Emilie Harris / Daily Nexus

Founding father John Adams. Orangutan human slave trader. Seedy Hollywood  producer. All drastically different characters, yet they share one thing in common: Each role is played by actor Paul Giamatti.

Giamatti is a force in the film world — known for his success as both a character actor and leading man. He has starred in iconic films such as “Sideways” (2004), “Cinderella Man” (2005) and most recently his Academy Award-nominated performance in “The Holdovers” (2023). Characterized by a signature slow-paced, academic cadence, Giamatti has the ability to disappear into the roles he plays, a chameleon in various costumes and unconventional roles. 

Giamatti’s cinematic feats led him to be honored with the Santa Barbara International Film Festival (SBIFF) Cinema Vanguard Award for his illustrious career on Feb. 14. The award is given to actors who have paved their own unique way through industry, making a significant contribution to film. Given Giamatti’s illustrious filmography, he was a shoo-in.

Despite the event happening on Valentine’s Day, fans still lined up outside the Arlington Theatre hoping to catch a glimpse of the revered actor. Some couples in the ticket line joined hands, strangely making the Cinema Vanguard Award the perfect niche date night for cinephiles. 

Giamatti stepped out onto the red carpet and was greeted by SBIFF Executive Director Roger Durling. The pair, along with Giamatti’s “Sideways” co-star Virginia Madsen, posed for pictures before the honoree made his way to the student press. 

The Daily Nexus got the chance to speak to Giamatti about the evolution of his character, Paul Hunham, in “The Holdovers.”

“I liked [Hunham], actually … I don’t think he’s wrong in what he’s talking about, he doesn’t go about it in the right way. He’s not very good at relating to other people, and he’s still not that great at relating by the end of the movie. But he comes to open up to other people,” Giamatti said. “I like that kind of character.”

When asked about what it was like sharing the screen with co-star Dominic Sessa in his film debut, Giamatti immediately replied, “You wouldn’t have known [Sessa] had never done something before.”

“I think being with him, kind of that beginner’s mind, made me slow down and appreciate it,” Giamatti continued. “He was a very nice presence in the room whenever I worked with him.”

Giamatti speaking with the Daily Nexus on the red carpet. (Emilie Harris / Daily Nexus)

The actor made a conscious effort to speak with each student outlet (an impressive feat, considering the large amount) before making his way into the Arlington Theatre. Murmurs of excitement filled the crowd as the room slowly filled up.

Durling walked out on-stage to welcome the audience.

“Happy Valentine’s Day!” he exclaimed.

“I think it’s very appropriate that we’re celebrating Paul Giamatti on Valentine’s Day. Did you guys know what his middle name is?” Durling asked the crowd. “Paul Valentine Giamatti!”

He then introduced moderator Scott Feinberg, Executive Editor of Awards of The Hollywood Reporter and host of podcast Awards Chatter.

“And my brother from another mother,” Durling added, which was met with laughter from the audience as Feinberg walked out from backstage.

Feinberg spoke a few words praising SBIFF and reminiscing on his history with the festival (having attended each one annually since 2009). He then gave a brief introduction to the man of the night, saying, “Paul Giamatti is one of the greatest screen actors of our time.” 

After citing quotes from The New York Times, The Guardian and Shred Magazine, Feinberg also included some words from Giamatti’s frequent collaborator, “Sideways” and “The Holdovers” director Alexander Payne. “‘I can’t really begin to tell you how good an actor he is. He’s a huge star who is so watchable, charming and charismatic. He’s a bit of a freak,’” Feinberg quoted from Payne.

Feinberg then directed the audience’s attention to the main screen, which played a montage of Giamatti’s work and expansive career. After the highlight reel, he welcomed Giamatti on the stage, an announcement that immediately generated a standing ovation. The actor emerged from the wings, walking with sheepish confidence and waving to the crowd as he made his way to his seat across from Feinberg. 

Once seated, Feinberg jokingly asked, “Can we offer you any merlot?” a reference to Giamatti’s role in “Sideways.” The film, which takes place in Santa Barbara Wine Country, is considered to be one of Giamatti’s most notable roles, thrusting him into the spotlight and establishing him as a more-than-capable leading man. 

The discussion officially kicked off with a shout-out to Giamatti’s hometown: New Haven, Connecticut. Feinberg added that some audience members were from New Haven, which shocked Giamatti. “You came all the way from New Haven, Connecticut. Right on!” Giamatti said.

There was a playful tone to Giamatti and Feinberg’s conversation, which was established early in the night. Feinberg asked Giamatti what his favorite New Haven pizzeria is, before adding, “How does it compare with In-N-Out?”

Following the Golden Globes Awards on Jan. 7, where Giamatti won for Best Actor in a Musical or Comedy Film, the actor was spotted at an In-N-Out Burger in Westwood, casually sitting inside the restaurant eating a burger next to his trophy. 

