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Paul Giamatti’s evolution to leading man

‘Lady in the Water’ star completely put himself in Shyamalan's hands
Lady in the Water
Warner Bros.
/ Source: The Associated Press

The script for M. Night Shyamalan's "Lady in the Water" had Paul Giamatti scratching his head.

Giamatti, 39, thought the thriller — based on a bedtime story borne from Shyamalan's wild imagination — was a crazy idea. After all, the actor — an affable Everyman and self-professed cynical human being — had most recently starred in two career-making dramas staked in reality: 2004's "Sideways" and last year's "Cinderella Man," which garnered him a best supporting actor Oscar nomination.

Still, when "The Sixth Sense" writer-director offered him the lead role, he decided to sign on.

He plays a sad-sack apartment-complex superintendent who rescues a mysterious young woman (Bryce Dallas Howard) from his swimming pool. He discovers she is a narf, as Shyamalan calls her, a nymph-like character with Godlike qualities. He then enlists his tenants to protect her on her perilous journey home.

Sitting in a suite in the Waldorf-Astoria hotel, Giamatti talked with The Associated Press about breathing underwater, making the jump to leading man and how he made Shyamalan sweat (just a little).

AP: This movie has an odd premise, but it works.

Giamatti: It does! I know. You're sitting there going, "What the hell?" but it works ... It really is an impressive thing (Shyamalan) pulled that off, because when I first read (the script) I was thinking this could just not work at all, but it'd be fun to try.

AP: It's been reported that Shyamalan had considered Kevin Costner for the part because you wouldn't commit right away. What took you so long?

Giamatti: It didn't take me that long. He's lying. He's not lying, but I think it felt longer to him. Maybe it was long ... I assumed that he knew I would say yes no matter what. So if I left him in suspense, I feel kinda bad. I think it was really only maybe a week. He said it was 7 months or something like that. It was probably a week, but (it seemed) like five months to him because, I think, he was so eager and enthusiastic.

AP: Why do you think he wanted you so badly for the role?

Giamatti: Bald buy, crooked teeth. I don't know. I look like a janitor? I remember he said to me, "You seem like a guy who could be both a doctor and a janitor. You're somebody I could believe as both things at the same time." I'm not quite sure what that means, what he saw in me that said that to him. I think he feels ... I'm good at playing kind of wounded guys, too, guys who are sort of trying to repress something really awful or trying to fight away from sad things or something.

AP: What was it like working with him?

Giamatti: He has a very specific vision for each scene. He's open to ideas, but, mostly, I said to myself, this is a strange story and he must have a very specific image of it. I'm just gonna let this dude tell me where to go. I'm gonna let him guide me. I'm gonna do something I don't often do, which is completely give myself over to the director's hands.

AP: In one underwater scene, your character holds his breath for quite a while. What was that like?

Giamatti: I can actually hold it for a pretty long time. And I like being underwater. And honest to God, that was the thing I was looking forward to doing the most in the movie. And it was the funnest thing, and it was one of my favorite sequences in the movie too. But I don't think I'll ever have a more proud, manly, masculine moment than when the stuntmen are like, "Hey, come on, wanna go have a beer with us?" And I was like, wow ... I impressed these guys. I felt kind of cool about it.

AP: How did your life change after "Sideways"?

Giamatti: Personally it hasn't changed that much. More people recognize me on the subway, but I'm very much able to lead a normal life ... But professionally, sure, it's changed a lot. I'm in this movie. I'm in a big summer movie.

AP: You've said you don't think you can pull off a leading-man role.

Giamatti: Well, I may be able to do it, but I don't think my thinking will ever switch from that of a supporting actor. I would have a hard time ever thinking it's all about me and I'm the most important thing in the scene. I can't think that way. Not that I'm some great, wonderful guy or anything like that.

AP: What is your dream role?

Giamatti: Nobody makes detective movies anymore. I've always wanted to play the kind of "Rockford Files" guy ... The really unheroic guy who lives in, like, a crappy trailer and solves crimes. That kind of thing would be fun.

AP: You live in Brooklyn. Do you think any ladies are hiding in the water there?

Giamatti: (laughs) They'd have to be in the Gowanus Canal, unfortunately. So they're probably not alive if they're in there! I mean, I don't know. There's no swimming pools, is there? "Lady in the Toilet in Brooklyn."