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'The Holdovers' director Alexander Payne calls Paul Giamatti his 'spirit animal'

"I really direct him with a look or an eyebrow, or two syllables or something. We're very much in sync," Payne said

The Holdovers marks another instalment in the brilliant pairing of Alexander Payne and Paul Giamatti, with the movie's director calling the actor his "spirit animal."

"It's very close and instinctive and he knows the movie I'm trying to make, I know the movie he's trying to be in," Payne told Yahoo Canada about working with Giamatti, during the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) in September. "Our shorthand is so short it's ... almost non-existent."

"I really direct him with a look or an eyebrow, or two syllables or something. We're very much in sync."

The Holdovers, written by David Hemingson, takes us to the Barton Academy, a New England boys boarding school, in 1970. It's time for winter break with all the students excited to get away from the school, many taking the time for a vacation with their family, except Angus Tully, played by Dominic Sessa. Angus' mother has opted to spend the holiday with her new husband instead of her son, making him among the small group of students who will have to spend the winter break at the school.

The teacher tasked with looking after these boys is Paul Hunham (Giamatti), a member of the school alumni and now an adjunct professor of ancient history, and he's not particularly popular with his students. He's a very stern teacher and is the first person to judge the privileged lives of these teens.

Joining the "holdover" students and Paul is Mary Lamb (Da'Vine Joy Randolph), the school cook whose son Curtis, a former student at Barton, was recently killed in the Vietnam war.

Throughout the winter break, Paula and Angus' relationship shifts, with the creation of a special bond, or understanding, between the two.

Dominic Sessa stars as Angus Tully, Da’Vine Joy Randolph as Mary Lamb and Paul Giamatti as Paul Hunham in director Alexander Payne's The Holdovers, a Focus Features release (Seacia Pavao/Focus Features)
Dominic Sessa stars as Angus Tully, Da’Vine Joy Randolph as Mary Lamb and Paul Giamatti as Paul Hunham in director Alexander Payne's The Holdovers, a Focus Features release (Seacia Pavao/Focus Features)

Paul Giamatti: A 'genuinely brilliant fellow'

While Giamatti's career has seen him in a number of exceptional roles, including Payne's 2004 movie Sideways, The Holdovers is different. The way he portrays Paul's emotional journey and the character's relationship with this teen student is one of the most impactful we've seen, and easily one of his best roles yet.

"He has easy access to his emotions, that's what good actors have," Payne said. "He's a brilliant guy, and I don't use that word lightly, he's a genuinely brilliant fellow and very sensitive."

While Payne is regarded as a fantastic writer, he didn't actually credited for crafting the entire script for The Holdovers, but he did develop the originating concept for the story.

"I conceived it and rewrote it, and criticized the sh-t out of the writer when I thought it could be better," Payne said.

"I didn't know where the story was going go, I kind of left that up to [David Hemingson]. But I said here's the premise, very disliked, curmudgeonly teacher is selected this year to take care of boys who have nowhere to go and winds up having a particular relationship with one, ... and he has a wonky eye."

David Hemmingsen then came up with the character of Mary and Miss Lydia Crane (Carrie Preston), both of which added an appealing dimension to the story. Both performances that the audience should pay particular attention to.

Director of photography Eigil Bryld, actor Dominic Sessa and director Alexander Payne on the set of their film The Holdovers, a Focus Features release (Seacia Pavao / Focus Features)
Director of photography Eigil Bryld, actor Dominic Sessa and director Alexander Payne on the set of their film The Holdovers, a Focus Features release (Seacia Pavao / Focus Features)

'Everybody's got damage'

While Giamatti is bringing his extensive acting experience to the table in The Holdovers, he's also sharing the screen with Sessa, who had never acted in a movie before.

"I kind of forgot after a while, I forgot that it was Dominic's first movie because he just held his own," Payne said. "[Giamatti's] just so real and natural and relaxed in what he does that his fellow actors can't help but be better, because of what he's giving them. That sounds kind of cliché, but it's really true."

"Then Dominic is just kind of this fearless kid who's born with a talent. ... I've never really seen that before, someone born to do it. ... Just to witness him day by day, giving Paul Giamatti a run for his money, ... it was impressive."

While it may be tempting to have a sort of dismissing thought about the The Holdovers as a film about the trials and tribulations of the privileged, there's nothing to gloss over in this film. It's incredibly captivating storytelling, and a particularly visually and emotionally impeccable film.

It's difficult to think of a film that is able to achieve such affecting emotional impact in a story, and one that's also so anchored to its characters, while still having several moments of fun.

"I didn't really think about any of these kids as being like, 'oh their life is great,'" Payne said. "Paul Giamatti's character has a certain class resentment, expressed a couple of times, but he says to the cook in one moment, he says, 'Oh, these kids have had it easy their whole lives,' and she says, 'You don't know that. Did you?'"

"I think that's right. And Angus later says in the film, 'My mother thought she could just stash me away here the way half of us are just stashed away.' So I think David Hemmingsen the writer and I were always pretty sensitive to everybody's got a story. Everybody's got damage."

The Holdovers is now in Toronto theatres, and will be released nationwide on Nov. 10.