Starting last week, it was hard not to know that “American Splendor,” the acclaimed new film about the life of cult comic book writer Harvey Pekar, was playing at York Square Cinemas. Paul Giamatti ’89, the movie’s leading man, is a native of New Haven and an alumnus of Yale, and the York took full advantage of that fact by trumpeting “Home Town Boy Made Good” across the marquee.
What few people knew was that on Friday, Sept. 12, at 10 a.m., 50 guests went to a special screening of the film at the York. And that after the movie was over, the hometown boy himself sauntered in to the theater and answered questions from press and students for more than 30 minutes.
The shy, soft-spoken Giamatti, son of former Yale president and baseball commissioner A. Bartlett Giamatti, entered the large theater dressed with all the formality of a gas station attendant. He looked as unkempt as his slob of a character. As he grew more comfortable, he revealed a wit and intelligence that also matched his character.
The veteran character actor, who has given us memorable roles in such films as “Private Parts” and “Man on the Moon,” fielded questions that covered a wide range of subjects. He talked about everything from his worry that his portrayal of Pekar would descend into caricature to his concern that a J.Crew now exists on Broadway. He shared a hilarious anecdote about how last month’s blackout interrupted the film’s premiere. The ever-pessimistic Pekar, Giamatti fondly remembered, said, “Yeah man, this makes sense.”
He assured the audience that Pekar was very happy with the finished film. But what about the choice of Giamatti to play him?
“I think the only thing Harvey knew me from was that ‘Planet of the Apes’ movie I did,” Giamatti said. “So he was like, ‘Oh, the gorilla is playing me!’ But he came around.”
After the Q&A, Giamatti was surrounded by local news stations who wanted an interview and old family friends who knew him way back when. Scene film critic Adam Milch had the opportunity to ask a few brief questions.
So what do you think of the response to this movie? The critics have been pretty unanimous in their praise.
It’s been great, man.
Do you feel like it’s changed your career?
Yeah, I can’t tell. I don’t expect it to. Just because of the way things work. I mean, I’m not going to be playing Brad Pitt’s parts, or anything.
You and Hope Davis had incredible chemistry. Was she fun to work with?
Yeah, she was really great. And I know her a little bit, I know her from beforehand. She’s an amazing actress. And she had less time than any of us. I mean, I had two weeks, but she only had like four days. She came right from another movie. But she doesn’t like to rehearse. I sometimes do, but she doesn’t, so it wasn’t a big problem.
Was it a challenge for you as an actor to deliver your central monologue [which features Giamatti in an animated comic strip]?
That scene was right out of one of his comics. I mean, word for word transcribed from one of his comics. No, no, it wasn’t really that difficult. It was really fun to do. I mean we didn’t know what they were going to do, because it was against a green screen. We didn’t know what the cartoon stuff was going to be. That was basically one, maybe two takes. And then they did one take where I was out of frame, and then I was close to the camera. But they didn’t end up using any of that. And we didn’t know what the animation was going to look like.
That animation is my favorite part. That sequence is amazing. These two guys [Gary Leib and John Kuramoto] basically operated out of their apartment. It took them a long time to do it. You know, they had to do it all by hand. They’re great, they have an underground comic that they put out. I didn’t know what they were going to do in that one sequence, and I never could have imagined what they did.
Any improv in the film?
No, I don’t think there’s any improv. We pretty much kept to the script.
So when did you start acting? Did you do theater in high school?
No, I started doing theater in college. And then I moved to Seattle. I intended to try to do other things, but I just ended up acting.
What was your first movie?
I was in a movie called “Past Midnight.” It was with Rutger Hauer. You remember Rutger Hauer? It was when he had a big drinking problem.
I loved you as Pig Vomit in the Howard Stern movie, “Private Parts.” What was it like working with Stern?
He was great. He’s a lot like Harvey in a lot of ways. They’re similar guys, and you know, that persona and all that kind of stuff. He’s actually a really nice guy. That was one of the most pleasurable experiences I’ve had making a movie. It’s a great movie. And it’s a similar movie to this one in a lot of ways. With the fake interviews — Harvey did the Stern show the other day, and it was great, Howard was really nice to him. He’s a really smart guy.
Are there any actors and directors you really want to work with?
I don’t think so. I’ve been really lucky with a lot of the guys I’ve worked with. I never know what I really want to do or who I want to work with.