‘The Holdovers’ Director Alexander Payne’s ‘Sideways’ Reunion With Paul Giamatti Was 20 Years in the Making

Alexander Payne’s career of quietly incisive, off-kilter human comedies has rarely met a tonal match quite so perfect as actor Paul Giamatti.

The Oscar-nominated actor so memorably captured the absurdity, heartache and rage of fledgling middle age in Payne’s Oscar-winning “Sideways” that it seemed only a matter of time before he and the filmmaker found their way back together.

To hear Payne tell it, giving Giamatti another starring vehicle with “The Holdovers” was a reunion 20 years in the making.

“I’ve had a bunch of good actors in my career and been really lucky, and they’ve all been really great and cooperative and stuff, but I have a special place in my heart for Paul Giamatti, because we really got on great 20 years ago,” Payne told TheWrap, putting on a country twang to hit the point home. “I’ve been looking for the time to work with him again – and it finally happened.”

Giamatti stars in “The Holdovers” as Paul Hunham, a curmudgeonly history professor at an elite New England boarding school tasked with staying on the school grounds over Christmas break, 1970, to keep watch over the boys who don’t have a place to go home to.

As delivered by Giamatti, the character’s intellectual condescension and emotional aridness never cease to stir laughter with a bite. And, true to form, they are slowly peeled back to reveal a gentler if not altogether kind man who, in his words, finds the world “a bitter and complicated place, and it seems to feel the same way about me.”

It’s hard to imagine him being played by anyone but Giamatti.

Payne recalled telling the film’s writer, David Hemingson, when conceiving of the story together, “We’re writing for him.”

“You can’t be 100% sure the guy’s going to do the part, but we’re writing for him. And to make sure he was going to do the part, I started letting him know about the project pretty early on after Hemingson and I conceived the story,” Payne said. “I let Paul know it was happening. And sent him one if not two early drafts to not just engage him, but get his comments, because he’s a smart dude and very literate. And he basically just always said, ‘Keep going,’ and it worked out great.”

Alexander Payne directs The Holdovers
“The Holdovers” director Alexander Payne (Credit: Seacia Pavao/Focus Features)

“He’s the kind of actor you cast not because you want him to do it a certain way, but rather you’re curious to see what he’ll do with the part,” Payne continued. “Kind of like how you cast Meryl Streep or Laurence Olivier or some great actor. I’m directing the film, but when casting someone of that caliber who you can trust, when you get a real pro like that, you’re like a filmgoer. I just want to see what he’s going to do with that part.”

The world of “The Holdovers” wasn’t entirely foreign to Giamatti, either. “When he got the part, he said, ‘I could play this part because I know those guys,’” Payne said. Giamatti grew up in the private school system, from The Foote School in New Haven to the Choate Rosemary Hall college preparatory boarding school, from which he graduated in 1985. The actor then went on to study English as an undergrad at Yale University, where his father was famously president, before studying at the Yale School of Drama shortly thereafter.

Having that base understanding of the world at the ready was just the start. Payne said the first surprise Giamatti brought to the table was the suggestion of adorning the character’s beleaguered face with a thick, walrus mustache.

“I had never imagined the man with a mustache, but Paul, in that part of his process, working from the outside in, wanted to play it with a mustache,” Payne said. He added that the weeks between wrapping the seventh and final season of “Billions” and filming saw Giamatti growing his mustache and hair for a groovy combover.

“He’s always surprising in terms of how good he is, how convincing and how thoroughly he inhabits a part, how funny he is, how much he understands the tone of the movies I like. In the movies we make together, we have a very good, common understanding of the tone of what we were doing,” Payne said. “For movies I do, he’s the perfect carrier of tone, a perfect vessel for tone. He can do dramatic things comically and comic things seriously… I just can’t admire him enough.”

Now in select theaters and costarring Da’Vine Joy Randolph, Carrie Preston and newcomer Dominic Sessa, “The Holdovers” expands nationwide on Friday via Focus Features.

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