SIFFgoers responded warmly to Cold Souls (review) this spring, when writer/director Sophie Barthes sat down with her director of photography/boyfriend/producer, Andrij Parekh, and the film's star, Paul Giamatti, to talk about the international black market in souls. Why do we extract them? Who buys them? Why isn't this racket more roundly condemned? But first, I ask Giamatti about the film (which opens Friday at the Uptown and Guild 45), which is worse for his character, an actor named Paul, to feel too much or feel too little?
"I think the movie would posit that feeling too little is probably less good than feeling too much," says Giamatti, who maintains a slouchy, growly laughter for most of our sit-down. Discussing a comedy that makes fun of an actor's oversensitivity, he clearly enjoys making fun of the whole actorly process. "You have to strike a balance"
In Cold Souls, where his character has his soul extracted to numb the pain of playing Vanya in Uncle Vanya, I ask, is this any different than the long tradition of actors using alcohol or drugs for the same effect?
"You see plenty of it," Giamatti replies. "I've always been afraid to medicate and then appear on stage or on camera. Because I know that I would not be able to deliver what's required. But I am always astonished by my colleagues who are chemically altered. They manage to do astounding work. 'I need my hooch to get out there!'"
Is soul swapping and soul extraction, I ask Barthes, a bit like plastic surgery? Similar to a nose job or tummy tuck or hair plugs to keep plying your trade in Hollywood?
"It's the next step of progress," she says, speaking with a strong French accent and bending her syntax to often charming effect. She's the quietest person in the room, hard to draw out, or hear, beneath Giamatti's constant chuckling.
She continues, "Whatever works and makes people feel better, I think they will go for it without wanting to do the work inside, to develop the sensitivity of their souls. Definitely there is a thing about appearance in the film. Because they are making fun of the little chickpea that is his soul."
Indeed, when the sci-fi gizmo operated in a shady clinic--overseen by a very funny David Strathairn--sucks out Paul's soul, it's the size of a pea, which the actor takes as a mighty insult. The big white apparatus, rather like a MRI machine, doesn't look quite modern. This was by design, explains Parekh: "We had a lot of Sleeper and a lot of Alphaville in the movie. To give it that somewhat timeless but '70s look."
Barthes chips in, "We're nostalgic for an era we don't even know." Both she and Parekh are children of the '70s, with only hazy memories of that era. They now live in New York, where the film was shot, but consciously avoided obvious cues to Cold Souls' time and place. The city becomes a little dreamy and indistinct, a doppelgänger to the real thing--just as actor Paul, with a new Russian soul in his noggin, becomes a doppelgänger to the old, neurotic Paul.
Parekh, who's shot many indies including Half Nelson, says his and Barthes' goal was "to get away from this movement of neorealism that's kind of taken over American cinema. To try to get something against the grain. We tried to stay away from the postcard view of St. Petersburg [where Paul pursues the soul thieves] or New York, to try to turn the camera away from what everyone else is taking photos of. To give it a more mysterious feeling. It's winter light, so it's all very gray."
This helps give the movie a gloomy Chekhov quality, notes Barthes. "I've always loved winter, I don't know why. It makes it so existential in its way."
Also, I ask Giamatti, that Chekhov weather also steered the movie against a wacky comic tenor that we might otherwise expect?
"It was definitely conducive to that particular tone," he answers. "The idea was to try to maintain that tone, where it wasn't always going for the wacky. That it was somehow grounding it in something more gray and Slavic."
Parekh adds, "The poetry of melancholy was in the script the entire time; it was a real fight to keep it in."
Filmgoers will be fairly dazzled by Giamatti's few snippets of Vanya, performed in rehearsals with wildly different interpretations--owing to his different souls. So, I ask, has he played the role before?
"No, I never have. I have not played Vanya. I've done other Chekhov, but I've never done Uncle Vanya. I guess I'm getting to that age, which is a kind of sad thing to realize. Then I play the old butler in The Cherry Orchard. And then I die."
Of these Vanya soliloquies, he continues, "It was...a real actor's exercise, and that was the thing I was most angst-ridden about. I new that I could do it badly. But I thought I have to do it kind of well in at least one brief thing. Because it was these little snippets of it, that made it harder. I was familiar enough with the play, and I had done scenes from it before, that I felt okay about it."
Meanwhile, on the days Giamatti wasn't doing Chekhov, Barthes had the pleasure of directing an intentionally bad Russian soap opera. Over in St. Petersburg, a starlet has Paul's soul inserted in her head, thinking it'll make her a great actress.
Barthes explains the influence, "They get a lot of Brazilian soap operas [in Russia]. They get a lot of Latin American telenovelas."
Did Giamatti want to join in that cheesy, fun, bad-acting ensemble? As a break from his serious acting duties? Recalling when he watched from the side of the set on those days, he laughs, "I did kind of wish I could be in there!"
But on the more serious side--and Cold Souls is more seriocomedy than comedy--the film is about marriage. Actor Paul isn't just estranged from himself, but from his role as Vanya and from his wife (Emily Watson) as well. In those domestic scenes, I ask Giamatti, does marriage become a Cartesian dilemma? Both husband and wife are trying to fathom what the other is thinking?
"Yes! Certainly!," Giamatti exclaims. "And the movie seems to be about some kind of journey toward receptivity toward the other person, being open to them, looking into them somehow. The guy [actor Paul] is deeply self-involved. He's wondering what the hell other people are thinking....no, he's not even wondering what other people are thinking! He only cares about what he's thinking. It is kind of about marriage in someway. With whomever you can connect with."
The same is true in marriage or any relationship, continues Barthes: "There's this weird thing that you meet someone, and you go through these cycles. Someday you wake up from your sleep and say, 'Who is this person? Why did I marry you?' And then you rediscover the other person, the person you live with."
And on those bad days in any marriage or relationship, I ask Giamatti, isn't there a bit of performance involved? You have to pretend, lovingly, to go along with things you may not understand?
"Absolutely. That's why the actor is a good metaphor in the center of this thing. But he [movie Paul] can't even pretend very well. He doesn't know how to adjust himself very well how to pretend or not pretend."
Would Giamatti, having learned from his character's good/bad Vanya, now like to do Uncle Vanya on stage?
"Sure, I'd be happy to. But they just did it in New York. So they won't do it for a long time. I'd love to do it. I'll screw it up in some other ways, I'm sure."
As our talk winds down, we discuss how the film, shot mostly in the outer boroughs, avoids familiar locations, those signature Manhattan street corners we know and recognize from Law & Order.
Giamatti pounces on this: "I'm the only actor in New York City who's never been on Law & Order. I still can't believe it. How the hell did I manage not to get on Law & Order? I love that show."
So maybe, as he ages into his prime Vanya years, the right Law & Order role might one day be offered?
"Exactly. I could play the old DA."