If you’re going to be shallow about it, Paul Giamatti and Rosamund Pike might seem like a slightly odd pair of movie lovebirds. However, the love affair between their characters in “Barney’s Version” hasn’t aroused any of the complaints Seth Rogen regularly gets when his movie character gets lucky with a beautiful woman. No offense to Rogen, but maybe that’s because Giamatti gets a pass for being an extraordinarily brilliant actor — who, as it happens, just picked up a well-deserved Golden Globe for his performance in this very film — and Pike gets points for having the sense to work with him, not to mention for being rather extraordinary herself.
In fact, the pair have some things in common. Pike’s parents are accomplished serious musicians and she is an Oxford Graduate. Paul Giamatti’s father was the noted Yale University President and Commissioner of Baseball, A. Bartlett Giamatti. Naturally, the younger Giamatti is himself a graduate of Yale. Both have also been busy working actors for some time. After “American Splendor,” “Sideways,” and — on a more heroic level — the miniseries “John Adams,” not to mention innumerable outstanding supporting roles, Giamatti is a bonafide star. The sky is the limit for Ms. Pike, a vastly-above average “Bond girl” opposite Pierce Brosnan in 2002’s “Die Another Day,” who more recently has received a lot of notice for her very diverse roles as a less than brilliant conman’s girlfriend in “An Education” and, more under the radar but no less brilliant, as a highly educated but frustrated housewife and mother in “Made in Dagenham.”
When I and a bunch of other junket journos encountered Giamatti and Pike, they were promoting the new adaptation of Mordecai Richler’s tragicomic final novel about the life and loves of a youthful hustler and bohemian turned aging Montreal television producer and crank. For us shallow types, Giamatti bats 1000 well out of his league with three wives in the course of “Barney’s Version,” played by the lovely Rachelle Lefevre, Minnie Driver, and Pike as Miriam Grant-Panofsky, whom he actually loves. If you read my review, you’ll see that I think the film is a very mixed bag, but the performances are first rate throughout. In addition to that Golden Globe, Giamatti’s performance was praised by his colleague Ron Perlman, and easily deserves whatever accolades it may find. Pike is, as the cliche goes, luminous in a role as a really good person that a lesser actress would have rendered merely saintly and dull.
Rosamund Pike arrived first, but in a moment Paul Giamatti entered, bantering with a female reporter. “She forced me to proclaim myself an ‘indie darling’ yesterday,” Giamatti said.
“Nobody forced you to do anything,” the reporter remonstrated.
“Yes, you did,” he argued. “You tricked me into saying it on camera. She said, ‘When you became an indie darling,’ and I went ‘Well, when I became an indie darling…'” and I thought, ‘I just said those words! Goddammit, that’s on film now, forever.'”
Giamatti, a born comedian as well as a master thesp, was already breaking up the room.
The questioning started for real with one of the standard questions entertainment journos like to ask: what was it about “Barney’s Version” that made Rosamund Pike and Paul Giamatti want to get involved? I’m still waiting for someone to answer that question with, “Well, for the money and to advance my career, you bloody moron,” but our two actor friends were more polite.
Giamatti started. “I knew of the book, sort of. I kind of had an idea of what the script might be like. It was great. The stretch of time, everything I was actually going to be able to do. All of the other characters. It had an unbelievable sort of life to it. Fantastic characters. I didn’t know [director Richard J. Lewis] at all. I knew he’d done a lot of the “C.S.I.” stuff. I saw his other movie [1994’s “Whale Music”]…It’s a nice movie. I started working with him and he’s excellent with actors. Right off the bat. He also seemed to implicitly trust us, which is actually more rare than you would think it is.” Pike and Giamatti also agreed that they were delighted to have the opportunity to rehearse prior to shooting, an increasingly rare practice in a sometimes oddly penny-pinching industry that has no problem spending hundreds of millions on hyper-inflated salaries and CGI.
Remaining on the subject of director Richard J. Lewis, Pike spoke. “He’s lived with this book for like ten years and he was obsessed with this novel and obsessed with these characters. He’d thought about them so much that to give us the roles was a tremendous vote of trust, really. They’d probably been living inside his head and nobody could probably embody them like he’d imagined them…It’s much more interesting to create a character with a director who’s engaged, than someone who just wants you to try everything randomly with no guidance.”
“He’s very attentive and sharp,” Giamatti added. “He would see when I was in trouble and he always offered me a way out.”
“He also gave us the opportunity to do some of the most profound moments for Barney and Miriam in single takes,” said Pike. “Two-shots that are not cut-away from at all.”
That led to some discussion of an important scene later in the film when Barney finds himself confessing a mortal marital sin.
“He had told us well before we ever got to that scene that that was how he was going to shoot it,” Giamatti said.
“And we were both living it for real, together…It’s wonderful when those big moments for the characters are happening here and for real, it’s not manufactured in any way,” Pike said.
I mentioned at this point that I was about sixty pages into the book. Pike asked for my reaction and I said that I found it a bit discursive at first, but I was warming up to it. (I’m still not sure I’ll be finishing it.)
