It’s a rare feat to capture the essence of someone’s entire life in a single book or movie, which may be why Mordecai Richler’s Barney’s Version has become such a beloved novel since published in 1997. After Richler’s passing in 2001, his good friend, producer Robert Lantos decided to take on the difficult task of adapting the popular novel to the screen with director Richard J. Lewis. Probably their smartest move was casting Paul Giamatti as the story’s central character Barney Panofsky.
Barney’s a Canadian television producer who goes through much of his life trying to find the right woman. It’s at his second wedding where he meets and becomes smitten with Rosamund Pike’s Miriam, a beautiful and intelligent woman who puts off his advances even as he forsakes his new wife to continue chasing after her. We’ll let you see the rest of the movie to see where things go from there, but clearly, when Giamatti and Pike are on screen together, it is something truly magical. Giamatti brings his relaxed and nuanced style of acting to every scene as he’s paired with the likes of Dustin Hoffman as Barney’s father Izzy, Minnie Driver as his nagging second wife and Scott Speedman as his junkie best friend, but it’s the love story between Barney and Miriam that really makes the film so unforgettable.
ComingSoon.net thought it might be interesting to talk to the two actors who spend the most time on screen together, so we sat down with Paul Giamatti and Rosamund Pike earlier this week. While one might not normally think their two very different personalities would mesh in an interview setting, their friendly banter during our conversation proved the chemistry they share on screen is honest and real.
ComingSoon.net: Paul, were you familiar with Mordecai’s writing and did you know about this book?
Paul Giamatti: I mean, I knew who he was. I’d never read anything by him. I knew “The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz” as a movie, but that’s it. I would see his books when I’d work in Canada. I’d go to a bookstore and I’d see his books and I’d think I should read one of those someday and I never would. I knew of this book, but I read the script first.
CS: And you had worked with producer Robert Lantos before on “Fugitive Pieces”
Rosamund Pike: Yeah, I had.
CS: Had he been developing this while you were making that movie?
Pike: Yeah, he had, and he put the book in my hands, and said, “Look, you should read this. It’s a very funny book.” And then closer to that time, he said, “Did you read that book? There may be a part in it for you.” But I think at that time, he meant Clara, the first wife, which was the only wife I could have played really. (pause) I mean, obviously not. (laughter)
Giamatti: They made a mistake, you’re saying?
Pike: (laughs) No, according to my age, that seemed to be the only plausible wife I could play. I assumed they’d go for a woman in her mid-40’s to play Miriam or at least around the age of Paul’s age.
Giamatti: No, I don’t know why they would have done that.
Pike: Aging down, and aging up, whatever.
CS: But did he send you the script saying that he wanted you to play Miriam?
Pike: No, not at all, he didn’t! He desperately didn’t want me to play Miriam, and I think Paul had to go out on a limb to convince him.
Giamatti: I didn’t have to go out on many limbs, but they brought you in before Miriam, and I strongly recommended that they not be fools and that they actually cast Rosamund, but I don’t know if they paid any attention. They probably just realized it was the right thing to do.
Pike: After my probably-not-very-good audition for Clara, Richard Lewis came to see my play that I was doing in London at the time with Judi Dench, and which fortunately as it turns out spans a number of decades. Although there was no aging make-up per se, there was a sort of quality of time passing and aging in these characters, and he said, “Well, you know, I think this girl can be Miriam.” Then they took me to New York and I met this man. (nodding towards Paul)
CS: What were some of your concerns about playing the role of Barney? You’ve played other characters that have elements of the character and other roles that are very different so what were your concerns about doing it after reading the script?
Giamatti: Well, just f*cking it up was basically I dunno. I guess with something like that, the biggest concern I have is having the stamina to be there every day and all day long, because I think I’m in every scene.
Pike: Yeah, I mean Paul worked astonishingly hard.
Giamatti: That’s actually the biggest concern I have with something like that is that I have to be there every day all day long. Just can I do that energy-wise, that’s my biggest worry, just getting through it. Other than that, I don’t know. I guess in the playing of it, I knew it would be fun. The trickiest parts of the script were the stuff when he’s youngest, which was actually the most problematic stuff for me as an actor and the stuff I was most anxious about. Just pulling off and making it convincing, but also the character is also oddly passive until he meets her and then he’s sort of ignited, but before that, there’s a strange passivity to him which was tricky to figure out what’s going on with him to make it interesting.
CS: Were you familiar with the love that Canadians have for Mordecai and this book?
Giamatti: I became more and more familiar with it as it went along. I certainly got it when I first met Robert Lantos and Richard Lewis, both of whom were deeply attached in different ways to the novel. And Robert Lantos was very good friends with Mordecai and to some degree, apparently, the character of Barney Panofsky is based somewhat on Robert Lantos as well as being somewhat autobiographical. And some of it is based on Robert.
