Paul Giamatti on His Billions Character Chuck Rhoades


PREMIUM: Paul Giamatti, who has demonstrated unique versatility while embracing a range of diverse characters for the big and small screen, is currently portraying former U.S. Attorney Chuck Rhoades, one of the main characters in Billions, a series that delves into the extremes of ambition and the pursuit of power.

WS: What are the different creative challenges and opportunities of a supporting versus a lead role?
GIAMATTI: Well, the level of responsibility is different. You have to carry a lot more, and there’s even an expectation of you as a lead actor to be a bit of a team captain; that’s interesting. But the sheer amount of what you have to do is obviously different, so there’s a different stamina thing—there’s a different relaxation thing. You begin to realize how important the supporting actors are because they’re going to come in and help you along and fill in for a lot of stuff. You’re inventing it as you go along a lot more. [Supporting roles are] tricky because you’re working in shorter bursts of time. It’s like the difference between a sprinter and a distance athlete. In one, you have to measure yourself more, and there’s a different body and brain chemistry to it. You have a different sense of yourself and way of carrying yourself in front of the camera. I like doing supporting roles better because they tend to be more vivid characters and farther away from who you are. You start to rely on yourself more as a lead actor. In some ways, you begin creating a persona that becomes kind of a movie star thing—not that I am—but as a movie star, it’s the same thing every time, but a little different every time. Supporting roles tends to be more colorful. Your job is to be more vivid and colorful. You come in and have a quick burst of something, which I enjoy. The supporting roles I’ve done have been way more varied, and I like that.

WS: How did you prepare for the role of Chuck Rhoades? How did you get into his mindset?
GIAMATTI: I’ve learned it as I’ve gone along. I met some of those guys because they were interesting to me, and that was fun and informative. I met Preet [Bharara, former U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York] and some of the other guys who worked at the U.S. Attorney’s office. Some of them were on-the-line prosecutors who are doing the actual prosecuting in the courts and building the cases, and they’re all incredibly smart. I remember the first thing I thought when I met Preet was; I won’t be able to appear to be as smart as this guy is because his mind works so fast! [Laughs] I worried about being able to seem that intelligent. They’re very smart guys. Fortunately, our writers write the characters, so Chuck sounds very intelligent! Other than that, everything was in the script. It’s a very complete script; you’ve got everything about the guy. And they let this character go all over the place, almost more so than the other people. He’s allowed to go crazy, weird places.

WS: What does Billions say about power and its impact on the people who wield it? And how did Chuck respond to losing the power he had as U.S. Attorney?
GIAMATTI: Well, it’s not a flattering portrait of people in power of any kind, and it’s questioning the different types: political power, financial power, and it’s a toss-up which is more corrupting, which is worse. It’s hard to tell. It’s not a flattering portrait of power. It’s not a flattering portrait of men with power—or women, actually, too—but it’s not a flattering portrait of male power. The only saving grace of these guys is they trip themselves up a lot of the time. [Laughs] Chuck almost more so than Axe [Bobby Axelrod, played by Damian Lewis.] But I think Chuck is a little bit less pathological than Axe. Axe is a bit more of a psychopath. He doesn’t react well to losing his power at all. He confuses justice and power.

WS: Could it be that Axe had to work hard to get where he is, while Chuck comes from privilege?
GIAMATTI: There’s definitely that, sure; that’s a whole thing, too, in the show. In America, everybody holds up the idea of the self-made man. Inherited wealth is seen as aristocratic and more European or something, and it’s looked upon with suspicion. Chuck, interestingly, has the money, so he can afford not to care about money. He lost all of it. And he caused everybody else to lose the money and he didn’t care. That whole self-made man thing—I think Chuck is jealous of a lot of the worship that somebody like Axelrod gets. And nobody likes a lawman.

WS: You have a tremendous cast, and the writing is so great—what’s it like interacting with them?
GIAMATTI: They’re great; the cast is amazing. There’s never a second’s doubt that you’re not going to be working with the best people possible. They’ve had an ingenious ability to cast not just great actors, but really good people, too. Everybody is just a lovely person. They’re all super prepared. If you weren’t prepared with this stuff, it would sink in two seconds because you can’t wing this language. And they also want it absolutely perfect. And punctuation perfect even sometimes too.

