By Mary Milliken
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - It's been almost a decade since actor Paul Giamatti introduced himself to the world as the hapless and neurotic but lovable wine aficionado Miles in "Sideways."
Since then, he's played a U.S. president (John Adams) and a Federal Reserve chairman (Ben Bernanke) and this fall he has two more roles based on real-life characters to add to the list.
In "Parkland," a drama about the aftermath of President John F. Kennedy's assassination, he plays Abraham Zapruder, the Dallas businessman who accidentally shot the famous 26-second film of the event on his Super 8 camera. The film opens in U.S. theaters on Friday.
In "12 Years a Slave," a grueling tale of a free black man sold into slavery, Giamatti is a slave trader who puts the naked slaves on display and negotiates prices and packages. The film, which critics consider a serious Oscar contender, opens October 18.
Giamatti, 46, spoke to Reuters about playing a man wrestling with the decision to sell the JFK footage and the difficulties of making ruthless slave trading look like acceptable behavior.
Q: Your "Parkland" character Abe Zapruder fills in an information gap most of us have. Apart from the script and the book "Four Days in November" by Vincent Bugliosi, how did you find out more about him?
A: I didn't know anything about him really. There's footage of him, not a lot, but some of that was very useful. I met his family. They said some things in the course of just chatting with them that were really interesting. You play a real person and sometimes you meet the family, that's great. But in this instance I felt like they had had enough people stomping around their lives. So I didn't want to get too all over them about stuff.
Q: At the beginning we see this is a good man. What most worried you about getting the balance right?
A: I didn't want to make him too good, goody, goody good. I worried about making him too nice a guy, but that is what he was.
One of the things I worried about the most is that he had an incredibly heavy accent. And I wanted to get that, without overdoing it. He was a Ukrainian Jew raised in New York and he sounded like it, which set him apart hugely from everyone else down there (in Dallas). It's just bizarre that he was there in the first place. He had a crazy heavy accent.
Q: We see Zapruder worried about the impact of the film and how it is going to change his life forever.
A: It did really change his life. He seemed to know right away what it was going to do to his life, which is amazing.
The whole thing of selling it was a real struggle for him. I know it was a part of his thinking from something I read: he felt like, as a Jew, it is going to look bad if he sold this thing to people. It was a really complicated decision for him and he didn't feel good about it. And he got a lot of crap for it, that it was so inappropriate to sell this to people. But he wasn't doing it to make a big bundle. It was kind of a sense that 'I need to get this out of my life, out of my family's life, but be able to take care of them because of the trauma everyone is going to have visited on them.'
Q: What is your role like in "12 Years a Slave?"
A: This movie has like 40 million people in it. It basically has a lot of cameos, which is essentially what I do in it. But it was really interesting. I play a real guy. No one knows much about him. He was named Theophilus Freeman, who was one of the big slave traders in New Orleans in the 1850s.
Chiwetel Ejiofor plays this guy who is kidnapped and they sell him. They bring him to me and I process him through this slave market and sell him to Benedict Cumberbatch. So you see some of the mechanics of selling slaves and you see the things they did to these people, like splitting up a family.
Q: There is quite a bit of buzz around this film.
A: I read the script and I thought immediately I would like to be a part of this. I didn't care what the hell I do in it. It's negligible, but it was really fun to do. Like the JFK movie, the idea behind this movie was to try to be in the moment, not retrospective. And for the people living in the moment, this is a completely normal thing.
I knew when I played this character my goal was to make this as absolutely unremarkable and normal a thing - to be standing here with these people and trading them like they are horses and say this woman is not going to be sold with her child and tell her to shut up and go whip her to shut her up. It is all incredibly mundane for the guy doing it. The only person who is shocked and amazed by it is this poor guy being sold into slavery.
(Editing by Patricia Reaney and Lisa Shumaker)