Paul Giamatti ’89 DRA ’94 had already been applauded twice before speaking his first words at a talk given to a packed University Theatre on Monday afternoon: once when he appeared onstage, and again when his moderator alluded to the fact that Giamatti had already been on the UT stage playing “Hamlet” earlier that day.
The Academy Award-nominated actor spent the next hour telling the crowd — which consisted of over 300 students, professors and New Haven residents — about his current role in “Hamlet” and his past experiences on stage and screen. Giamatti was speaking for the 22nd annual Maynard Mack Lecture, a series endowed by the Elizabethan Club of Yale University that brings a distinguished theater artist to speak at the University each year. The event featured an informal Q-and-A session between Giamatti and moderator Murray Biggs, who is a professor of English and theater studies, before opening up to questions from attendees.
Giamatti discussed his role in “Hamlet,” explaining that he had been relatively unfamiliar with the play in general, so that he came into the process with few preconceived notions apart from a memory of a production he had seen 25 years prior that demonstrated how the show can be funny.
He also addressed the grueling process of playing Hamlet onstage night after night, as the role makes up about 40 percent of the lines in a play that is over three hours long.
“The language has more energy than I could ever have,” Giamatti said. “It’s alive. … It’s bottomless. Someone could do it for the rest of their life and not get to the bottom of it.”
The crowd laughed often as Giamatti answered questions about his work and related anecdotes from both his undergraduate and professional life, including his experiences on set with actors like Jim Carrey and Russell Crowe.
Giamatti also discussed the fact that he has spent much of his career playing supporting rather than leading roles, as well as the differences that come with each. He explained that he believes himself to be better suited to acting in “short bursts,” as with supporting roles, adding that leading actors also need to act as a “cheerleader” to the rest of the group.
“I’m more the guy that sits in the back of the class and [makes] spitballs,” Giamatti said.
Attendees asked questions about specific roles Giamatti has played and for advice about the obstacles actors face. One undergraduate specifically asked for guidance and encouragement for aspiring actors and directors confronting a difficult path.
“I can only fall back on empty platitudes,” Giamatti said. “Have fun with whatever you are doing. … It’s just a mess. That wasn’t very encouraging, was it?”
Despite having spent nearly 10 years prior to his appearance in “Hamlet” acting for the screen, Giamatti came back to his enduring love for theater several times throughout the talk. He recalled being unable to contain his enthusiasm in coming back to a physical rehearsal room.
“I couldn’t stop running around,” Giamatti said. “I didn’t have to stand in one place and act with my head; I could use my whole body. … I do really prefer the stage — I can’t believe I haven’t done it in so long.”
Five attendees interviewed said they appreciated Giamatti’s humor during the event. Theater studies professor Toni Dorfman said she thought the actor’s sense of humor brought out his “high intelligence,” and Iason Togias ’16 said that as an undergraduate actor, he found Giamatti’s insights interesting and relatable.
Susan Lieu SOM ’14, who asked the actor a question about nervousness, explained after the event that she herself is a stand-up comedian who regularly grapples with nerves before each show.
“I did find it inspiring to hear that it’s a part of the process,” Lieu said. “It’s good to hear from someone I really respect.”
This year’s Maynard Mack Lecture was co-sponsored by the Yale School of Drama.