Paul Giamatti is so imperfect for the role

Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

SHORTLY before he had to transform himself into John Adams, Paul Giamatti was portraying Santa in “Fred Claus.” And as TV viewers were getting set to see him in powdered wigs while becoming our second president, he was already on to his latest role, in a comedy about a guy whose soul is extracted and stolen by the Russian mob. That one’s called “Cold Souls,” though Giamatti refers to it as “the soul-sucker picture.”

His early films had him playing such characters as Pig Vomit (in Howard Stern’s “Private Parts”) and Veal Chop (“Safe Men”). But Giamatti didn’t break through as one of our leading character actors until his 2003-04 doubleheader of “American Splendor,” in which he portrayed VA clerk/comic book author Harvey Pekar, and “Sideways,” in which he was the frustrated Merlot hater who somehow gets the girl. After those, who seemed more logical than this son of a Yale president to play a neurotic, cynical everyman, hardly how we think of a founding father?

“I have no idea how they came up with me,” Giamatti says of his casting as Adams in the seven-part costume epic that concludes on HBO next Sunday. In fact, the maxi-series was built on that not-so-obvious casting, in part thanks to co-producer Tom Hanks, a master at playing everymen, just the sort we expect to get the girl. Giamatti was “the only cast member who was part of the reason it was happening,” said director Tom Hooper.

Both he and historian David McCullough, author of the biography on which the series is based, described the casting as an effort to avoid another portrayal of Founding Fathers as one-dimensional icons -- something hard to avoid with war leader George Washington and only slightly less so with the courtly Thomas Jefferson and early America’s other Renaissance man, Ben Franklin.

But Adams? “The short, fat, cranky Yankee,” in McCullough’s words.

“He’s irascible, he’s got anger management problems, he’s got this huge ego,” Hooper said. Giamatti “fit the sense I had of Adams as an antihero, to explore the flaws of the man in addition to his greatness, [given] how brilliant Paul was at creating portraits of men struggling with demons, this kind of marginalized figure. When you cast Paul Giamatti, you knew you were getting a fresh look at the Revolution.”

Then the critics weighed in -- and rarely have you seen such a divided score card. The Boston Globe found Giamatti “riveting,” the Chicago Tribune “brilliantly understated.” The Washington Post said he was “captivating, often poignantly so,” as when farm-raised Adams finds himself among the “French snobs . . . painfully aware that he is being mocked for his lack of sophistication.”

But USA Today blamed a “hang-dog” Giamatti for making Adams seem inconsequential, and this paper’s critic found him hard to believe as the Colonial who talked others into revolution, saying: “It’s as if he is loath to play Adams as a leading man.” And that was mild compared with a New York Times rant about the casting of “a prisoner of a limited range and rubbery, cuddly looks -- in 18th-century britches and wigs, he looks like Shrek.”

Then there’s the critic who said: “I definitely find the idea of failure interesting. I feel like I failed all the time. Yeah. But it doesn’t bother me. It’s life. I feel like I don’t get it right ever.”

That’s Giamatti speaking.

Demanding shoot

HE was talking in New York hours before he had to fly to Russia to do more filming on his soul-sucker comedy -- to get his soul back from the mob.

Giamatti was hoping to take a break after that, for he was still feeling the grueling Adams shoot, which consumed 2 million feet of film on location in Hungary and Virginia. Hooper said that they had 108 shooting days and that Giamatti was in 106. A heat wave sent temperatures to 110 in Hungary and he lost 15 pounds. He had to wear a fat suit to portray the Founding Father sometimes dubbed by critics “His Rotundity.”

When Giamatti first heard he was being mentioned to play Adams, he had no qualms about the role. “No, no. It’s a character, man,” he said. “I never thought, ‘Oh, my gosh, I can’t play the president.’ Unfortunately, it never occurs to me that I can’t play anything.”

That may seem like a contradiction, his belief he can play anything, then his fear that he never gets it right, “I could have done better.” Or that can be seen as two sides of a complex human being, in that sense like Adams.

