Cosmopolis fits quite nicely in actor Paul Giamatti‘s wheelhouse. Like the over-the-top Shoot’Em Up, the ridiculously bloody Ironclad, and this year’s John Dies at the End, Giamatti is more than willing to jump into a world with no ceiling. Or, as Giamatti and the British say, to get “wet.” Wet is certainly what Giamatti gets in director David Cronenberg‘s Cosmopolis. Rarely does Giamatti speak a line which isn’t abstract or approaching any level of sanity in the film.
Key point: Giamatti’s character’s towel and fungus. In the film, a sweaty and disgruntled Giamatti emotionally clings onto a dirty towel and speaks of a fungus between his toes urging him to kill. Countless interpretations could be applied to their actual meaning, but, clearly, Giamatti has his own explanations, explanations that even the actor wouldn’t fully discuss.
Here’s what actor Paul Giamatti had to say about working with David Cronenberg, the film’s straight-faced wackiness, and why he won’t tell you what the towel means:
I also saw John Dies at the End this year, which is a pretty interesting movie…
[Laughs] I love that movie. It’s super weird.
[Laughs] And — like that, Cosmopolis, or even Ironclad – you’ve done a fair share of smaller films which can be willfully weird at times. What’s the appeal of that genre?
Something like Ironclad has other things too, which is that it’s a period thing. I always thought — and I would do this in theater too — if I ever got a period thing to do, I just did it. I didn’t even care what it was, because I enjoy doing that kind of thing so much. You know, John Dies at the End, Ironclad, and, to a certain extent, Cronenberg, have a great, genuine, pulpy sensibility. I like that. I enjoy weird, cult stuff; it’s what I grew up liking to watch. With John Dies at the End and Ironclad, you can be, as the British say, “wet.” Your acting can be really wet, which is great. You’re just having a good time. There’s not a lot of caps or ceilings on anything. Cronenberg is great, because he has an appreciation for that kind of thing. I just like stuff like that, and I always have. It’s eccentric, creepy, and has a black humor to it. Actually, Don Coscarelli and Cronenberg have a similar, odd black sense of humor to their work.
The tone of Cosmopolis is this very straight-faced, serious type of wacky. How did Cronenberg describe the tone to you?
You know, he didn’t, in a lot of ways. I think he just trusted we’d get a sense of it. Even though the dialogue is very odd, you know what his sensibility is anyway, so you kind of know what the tone is. I did something I don’t normally do on a movie…I just came in at the end, after they shot most of the movie, and I asked David if I could watch the footage, because I wanted to see the tone of the movie and what Rob looked like, talked like, and moved like. I felt it was something I needed to see, because I’m playing a guy who always has a fantasy of him in his head. I did ask to see the footage for exactly what you just said: it’s an odd tone. I wanted to just watch some of it, so I could see how I could fit into it and, in some ways, veer off of it.
Cronenberg is known for a certain kind of tone, but he’s been pretty diverse. When you work with a filmmaker who is known for a certain vibe, do you go in with preconceptions about what the performance may require or do you go in completely fresh?
That’s interesting…yeah, you do. I don’t find myself ever consciously thinking about what else he’s done. There is a certain reason you’re doing it, because of those other things, so you have a bit of that in there. In this instance, I wasn’t disappointed. I was, like, “Right, this feels like a Cronenberg movie!” [Laughs] I think if you have a great, strong director like this, you’re going to catch on very quickly to what he’s trying to do. Very quickly you’re going to know if it’s going to feel good and very quickly he’ll suck you into the right world. Because of that, you’re not even going to notice if you’re in a movie that feels different from the other Cronenberg movies.
It is similar to a few of his previous film in how abstract the story can be at times. When you get a script this dense and full of symbolism, do you try to apply meaning to everything or do you just go with it?
In this instance, with this script, I read this whole script many, many times. I usually do that anyway, but, on this, it felt essential for me to read it a bunch of times. It wasn’t about just concentrating on my stuff, partially because it was so interesting. I just had such a good time reading it and thinking about it. Like you said, there’s a tonal thing, and I needed to have a sense of that in my head. I also feel like the character has a real awareness of Rob’s character, so I felt like I needed to know Rob’s character. Certainly, in my scenes, it all had to make crystal sense to me [Laughs].
