not all that smart and I didn’t want to get it impressed too deeply in my head, because [a script] is inevitably going to be different. But I did refer back to it a few times to refresh myself with that great voice—that constantly gulling, really bitter, angry voice that’s in the book.”

Because Richler’s characters were often based in some degree upon himself, Giamatti turned to the author for inspiration. “One of the things that was more helpful than [reading] the book would have been was watching him talk in interviews, and looking at pictures of him. There are great pictures of him shuffling down the street, sitting in a bar, smoking a cigar. I thought, ‘Hey, this guy looks really cool. I can play this guy.’ He’s got a kind of grave demeanor, but he’s really funny and he’s pointed and very ironic and sarcastic, and he’s got this very steady rhythm going on. It was a nice model to have to work with. He seemed like a wonderful guy.

Barney’s Version was mostly shot in Montreal, where Giamatti did what he could to soak up the local color. (“I ate a lot of smoked meat,” he recalls. “Lots of smoked meat.”) But he learned that, like too many North American cities, it has lost some of its fabled character over the years. “I wish I had known what it was like [in Richer’s days]. You know, you go to a place like that and you just suck the energy up of a city like that. It’s such a great city. Just being there helped me a lot. But the smoked meat was good.”

Giamatti also has fond memories of working on the film with Dustin Hoffman, who plays Barney’s father, a retired police detective.

“He’s like a mad raconteur with a steady stream of filthy jokes. He’s very funny and he keeps the energy up amazingly. In some scenes, if he felt he wasn’t getting it, or I wasn’t getting it, he’d go off-road. He’d take the thing out somewhere and pull the scene apart. He makes a sort of crazy casserole out of the scene and it goes all over the place. He repeats things and then throws other things at you to try to shake it up and give it the right kind of life. And then eventually he pulls it all back together again, which can be disconcerting. But since he’s a far better actor than me, I thought I’ll just follow this crazy guy wherever he goes and see what the hell’s gonna happen. It was incredibly exciting. He kept you on your toes.”

Watch the trailer for Barney's Version

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