Paul Giamatti does it all on-screen this season

05:00 AM, Dec 24, 2013

Paul Giamatti at the U.S. premiere of Disney's 'Saving Mr. Banks.' The actor has been popping up in media all throughout 2013 and he shows no signs of letting up in the new year. Kevin Winter, Getty Images/


Written By by Bryan Alexander, USA TODAY

Paul Giamatti usually disappears into his parts on-screen.

But it’s impossible to miss the character actor in five high-profile current endeavors, ranging from softhearted limousine driver Ralph in Saving Mr. Banks to the despicable slave trader who slaps Chiwetel Ejiofor in 12 Years a Slave.

There’s also Friar Laurence in Romeo and Juliet, Abraham Zapruder in Parkland and, to fully round out his range, an appearance in the new season of TV’s Downton Abbey.

This just happened to work out that way, that all of these seem to have unfolded at the same time,” says Giamatti, 46, who won an Emmy, a Golden Globe and a SAG Award for playing the title role in HBO’s 2008 miniseries John Adams. “I’m a little surprised by it myself.”

Saving Mr. Banks director John Lee Hancock is impressed. “I don’t know how he does it, and the fact he takes on these parts just shows how he loves to work,” he says. “But he disappears into these characters, no matter how different they are.”

Next year looks to be more of the same, with Giamatti playing the villainous Rhino (and his alter ego, Aleksei Sytsevich) in The Amazing Spider-Man 2, due in May. But he’s promising to slow down before producing and starring in the pilot for the darkly comedic FX drama series Hoke.

I just finished one more job, so I’m going to take what should amount to a vacation,” he says.

A look at the actor’s impressive body of work:

Ralph in ‘Saving Mr. Banks’

The kind and overly talkative limousine driver is one of the few Americans able to (eventually) reach prickly Mary Poppins author P.L. Travers (Emma Thompson) during their daily commutes to the Disney studios.

Many of the characters from Banks, including Walt Disney (Tom Hanks), are real. But Ralph was created to show Travers’ humanity.

She allows herself to feel vulnerable with him; there is a real connection,” Giamatti says. “He was invented for that purpose. In my line of work, I have been around a lot of (limousine) drivers, and it’s a funny job they have, ferrying people around. It leads to odd relationships.”

Freeman in ‘12 Years a Slave’

In one of the most chilling roles in the Steve McQueen film, slave trader Freeman shows off his human merchandise with shocking enthusiasm. Giamatti took it full on.

I thought I’d show him as a guy who actually enjoys his work. It’s just a job (to him),” the actor says. “He’s selling the highest-end product he could. He enjoys it. He has a good time selling people.”

As for the on-screen slap for Ejiofor: “I had to apologize because I had to do it five or six times. I really had to belt him hard,” Giamatti says. “But he was amazing and took it.”

Harold Levinson in ‘Downton Abbey’

Giamatti plays the wealthy American son of Martha Levinson (Shirley MacLaine) and the brother of Cora Crawley, Countess of Grantham, in the PBS drama, which starts its fourth season Jan. 5.

My mother is a pain in the neck, and Harold is over her,” Giamatti says. “She is just on the guy, and he kind of takes it and occasionally takes a shot back at her.”

Abraham Zapruder in ‘Parkland’

Giamatti humanizes the man who shot the famous footage of John F. Kennedy’s 1963 assassination. “People forget that this famous name was actually a real person, an immigrant from the Ukraine who was a really decent family man.”

The assassination scenes were shot on location in Dallas’ Dealey Plaza.

It was surreal, standing on the concrete plinth that (Zapruder) was on right near the grassy knoll,” Giamatti says. “There was a certain amount of shock (for Zapruder), who just kept filming because he didn’t process what he’d seen until a few seconds afterward. It was crazy what happened with him.”

Friar Laurence in ‘Romeo and Juliet’

The well-meaning friar turns a bad situation into tragedy when he sets in motion a plan to have the young lovers (played by Hailee Steinfeld and Douglas Booth) fake death in the film adaptation of the Shakespeare play. “We shot in this amazing location in the hills north of Rome that was a functioning monastery,” Giamatti says. Friar Laurence “is not qualified to be doing what he’s doing. But he goes and does it anyways. He’s having fun at first. But it all gets way out of control.”