A few months ago, Paul Giamatti was on an airplane flipping through the in-flight entertainment options when he came across Tom Hanks in The Terminal. "I watched it without the sound," says Giamatti, "because it's amazing to see how much somebody like him communicates without words." Ideally, The Terminal should be viewed without the picture too, but at 35,000 ft., Giamatti found himself riveted. "I'm sitting there thinking, That m___________! All that movie is about is him! I mean, he's just carrying the thing. And it's incredible. I can't do that. It's like he's got different brain chemistry."
Since his film debut in 1990, Giamatti, 37, has appeared in plenty of Terminal-or-worse-type fare, usually stepping in from the edge of the frame to provide a memorable jolt of misanthropy or cluelessness that makes the star--be it Jim Carrey (Man on the Moon), Martin Lawrence (Big Momma's House) or Ben Affleck (Paycheck)--appear heroic by comparison. Giamatti finally got the chance to move to the middle of the screen in 2003's American Splendor and 2004's Sideways, and he infused comic-book-writing depressive Harvey Pekar and wine-loving, self-hating failed novelist Miles Raymond with such prickly, ordinary humanity that he was naturally overlooked when it came time for Academy Award nominations. Still, the performances were inspirational. "It's my hope that we're getting into an era where the value of a film is based on its proximity to real life rather than its distance from it," says Sideways director Alexander Payne. "To do that, you need actors--stars, basically--who don't necessarily look like Ben Affleck. So I disagree with Paul. Sideways proved he can carry a movie. He absolutely is a star."
Giamatti is flattered. "But I don't buy it," he says. In Hollywood face is fate, and with thinning hair, crooked teeth and no chin, Giamatti knows that his mug will almost always be cast in the service of actors with cheekbones. Unlike some of his rage-filled characters, he carries no visible resentment about that. Sitting in a café in Prague (where he is shooting The Illusionist, supporting Edward Norton and Jessica Biel), Giamatti announces, "You are absolutely free to describe me as a turtle or something. Seriously. When you profile someone, there has to be a narrative, and my narrative just happens to be 'Who is he?', 'Oh, he's that guy' and 'He looks like a squid!' Sideways doesn't change that," he adds, laughing. "Honestly, I never wanted to be more than a good supporting actor. Really, I enjoy it."
As proof, Giamatti offers up Cinderella Man, a boxing movie opening this week in which Russell Crowe plays James J. Braddock, the Seabiscuit in Everlast trunks who lifted America's spirits during the Great Depression; Giamatti is Braddock's loudmouthed, good-hearted trainer Joe Gould. "Gould was actually his manager, but they fudge it and make me his trainer-manager," Giamatti says. "It kind of puts me where the action is." Giamatti loved wearing 1930s clothes, being around fighters and working with Crowe ("It was about as much fun as I've ever had with another actor"), and director Ron Howard loved his supporting player no less. "Usually when you cast one of those roles, you meet a person and make sure they understand that my focus or the production's focus may not be on them," says Howard. "You know, just to make sure they don't have their head in their ass. Suffice it to say, Paul's head is nowhere near his ass."