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Paul Giamatti on finding humanity in the unlikable in his new film 'The Holdovers'

Paul Giamatti stars as Paul Hunham in director Alexander Payne’s "The Holdovers." (Courtesy of Focus Features / © 2023 FOCUS FEATURES LLC)
Paul Giamatti stars as Paul Hunham in director Alexander Payne’s "The Holdovers." (Courtesy of Focus Features / © 2023 FOCUS FEATURES LLC)

Editor’s note: This segment was rebroadcast on March 4, 2024. Click here for that audio.

In “The Holdovers,” Paul Hunham, an unpopular instructor at a New England boarding school, stays on campus during winter break and makes some unlikely connections. The other titular “Holdovers” include an abrasive-yet-bright student named Angus, and Mary Lamb, the school’s head cook who lost her son in the Vietnam War.

The film, directed by Alexander Payne and released in October 2023, is up for the Oscar for Best Picture. And Paul Giamatti, who plays Hunham, is nominated for Best Actor in a Leading Role.

Giamatti says that his task throughout the film was finding humanity in every situation and person, even the most unlikeable.

“I play complicated people, which is a nice thing to be stuck playing,” Giamatti says. “I just have a kind of contrary thing where I want to seek out the opposite in something.”

5 questions with Paul Giamatti

Who is Paul Hunham as a character?

“He’s the teacher that you’ve had that’s extremely strict and a bit mean and a bit tough. And he’s idealistic and he goes a little too far in those things, but he’s actually not a bad guy underneath all of his sarcastic bravado.”

How did you find inspiration from the teachers you had growing up?

“This guy that … had the big old walrus-y mustache was a guy that I had. Even as a kid, I think I clocked that there was some bitterness in these guys that was probably shaping a lot of their attitude towards the students.

“I could recognize with this guy that he actually cared as a teacher.

“I really did in the end think that he was a lovely teacher and a really good teacher. I learned a lot from him, but he was not an easy guy.”

How did your late father, who was a professor and former president of Yale, inspire your acting choices?

“The overcoat I wear. That was one of the only times Alexander [Payne] and I have ever had a moment of going, ‘I don’t know about this.’

“He had a jacket that was very specific that he wanted me to wear. And I thought, ‘It’s too grand looking. He’s a more practical guy. He doesn’t have the money to buy a big expensive coat.’

“Not only my father had a coat like that, but all of these academics that I could remember had that kind of hooded coat with the toggle buttons like that.”

You often play characters who aren’t very likable. What is that like?

“Acting is a weird thing and people really begin to believe what they’re seeing. And increasingly in the world with reality television and TikTok, people believe that what they’re seeing is the authentic thing.

“I clearly have some inclination to want to find the humanity in a person that people don’t like, or find something unlikable in somebody that people do like.”

How do you feel about Hunham as a character?

“I really like this character.

“He’s difficult, but I think of him as, he’s got a lot of odd dignity and he takes a lot of pleasure in things. He takes pleasure in being a jerk in some ways, but there’s something kind of tough about him that I actually liked. He’s not self-pitying.

“A lot of the people I have to do, I have to find a way to like them. But I liked this guy. I felt a lot of compassion for him. I really liked him. So I will miss him.”


Emiko Tamagawa produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Todd MundtGrace Griffin adapted it for the web.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.