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Paul Giamatti bares his soul about Cold Souls
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Paul Giamatti bares his soul about Cold Souls

by Sara Michelle Fetters - SGN Contributing Writer

Among the more refreshingly unusual items screened during this year's Seattle International Film Festival (SIFF) was first-time writer/director Sophie Barthes' Cold Souls. A surreal sci-fi comedy about the human soul, the plot follows Paul Giamatti as he rehearses for an upcoming production of Chekhov's Uncle Vanya. Unhappy with how things are proceeding, the actor goes to a company offering "soul storage" and has his own removed only to discover later it has been stolen by Russians to be sold on the black market.

Complex, funny and ultimately moving, the film proves to be a true original asking unique questions we seldom come across. I sat down with Giamatti to discuss the project, our conversation a freewheeling chat that went in almost as many directions as the movie itself. Here are some of the highlights:

Sara Michelle Fetters: What were some of the things that drew you to Barthes' screenplay? It had to be a little weird reading a script where you're the main character. Was that even something you let yourself think about?

Paul Giamatti: When [Sophie] approached me she said she'd written this character and it was [me], but then she told me the plot of it and that's what was great. When I read it I loved the sort of wonderful Slavic, slightly absurd melancholy that [ran] through the whole thing. The movie is about the soul and she goes to the source of the soul of the world, which is the Russian soul, and I just thought that was a great idea. The whole idea was just fun and great and original, and that's what sold me on it.

Fetters: But did you ever have those moments where the fact you were essentially playing yourself ended up taking you off your game or out of your comfort zone?

Giamatti: I never did. There are only two moments in the movie where people call me by my name, and it was [admittedly] jarring when somebody did that, but they were the only times it kind of struck me as strange and threw me off a little bit. Other than that I was just able to forget about it.

Fetters: You've transitioned so many times in your career from big-budget Hollywood films to small, intimate independent productions. While I think many would agree your performances are always of a pretty high caliber, it seems like you tend to go to an entirely different level when you're working in projects like this one. Do you think that's a fair assessment?

Giamatti: I suppose so, yes. I think that's true. I mean, you can give those types of performances in big movies, too - it just sort of depends on the environment of the particular movie, so I don't think it's because there's not as much money. It might have something to do with it, but I don't think it's the primary factor. But, yeah, I think that's probably true that the smaller movies like this one and Sideways and American Splendor have offered me more interesting stuff. But I don't know how long that can last now. The smaller movies are disappearing like crazy, which is sad. [Laughs.] Maybe I'll just end up doing action movies from now on. I certainly hope not, but you never know. Films like this one may be done for.

Fetters: A good portion of the film is actually filmed in Moscow. You just had to go to Russia with this film, didn't you? The country and its people just fit the subject matter too perfectly, right?

Giamatti: Exactly. You just had to. You had to go to Russia. It had to be. The [people] are so intense - they don't screw around about the soul thing. There was a guy on the set who has his own talk show, he was like a publicist or something, and he wanted to do a session on his Russian talk show about me. So, we sit down, and like the first question was, "So, I see on the IMDB page you're an atheist, you don't believe in God. Is that true?" And I was like, this is a Russian talk show? Oh my God! I'm supposed to talk about atheism with this guy? And that's what we talked about. That was the whole show. It was hilarious.

Fetters: But that kind of goes to what I was trying to say. As funny and surreal as this movie is, a lot of what it is talking about is actually quite serious.

Giamatti: Oh no, it's dead serious, you're right. Oh yeah. My favorite thing is the montage of Nina [actress Dina Korzun] buying souls from the Russians with that great music accompanying it, because it is hilarious and it is incredibly grim at the same time. It really gets at the [core] of the whole thing. But, yes, you're right, while the movie is surreal and funny it is also dead serious when it comes to the nature of discussing the human soul. It's about melancholy, and [that's] so much more difficult to do in a film instead of, say, straightforward tragedy, someone [getting] shot in the head, that kind of thing. Loneliness and melancholy are hard for American [audiences], but I think the addition of that funky, off-kilter humor will help them get into the movie.

Fetters: It seems to me this kind of science fiction appeals to you more than those grand, effects-fueled spectacles we see so much of nowadays. True?

Giamatti: Correct. The more kind of intimate science fiction that is grounded in reality is more interesting to me. Not that the alien stuff isn't interesting, too, that it can't be intimate, but [movies] like this feel like they could be possible. It feels grounded in that kind of gritty, tactile authenticity, and I like that sort of thing. I think you can do [things] in sort of a subversive way, in a fashion that people aren't going to be freaked out by. You can generate an unexpected connection. But I love science fiction. I've always been a very big fan of ideas like this one. But there are great examples of spectacular intimate science fiction, as well - Close Encounters and 2001 are great examples."

Fetters: What do you hope people take away from Cold Souls when they exit the theater?

Giamatti: I hope they just liked it. That's all. If they liked it, then we did our jobs. That's all that matters.

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