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Paul Giamatti: winning Montreal over with flattery and a masterful Barney

“(Thanks to) an incredible crew, every single one of them, up in an incredible, beautiful city, Montreal, which I dream about. An incredible place in a great nation, Canada.” As far as sales pitches for the city’s film and television commission go, you’d be hard-pressed to dig up a more adulating statement. In case you missed it, those words are lifted from Paul Giamatti’s recent Golden Globes speech, when the actor took home the statuette for his nuanced turn as the titular philandering character in Barney’s Version, the film adaptation of Mordecai Richler’s semi-autobiographical novel.

The bearded, bespectacled and balding actor, who won us over with endearing turns as failed, Pinot-crazed novelist Miles in Sideways and eccentric comic book artist Harvey Pekar in American Splendor, rose to the challenge of portraying a petulant yet compassionate Barney Panofsky – a boozy Montreal TV producer who lugs around more than a fanny pack’s worth of emotional baggage (try stuffing your three failed marriages in there for size).

For Giamatti, a character actor who continually confounds Hollywood notions of the ‘classic’ leading man, the deeply flawed, but also profoundly human Barney proved to be a perfect fit. When I spoke with the affable Giamatti on the phone from London back in December, he’d either just returned from a weekend meditation retreat or was nearing the end of a gruelling press blitz, as his voice was gravelly and totally mellowed out. “I like the fact that the movie is a study of somebody getting old and looking back on their life,” says Giamatti, who took an instant liking to Barney. “I felt like there was a lot of inherent vulnerability in that, just somebody looking back at that point. I liked the character a lot; there was a lot of vitality there that was really fun to tap into.”

Giamatti, who was introduced to the work of Richler by way of his mother’s “crazy love” for Duddy Kravitz, takes us through three decades in the life of a loveable jerk as he looks back on his many blunders and the women he’s fallen for. And while the notoriously humble non-Jew, non-Montrealer was concerned about not living up to ‘expectations’ for a character so engrained in our collective consciousness, he nails the charm and self-deprecating wit needed to root for the guy who finds love…at his own wedding.

“I watched some existing footage and interviews with Richler to prepare for the role”, he says. “Just to see physically what he was like, because I like to find physical cues in a character – certain things about his voice and manner that really made a lot of sense. He was an amazingly deadpan kind of guy, so I don’t know if I exactly captured that, but it was fascinating to watch.”

As for that love letter to Montreal, thinly veiled as an acceptance speech? It instantly reminded me of his effusive praise for the city a month earlier when we’d discussed his involvement with the work of Richler, praised by some, loathed by others. “I was aware of some of the things that people were not crazy about Richler, but it never became an issue for me in playing Barney. It’s a very interesting part of him though, and it’s a big part of the book, but was not really part of the movie, probably rightly so. But I was completely ignorant about the city,” he continues, “which was kind of great, because I went completely crazy for Montreal. The people were really wonderfully sharp, relaxed people. And going to a hockey game with the local crew was one of the best things I’ve ever done in my life!”


Barney's Version | In theatres