Role flips Paul Giamatti's wig

Paul Giamatti appears to have accepted — somewhat reluctantly perhaps — his well-earned move up from supporting roles to atop-the-marquee, leading man status.

However, when he saw his face on the cover of the paperback edition of David McCullough’s tome “John Adams,” it threw him for a loop.

“To have my ugly mug on the cover, that was weird,” an exasperated Giamatti says by phone from a gas station in Berlin, where he’s currently shooting “The Last Station” with Helen Mirren.

Whether he likes it or not, TV viewers now equate Giamatti’s face with Adams, whom the actor portrayed in HBO’s seven-part mini, exec produced by Tom Hanks and Gary Goetzman. As Adams had become a mostly forgotten historical figure, Giamatti now embodies for many the Revolution-era patriot and second U.S. president.

“I asked McCullough about him, and he told me (Adams) wasn’t as good at shaping a persona for himself as he could’ve been,” Giamatti explains. “He was a bad politician in that he was too honest with people.”

Although Adams’ insatiable thirst for politics and stubbornness for what he believed in was what most saw in him, he was also a devoted husband to Abigail, played by Laura Linney in the miniseries.

The two sides of Adams were often in contrast. He could go toe-to-toe with any political adversary, yet would often yield to Abigail’s thoughts on a particular situation, even though she offered counsel from a layman’s perspective.

“He was an impossible person in a lot of ways,” Giamatti says, “but he did love her to death. He was openly human.”

Kirk Ellis, who adapted the McCullough book for the screen, says that his lifelong romance with Abigail was an integral part of who Adams was. “Theirs was a remarkable marriage,” Ellis says.

Helmed by Tom Hooper, “John Adams” had extremely high production values. Shot all around the world — much of the New England scenes were actually filmed in Hungary — and keeping in the spirit of the revolutionary times, Giamatti also had to endure plenty of costume changes. And, oh, those brown teeth.

“With the wig, it was fun to take off on camera,” says Giamatti, who could be excused for being exhausted after appearing in practically every scene of the nine-hour miniseries and was on camera for 105 days of the 108-day production. “You never saw people take them off. I also had prosthetic teeth that were painted.”

But it was the words, and how they were spoken — a subtle mix of Elizabethan vocabulary interspersed with Boston colonialism — that set Giamatti’s performance apart.

“We knew not every actor would be up to the task of working in this linguistic mode,” Ellis explains. “His performance was Herculean. Paul embodies John as David wrote it.”

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