For Paul Giamatti And Ethan Hawke, Drama Is Easy But Soap Operas Are Hard

The veteran actors star in the new baseball movie "The Phenom."
Ethan Hawke, Johnny Simmons and Paul Giamatti attend the Tribeca Film Festival premiere of "The Phenom."
Ethan Hawke, Johnny Simmons and Paul Giamatti attend the Tribeca Film Festival premiere of "The Phenom."

Sports movies are almost always elaborate metaphors for overcoming adversity. The new baseball movie "The Phenom" is no different, but it strips some of the genre's clichés. There's no ra-ra finale where the team finally succeeds, which means there's no training montage set to empowering music, no locker-room reflections and no tough-loving coaches. There is, however, a thoughtful mentor and a troubled father. In this case, they're played by Paul Giamatti and Ethan Hawke, respectively, with Johnny Simmons ("Jennifer's Body," "The Perks of Being a Wallflower") portraying the titular baseball pitcher who is struggling with feelings of isolation despite being one of the country's top prospects. 

Ahead of the movie's VOD and limited theatrical release this Friday, The Huffington Post sat down with Giamatti and Hawke to discuss sports movies, stage fright, typecasting and why they have major respect for soap-opera actors.

Are you sports-movie fans? They're very hit and miss. But I know you have another one coming up, Paul.

Giamatti: Do I have another one coming up?

Giamatti: I had no idea. Am I in something called "Battle of the Sexes"?

Hawke: Are you?

Giamatti: Oh, that! I don’t know if that’s actually happening. I think that was about Bobby Riggs. Yeah, I don’t know what ever happened with that.

Hawke: Has there been a great tennis movie?

Giamatti: Uh, not that I can think of.

Hawke: There’s been some good tennis short stories. I remember Kerouac has a short story about tennis that’s really good. No, what am I saying? His short is about baseball, and David Foster Wallace has the great tennis stuff.

Giamatti: I did a good high school wrestling movie. That’s a good movie, actually. It’s called “Win Win.”

Hawke: I saw that movie. That’s a terrific movie.

Giamatti: It’s Tom McCarthy, the guy who did “Spotlight.” It’s hard to avoid sports movies, but as you said, there aren’t necessarily a whole lot of good ones.

Hawke: The trouble is it’s a little like the horror genre. People will see a bad horror movie. It’s not that there aren’t also good movies, but because people enjoy sports so much, they will sometimes just go see the movie because they want to watch the sport.

Giamatti: If you press the button somewhat accurately, it’ll satisfy them.

Hawke: It’s like, OK, you know if you see a sports movie, you’re gonna get that feeling at the end that you have when your team wins the Super Bowl. And I want that feeling, so I’m going to go see the movie. The genius of “Rocky” was that it misdirected that. You had that feeling even when they lost.

Giamatti: The genre of boxing movies, I like that. I watched a lot of those. I feel like most of the good ones are boxing movies.

Johnny Simmons and Ethan Hawke in "The Phenom."
Johnny Simmons and Ethan Hawke in "The Phenom."

Look at “Creed” last year. 

Giamatti: “Creed” is a really good movie.

Hawke: I really like “Creed.” Or even, what was the one with Nick Nolte? The UFC movie was pretty interesting, "Warrior." That kind of hand-to-hand combat lends itself to cinema well.

Giamatti: It’s stripped-down drama.

Hawke: Baseball is interesting because it’s so photogenic in a certain way because it's the field and the pitcher. It’s a little like bullfighter and the bull. It’s such a mental aspect to the game, and that’s what interests me about this movie. Paul said this, but in a lot of ways this movie could have been about a young piano player. It’s so much more about what it’s like to have a talent and what it’s like to outshine your family.

We’re so used to getting that final showdown on the field. "The Phenom" doesn't have that, which is nice.

Giamatti: I love that this movie doesn’t do that. All that matters really is what’s happening off the field. What’s on the field is not really that important.

Hawke: It’s a great idea because really what matters is what’s happening in his head, and once what’s happening in his head is right, who cares if he wins the game?

Giamatti: It doesn’t matter!

Hawke: He probably will win it, but you get the sense that he’s not going to freak out. And I’ve had different moments in my life as a stage actor where panic can set in, and when panic comes to rest on your shoulders, you don’t know what brought it there, but it makes life miserable. It’s so nice when it leaves, and it obviously comes because of something going on inside you. 

Johnny Simmons and Paul Giamatti in "The Phenom."
Johnny Simmons and Paul Giamatti in "The Phenom."

Does it hit you in the middle of a performance or right before you go onstage?

Hawke: I’m talking about the whole month around it. It’s a haze of anxiety. It can sometimes not come, but once it’s in your dressing and in your psychic space, man ...

Giamatti: Have you ever had that kind of real stage fright? I don’t think I’ve had real stage fright.

Hawke: I have.

Giamatti: But like, “I can’t go out there, you’re going to have to shove me out there”?

Hawke: Yeah.

Giamatti: I don’t think I’ve had that. I’ve had bad anxiety. I’ve had terrible anxiety. I’ve had near panic attack kind of thing, but I don’t think I’ve ever had what people say to me is genuine stage fright, which is just like, “If I go out there, I’m going to fucking die.” What did you do?

