Paul Giamatti in ''Cinderella Man''

Paul Giamatti

Age: 38

Position: Joe Gould, stalwart manager/cornerman to Depression-era boxer Jim Braddock (Russell Crowe) in Cinderella Man

Season highlights: If you ask us, it was the spectacle of watching one of Hollywood’s premier character actors, best known for embodying lovable unlovables (angst-addled comic-book scribe in American Splendor, wine-soaked wannabe novelist in Sideways), score an emotional knockout with a change-up punch — and without hitting us over the head with Go get ’em, kid! schmaltz. If you ask Giamatti, it was the awe-inspiring experience of heavyweight filmmaking. ”Monstrous,” says the actor of Ron Howard’s $88 million production. ”Just meeting Russell — he’s an epic figure to begin with. The boxing stuff was huge. The Hooverville sets? Big. Everything about it was gigantic.”

Well, not everything: Cinderella Man was one of this season’s most baffling box office stories, grossing just $61 million so far despite critics’ raves. Giamatti has some guesses about what went wrong — bad timing? too period? — but is as perplexed as anyone. Even so, the career cornerman is all giddy bemusement when discussing his post-Sideways makeover: He’s morphing from ”character actor” roles (”I think that means ‘Bald Guy With Crooked Teeth,”’ he quips) to quirky leading man (he prefers ”central guy in an ensemble”) in upcoming films like Lady in the Water, M. Night Shyamalan’s new hush-hush whatchamacallit now shooting in Philadelphia.