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THESP FILE
What actor/actress would you most like to work with? “I would have loved to work with Alec Guinness. And Robert Duvall is freakin’ great. Ever since I was a kid I liked him.”
What’s your favorite film from the past five years? “I like a really good horror movie. The new ‘Dawn of the Dead’ was good.”
Which character in a film have you watched and wished you could’ve played? “I don’t know if I ever had the experience of looking at a film and saying I wish I could play that. I guess I had the experience of wanting to be an ape in ‘Planet of the Apes,’ but I got to do that.”
What are you doing next? I play a redneck who teaches a red-tailed hawk how to fly (in “The Hawk is Dying”). I’m down in Gainesville, Fla., shooting it right now.

While he’s certainly had plenty of below-the-billing roles in studio features — “Private Parts,” “Doctor Dolittle,” “The Negotiator” and “Saving Private Ryan” — Paul Giamatti is making a name playing big roles in indie pics.

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“It’s been interesting to see myself characterized as an indie actor,” says Paul Giamatti, 37, whose starring role in Alexander Payne’s quirky buddy film “Sideways” has already earned him an Independent Spirit Award nom. “I only recently had the opportunity to do things like this.”

Indeed, Giamatti’s career trajectory shifted rather abruptly just last year, with his portrayal of tormented comic book artist Harvey Pekar in “American Splendor.” Suddenly, the thesp known for effectively playing control room technicians, police snitches and army grunts was getting effusive critical praise and Oscar buzz.

Giamatti showed unique flare in playing Pekar, the classically foibled everyman.

“Paul is a very specific actor, and he’s without peer in what he does,” says Thomas Haden Church, cast in “Sideways” as down-on-his-luck TV actor Jack alongside Giamatti’s down-on-his-luckwriter/vinophile Miles.

Giamatti couldn’t have expected the chance to channel those special talents again so soon. But while casting his adaptation of Rex Pickett’s novel “Sideways,” Payne — fresh off directing Jack Nicholson to an Oscar-nominated perf in “About Schmidt” — was eschewing high-profile talent for a small film budgeted at approximately $12 million.

Giamatti had enjoyed Payne’s 1999 comedy “Election” and was excited about auditioning for the role of Miles — a character who steals from his own mother, grieves for a failed marriage, earnestly pursues a new romance and risks his life for his best friend.

“I don’t often have those experiences where I say, ‘Boy, I wish I could work with that guy,’ but this was one of them,” Giamatti explains.

Curiously, he says Payne hadn’t even seen him in “American Splendor.” And in a film in which the chemistry between the four key thesps — Giamatti, Church, Sandra Oh and Virginia Madsen — was so important, Payne didn’t have all the actors audition with one another.

“It was really kind of gutsy,” Giamatti recalls. “He took a risk that what was in his head would work out on screen.”

And because of that, Giamatti finds himself in the same place a year later — acclaimed indie actor, being talked about again for an Oscar.

“It feels like the ‘American Splendor’ brouhaha just ended, then this one started up,” he notes. “It’s a little intense.”