Hawke: I kind of made a documentary about it. That’s what prompted me to make “Seymour: An Introduction,” because I met this pianist and they have it a lot worse than we do. For me, it was shocking. A little bit like “The Phenom,” I was 18 when “Dead Poets Society” came out. I was jettisoned to the top of my class before I knew what I was doing. Once the hubris of youth wears off, it creates this haze of “Maybe I wasn’t put together right. Maybe I didn’t build this ship right.”

Giamatti: There are pieces missing.

Hawke: Yeah, I don’t know that I’ve been taught everything, and now I’m at the age where I’m not supposed to be promising anymore. I’m supposed to have arrived, and I don’t feel that I’ve arrived. That’s the little door that opens, the “I’m not good enough.” If you give that a lot of room, it can make a lot of noise.

Are you able to shut that door?

Hawke: If you ever see this doc about this piano player, Seymour Bernstein, what he talks about is that trying to shut the door is actually the problem. It’s the truth. You’re not good enough, and you have a lot of work today. That’s the whole point. Once you have that humility, your work can go to the next level. The only problem with fear and anxiety, really, is pretending you don’t have it. Then you create a war inside yourself, but if you can say, “This anxiety, I’m up all night and I’m going to work on my lines and I’ll be better prepared,” or, “I’m going to take that voice class and I’ll study this extra thing and I’m going to be prepared because then I’ve taken responsibility for myself.” And if it doesn’t go well, that’s up to fate. I’m not in charge of the size of my gift, and I’m not in charge of my talent. I’m in charge of my effort. And then you can relax. Then you get some experience under your belt and things start to happen by themselves.

Ethan Hawke in "The Phenom."
Ethan Hawke in "The Phenom."

Paul, you’ve become known for playing some vicious guys.

Hawke: And all the women you play are so kind [laughs].

Giamatti: One of the more interesting things about this movie was to go, “Oh, Ethan gets to play the guy that I would normally play.” And he’s awesome in it. It was one of the reasons I wanted to do it. I mean, the script was wonderful to begin with, but I was like, “Oh, I get to play a nice person. I don’t ever get to play nice people.”

Was there a moment you realized that all the scripts hitting your desk borrowed those same notes? You played cruel music managers in both "Love & Mercy" and "Straight Outta Compton" last year, for example.

Giamatti: Not all of them, but people definitely like to see me be a fucking bastard. It’s like, OK, that’s fine. And they’re always interesting characters, but it’s nice to play someone who’s not necessarily going after somebody.

Hawke: When I was younger, I was always being cast in the ingénue part, and that’s a snoozefest.

Giamatti: Of course it is.

Hawke: This problem is far more interesting.

Giamatti: It’s not even a problem. And what’s interesting is I’ve gone through such funny periods. I went through a period where I only played priests. I played priest after priest. Then I went through a weird period where I only played doctors. But it was very nice to say I can just be a nice guy.

Hawke: What was good for me was that, when I got the script, Paul was already attached, so I could read the script imagining you. It changes the script a lot, actually. You read it and you go, “Oh, Paul will do this great.” Because most scripts can go either way. You just have to visualize it, like, “Oh, well, if he’s playing that note, then I can play this note."

Paul Giamatti in "The Phenom."
Paul Giamatti in "The Phenom."

How do you handle it when you're struggling with the way your co-stars approach a scene?

Hawke: I would say this: Over and over again, acting is an interpretive art, and if the quality of the writing isn’t there, you can’t manufacture it. Sometimes, like this script, I read it, and I was moved. That’s very hard to do, to put life inside something and touch other people.

Giamatti: There’s also a thing when you’re reading it where you feel at ease while you take it in. Your mind isn’t going, “How the fuck am I going to make that work?” With this thing, it’s holding you up -- you don’t have to hold it up.

Hawke: Every year they have the Oscars, and I actually feel like those awards should go to someone who was on an episode of “Matlock.”

Giamatti: Absolutely.

Hawke: It’s so much harder. When you’re working with talented people and quality writing on a quality project, you’d be a fool to muck it up.

Giamatti: I feel that way about soap operas. If anyone anywhere can be at all decent on a soap opera, they’re amazing because that shit is really hard to do.

Hawke: When you’re working with Steven Spielberg and some fancy-pants cinematographer and some Pulitzer Prize-winning writer, are you nuts?

Giamatti: Or it’s the guy who has to come in and play the bartender for the day across from somebody. That’s really fucking hard to do.

Hawke: I remember I had this little part I got in a movie with Jeremy Irons. He had the big showy part, and I had like four lines. 

Giamatti: The worst!

Hawke: He would have these long monologues, and I’d have a line like “Yeah, but my mom doesn’t think so,” or something like that. I finally said to him, “I keep tanking this. You do this amazing work and it’s all left to me.” He was so generous. He was like, “Listen, I’m so glad I’m not you in this scene.” You actually can’t excel; you can only screw up.

What about superhero movies that are driven by green screens?

Giamatti: I don’t see a lot of those. I don’t know. It sounds like some of them are good. 

Hawke: You know, if people would stop going to them, they’d stop making them. It’s so frustrating to me to hear everybody talking about how bad they are, but they all keep going. Each one is a bigger hit than the other one, and as long as they keep making money and as long as we keep talking about them, they’re going to go. The victory of this movie is that it got made at all. It’s such a simple, humble movie, and yet I do feel like it will make a lot of people happy to hear their own voice inside this movie.

"The Phenom" opens in limited release Friday. 



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