Paul Giamatti had a feeling he had to do “The Holdovers.”
When writer-director Alexander Payne first approached him about starring as the openly disdainful but caring history professor Paul Hunham, the Oscar nominee told Payne that he could play the part because he knows “those guys.”
You see, the actor grew up surrounded by academics – his father was famously president at Yale University, his eventual alma mater, and he was “raised by teachers.” Not to mention he certainly knew a few of the “old-school” types populating Connecticut’s Choate Rosemary Hall, the boarding school from which he graduated in 1985.
“I had real, direct contact with those guys,” Giamatti told TheWrap of his interest in playing Paul. “I did grow up around that kind of thing all the time. So when he gave me the script, it was a funny experience.”
“The Holdovers” follows the tenured Paul over Christmas break 1970 after he’s tasked with staying on the school grounds to keep watch over boys who don’t have a place to go home to. His experience overseeing a boy named Angus (newcomer Dominic Sessa), specifically, peels back his hardness to reveal a gentler if not altogether kind man who, in his words, finds the world “a bitter and complicated place, and it seems to feel the same way about me.”
Giamatti, who reunited with Payne on the project 20 years after his acclaimed performance in the Oscar-winning “Sideways,” emphasized that any script from Payne is “a gift.” But “The Holdovers” was special.
“I think he was letting me draw on this huge well of experience,” Giamatti explained. “It just was weirdly pleasurable to kind of steep myself in this thing that was really familiar.”
He was drawn to Paul’s “principled and strict” nature, and revealed there was one unnamed teacher from his years as a day student at Choate who came to mind when constructing his performance.
“What was interesting to watch after I’d done the movie was to see so many people that I was even unaware of drawing on. But there was one guy, in particular, that I drew on,” Giamatti said. “When I first got the script, this guy came to my mind. He was a kind of disliked guy. People were indifferent to him. In fact, I don’t talk to many people from high school, but when I was working on the movie, the few people I did talk to didn’t even remember this guy. But I did. He made a real impression on me.”
So is Giamatti’s history professor Paul a reverent ode to this teacher of the ’80s or just a blueprint for where to take the curmudgeonly character? Turns out, a bit of both.
“He was a sarcastic hard-ass. But in glimpses of it, you could see he was not a happy man, and that made me feel for the guy a little bit, even then as a kid. But you could tell that he cared through his sarcasm. He smelled like booze a lot, and through that haze of stuff, you could tell he cared,” Giamatti said. Similarly, his character Paul Hunham is rarely shown over the course of his Christmas break without a whiskey in-hand.
“And the thing about Paul is, no, I don’t think he’s wrong, actually. He’s not wrong about a lot of what he’s saying. He’s just going too far,” Giamatti said of the character.
For instance, “The Holdovers” opens with Paul whistling gleefully while dealing out failing grades on the latest exam — a practice that gets him in hot water with the school’s principal after he flunks a student whose family bankrolls the institution. But the politics of keeping the doors open appears of little interest to Paul when one’s education is at stake.
“One of the many things I found interesting is that those guys who taught at those places, there’s such a schtick to those places. They’re imitating these British schools that are all imitating this classical mode of learning, and there’s such a schtick around that. [Paul has] even gone further with the schtick because this is the place that he’s found in the world that he’s not a misfit in — he still is, but it’s the place that he’s felt comfortable in.”
By Giamatti’s measure, Paul’s uptightness and by-the-book nature, therefore, is actually the result of a “constructed, elaborate persona,” one that “hopefully you see begin to shed a little bit as the thing goes on,” Giamatti said. “You see him drop his bulls–t a little bit.”
“And what’s great about Alexander,” the actor concluded of his director’s work with cowriter David Hemingson, “is that he softens [Paul], but not entirely. He gets warmer, but he’s not great at it. And he’s trying, and that’s great. He doesn’t suddenly transform, but you see a different person in there.”
Costarring Dominic Sessa, Da’Vine Joy Randolph and Carrie Preston, “The Holdovers” is now in theaters nationwide via Focus Features.