The crowd and Giamatti laughed at Feinberg’s quip. “In-N-Out’s pretty good, I gotta say,” Giamatti joked.

The Daily Nexus was able to obtain Giamatti’s order during the red carpet interview. His order is simple: “I get it very basic. Just a number one: Double-Double, raw onions, fries and a Coke, that’s it. I don’t do anything fancy.” 

The interview continued with Giamatti speaking about his parent’s influence on his career. His father was a professor at Yale, where Giamatti later attended as well. He started as an anthropology major, initially interested in studying gorillas, then switched to a fine arts major and finally becoming an English major. Yet, after graduating, his father’s sudden passing caused Giamatti to switch gears to acting. 

“[My father] always said to do what you love to do, if you can,” Giamatti said. “His death really impelled me to pursue acting.”

Feinberg explored Giamatti’s acting journey — starting in Seattle for theater and film roles before moving back to New Haven to attend the David Geffen School of Drama at Yale. From there, he was cast in small roles, such as “heckler number two.” Giamatti paid respect to the often unsung actors, saying, “Small roles like that are the hardest.”

“When you have to come in and you have one to two lines, or you have to cry in one scene, it’s brutal!” Giamatti continued. “It’s a really good training ground. You really get good because you have to be.”

Giamatti eventually went on to more unique roles, such as Pig Vomit in Howard Stern’s “Private Parts” (1997) and Limbo in Tim Burton’s “Planet of the Apes” (2001). Primarily comical and largely absurd, these films kicked off Giamatti’s career as a character actor, practically unrecognizable in both roles. He gained further recognition and praise for his performance in 2003’s “American Splendor,” which eventually led to him being discovered by Payne and being offered the lead role in “Sideways.”

“If you live in Santa Barbara and haven’t watched [“Sideways”], watch it,” Feinberg said. “This is a movie I love so much, I saw it in theaters more times than any other movie.” He added that the film was a large boost for the local Santa Barbara wine economy, once again shouting out the setting of the film festival.

Giamatti spoke fondly of his co-stars, Thomas Haden Church and Madsen, happily reminiscing on their chemistry and on-screen performances. He also credited Payne’s directing style with curating the special tone in the film. “What you’re seeing is what it felt like when filming it.”

Yet despite the success of the film, Giamatti still remains modest about his performance, revealing that “I never felt I got that part right.”

He continued to explain his mentality when it comes to acting. “I hardly have ever felt like I got it right. Which is why I keep doing it. One day, I will get it right.”

Emilie Harris / Daily Nexus

Following “Sideways,” Giamatti noticed a shift in his public perception, revealing that after 2004, “I never had to audition anymore.”

This achievement was accompanied by humility. “In a weird way, sometimes I miss [auditioning]. It felt like an important part of the process sometimes, and it’s gone,” Giamatti disclosed.

Feinberg brought up Giamatti’s connection to actor Philip Seymour Hoffman, pointing out the two’s career parallels. The two were often up for the same roles against one another, and eventually appeared in 2011’s “The Ides of March” together. Giamatti took time to pay their respects to Hoffman, who passed away 10 years ago. 

“Frequently as an actor, you have another person who you’re kind of ‘twined’ with, and you go up for the same parts,” Giamatti said. “But at a certain point, [Hoffman’s] greatness became imminent. He moved into another realm.”

“I got to know him well, and he was a beautiful and amazing guy,” he continued. “I felt privileged to be weirdly doubled with him for so many years.”

Despite his friendly demeanor, Giamatti’s expertise allows him to take on a variety of roles, performing villainous ones scarily well. His performance as a slave trader in “12 Years a Slave” (2013) renders him almost unrecognizable, as the stark contrast between his self-described “despicable” character and Giamatti’s real-life demeanor is unbelievable. 

“I remember [director] Steve McQueen saying to me, ‘You seem like you’re okay playing this guy.’ Well, you have to show these guys. They existed, and you got to show them,” Giamatti said of his decision to take on the role. “It was pretty intense. I’ve seen that movie once, and I don’t know if I can ever see it again.”  

The pair continued to make their way through Giamatti’s vast filmography. “One of the odd coincidences: In 2015, you play not one, but two people screwing musicians out of their living,” Feinberg joked in regards to Giamatti’s roles in “Love & Mercy” and “Straight Outta Compton.” 

“Good lord, I’ve played a lot of snakes,” Giamatti remarked. The audience laughed in response. 

Apart from the silver screen, Giamatti has also become a recognizable face in television, most notably starring in the titular role of the HBO limited series “John Adams” (2008) and Showtime’s “Billions” (2016-2023). Feinberg’s mention of “Billions” garnered cheers from the audience when mentioned.

