Ever since he broke onto the scene as an unlikely front-man in 2004’s Sideways, it seems like Paul Giamatti has been popping up in the most unlikely of places. He has played John Adams, Santa Claus and recently a bit part as a video editor on 30 Rock. Now, he’s back in the lead playing “Barney” in Richard J. Lewis’s film adaptation of Mordecai Richler’s last novel, Barney’s Version, a role that may be his most epic yet — and one that garnered him the Golden Globe for best actor in a motion picture, comedy or musical, on Sunday night.

I caught up with Giamatti at the film’s U.S. premiere in New York. One on one, he was soft-spoken and contemplative, a man unable to articulate what it is that makes him great at his craft but who loves to shoot the shit nonetheless. Later, when I sat in on a larger press gathering, he came on with much more sizzle and pop, ready to impress with a joke and a coy shrug at every turn. He even hammed up a whine when someone suggested that Miles, his alcoholic character in Sideways, seemed the most like him in real life. “That guy’s an asshole. That’s what I seem like?!” he flailed. In my short experience, he was nothing like that ass at all.

What attracted you to the role of Barney Panofsky?

They sent me the script and I liked everything about it. I liked the time span, the fact that I get to age and hit all these kind of different spots along 30 years of a person’s life that everybody goes through. I liked the sprawl of it, actually, I liked its messiness. The character was great. All of the things that you could say are negative about him were the kinds of things that seemed like they would be the most fun to play.

Like what?

Like his being really blunt and unpleasant and punching people and pulling guns out and being drunk all the time. He’s kind of brutally honest and unguarded about everything. He has a lot of energy.

He seems to be very dependent on women.

Ha, yes.

He’s not quite a womanizer though.

No, he’s not. His first marriage, which in the book is even more complicated than it is in the movie, he does it out of kind of guilt and duty. I think he weirdly sort of cares about that difficult woman. She’s hot, though. The second marriage is done because he’s trying to straighten out from that kind of inorganic phony bohemianism he was trying to fulfill in his first life. Then he decides he’s got to get his shit together so he marries this kind of well-to-do woman who is just a nightmare to be around. The whole life of it is just confining and awful; he can’t stand it. He finally gets it sort of right with the last woman, but he is insecure and fatalistic and childish and a mess inside; and an alcoholic. Even though he meets the love of his life, he still screws it up. She’s so tolerant of him that it’s almost, weird? That’s almost a weird flaw in her, that she’s so tolerant of him.

Barney is very much a Jewish Montrealer. Have you spent time there? Are you familiar with the Jewish community there?

I’d never been in Montreal. As an American actor, you spend a lot of time in Canada. I’ve been to Toronto and Vancouver but I’d never been in Montreal. I loved it. I thought it was an amazing city. I thought, “I could actually live in this city.” In terms of this novel or this story the only association I had with that was The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz which is a Mordecai Richler thing and so much about the Montreal Jew thing.

You know, it’s an intense community. You’re up there. You’re in Canada, then you’re in French Canada, then all of a sudden you’re in Brooklyn. My god, there’s this intense Jewish community up there. It shouldn’t be surprising, but there is something very surprising about it. Not that it’s not supposed to be there, you just don’t expect it.

Barney’s Version is an intensely Jewish movie, but would you say that Barney Panofsky is a very Jewish character?

Not necessarily. It’s true. He fulfills some clichés of Jewishness. He’s fatalistic and insecure and bitching about shit. There’s something to him that he feels like an outsider that maybe in a cliché way is associated with being Jewish. People keep asking me, “What did you do to think about him being Jewish?” You know, I didn’t really think about it much with this character. I wasn’t concerned about that or worried that I had to think of something. Maybe with another character I would have. In a way, his Jewishness doesn’t feel like it’s that important to him. I feel like the second wife is the one time it is in some way where he’s like, “Well I better do the good Jew thing, whatever that is” and it doesn’t work.

The murder mystery part of the film, which involves Scott Speedman’s character, Boogie,  seems a bit nebulous, or is that just me missing it?

It’s amazing how many people don’t get it. I think a lot of people feel it’s nebulous, and that’s not good. It shouldn’t be nebulous. The one thing that, I’ll be honest, is problematic for me was the murder thing in the movie. It’s a big part of the book, but it’s much more filled out. There’s a trial, there’s all this shit in the book. It’s a huge huge part of the book. It’s troubling to me in the movie and always was. To tie it up as hastily as it is … it’s not great. It’s a flaw.

Can we trust Barney’s version of events?

In the movie, yes. What’s not to trust? It is his “version” in the movie, you’re seeing it through his eyes. People keep saying to me, “Is he unreliable?” In the book he is, but that’s because he repeats himself in the book, other people are commenting on it, his son is sort of finishing the book. There’s lots of commentary that lets you know it’s unreliable. In the movie you’re not going to know if it’s unreliable. I don’t think that’s a point in the movie. You’re not sitting there going, “Did this really happen?” You’re getting his cynical view of the world and of himself.

As an actor, you are taking on more leading roles, but you still manage to do a lot of character work. Which do you prefer?

I go out of my way to do character work. They’re different processes. I feel like the lead roles I’ve gotten are sort of character parts. Playing the lead roles in things is great. I don’t sit around thinking it’s going to last forever. It’d be great if it did, but whatever. What was nice about getting more choice and suddenly getting more scripts is that the supporting stuff actually got really interesting and varied. If I have any sort of goal in my acting it’s to find some variety, to find lots of different things to do.

Are there any recent supporting roles that stick out?

I’ve done a couple of things recently that were great. I did this weird British movie … I think it’s going to come out here. It’s this really violent medieval action movie that I play King John in. I did that Tolstoy movie (The Last Station), I got to play an interesting character in that. I just played Ben Bernanke in a movie. He’s a really interesting guy to play. Most of the supporting stuff in the past five or six years I’ve done has been really interesting to me.

It seems like you’ve got a lot of upcoming work. How do you balance all of these characters. Are you ever bouncing from one character to another in the space of a week?

I think I might actually do that soon. I have two things that will overlap. I don’t think I’ve done that in a long time, or ever. I remember doing a play and then doing a movie. That’s tricky; I don’t know that it necessarily contributes to a person doing their best work. I’ve had things very jammed together and back to back. It’s not the smartest thing to do, but I like to work. I like to stay occupied.

Are any of your films a personal favourite?

I like American Splendor, and I like a movie I did called The Illusionist. Those would probably be the two that I like the most.

We lost Harvey Pekar last year. In the course of making American Splendor, how close of a relationship did you develop with him? Were you still in touch up to his passing?

I really liked Harvey. He was a great guy. I hadn’t seen him or talked to him in a long time because as much as I had a great time with him … there was a period of time after that movie when people really took to that film. It went around the world to all of these festivals. It was really fun to do all of that stuff with him. By the same token, it’s a weird relationship, the actor-subject thing. There’s a weird kind of intimacy to it, and then not. I didn’t keep up with him. I kind of wish I had, but there  was always something odd feeling about it. You can’t entirely get comfortable with the person, at least I can’t. It feels weirdly invasive, even though he was cool about it.

Do you read reviews of your work?

Sometimes. I usually read a few and that’s it.

Does that affect you?

I’m generally happy once it’s in the can. I don’t think it’s ever adversely affected me that I can remember. Most of the time, if a film sucks, you know it. It’s not like you’re surprised when people say, “this sucks." I try not to get too hung up on it, but I’m interested in what people think of it.