Paul Giamatti talks about ''Lady in the Water.'' The ''Sideways'' star talks about his fondness for M. Night Shyamalan, strange sci-fi and fantasy tales, and dirty cartoons

By Gary Susman
Updated July 20, 2006 at 04:00 AM EDT

Despite his acclaim for his roles in Sideways and Cinderella Man, veteran character actor Paul Giamatti says he still can’t believe it when filmmakers approach him with meaty roles, as M. Night Shyamalan did with Lady in the Water (opening July 21). In the latest from the Sixth Sense filmmaker, Giamatti stars as Cleveland Heep, an apartment superintendent with a painful personal secret, whose discovery of a sea nymph (Bryce Dallas Howard) in the building’s pool opens his eyes to a nightmarish fairy-tale realm. It’s one of many interesting roles for the Private Parts and American Splendor actor, who’ll also be seen or heard in such upcoming projects as The Ant Bully (he plays an exterminator in the cartoon), the period magician drama The Illusionist, the Rob Zombie-directed cartoon The Haunted World of El Superbeasto, and the Sci-Fi Channel pilot The Amazing Screw-On Head (available for download — it’s about a robot who’s a Civil War-era spy). Giamatti talked to about his fondness for weird tales at Lady‘s New York press junket last week.

What did you think when you first read Shyamalan’s Lady script?
I thought: This is really odd. But in a good way. I thought: If he could pull this off, it’d be really cool. It’s an ambitious idea to make the main point of the movie the story, to literally make the action of the movie the unfolding of the plot. All anyone does in the movie is sit around and tell each other the plot. It’s a really weird thing to try to do, but he pulls it off, I think.

In Michael Bamberger’s book The Man Who Heard Voices, Shyamalan says that you kept him in suspense over whether you’d accept the role.
I don’t recall it that way. To him, it felt like five months went by. I think it was about a week. I wasn’t playing hard to get. My wife was after me to spend more time with my kid, and I just didn’t get around to reading it for a few days. I feel bad knowing that now. He never told me I left him in suspense like that. I’m always thinking: This guy’s not serious. He doesn’t want to hire me. This is stupid.

Do you feel more confident and secure that people will want to hire you after Sideways?
I don’t think I’ll ever be comfortable or capable of taking it for granted. Things are definitely different, but that doesn’t mean they’ve changed permanently. I don’t trust anything. I’m too paranoid.

Was there any kind of research you could do to play Cleveland?
I have a big thing for science fiction and fantastical stuff like that. It gave me an opportunity to sit around and read books about ghosts and UFOs and Bigfoot and weirdness. It gave me an excuse to indulge in that. None of it had any direct bearing on the movie, but I was just reading a lot of wacky stuff. I read a lot of H.P. Lovecraft again. It felt like the right idea. The creepiness element of it, the whole idea of there being this menacing world going on while the normal world is going on, sort of felt right.

Not to mention the whole prehistoric element, as displayed in the pictograph-style myth recounted at the beginning of the film…
Right, I didn’t even think of that. That opening thing in the movie was something he took out of the script, and then he decided to do it again. And I’m glad he did because I like that whole mythic caveman thing.

How does Shyamalan’s process differ from other directors?
He rehearses a lot, so that gives you the opportunity to put a lot of stuff into it, a lot of detail, instead of just diving right into it, where you just throw the thing together as you go along.

Tell me about making The Illusionist.
I play a very ordinary guy in The Illusionist. It gave me the opportunity to do an accent, wear a cool hat, have a pipe, jump out of carriages. It was great. The period thing was really fun. I don’t get to do that much.

And then there’s Rob Zombie…
I recorded this thing called The Haunted World of El Superbeasto. It’s basically this really dirty cartoon, a lot of sex and drugs and violence. Which is good. I think we need a cartoon like that, like those ’70s cartoons like Fritz the Cat. I play this guy named Dr. Satan who’s trying to take over the world and may be gay or something. [Zombie] was great. He’s a really smart guy. The script is very funny. That was the most fun I’ve had doing one of those. I got to interact with the other actors, which is interesting. You don’t usually get to do that in cartoons. I think he wants that feeling of people screwing around together. It has a real snarky feel to it, like a bunch of guys making dirty jokes. I worked with Tom Papa, who’s one of the writers. He does the voice of El Superbeasto, the Mexican wrestler. He’s a detective who’s one of those masked Mexican wrestlers. He goes around doing drugs and shooting people and screwing.

So how many other members of the Howard family do you plan to work with?
[Cinderella Man director Ron Howard] was kind of like: ”What do you do with my daughter in this movie?” She was great; she’s an incredibly open, vivid, and vibrant person. She’s one of those people who makes you better and sharpens you up.

Do you prefer working with visionary, auteurist writer/directors, like Shyamalan or Sideways‘ Alexander Payne?
If they’re good, like these guys are, it’s actually much easier because they know it better than you’re ever going to know it. They have a sure hand, and it’s really comfortable. They’re not trying to negotiate something with another writer. You feel like you can do your job and they can really help you.

How was it working with Shyamalan as an actor, since he gave himself an unusally large role in Lady?
I had seen him in his other movies and I thought he was good. I never even thought about the fact that he’s not even an actor. He’s really good and he’s totally natural. He’s very hard on himself, wants to make sure that he does a good job. He works really hard, he’s interested in it, and he has a good time doing it. So it never even occurred to me that he wasn’t an actor. There were times I was like, ”Damn, he’s a good-looking man” or ”He’s got more on the ball than I do as an actor.” He can just stand there with a smoldery look and, wow, I wish I could do that.