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Paul Giamatti: “Acting is harder than I thought it would be”

Billions star Paul Giamatti on his teenage shyness, the dawning of fame – and why he might have thought twice about becoming an actor

I find it hard to remember my younger self. Looking back, I was fairly unremarkable. I was not part of one clique, I had lots of different kinds of friends, I was not miserable. I think I was fairly typical. I went to a boarding school but didn’t board there and did what I had to do. I have warm feelings towards my younger self. I don’t look back on him with any shame or misery.

I suppose I was bookish – I read anything and everything. We had to read Sons and Lovers in class and I didn’t want to but it was great. And Naked Lunch completely freaked me out. And I had an older brother and sister, so I would listen to everything from Brian Eno to weird reggae and ska, Pink Floyd to Joy Division and David Bowie. I was all over the map. I suppose if there is anything that characterises what I was like it is that I was into everything.

Believe it or not I was in the high school swimming team. I was very good. That was the thing that I did. That was my major social group. I wasn’t a big jock kid but I was on a team. And that is mostly what I think about when I look back to high school.

I grew up in a big university, where my dad’s friends were all intellectuals. That is probably why I was so curious. I always imagined I would be a teacher, like most people in both sides of my family going back a few generations. But I wasn’t thinking about the future. I even went through a period of considering going to the naval academy. I don’t know what I was thinking.

I would tell my younger self not to be so shy all the time. I was too shy when it came to romance. I’d tell him, don’t worry, everything will be fine. I’d say: “Have more fun than you are having.” I was about 18 before I got over my shyness.

We are living in a dark age now. Politics is a toxic radiation area.

I was more relaxed as a kid than I am as an adult. Adult concern hits you, life hits you, responsibility hits you. There is more planning now I have a kid. My parents were very good about encouraging us to do things and I try to pass that on. As hard as it might be, make sure you do what you love in life. Fortunately my son doesn’t seem to have any interest in acting. I wouldn’t discourage him but I wouldn’t be thrilled, even though acting has been pretty good for me.

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I would tell my younger self to think twice about becoming an actor. It is harder than he thought it was going to be. I got into acting in college but didn’t think it was something I would do for my job. This is a career I drifted into. I floated along. But I’d always liked going to the movies. Peter Sellers was great, I was really into Alec Guinness – I liked a lot of the British actors. They are all dead now.

I realised my acting goals really fast. If I did have a goal, it was to do a good supporting role on Broadway. I thought if I could do that by the time I was 50, I would be fine. But that happened very early on for me. So now what do I do? I lucked out, and then whatever the hell happened and I just went with it.

After Sideways, lots of stuff happened for me very suddenly. I hadn’t done a movie like that before. They started casting me in things where I actually had a substantial role, which I hadn’t had up until that time. American Splendor is another movie I loved. I have got to work with great people. I loved working with Vanessa Redgrave. I don’t know if she is doing much any more. And I would love to work with Russell Crowe again.

Fame is not something I ever anticipated happening to me. I only really realised that people know who I am about four years ago. It sank in very slowly. It would have been disconcerting if that had happened at a younger age.

As a kid I would be looking ahead, thinking, ‘oh wow’, about some of the films I have done. There is a movie I did called The Illusionist, with Edward Norton – a weird period-piece, and that’s a nice movie. That is the kind of thing that, as a kid, I would think was really cool. It is a film I still really love. And I would have been really happy to know that I would do something like Downton Abbey. Anything period that comes my way, I do it. John Adams [TV mini-series about the second US president, played by Giamatti] would have interested me as a kid and, although I’d be surprised if anyone ever saw it, I did a British period film called Ironclad in which I played King John. It was not the highest grossing movie in the world but my younger self would have thought it was awesome, everyone charging around with swords.

I would advise my younger self that he should never start smoking cigarettes. I quit but it was a hell of a thing. It wasn’t just about me. I have had people in my family die of it. I smoked too heavily for a very long time.

I wasn’t political as a young man, and am only interested now because I feel I have to be. I feel more pessimistic than I was as a kid. To me we are living in a dark age now. Things in the US are a mess. Politics is a toxic radiation area. The world is a complete mess right now.

Billions, starring Paul Giamatti, airs Thursdays at 9pm on Sky Atlantic and is available to watch at Sky Box Sets, via sky.com

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