WS: So there’s no room for improvisation?
GIAMATTI: No, absolutely not. Very rarely they allow something improvised to go through because it’s all plot, too. If you’re messing with the dialogue, you’re messing with the plot. It’s pretty ironclad in that way. But the people are great, and the crew is amazing. Because it’s punishing days, it’s very long days, because it’s all locations—which is a nightmare, getting from someplace in Upper Manhattan to suddenly going to Brooklyn in one day.

WS: I don’t want to dwell on Chuck’s propensity for S&M much, but…
GIAMATTI: That’s OK; it’s a big part of the character.

WS: Chuck’s self-harming—where does it come from?
GIAMATTI: It’s a big part of the character. One of the interesting things about the character is that he has this self-loathing, which makes him question himself sometimes—that makes him an interesting character. Where it comes from? I don’t know; his father is so hard on him. He’s obviously got a weird relationship to women. But for a lot of those guys, that stuff just comes from a body chemistry thing where they like the feeling of pain. But for Chuck, the psychological element is a good thing, in a way. This self-doubt and self-loathing, I think, is the only saving grace for the guy. He is critical of himself in the way the other people aren’t, to a certain extent. Then he goes right back to being a horrible person!

WS: When Chuck discloses during the press conference his S&M proclivities—would that fly in real life?
GIAMATTI: I don’t think so. It’s an interesting thing that the writers dramatized, but I don’t believe that anybody could get away with that, do you?

WS: The occupant of the White House, maybe?
GIAMATTI: No! It’s funny because [Trump] denies [his behavior]. But he’s such an exceptional case; it’d be interesting to see if anyone else could get away with [what] he does. But you know he is like that, so it doesn’t matter. But I don’t think anybody would be able to get away with [what Chuck disclosed], certainly not that [revealing he’s submissive during sadomasochism]. People [would think], Oh my God, you’re a freak.

WS: Yeah, it’s one thing to have affairs…
GIAMATTI: Right. Maybe you could get away with saying, “I’ve had affairs,” if you cop to it, maybe. But that, I don’t think you ever could. But I think it’s a really fun thing that the writers did. And then the irony of it—it ironically works for Chuck.

WS: I know that you have other projects. Talk to me about Lodge 49. I haven’t seen season two yet.
GIAMATTI: Yes! You’ve seen it! I’m really happy to talk about that show. Do you like it?

WS: Yes!
GIAMATTI: It’s a weird show.

WS: It’s slower.
GIAMATTI: But that’s part of the point. It’s slow; it unfolds more like a book.

WS: I’m trying to understand what’s happening in America, and I find the show helpful.
GIAMATTI: It’s very much about disenfranchised people and people struggling. It’s very much about the middle and lower-middle-class who are rootless and looking for meaning. I’m so happy you watched that show.

WS: How did you get involved?
GIAMATTI: They just sent it to me. I have a little production company and we had done independent movies—which was backbreaking and impossible—and then we went into TV and we managed to get a pilot made for FX that they didn’t want to do because they thought it was too weird. Now I think, six years on, they would not see it as weird anymore. And then we did a show that was on WGN Americafor two seasons, Outsiders, which did well. Then the station got bought out by the Sinclair Broadcasting Group, which canceled everything. We had the show Underground, which was great. Then we got this script [for Lodge 49] and I thought it was terrific. We took it to AMC and they thought it was terrific. They made it, but it took them a while to find the right showrunner for the writer, Jim Gavin, because he had never done a TV show before. And it isweird. It does unfold slowly, but it’s a fucking awesome show and the actors are great in it. The writing’s great, and I got to be on it this season for three episodes. I have a really fun part.

WS: Upcoming projects?
GIAMATTI: I’m doing a movie called Gunpowder Milkshake. It’s an action movie in Germany. I don’t do any action in it. I play a guy who orders everybody to kill people!

WS: The only action you’ve had in an action movie was The Rhino!
GIAMATTI: Oh, that’s right, The Rhino! Yes, I played The Rhino in the Spider-Man movie. That was a real disaster! [Laughs] Yeah, I run around with a machine gun shooting at people!