Pike: The TV producer aspect of it.
Giamatti: Yeah, and some of the behavioral stuff is clearly Robert to some extent.
Pike: Hmmm but they must have been good friends because he effectively gives Robert his own wife, because Miriam is based on Moredecai’s love of his life, who is Florence Richler. I think they were very close.
Giamatti: They were, so it became evident that it was a big deal to Canadians.
Pike: But I think that we were very fortunate in that we filmed in Montreal amongst people who knew the book, so whenever we needed extras in scenes, these people were steeped in that lore of the books, so for instance, in the wedding to the second Mrs. P, that was the Jewish community of Montreal.
Giamatti: That was the entire congregation of one synagogue, and some people added to that, but they all knew each other, and they all knew they were that world!
Pike: So it was so authentic.
Giamatti: Yeah, but you know it’s interesting because even shooting in Italy, they’re obsessed with the book there. Almost more there than they are in Canada in a way. It’s more of a phenomenon, culty – if you can be generally culty. I don’t know if it makes any sense but there’s a culty aspect, but they’re obsessed with it in Italy, which is one of the reasons we shot in Italy, because it’s actually supposed to be in Paris, but they put it in Italy for other reasons, too. In Italy, we were doing it, and it’s this thing that everybody knows. Everybody’s read it in Italy, everybody knows it. It’s hugely current still, it’s very much still… there’s a newspaper with a column every day called “Barney’s Version” written by different people I think over the years.
CS: It’s amazing, because people who’ve seen the movie assume it will only appeal to Jewish people because of the setting, but you can’t get any less Jewish a country than Italy.
Giamatti: I can’t figure it out. I would ask Italians, “What is it about it?”
Pike: I think it’s the irreverence and the political incorrectness, and I think this column in the paper “Il Volue” is used to sort of lampoon current political figures and Italian politics.
Giamatti: Yeah, in that kind of irascible and cynical voice of somebody kind of raging against all the crap, which there’s plenty of in Italy.
CS: Well, pretty much everywhere.
Giamatti: But Italy specializes in political mayhem. (laughs)
CS: What was the experience making this movie for you, Rosamund? Paul obviously was working the entire time but did you come in and out or were you at the beginning or the end?
Pike: No, I was there. I didn’t do the Rome section which was at the beginning of the shoot, and then I was there.
Giamatti: You were there all the time.
Pike: Pretty much. I had a few light days when they were doing some of the stuff in the cottage, which is a beautiful place to hang out, but we were quite a close knit bunch of actors and crew members, especially when we were doing the Eastern townships. We all sort of shared houses up there.
Giamatti: No, it was very nice.
Pike: I didn’t spend too much time with the other wives you understand, but other than that, we hung out.
CS: I was wondering about that because you appear when he’s marrying his second wife then disappear for a bit and then come back for the rest of the movie, and I wasn’t sure if they could shoot in any type of logical order.
Giamatti: No, you can’t. You were there throughout.
Pike: No, and it’s all governed by locations, which is nice. It’s nice to be around.
Giamatti: It was nice that you were around.
CS: How did it work with the different ages though? There’s obviously a framing sequence with Barney older, so were they at least able to shoot that stuff later?
Giamatti: No, it was all throughout pretty much. The whole movie started out in Rome, so we shot the youngest part of it first, which actually, I wasn’t crazy about that because I found it the most difficult part of the character to do. I think I actually would have preferred to start out with him older and work backwards, but it didn’t work out that way. The rest of it was all over the place, but I had experience. I did the “John Addams” thing which was 60 years of aging, and that was completely all over the place. That was moreso. I was five different ages in a day on that thing. I mean, you never knew what the hell was going on in that thing, so I had a certain amount of preparedness for it. I was a little bit like, “Oh, okay,” but it was actually kind of fun. It kept it interesting. It was nice to break it up like that.
CS: You’ve done a bit of this sort of make-up work before but you really age a lot by the end of it, and is it strange seeing yourself in the mirror at such an advanced age?
Giamatti: Less so than I would have thought actually when I’d see myself in the mirror in this.
Pike: You quite liked yourself
Giamatti: I kind of did actually, oddly. I kind of liked the way I looked actually, strangely.
Pike: It was the middle guy you didn’t like.
Giamatti: No, one of the looks I didn’t like, only because the make-up artist and I were never quite happy with the look that’s right before the oldest look. There’s five looks, the fourth look was the one we never got quite right, and never quite nailed correctly, but the rest of it was really nice.
Pike: Miriam has four main looks as well. I was very pleased with how she looked. I really did buy it and believe it was the same woman, and I did enjoy taking it off at the end of the day and feeling tight young skin, I really did. I thought, “I’ll have this for a few years and I’m bloody well going to appreciate it.”
