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20 years after Sideways, Paul Giamatti may finally land his first best actor Oscar nomination

When Paul Giamatti made Sideways with Alexander Payne, he stayed in a little house in the middle of a large vineyard. At the end of a day of shooting, he would drive home in darkness, with the California hills around him.

Giamatti was then a respected character actor, but this was one of his first times as the lead. And he couldn’t believe it.

“I remember Alexander saying, ‘You two guys are going to do it,’” recalls Giamatti of himself and Thomas Hayden Church. “And we were like, ‘Seriously?’”

In the years since, Giamatti, 56, has remained a leading man, albeit an unlikely one. His ability to carry a movie is now, well, kind of obvious. That goes for indie gems like Private Life and Win Win or acclaimed series like John Adams and Billions.

But two decades later, Sideways remains lodged in Giamatti’s memory. “I remember every second of making it,” he said on a recent afternoon in Manhattan. Wide as his travels have been since – Hamlet at Yale, Jerry Heller in Straight Outta Compton, seven years on Billions – he’s not experienced anything quite like the natural, ensemble feel of Sideways. Until, that is, he reteamed with Payne for The Holdovers.

“I’ve never done anything like it again,” says Giamatti, “except this is the closest thing to it.”

On The Holdovers, Giamatti and Payne had their first argument. In a scene toward the end of the film, Paul is in a tense meeting with the parents of Sessa’s character. In the middle of it, Giamatti decided to sit down – an instinctual choice that, he felt, showed Paul was breaking protocol.

“He came up to me and he said, ‘Talk to me about sitting down,’” recalls Giamatti.

They discussed Giamatti’s reasoning and as they began to shoot it, Payne announced: “Sitting down, I buy it.” But by then, Giamatti had rethought it. He asked to try it standing up. Each had come around to the other’s idea. Giamatti decided he liked standing better.

“And that was the biggest disagreement we had,” says Giamatti, laughing.

During the actors strike, Giamatti and his castmates (Randolph and Sessa have also been widely celebrated for their performances), weren’t able to promote the film. Normally, missing out on interviews wouldn’t be something Giamatti would lose sleep over.

“But it was funny, I kept saying to my girlfriend, ‘I actually want to be talking about it. I think I’m frustrated that I can’t,'” Giamatti says.

Twenty years ago, Giamatti was surprisingly passed over for an Oscar nomination for Sideways. This time, many are predicting he’ll receive his first Academy Award nomination for best actor. (He was nominated for best-supporting actor in 2006 for Cinderella Man.)

“That would be lovely if it happened. I’m not counting on anything,” Giamatti says. “But for the first time, I do feel like putting myself behind it because I’d like it to get acknowledged in some way. Whether it’s me or not, that’s fine. If the movie does, if (Randolph) does, if Hemingson does or Alexander does – it’d be great if somebody does.”

If Giamatti is nominated for best actor, it would be an overdue acknowledgement of one this era’s finest actors, one who’s long imbued everyman characters with wit and warmth. Calling them “schlubs” wouldn’t do justice for the justice he does them. So good at it is Giamatti that you might mistake the very down-to-earth actor for a regular guy, too.

But don’t be fooled. Take Giamatti’s new podcast, Chinwag, in which he and author Stephen Asma follow their fascinations with things think Sasquatch. Regular guy?

“I’m not. I’m really into weird (expletive),” Giamatti says, cackling. “I’ve always been into really weird (expletive). I said to my friend, ’I’m tired of not talking about Sasquatch and sitting on the fact that I’m fascinated by UFOs and ghosts.'”

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