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Roundtable discussion with director Sophie Barthes and actor Paul Giamatti of Cold Souls 

 

DIRECTOR SOPHIE BARTHES AND ACTOR PAUL GIAMATTI DISCUSS THE MOVIE COLD SOULS

 

Cold Souls:  The Roundtable Discussion

reported by William Gooch

published August 14, 2009 

 

picture - Paul GiamattiPaul, what was your reaction when Sophie approached you with the idea for this film?

 

Paul Giamatti: I believe Sophie first approached my wife Elizabeth with the idea. I didn’t know what the hell to make out of it. She told me she had written this part for me but she didn’t tell me at first that I would be playing myself. I was immediately struck with the idea once I understood the concept and I thought it would be fun to do.

 

Why did you decide to use Paul’s real name in Cold Souls?

 

Sophie Barthes: I thought it would be a great joke for the audience to see an actor playing himself. Audiences see an actor in a film and they think they really know the actor. So, the joke is that it is just a persona on the screen. It is really funny that you spend two hours in the dark watching an actor and you feel you really know who the actor is. Everyone feels they own a piece of great actors and that is why celebrity can kill actors, figuratively.

 

How did you prepare to play yourself?

 

Paul Giamatti: The only thing I felt pressure to do was to make the character’s persona came across. My character is really an idea of me playing an idea of me based on Paul Giamatti in other movies. Mostly, it felt like a distinct type of New York actor. So, there is bit of character and a type of a persona all mixed together.

 

Was that character based on your idea of a New York actor who has done a lot of theatre?

 

Paul Giamatti: It was helpful to some extent to know that the role was originally conceived for Woody Allen. So, I had that to draw on, and that the character was this neurotic, fuzzy-bearded New Yorker who reads The New Yorker magazine. You know, kind of a Bob Balaban type of guy or a Wallace Shawn. I was clear on the kind of archetype needed.

 

I think having the character have the same name as myself helps maintain a surreal edge to the movie. It keeps you wondering is it the real Paul Giamatti. At one point we did change the first name to Bob or Steven and I thought we lost something. I like the sense that you are drawn more into the film because the character and myself have the same name.

 

Where is the link between Russia and the soul?

 

Sophie Barthes: In Russia people set around and talk about the Russian soul. In Anton Chekov’s Uncle Vanya, there is a long monologue where Uncle Vanya sits around and talks about how he could have been a Doestevsky.  There is a very complex dynamic between Russia and the US. When you go to Russia you sense this love-hate relationship Russians have with the United States.

 

Paul, how do you feel about Russia?

 

Paul Giamatti: One of the most appealing things to me about Cold Souls was the Russian subtext. I have affection for Russian culture and literature. I thought the idea that Russia being the source of souls for the world was a really funny idea; that Russia has an overabundance of souls and that they will sell anything for a profit was an interesting concept.

 

Have you experienced angst and separation anxiety while portraying a character the way Paul experiences those feelings in Cold Souls?

 

Paul Giamatti: I have been sad to stop playing a character. I have experienced that sadness mostly while acting on stage. You get more attached to character on stage than in film because you portray that character eight times a week. I once played this very happy, optimistic person in a play, and I really enjoyed playing that part. It was also a real challenge to play this very happy character and not make the character seem like an imbecile. I was unhappy when the show closed, but I have never experienced the depth of despair that Paul in Cold Souls feels in bringing his character home with him.

 

Could you talk about the military presence in the film and in any way did you relate this to US military campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan?

 

Sophie Barthes: I was really feeling that my soul was shrinking during the Bush Administration with the military presence in Iraq. It was so depressing and the atmosphere and rhetoric in the US was so gloomy. I am sure that period influenced me and popped up in Cold Souls.

 

Would you have positioned the military in Cold Souls differently if you made the film now?

 

Sophie Barthes: Yes, definitely. Because of the length of the film we had to cut some scenes where soldiers were being sent to war without a soul.

 

picture - Sophie BarthesWhy did you decide to have the soul look like a chickpea?

 

Sophie Barthes: That image is from my dream where Woody Allen had a chickpea soul. There is something about the soul looking like a pea that is in the shared collective unconscious. You know there is the tale of The Princess and the Pea, and for the princess, the pea represented delicacy and in some way her humanity; my dream has an element of that. There are other themes in different cultures where the soul is a pea. It is also comical that the appearance is so tiny, but it is so important to your humanity.

 

Paul Giamatti: Dr. Flintstein’s character says that it doesn’t matter what it looks like, but to my character the appearance does matter.

 

That said; could you talk about the Dr. Flintstein character and why did you make him a dark comedic character?

 

Sophie Barthes: I always wanted him to have a dark comedic quality. His character was based on a 4-page article I read in The New Yorker about an architect who had developed the intelligence for cryogenics, this freezing technique. This crazy article was about freezing the entire family together for like 200 years.  He wanted to create this entire community that would live in this structure in Arizona that was bomb proof and earthquake proof.  It was similar to Woody Allen’s Sleeper. This architect had such a big ego, but he believed he was doing something good for people.

 

David Strathairn was such a good choice for this part. Paul, had you worked with him before?

 

Paul Giamatti: Yes, I had worked with David before. People have said that David has a certain amount of creepiness to his personality, but I don’t see him that way. To me he is just a really nice guy and not creepy at all.

 

The question of what happens when a soul dies is asked in Cold Souls. Sophie, what is your opinion?

 

Sophie Barthes: What I am resisting in this film is defining what the soul is and I don’t believe the definition is important to this film. I am just raising questions.  Carl Jung was a big inspiration for this film. Jung states that a big fear that people had in primitive societies was the loss of the soul. They believed the soul would leave the body and go into an animal or object. Jung believed that in modern society not connecting to your feelings or the lost of your soul causes neuroses and depression.

 

There were scenes in the film where the character was actually more honest and forthcoming because he was soulless. Have you ever experienced moments that, because you lacked empathy or were soulless, you were actually more truthful?

 

Sophie Barthes: Sometimes, you feel there are days where you don’t feel anything and you are a little nastier but more truthful with people. I think we all experience that.

 

As a result of making this movie do you feel a greater sense of existential dread or do you feel you have alleviated something from your soul?

 

Paul Giamatti: I don’t feel more existential dread nor do I feel less. The soul is always there with me.

 

Sophie Barthes: This film was a good catharsis. My life is changing so much in that I am in the last month of my pregnancy. Because of the pregnancy, my perspective on life is different than when I was making this film.

 

williamgooch @ stageandcinema.com

 

read William Gooch’s review of Cold Souls

 
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