CS: I was wondering about that because obviously older men (like myself and Paul) are used to the fact that we’re going to be changing with age, but you haven’t had to deal with that yet.
Giamatti: Yeah, no, it was interesting. Not displeasing.
Pike: I think a lot of men do get better looking with age.
Giamatti: Maybe, maybe (chuckles), I can only hope. It can’t get any worse for us.
CS: What about working with these other actors? Rosamund, you mainly worked with Bruce and Paul, but you had quite a cavalcade of
Giamatti: So many different people, yeah, yeah.
CS: Were you able to do all the stuff with Dustin Hoffman in one or two weeks, did he just come in and out?
Giamatti: He sort of came in and out, too, I think. More limited, but he was around a bunch too, I think. It wasn’t all done in one chunk I don’t think, I don’t remember.
Pike: He was done in two chunks, his stuff.
Giamatti: Was he?
Pike: It was a very, very nice atmosphere.
Giamatti: It was actually.
Pike: You know, we have a very gregarious producer who was hosting a lot of big dinners. There was a lot of good eating to be done in Montreal.
Giamatti: A lot of good food, yeah. He did kind of make sure to keep everybody sort of cohesive.
Pike: And I think that does make for a special atmosphere on set, people being on location in an unfamiliar city sort of pushes boundaries a bit. Everybody’s not going back to their own abode in the evening.
Giamatti: Yeah, disappearing.
CS: It’s also rare to have that many actors just hanging out
Pike: Yeah, in an unfamiliar city, like tourists.
Giamatti: Yeah, it was.
Pike: Paul and I had an early bonding date to Cirque du Soleil.
Giamatti: We went to the circus together
Pike: Paul nearly stood me up and then thought better of it.
Giamatti: (smiles) I didn’t stand you up, I just was late.
CS: What about working with Dustin Hoffman? This role would really be the kind of role he might have played thirty years ago.
Giamatti: Absolutely. He could play it now, frankly. If they could age him down, he could have done it now. He was great. I gathered when they first came to him, he said, “I should play Barney.”
CS: Was it very easy for you two to get into a comfortable relationship to play father and son?
Giamatti: Yeah, he’s nothing if not like comfortable to be around that guy. He’s very approachable, almost in a pathological way, he’s like incredibly open.
Pike: He doesn’t do small talk.
Pike: He gets straight to the point, no intimacy, nothing.
Giamatti: Very intimate with you right away, there’s no sort of beating around the bush or screwing around. He wants to get to know you intimately and deeply right away. (chuckles)
CS: Rosamund, you’ve had a great year with this and “Made in Dagenham,” terrific performances in both of them, so where do you go from here?
Pike: This year has been a year of comedy actually, well apart from the beginning, which was sort of suicidal, I was playing Hedda Gabler, but after that
Giamatti: “Sort of suicidal”? Actively suicidal. (chuckles)
Pike: I did that nightly. And then I’ve done comedy. I did a comedy with Owen Wilson and Jack Black about competitive birdwatching and then I did a comedy with Rowan Atkinson, which is still just completing and will complete in January I hope. Oh, and I did a little dabbling in D.H. Lawrence, playing Gudrun in “Women in Love.”
Giamatti: That stuff is hilaaaarious.
Pike: (laughs) Yeah, so it was a darker first half, moving into the summer and late fall with some light comedy.
CS: What about yourself? You obviously have the Golden Globes coming up this weekend, taking on Johnny Depp twice.
Giamatti: Yes, I do. That’s right, I am taking on Johnny Depp twice.
Pike: I wish I could see it.
Giamatti: Me taking him on?
Pike: You could have invited me and it could be a follow up to our “Cirque du Soleil” (date)
Giamatti: You could come and I can stand you up.
CS: What else do you have coming up after doing that?
Giamatti: I’m doing a movie called “The Ides of March,” which is George Clooney directing a movie about dirty political campaigning.
CS: Great timing.
Giamatti: Yeah. (laughs) It’s pretty depressing, actually. It’s pretty dark, but it’s a good script.
CS: And you might work with Cronenberg as well?
Giamatti: I might work with Cronenberg, yes. I don’t know what’s going on with that thing. It’s a really interesting script called “Cosmopolis,” it’s a Don DeLillo novel, it’s a very weird book, it’s very weird.
CS: You met Cronenberg while you were doing this movie, right?
Giamatti: Yeah, yeah. He was hilarious, he was great actually. He was really funny.
Pike: They were all ready to take the piss out of each other.
Giamatti: Super-dry and funny. He was really great.
Barney’s Version opens in New York and L.A. on Friday. Look for our interview with director Richard Lewis and producer Robert Lamtos sometime next week.
This is the last in our “Oscar-Worthy” series, interviews with actors who we feel have given some of the best performances of 2010. Previous installments include Jacki Weaver, Javier Bardem and Michelle Williams. Check them all out!