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Paul Giamatti has sold his soul. To the Russians. Well, not intentionally. And not in real life. But the character Paul Giamatti (as played by the actor Paul Giamatti) gets himself into a real pickle in Cold Souls, after he uses the services of a soul storage company and his soul ends up on the black market, making the Being John Malkovich business look like small beans. Giamatti (the real one) explores the philosophical implications with AMC News.
Q: Would you consider this to be an existentialist movie?
A: I guess I would say it is. I think the director [Sophie Barthes] would probably say it is. She cut some stuff out of it that made it more overtly that way.
There was a scene with the soul mule, who says some stuff that’s directly about responsibility in that existentialist way — “What am I responsible for? Am I responsible for myself? What does it mean to be responsible for myself?” She had a whole monologue about it.
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Q: Even without that, it raises a lot of questions since: What is the soul? What if you could “borrow” someone else’s? Whose soul would you order from the catalogue of anonymous donors?
A: You know, on the set that they had, they actually had catalogues, and the detail was amazing. It was hilarious. They had like, Yugoslav gymnast, for instance. It was so amazing that they went to all that trouble, and you never even see it [as a viewer]. But when you take on someone’s soul, you get hyper-empathetic. At one point, the soul mule tells me, “I really like your soul,” because she carried mine. And I get that way, too, about the Russian poet’s soul.
Q: Funny how someone else’s soul always seems better than your own…
A: That’s probably true — somebody else’s soul feels more
beautiful. But I suppose if you had Stalin’s soul put in you, you
probably wouldn’t like it. But you never know — maybe there was
something beautiful in there once. And I like that the appearance of
the physical soul is more important than anything else in the movie,
when really, the appearances shouldn’t matter at all. If it looks like
a chickpea, a jelly bean, an orchid, or whatever, it doesn’t actually
Q: So much emphasis is placed on the career of the soul
donor. Do you think that matters? Maybe for the Russian poet, sure, but
A: Well, certainly as a marketing tool, that’s a way to sell someone
on a soul. How much it actually has to do with it? I suppose the
pressure of your job creates an environment for your soul and probably
shapes it. That’s an interesting thought, whether it’s immutable. Did
Stalin have a nice, minty soul and it never changed, he did? It was just the job! That’s all! [Laughs]. If he had just been a farmer, it would have been OK.
Q: Or if Hitler been successful at painting…
A: If he’d just been allowed to paint postcards! [Laughs]. You
wonder if he just started out that way, or not. I get the feeling those
guys started out that way. If there’s a soul, I suppose the soul would
start out that way.
Q: Is acting a bit like borrowing a character’s soul?
A: It becomes trickier for real life people. Harvey Pekar in American Splendor
is real, and it’s a question of whether I think about the performance
and the character, or Harvey. He’s got a lot of soul. I don’t know what
it would look like. Like a chocolate milkshake or something. Miles in Sideways, he has a soul, but it’s not in good shape. It’s just a little twisted.
Q: What about Philip K. Dick, who you’re supposed to play sometime soon…?
A: That’s a project that’s been around, and I’ve looked at a lot of
different versions [of scripts], and none of them have been quite
right. It’s a waste of time to do a straight biopic for him. Hopefully
they’ll come up with something, because there’s a lot there. Would you
want to have Philip K. Dick’s soul, though? I’d want his imagination,
his brain, but that’s probably intimately connected to his soul. He had
a tough time, that guy, so I don’t know about his soul. To just play
him is nice. I don’t have to be him.
Q: Is that why the Paul Giamatti of this movie isn’t really
biographical? In the movie, your wife is named Claire, and she’s played
by Emily Watson, while your real-life wife Elizabeth was on hand as
A: I didn’t want any verisimilitude. At one point, Sophie added some
sort of actual biographical detail, but I just wanted it to be a
character. As much of a character as I could keep it to, I wanted to.
My wife would have never played herself anyway. So there’s me, and then
there’s my performance of me. I think that’s part of the idea. It’s
meant to keep you a little bit off balance.