[Laughs] So, when he says he has a fungus between his toes telling him to kill someone, does he mean that literally?
[Laughs] See, the funny thing talking about this character is that it’s the first time I’ve ever been reluctant to tell anybody what I was actually thinking of the character. God…it’s, like, I don’t even want to tell you! The only thing I will tell you, which I was thinking about, is that, yes, he does literally think that’s happening to him sometimes, but not all the time. I even say, whatever he says in the moment, is true. That’s constantly happening with the character and everybody else, in a weird way. Your ability to change reality is extraordinarily powerful. So, at the moment, he does think the thing between his toes is talking to him. I loved that line! I thought it was insane, but funny, at least I think so. The more serious I could do it, the funnier I thought it would be.
What about his towel?
See, I’m not going to tell ya. I cannot tell you that. I will tell you, I absolutely know everything about the towel, but I’m not going to tell you. I do feel it’s important for that character to be an enigma. [Laughs] I don’t mean to be challenging, but everyone asks me about the towel! It’s because I’m sure you have ideas about the towel, right?
Yeah. It’s almost like a safety sweater, something that makes him feel protected.
See? Great. Fantastic. Anything you’re going to say or think about the towel is going to work for me. I mean, I know what I thought about the towel! [Laughs]
[Laughs] It seems like you thought a lot about that towel.
I actually did. The only thing I will tell you is that, the name and the towel have something to do with each other. His fake name and the towel are connected. I did need to know that, because I have this towel on my head and I am suppose to do things with this towel. It was indicated that I would have to take that towel off and on again, so I thought I needed to know what it was or else I would be confused. I had to come up with something.
Does that happen often, where you have to apply meaning to something so small?
Sure. Usually they’re less bizarre than this and require less bizarre invention. There’s often things you come up with and invent for yourself. This was interesting, because it was so abnormal, but there was nothing normal about it. I had to come up with a totally logical explanation for something that made no sense, but would make perfect sense for that character.
When you were doing press for The Ides of March, you mentioned the importance of that character eating all the time.
Yeah, but they cut out a lot of me eating. That’s just the way the editing worked.
Even though that happened and it wouldn’t have been a big part of the film, does a detail like that still mean a lot to you on set?
Absolutely. That’s why it’s funny when you do a movie sometimes. You know, like that, I was a little disappointed, but it happens all the time. I feel like it is an important piece of information about the guy: it’s a behavioral thing that says something about the guy. Instead of nervous smoking, I was nervously eating constantly. The anxiety these guys have is taken out on smoking and eating, and it shows how unhealthy they live too. I did a movie once where I played a character who was alone a lot, so I mumbled all the time, but, in the editing, they lost all of that. I was disappointed. I felt it was very important.
I was just talking to Paul Dano about that: how much your performance can be altered in editing. Is that always a fear?
You have fears about it. Sometimes it’s a disappointment, but sometimes your performance is better. Actually, probably a lot of the time it’s better [Laughs]. Sometimes you don’t even realize how much better it is. You just have to put in a lot of trust and accept some things about it.
For a movie this specific, is there a lot of different options made on set for editing or did Cronenberg know exactly what he wanted?
It’s interesting…Cronenberg gave us an enormous amount of freedom. He didn’t really direct us a whole lot. If he needed to, he would. He gave us a lot of freedom, which was intimidating. We would do different things. Often times you’ll try and do different things, which is often important in film; it keeps things alive. I still need to know it really well in order to do that, though. I need to know the script cold, in order to feel like I can play with it.
You mentioned the disappointment you can get when seeing how your performance was handled. With experiences like that, how do you define whether something you’re in is a success or not? Do you mostly focus on the final outcome, the experience, or how your performance ended up?
Now, at this point in my life, I think I look mostly at whether I enjoyed my time at work with my colleagues [Laughs]. When you’re getting older, that becomes the more interesting thing. All the other stuff is out of your hands, so it’s really just about enjoying the work I’ve done. Whether I’m ever good in the work, I don’t know. Whether people enjoy it or not, I don’t know. It’s just about whether I had a good day at work.
Cosmopolis is now in limited release and expands in theaters this Friday.