They’ve lived their lives a couple of hundred years apart apart, but you could say that John Adams and Paul Giamatti became leading men at about the same time.
For Adams, it was the 2001 publication of David McCullough’s Pulitzer Prize-winning best-seller about the nation’s second president, which turned a fusty historical figure into a heroic, even mildly romantic, one.
For Giamatti, it was playing eccentric cartoonist Harvey Pekar in 2003’s “American Splendor,” followed by roles like Miles, the merlot-phobic wine nut in “Sideways” and Cleveland Heep, the building super who discovers M. Night Shyamalan’s “Lady in the Water,” that moved the actor from supporting player to star.
These two unlikely leading men come together Sunday for the seven-part, nine-hour HBO miniseries, “John Adams,” which premieres in two back-to-back episodes, and is produced by Tom Hanks and Gary Goetzman, the team behind HBO’s “Band of Brothers.”
Giamatti himself, while happy to agree that he and Adams are both drawing more interest than they once did, would clearly rather talk about Adams.
“I do think there is something to that idea that his human dimension now is more interesting to people,” he said last month in an interview at HBO’s New York offices.
“I guess he is more contemporary-feeling in some ways. Because of his openness and conflict with himself and all that,” he said.
Giamatti, who only read McCullough’s book after accepting the part, said that when it first came out, “I remember being sort of like, `Who the hell cares about John Adams?’ a little bit. But then everybody loved it so much I thought, well, there’s got to be something to it. And I mean, I’ve read other books of so I had a feeling it was probably a pretty engaging book.”
But: “I still had that attitude that he was the boring guy. And ... he’s really not boring at all,” he said.
Could it be that Adams, who was sometimes lampooned for his appearance, just didn’t have the look of a George Washington or Thomas Jefferson?
“I think that you’re sadly right,” Giamatti said, though, “I think I’m a funnier-looking guy than he ever was.”
Neither, of course, is or was funny-looking, but in an industry where George Clooney and Brad Pitt and Tom Cruise are more likely to get the girls, one of Giamatti’s strengths is undoubtedly the ability to bestow charisma on characters thought to lack it.
For McCullough, that’s beside the point.
“Charisma doesn’t matter,” the biographer said bluntly in a separate interview.
“I believe that a part of writing history and biography is to give credit where credit’s due. And John Adams has had credit coming to him, with compounded interest, for over 200 years. And that’s one of the main reasons I’m so thrilled about this film. All of those people who are going to suddenly learn more than they’ve ever known about this founding time and who are going to have feelings about it.”
They’ll also get to meet Adams’ wife, Abigail, played by Laura Linney (who also played opposite Giamatti in “The Nanny Diaries,” where, as “Mr. and Mrs. X,” they had a far less admirable marriage).
“Laura, she IS Abigail,” said McCullough. “She’s not (just) portraying her.
“John Adams” is “also a great love story, and you can’t understand him if you don’t understand her,” he said.
“Most people have thought of John Adams and many still think of him as a rich, Boston blue blood,” McCullough said. “A cold Puritan. And he was none of those. He wasn’t rich, he wasn’t a Bostonian, he wasn’t a blue blood, he wasn’t a Puritan and he wasn’t cold. He was passionate, he was alive. To me, he’s like a character out of Dickens or Trollope: He’s full-dimensional. His blood is red and it is warm, and he tells you the truth and he pours out his innermost worries, thoughts, self-pity, jealousy,” McCullough said.
“We don’t have to speculate, well, maybe he thought this, or conceivably, that was the mood he was in. He tells us. In thousands of pages of letters,” he said. “There are over a thousand letters just between John and Abigail.”
McCullough, whose biography of Harry Truman was made by HBO into a 1995 miniseries starring Gary Sinise, said he had been speaking at a writers conference in Sun Valley, Idaho, “four or five years ago” when Hanks, there on vacation, called and asked if he’d like to have breakfast.
“We met, and I just knew after an hour-and-a-half conversation (about Hanks’ interest in producing “Adams”) that this was a man who would do it right. And he has,” he said.
“It’s everything I could have hoped for, and then some. I think it’s the most powerful and the most true to the reality of the 18th century of any film about that time ever made,” he said, from Kirk Ellis’ script, which he praises for both its natural tone and meticulous attention to the language of the period, to re-enactments of historical scenes in which McCullough, watching as they were filmed, felt as if he’d been transported back to the original.
Realism costs, and in this case, one of the prices was location. Much of the Philadelphia of “John Adams” might look familiar to those of us who still live and work in Adams’ footsteps, but those scenes were staged in Virginia.
Paris and Amsterdam, the cities where Adams spent much of the Revolutionary War and its aftermath, cementing alliances for the fledgling country?
They’d be in Hungary.
“They did it in some palaces in the Hungarian countryside,” Giamatti said. “It worked nicely.”
“They saved millions of dollars” doing it that way, said McCullough. “And they could’ve stunt-shot the whole film in Hungary and saved many more millions of dollars, but Tom Hanks said, `I will not make a film about the founding of this country and film it in ... Europe.’ “
The period spent in Europe may surprise viewers used to thinking only of Benjamin Franklin when it comes to the diplomacy of that era.
It even surprised Giamatti.
“It’s funny,” he said, “because people keep saying to me, `Oh, this must’ve been cool. There’s all these battle scenes in it.’ And I’m like, `There aren’t any battle scenes. Because he sat the war out. He was in Europe the whole time.’ And so it’s a political history, it’s not a military history, you know. And I didn’t know any of that stuff about him hanging around Europe.”
But for the actor, the best scenes took place within the confines of the Continental Congress.
“I went into it not knowing a whole heck of a lot about it. But I also thought I’d never really seen this dramatized particularly and I thought, Will this work dramatically, too? To just see guys kind of sitting around debating independence - is it going to be interesting?
“And then we got in the room with all those guys and even the sort of extras who didn’t really have any lines or anything, we all got so into it and started just having a great time. And we improvised a lot of things, and came up with a lot of things there, and it ... just ended up being tremendously fun.”