Giamatti jumped in. “You realize that’s the whole point to it, it’s discursiveness, in a way.”
“A fragmenting brain,” Pike added.
I suggested it might be difficult to duplicate that effect on film.
“You could in a different movie, probably,” Giamatti said. “A Godard movie, or something.”
So both Giamatti and Pike had read it?
“I eventually did. I didn’t read it right off the bat. I read the script first and I realized that that was what I was going to have to stick with because, as you can see, it’s pretty different. I got wary of getting too involved with the book. So, I didn’t really read it until [the movie] was done,” Giamatti said.
“I had read the book before, before I had even seen a script,” Pike said. “I had done another Canadian film. The producer [Robert Lantos] had put it in my hands because the other film was also one he had produced many years before.”
What did she think of the character of Miriam when she first encountered her?
“I thought she was the most astonishing character but I knew that I wouldn’t have a hope in hell. It would be insane to cast a woman in her late twenties. So, I was sort of looking at Clara [Barney’s troubled first wife, played by Rachelle Lefevre]. I was thinking, ‘well, this is an interesting creature.’ I had quite an interesting take on Clara,” Pike said, as she and Giamatti agreed that the Clara character was “amazing” but that some material had been lost on the way to the completed film.
Still, Pike is rather satisfied with the character she did get to play. “Miriam is a wonderful creation because you do adore her reading the book. She’s good and true and loyal and committed, but she’s not dull. She’s got this dignity and serenity and all these lovely qualities I can portray but I don’t really possess…I found her quite therapeutic to play.”
Other than the obvious hair and make-up work, what did Giamatti and Pike do to suggest aging over 30 years?
“A shift of weight, really. Getting heavier. Generally what people say, when you talk to people about growing old, [is that] you feel the same in your mind. You feel heavier,” Pike said.
It’s safe to say that Barney feels the effects of time a bit more than Miriam in the course of the story. “The guy smokes and drinks a lot,” Giamatti said. “That’s going to do things to your body and voice. It’ll wear you down, inevitably, no matter how much stamina you have. The make-up actually helps with a lot of that, when you wear this stuff. [Make-up artist Adrien Morot] did an amazing job. He makes me look like I’m bloated and gained weight, and I didn’t. It’s all prosthetics that make me look fatter than I actually was.”
“They tried to give me some of that, [but I said] ‘back off,'” Rosamund Pike added to some laughter.
That sparked some some discussion of how computer technology was used to create imagery of how Giamatti and Pike might look thirty years from now, with Pike’s mother and older actresses being partial models for her. “I think a bit of Jane Fonda somewhere — people who’ve aged sort of gracefully.”
Giamatti ruefully suggested that similarly un-pretty (and freaking brilliant) Edward G. Robinson might have been used as a model for him.
The subject then turned to the supporting cast in the film, prompting an anecdote from Giamatti.
“There’s that wonderful Italian actor [Thomas Trabacchi] who plays the artist. We shot that stuff in Rome at the very beginning of the movie. Then, the thing I did with him after he did the radio show, [hosted by Miriam] where I said goodbye to him outside, was one of the last things we shot. I hadn’t seen him in three months. I had this incredibly weird affectionate reaction when I saw him. It was an incredibly weird simulation of what I was supposed to actually be feeling. I was like, ‘I love this guy; I remember being in Rome with this guy. I fuckin’ love this guy.’ And he had the same reaction. We were both just so ‘Oh my God, I love you! It’s really weird'” Giamatti said, getting big laughs from the table as he described being choked up to the point of tears every time he saw that scene. “There’s something very lovely in that scene. It’s very quick and you don’t even necessarily notice it, but there’s, I think, a really genuine sense of two guys who are like ‘Oh my God, I’ve really missed you all this time!’ He’s wonderful, Thomaso.”
“You do bank those memories,” Pike said. “Sometimes your body gets confused and you have a memory. You think it was something that happened to you and you actually remember that it happened in a film.”
And a related anecdote from Giamatti. “When I did that ‘John Adams’ series, there was an even bigger stretch of time. There was a very weird moment when I was supposed to come off a boat and I was supposed to have not seen my kids for a really long time. The last time I had shot any scenes with the kids they had been like 9 year-old actors. Then I stepped off the boat and I had not seen any of these actors who were playing them as adults. I got off the boat and I thought ‘Who the fuck are these people? These are the kids?’ It was this incredible simulation of what I was supposed to be feeling.”
So, we had learned what Giamatti’s favorite scene to work on from “Barney’s Version” was. What was Pike’s?
“I really like the scene we did in the restaurant, where I finally go on the date. He’s passed out and she finds his crib notes. I don’t know why. I just happened to really enjoy that day. The other stuff was quite troubling, some of it. Better to see it after it’s done, in way. Some of it was quite painful,” Pike emphasized.
Then a questioner mentioned the substantially more downbeat tone of the second half of “Barney’s Version.”
“You’ve sort of fallen in love with these people. Then, to see someone breaking down, it’s very painful. There’s a sort of affection that’s very real,” said Pike.
Giamatti added, ending on a somewhat down note. “There an inevitable darkening of guys getting old. It’s really about a person getting old.”