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Exclusive Interview: Paul Giamatti, Cold Souls

August 4th, 2009 by Matt Sugarman Trailers Guy

Hulu had the good fortune to speak with Paul Giamatti (Sideways, Cinderella Man) about his new film Cold Souls, opening August 7th. (See the trailer here.) The film focuses on a man who stumbles upon an advertisement in the New Yorker for a company that promises to extract your soul, and all of the associated problems that go with it. Each person’s reaction to being soul-less is different, but needless to say, Paul’s character (also named Paul Giamatti) goes through a rather unique journey that takes him from the playhouses of New York to the frozen tundra of St. Petersburg, Russia. With a stellar supporting cast and a mind-bending premise, the film promises to be one that keeps you thinking. — Matt Sugarman, Hulu’s Trailer Guy

Hulu: In this film, you play yourself, correct?
Paul Giamatti:
Yes, sir. I play a character based on myself.

Did you feel it was easier or harder to play a character based on yourself versus playing any of the other character’s played in your career?
It really just felt to me like a character, like any other character, you know. He just happened to have my name. I was, I guess, sort of conscious that to some extent I was playing on a persona that I kind of have in a couple of movies. So, I was conscious of that but, other than that, it really just felt like a character. I didn’t feel any pressure to be myself, and it is not particularly autobiographical in any way, so I just felt I was supposed to play a particular kind of neurotic, New York actor.

What are your personal thoughts on the soul? This film obviously delves deep into what it is like to have troubles within your soul and then, in a twist, have that soul extracted and traded on the Russian Black Market.
Geez … I don’t know. I’m not a very religious guy and I don’t necessarily believe that it has to be a religious thing. I don’t know that I necessarily believe that there is one. I’m not so sure that people aren’t just made up of a lot of chemicals firing off in their brain that make up a person’s soul in some way. So I don’t know that I necessarily buy that there is such a thing as a soul.

Did you find that your personal feelings on the soul affected how you played having a soul and then having it removed?
No. I could definitely buy into the idea for the movie, sure.

How did you prepare yourself to play being soul-less?
The director [Sophie Barthes] had definite ideas about what she wanted to do. One of the things I thought I’d try to do, I am not sure that it works in the movie, when I first had my soul removed, was at least be a little bit more, sort of, emptied out and blank. Her idea was that in some ways the guy becomes overly confident about things. He is self-involved to begin with. I think he thinks that removing his soul will make him not so self-involved when the fact is that he becomes ten times more self involved. Her idea was to find a way that the guy is just indulgent of any stupid whim that comes in his head. So hopefully there is a discernable difference, but that was kind of the idea.

How do you feel that this film compares to other meta-comedies like Being John Malkovich?
The hardest thing for me about that question is that I have not seen that movie. It sounds to me like there are similar ways to me that it is meta like that and sort of comically philosophical, but unfortunately I have never seen that movie so I don’t know how to compare it.

Of all the absurd scenes that are in the film, what did you feel was the most absurd to play? I thought the most absurd was when the guy who runs the soul extraction company (played by David Strathairn) tells you that you can avoid sales tax by shipping your soul to their warehouse in New Jersey.
The whole thing has a kind of absurd quality to it. The hardest thing for me to do was to do the Russian Chekhov “Vanya” play stuff. That was the thing that made me most nervous … I actually had to be bad at it, which was fairly tricky to think of a way to be bad at it, and that’s where that overconfident thing came into play. The hardest thing about it was to actually be good at it at some point, because the whole idea won’t get sold unless you see a difference between me being bad and being good at it. I don’t know if it was the most absurd thing, but it was the one thing that gave me the most anxiety. Even though [you see] only a little snippet of me being good at it, you actually have to be kind of good at it and I didn’t know if I could be good at it.

You were classically trained in theater. Did that play at all into the scenes where you have to do it on screen?
A: I have actually done a fair deal of Chekhov plays in the past, so I don’t know if that helps or not, but it helped me feel a little more relaxed, thinking that at least I have done some plays by this writer. I think it probably helped a little bit in that regard, helped to calm me down a little bit.

How was it filming in Russia?
It was good. All the Russian actors you see in this movie are Russian, were hired out of Russia, and they all said it was going to be a nightmare. They said that the crews would be horrible and it was all mobbed up and just crazy, but it ended up actually being great. The city [St. Petersberg] is amazing. It’s just an intense place. It’s Russia. There is no more intense country or group of people in the world than Russia. It ended up being great; the crew was great, the city was great. I actually wish I could have stayed longer.

How long were you there for filming?
I was only there filming for 10 days. The rest of the production team was there for a lot longer, but I was only there for the 10 days.

Any favorite moments when you were over there?
I don’t know man, it was crazy. There was a scene in the movie that got cut that was one of the most bizarre things I have ever seen. There was a bear, a trained bear, on the sidewalk. Like a homeless guy had a pet bear with him. It had on a diaper and he would give it a baby bottle to drink from. We actually filmed me just standing there watching it. It unfortunately didn’t make it into the movie, but it was one of the more bizarre things I have ever seen. It was a (expletive) BEAR and it was just chained to a lamp post drinking out of a baby bottle.

How big was the bear?
It was a young bear, but it was the size of a big dog, like a Newfoundland dog or something. It was a BEAR, man. It was really intense. You could go right up to the thing and pet it. The guy who owned it looked more like a bear than the bear. He was this big fat dude that was hairy and just hammered and just crazy. There was just something very, very Russian about it.

During the course of the film, do we see any actors or actresses who may not have been mainstream before this film and might see a nice pop in their careers?
These Russian actors are kind of amazing in it, but in Russia, these actors are HUGE. The woman in the movie, Dina Korzun, is like the Meryl Streep of Russia. It would be nice if these actors ended up in more American movies. The woman that plays the Russian mobster’s girlfriend [Katheryn Winnick] is kind of amazing because she isn’t Russian. She is Canadian and she learned Russian for the movie. It’s kind of amazing that she pulled off being a Russian. Hopefully she gets more out of this.

Any big projects coming down the road for you?
I am doing a movie next with Dustin Hoffman called Barney’s Version, which shoots in Rome and Montreal.

One last question, are you a Hulu user? If so, what shows do you watch?
I don’t know much, but a friend of mine took me on there the other day. You have an old Japanese TV Show, Johnny Sokko and His Flying Robot, a really bizarre old Japanese kids show that I hadn’t seen since I was a child. I was amazed.

Hulu: Thanks so much for taking the time out to talk to us today.
No problem at all. Have a good one.