For all he accomplished -- a central player in the Continental Congress, first ambassador to England, first vice president, then president -- Adams had reason to fret. As vice president, he was isolated after suggesting that President Washington be given a grander title (“Your Excellency?”) and as president, while resisting pressure to go to war with France, he signed the repressive Alien and Sedition Acts. He was gone after one term and later saw the young nation’s memory already downplaying his role. “Americans don’t like losers very much,” notes McCullough, who ended his biography quoting a letter Adams wrote, “Griefs upon griefs! Disappointments upon disappointments. What then?” -- and yet -- “This is a gay, merry world notwithstanding.”

But such thoughts are abstract. More graspable for an actor are the tools at one’s disposal to play such a character, starting here with those wigs -- 1,500 according to the production notes.

“The wig thing is still such a strange fashion to me,” Giamatti said. “I think it was a hygiene thing . . . people wanted to wear their hair long, but I think your hair got filthy and lice ridden. . . . I don’t know why they powdered them . . . whether they thought it looked more distinguished or whether it killed mites or something.” Ah, but as props, they were glorious. One of the first visions we get of Adams, when he gets to the sanctuary of home, is yanking his off and hanging it by the fire, then shaking the grit of the world off his shaved head. Later, when he and Jefferson stop wearing them, they’re shedding their British past.

And the cigars . . . without ashtrays. “You see me just leaving my cigar ashes all over the Oval Office,” Giamatti said. “One of the consultants said they would have just thrown the butts on the floor. . . . I liked the idea of just sitting in the Oval Office and throwing my cigar.”

Not so great was waking up during the months sweating in wigs and hurling butts and forgetting who he was. “My wife said, I don’t remember it, I woke up in the middle of the night and shook her awake and said, ‘Who’s going to be secretary of State?’ She was like, ‘What?’ and then I just laid down and went back to sleep.”

Role’s challenges

ONE downfall of period pieces is letting the present invade the past, so the people behind “John Adams” were careful with details such as teeth, which were yellow and brown. They understood too the risk in casting such a natural neurotic as Adams.

“Yeah, well, that was a challenge,” said the 40-year-old son of the late Bart Giamatti, the comparative literature scholar, Yale president and baseball czar. “You want to make it accessible, I suppose, but you didn’t want to shirk on making it feel like another time.” He adds, however, of Adams, “I think he was extremely neurotic. You could probably diagnose him as manic depressive now. . . . He was less good at masking himself than those other guys were, like Jefferson or Washington.”

Adams at least left more evidence of his moods, in the thousands of letters he exchanged with his wife. But that raised another issue, of how to turn the printed word into speech. It’s in a 1780 letter to Abigail that Adams said, “I must study politics and war, that our sons may have liberty to study mathematics and philosophy . . . in order to give their children a right to study painting, poetry, music.” In “John Adams” that’s uttered by Giamatti’s character amid the haughty French to explain why he does not have the luxury of their indulgence in fine things.

The challenge is avoid sounding like a Great Man orating, without turning a serious thinker into too much an antihero. “It’s a tricky line to walk,” said Giamatti, who used a break in the filming to go to the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, where it irked him to see how Adams got short shrifted. “Where they have all the presidents’ portraits, he really is off to the side, in a little painting. Even Buchanan has a giant great full-length portrait. It’s very peculiar.”

It’s complicated, indeed, but audiences clearly were ready for a nonglamorous Founding Father. “John Adams’ ” first two segments drew 2.5 million and 2.7 million viewers, HBO’s best miniseries launch since 2004.

And although the wigs were a pain, Giamatti admits it was a kick to fire a musket, wipe his mouth on tablecloths and finally get to die a natural death on-screen.

“I’ve been killed in things,” he said, “but dying of old age in a big death-bed scene is more rewarding. Although I don’t know. Getting your head blown off is kind of fun too.”