“Ah! Back to playing snakes,” Giamatti joked about his character in the series.

Giamatti spoke about this unusual career move, revealing that while he did not expect it to last seven years, the quality of the show was palpable for its duration. “The writing on that show was constantly engaging as an actor. I think the writing in a lot of television shows can get flat, but [‘Billions’] was always juicy, and the plot was constantly changing,” Giamatti praised.

Feinberg then led the conversation to the film that has garnered Giamatti critical acclaim and catapulted him into the awards season spotlight: “The Holdovers.” The film starred Giamatti alongside film newcomer Sessa and Da’Vine Joy Randolph (who received the SBIFF Virtuosos Award on Feb. 10). 

“The Holdovers” marks the second collaboration for director-actor duo Payne and Giamatti. Giamatti shared how Payne viewed Mr. Hunham (who Giamatti depicts on-screen). “Alexander said something about him that really holds true: ‘He’s not a nice man, but he’s a good man.’”

The actor expressed genuine gratitude to those behind-the-scenes, specifically Christina Patterson, who handpainted the glass eye Giamatti wears in the film. “That’s a lot of the character, the eye,” said Giamatti. “[Patterson’s] a genius.”

When approaching the character, Giamatti drew on his New Haven youth, touching back on his private school experience and the academic figures he encountered in his life. “When I watch the movie, I see all of these people manifesting in this performance. It’s almost hard for me to watch, because it’s hard to see my life manifesting in those ways…”

Feinberg shared a brief anecdote where he encountered one of Giamatti’s mother’s former students. He relayed the exact words told to him, saying “‘I’d like you to tell Paul Giamatti that his mother was my teacher at Hopkins in New Haven, and was the best teacher I’ve ever had.’”

Giamatti nodded in strong agreement. “[My father] loved teaching. And [my mother] actually loved being in the room teaching, and being with kids. They really meant it, the two of them. It’s a great thing,” Giamatti reminisced, eliciting applause in response.

One of the most notable aspects of “The Holdovers” is the immersive transformation to 1970, making it a true period piece. “When I talk about this movie as a period movie, it freaks me out. Because I was alive!” Giamatti chuckled. “‘John Adams’ is period, this is my freaking life, man!”

Giamatti also spoke extensively on the costuming, specifically the coats worn by Mr. Hunham throughout the film. He once again drew on his exposure to East Coast academia, saying “That’s what I remember all of those academic friends of my father’s wearing. I gotta have that nerdy freaking coat to wear, and the hat and the pipe smoke.”

Feinberg closed out the discussion by addressing the recent influx of public attention and praise towards Giamatti, asking for his thoughts. 

“It’s an extraordinary thing. I’m really happy that people love the movie so much,” Giamatti said. “I feel like maybe I did the right thing with my life. That’s the nicest thing about it. I did the right thing, and what I do seems to matter to people.”

The crowd roared with cheers and applause in response, clearly moved by the actor’s inspirational journey. Feinberg then welcomed Giamatti’s “Sideways” co-star Madsen onto the stage to present Giamatti with the award.

Giamatti posing with “Sideways” co-star Virginia Madsen on the red carpet. (Emilie Harris / Daily Nexus)

The audience was on their feet as Madsen made her way to the podium. She gave a brief yet personal speech, directly addressing Giamatti instead of the audience. “You are known as ‘the actor’s actor,’ because there’s a mastery in what you do. And you honor the writers, directors and filmmakers that you work with, because you illuminate what they’ve done and you bring it to life.” 

“And as for me,” Madsen smiled, “I will always drown in your eyes.” Giamatti smiled in response as he got up to make his way to Madsen.

Madsen finished her speech on a comical note. “So please accept, on behalf of the Santa Barbara International Film Festival, this really really cool looking award,” she said, holding up the Cinema Vanguard Award.

The two embraced on the stage to the booming cheers from the audience. Madsen handed Giamatti the award, and he took to the podium to deliver the last words of the night. 

“It’s really nice to get this from the hands of Miss Madsen, and it’s really nice to get it here. Because we left a little piece of our heart and soul in this place, right?” Giamatti said while looking at Madsen, speaking in reference to “Sideways.”

“You’re gonna make me cry!” Madsen shouted in response, as Giamatti laughed. 

“Thank you so much for this, I really appreciate this,” Giamatti said. Once again receiving a standing ovation, Giamatti waved to the crowd before making his way off stage.

As the audience slowly shuffled out of the theater, people exchanged their thoughts on the night and favorite Giamatti roles with one another, still buzzing with excitement. One audience member exclaimed from across the room, “This was the perfect way to spend Valentine’s Day!”

For Giamatti fans and film enthusiasts, it was the perfect way indeed.